Sunday, March 17, 2019

What is Science?

So here I am today pondering the collective term Science.  What is it, at least to me and what I think it should mean to everyone.

I am not going to begin with the dictionary definition, rather I am going to draw upon my own experience having been immersed in the scientific world for quite a while.  Technically, I am not a scientist as I don't have a PhD.  Instead I do have a BSc and a couple of college diplomas.  Note that where I live there is a distinct difference between university and college.  If memory serves, in the United States the term "college" refers to university and "community college" is equivalent to what we here call simply college.  My own definition is as follows:  College trains you for a job while university trains you to think.  Of course it's overly simplified and not 100% applicable, but that is a discussion for another time.  I do feel qualified saying the previous as I've been through both systems.  Anyway, back to the discussion at hand.

Science, to me, is a methodology for understanding how things work following the principle of parsimony.  Predictions must be predictive and not accepted as fact unless there is a mountain of evidence to support them, better yet proof must exist for each.  Science is not a jumble of facts, people wearing lab coats, test tubes, boiling liquids or wild-eyed people surrounded by lightning bolts screaming "it's alive", etc.  Science is a way of thinking about everything which leads us to a structured discovery of the reality around us.  The second line in this paragraph represents the caution that must be exercised to separate theory from fact.

Theory must be predictive.  The term theory used in common conversation is incorrectly used in most cases.  I often encounter people who present their "theory" on a subject, but you cannot test this "theory" as it has no predictive value.  So what do I really mean by this?  An example is in order I guess.

Let's say someone has a theory that the sky is blue because magical creatures paint it each morning, but it happens instantly and these creature can never be detected.  Well that isn't a theory as it contains the hypothesis that you can never detect the activity.  If you leave out the undetected bit then it could remain a theory as it predicts 2 testable items, mainly the act of paining the sky each morning and that there are magical creatures doing the job.  These are testable.  The activity in the theory may be difficult to detect, but with better measurement techniques may be possible and open to scientific investigation or refinement following parsimony.

Parsimony, loosely stated is "the simplest explanation that accounts for all aspects of a phenomenon tends to be the correct explanation."  This may also be dubbed "Occam's Razor" by some.  One must use some caution here as not all explanations are so simple though, but many are, so it's a good principle to follow.  The main component of any theory that makes it a theory is the predictability component that can be tested, hopefully leading to a proof, or further refinement.

Proof must be repeatable independently of whomever claims to have discovered said proof.  Take the cold fusion flap in the the late 80's to early 90's.  This so called discovery could have changed the world and rightly so got a lot of people excited, however it wasn't repeatable independently.  No proof.  The people involved were not looked upon kindly as they did not follow the basic principle of scientific reasoning as initially stated in this article.  Other theories that have been proven time and again still remain theories, like with the great Albert Einstein.  His theories are still regarded as such, even after a literal mountain of evidence because we lack the capability that they apply everywhere in the Universe.  Proof would require that we can show that general and special relativity, among others, work the same at every point in the Universe.  So now we have a, more or less, technical understanding of science, but I haven't answered what it means to me quite yet.

My personal understanding of science is that it is a way of thinking about pretty much everything.  when I was in University they would bandy about the term "critical thinking" in all my classes.  Oddly enough this got me critically thinking about "critical thinking: and I came to the conclusion that it is simply the application of scientific principle to pretty much everything.  We all do it to some degree whether we recognize it as such or not.  Children seem to exhibit a great degree of critical thought at an early age, and as they get older it seems to take a back seat to things like belief.

Ah, belief.  My nemesis.  I really, actively avoid using speech that includes that word, because of what I have observed belief to mean.  Belief, to me, means "the acceptance of something as fact when there is no evidence to support it and often, when there is evidence to disprove it."  It's the opposite of science.  If I ever say "I believe" I am abdicating conscious thought and to me, that is just wrong.  The Universe is a far, far more interesting place in reality, there is no need to make stuff up.

My reason for writing this is mainly that I see the rise of belief these days leading to some truly horrendous acts on the part of "regular" people and even whole governments.  Not only is this horrifying to me, it's extremely wasteful.  So much potential and resources wasted on the alter of belief.  I do recognize that it is human nature to believe, however we also have the capability to override our instincts and we need more of that these days.  I do think that the principle of scientific thought, as simply stated in the intro can lead people to a better understanding of each other, the world and ultimately everything.  We do not have to give up our imaginations, however it wouldn't hurt the next time someone makes a claim about nature, the world or other people and ask themselves "where is the evidence"", or better yet, "is there any proof?" and does this evidence or proof follow parsimony.

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