Thursday, December 08, 2005

What is Science?

People have all kinds of opinions about Science.

They think that Science has all the answers,
or that it is too restrictive to get at the deeper truth.

They think that Science is objective,
or that it is objectionable.

They think that Science is realistic,
or that it is really boring.

They think that Science is the new Religion,
or that it is just a passing trend.

They think that Science is an adventure,
or that it is just an escape.

But what is Science and how does it work? How is it different from Religion or Philosophy?

First of all, science is not a thing, nor a philosophy. It is not a belief system, nor an ideology. The central difference between science, on the one hand, and religion and philosophy, on the other, is that science relies on a fundamentally different approach for its work to be carried out. That difference is Empiricism.

Empiricism generally means understanding the world by directly observing it. It is concerned with the world as others can see and hear and feel it. It demands that ideas about how the world works be linked to real world observations - that they tie in somehow with observable reality. That they can be verified or refuted. Doing science is about observing the world (measuring it, describing it, documenting it), and then thinking about it, coming up with ideas that might explain it, and testing those ideas against accumulated evidence.

Doing philosophy is about thinking abstractly and about logically manipulating arguments. Philosophers may ask great questions about the universe and the meaning of life and the origin of truth and so on. The way they do it is by thinking, structuring arguments, and refining their arguments so that they are logically consistent. Philosophy draws its working material from accepted truths called axioms, which provide the material to build arguments about life and the universe. These truths do not have to be proven with observations or evidence. They just need to appear obvious - so seemingly true that it would be silly to doubt them. With philosophy, many amazing things are learned about the way humans structure their thinking, about how to communicate ideas effectively, about how to evaluate and compare different ideas against one another. However, due to the fact that philosophy does not rely on real world evidence, the practical usefulness of philosophical ideas is relatively limited. Engineers do not rely on philosophy to build bridges.

Religion is similar to philosophy in its foundation, except that religious people tend to place less emphasis on being logically consistent. Like philosophy, religion relies on accepted truths, ideas that must be accepted on faith because they do not correspond with specific observations in the real world. Interestingly, this hasn't stopped people from trying to prove articles of faith. It has, however, stopped people from succeeding.**

**more excerpts from a US Federal Judge's ruling about "Intelligent Design" being taught in science classrooms.
and a story about how museum guides are learning to manage public confusion over science.

Proofs for most religious ideas cannot be actually made, because the ideas are fundamentally abstract. When the ideas are concretely expressed, they are usually wrong - that is, they usually conflict with discoveries made since the religious ideas were first thought up.

The earth, after all, is not flat.

And of course, scientific discoveries do nothing to dismiss the value of religious thinking, which is hugely important to billions of people. By contrast, the role of religions might be better understood as complementary to science, since religion and science properly work in different realms. Science works with the observable world, and religion with the unobservable. Religion is hugely valuable for providing comfort and support to people by answering many of the big questions and concerns in life that cannot be answered scientifically.

So, if science works differently than philosophy and religion, how does it work?

Science is a process - a massive international project, a work in motion. It progresses through collaboration, communication, and evaluation. People study things, report their findings, and evaluate the findings of others. It is not simply one method employed by one or a small group of cultures. It is made up of thousands of investigative methods, with new tools and techniques being invented all the time. Science is not "Western". It is international. Its processes and insights are relied upon by every nation on earth. It is carried out by hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, conducting experiments and analyzing them, and reporting their findings. It is also carried out by people that review and evaluate scientific publications, helping experimenters to design better and better studies.

The processes of scientific investigation, reporting, and reviewing are the internationally accepted standards for research and development. Every piece of modern technology is based on countless scientific discoveries made in the past, and refined over the years. No other system of knowledge has built airplanes or computers. No other way of problem solving has answered fundamental questions in Biology, for example that every living thing is made up of tiny cells, or Physics, for example that all matter is made up of protons, neutrons and electrons. In fact, no other system of study and communication has the built-in corrective measures necessary to overcome the natural human temptation to invent magical answers (that the moon is made of cheese, or that diseases are caused by evil spirits), or to discover our often hidden assumptions and test them to see if they are valid.

This does not mean that great discoveries aren't made by people employing mystical or spiritual techniques. It just means that those discoveries can't be known to be great, and certainly can't be known to be accurate or useful until they are examined, studied, and evaluated. Many great discoveries in human knowledge were made by dreamers, meditators, and thinkers. But they became part of human knowledge by being studied and evaluated, and found to match observations in the real world, and to be useful in making predictions about future events... This is how other people came to accept them, and to make use of them. On the other hand, plenty of committedly held ideas, arrived at by philosophical or spiritual introspection, have fallen by the wayside as investigators evaluated them and found them to be mistaken or baseless. The world, despite the protestations of some religious fundamentalists, is not flat. It is round. There is nobody left that navigates the earth using the idea that it is flat. Evolution, independent of our belief systems, not only occured in the past, but is continuing to occur around the world, all the time.

Now, the fact that scientific research can help people create reliable knowledge doesn't mean that mistakes aren't make along the way!!! Of course they are. Anyone investigating pressing problems will make mistakes. The great thing about scientific collaboration, evaluation, and experimentation is that mistakes can be caught and corrected. While many assumptions made by scientists in the past have turned out to be wrong, as will some of todays assumptions, the way we eventually discover that they are wrong is through science!

And there is, sadly, no way to guarantee that scientific discoveries aren't used for ugly or cruel purposes. This is one of the things that unites science with religion and philosophy. Religious and philosophical ideas, just like scientific ones, have been manipulated by warriors and politicians to justify conquest and injustice, bigotry and contempt. Technologies created with scientific discoveries can be used for kindness or cruelty. What groups of humans do with technological innovations is a function not of science itself, but of politics - the systems of power and decision making in human societies.

About scientific knowledge:
  • Scientists can't know it all, ever. They never will. Any untested scientific assumptions and ideas are simply hypotheses waiting for someone to test them, or waiting for the tools and techniques to catch up to the point where someone CAN test them.
  • Scientists DO know some things very well. In fact, the collaborative processes that make up science are a highly reliable way to know things. Countless examples through history reveal that believing you know something just because you feel it really strongly is an unreliable way of knowing things. Believing you will win the lottery does not improve your chances. Believing that you will evade lung cancer does not stop smoking from injuring your lung tissue. Instead, we need to work together to learn about life. We rely on each other to examine and verify our knowledge, to improve it and develop it. Thousands of psychological studies show that people are routinely wrong about things they believe very strongly. By contrast, sharing your ideas and having them tested is a great way to find out if they are true. The idea that the world is round ultimately prevailed over the idea that it is flat when people put it to the test and sailed around it.
Finally - Science is diverse:

There is no one way of thinking in science. There are many approaches, more or less useful for different kinds of investigation. And they are tested and refined as soon as the tools and techniques can do it.

Again: Scientists do not all think alike. It is the rich diversity of ideas, which are then evaluated and tested, that drive scientific progress.


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