Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 30, 2017

Podcast Episode 156: The Scientific Method— How We Get to What We Know


The Scientific
Method: Technique for finding
What’s true, and what’s not.

Another roughly half-hour episode based around the idea of how we know what we know … in other words, the Scientific Method. It’s an episode wrapped up in some underlying subtext — that’s all I’ll say about it. There are no real other segments in this episode.

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

Sorry Not Sorry Meme

July 31, 2009

What Is Science, Its Purpose, and Its Method?


Introduction

Following up on my post “Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”,” as well as a recent planetarium lecture I gave on young-Earth creationism in astronomy, I thought it would be a valuable post to go over specifically what the purpose of science actually is, and how science goes about, well, science.

I need to make three things very clear up-front: First, I am not a philosopher. I have not taken any philosophy classes, nor have I taken a philosophy of science class (though I think I probably should).

Second, even though “science” is an inactive noun – where I use the word “inactive” to mean that it is a process and a mode of thinking – I will be using it throughout this post as an “active” noun, personifying it to actually “do” things. This is how it’s used in popular culture, and I see no real reason to take efforts to not go with the colloquial use in this posting.

Third, this post is going to serve a dual purpose by contrasting the scientific method with the creationist “method” in order to show how science differs in key, important ways.

Dictionary Definitions of Terms

The way the dictionary that Apple kindly provides on their computers defines “science” as: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” There are three sub-definitions, but that main one emphasizes that “science” is an activity, a study, and one that looks for natural explanations.

My only qualm with this definition is that I would add to it not only what it does or how it operates, but its purpose, as well: “The purpose of science is that once it has provided an explanation for the physical and natural world, it allows one to use that explanation to make predictions.” I know that when I stand on one foot, if I don’t shift my weight to that one foot, I will likely fall if I do not support myself. That is because I have repeated observations that tell me this. Without that predictive power that in the future I will fall if I don’t shift my weight, then all those previous observations are fairly worthless.

In this section, I also want to define “dogma.” Using the dictionary again: “A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.”

Now, hopefully I’m stating the obvious, but “dogma” and “science” are not equivalent. In fact, I know that I’m not stating the obvious because there are many, many, many people out there who believe that science simply leads to dogmatic facts/ideas/theories, etc. This is not true. And in the rest of this post I will show you why.

A Look at the Creationist “Science” Method

Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that this is not a straw man argument, an exaggeration, or anything else that may lead to you thinking this is not true. This section is really how many – if not most or all – biblical literalists view science, and this is how they decide what science to incorporate into their worldview.

Ken Ham, the CEO of the “Answers in Genesis” (a young-Earth creationist think-tank in the US, now separate from the Australian group by the same name), has explicitly stated that one must start with the Bible, while others at AiG have stated that even logic and science itself flows from the Bible, for without it, you couldn’t even have the tools that science uses.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at a flow chart:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Chart Showing Faith-Based 'Science'

The above flow chart shows the basic, fundamental process that most biblical literalists use to vet science. They may get an idea, or hear of something. Let’s use a young-Earth creationist mainstay, Earth’s magnetic field. Data shows that Earth’s field has gone through reversals in polarity at many points in the past. The data is clearly out there for anyone to examine, and it is unambiguous that crustal rocks record a flip-flopping magnetic field.

Now, does it fit in the Bible? Creationists such as Kent Hovind say that it does not. The result is that alternating magnetic fields are simply not possible. In fact, to quote him: “That’s simply baloney [that there are magnetic reversals in the rocks]. There are no ‘reversed polarity areas’ unless it’s where rocks flipped over when the fountains of the deep broke open. … This is a lie talking about magnetic ‘reversals.'” (Taken from his Creation Science Evangelism series, DVD 6:1.)

Alternatively, Russell Humphreys, of Answers in Genesis, accepts that there have been magnetic reversals, as he is able to fit it into a reading of the Bible. He explains the field reversals as rapidly taking place during the 40 24-hr days of Noah’s Flood. Hence, because they are able to fit it into the Bible, they accept it as a dogma.

A Look at the Scientific Method

You’ll notice that this flow chart is a tad larger:

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

Flow Cart Showing the Scientific Method

It starts at the same place, with an idea/observation/etc., which we call a “hypothesis.” As opposed to testing this hypothesis against the Bible, it is tested by performing an experiment. In other words, can the idea that you have accurately predict the outcome of an experiment?

If not, then the idea is rejected. If it did accurately predict the outcome of the experiment, then ideally you will do several more and gather other observational evidence, but effectively you now have created a theory. A theory is when all pieces of evidence support that idea, and NO experiment has refuted it.

The next step of a theory is to use it to predict a future event. This is where my definition of science differs from the dictionary by adding these predictive properties (the bottom half of the flow chart). Without the theory of gravity being able to predict the motions of the planets and moons, the behavior of tides, etc., then what good is it other than to have on paper and look pretty?

So the theory is used to predict a future event. If it predicted it correctly, then you simply rinse and repeat. Much of basic scientific research is really just testing theories. Far from being the “dogma” that many creationists will want you to believe, theories are subjected to tests every day.

In fact, scientists WANT to be the one to do the experiment that the theory predicted a different outcome for. That’s where we follow the “NO” arrow on the flow chart. If the theory can be modified to support the latest evidence, then it is improved, and you go back and continue to test the now-modified theory. An example of this would be the addition of Inflation to the Big Bang model.

However, if the theory cannot be modified to support the latest evidence, then we have a scientific revolution. People remember your name. You get Nobel Prizes. And money. And women (or men). Anyone over the age of 10 knows Einstein’s name and know him to be synonymous with “Relativity” and likely even “E=m·c2.” Advertisers wish they could be that efficient.

Final Thoughts – What’s the Point, and Why No Spiritualism/Paranormal Allowed?

The point here is that, well, I’m honestly sick of hearing the anti-“darwinist” crowd claiming that evolution, the speed of light, the Big Bang, and many other scientific theories are just a “materialistic dogma.” They’re not. Plain and simple. Dogma is where you believe something as FACT and it cannot be shown to be false, regardless of any evidence. Theories and the scientific method is a process that requires evidence to support it, and no evidence to the contrary. It requires predictive power.

And that is why spiritualism/religion/supernatural/paranormal beliefs are simply not allowed in science. Sorry, they’re not. Why? Because almost by their very definition, they lack any predictive ability. If you can’t use your hypothesis or theory to predict a future event, then they have just been shown not to work. Yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster may have created us all by touching us with His noodly appendage. That may be a hypothesis. But you simply can’t test that because He in His Infinite Carbalicious Goodness can just choose not to do it again. Or some vaguely-defined “Intelligent Designer” may have caused the bacterial flagllum to exist or have formed the mammalian eye. But that belief does not present any way of being tested, whereas evolutionary theory does (and has shown the precursors to all of those).

And that’s really the point of science: To use testable ideas to explain the where we came from, and then to predict where we’re going.

December 21, 2008

Terminology: What Scientists Mean by “Fact,” “Hypothesis,” “Theory,” and “Law”

Filed under: terminology — Stuart Robbins @ 11:59 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Introduction

I’ve decided to write this post so that I have something to refer to and don’t have to constantly re-define these words: Fact, Hypothesis, Theory, and Law.

This may seem silly. “Why,” you may ask, “would you have to define such simple little words?” The reason is that the colloquial use of these words by the general public is very different from their usage by scientists. And let’s really just jump to the chase here: Calling something “Just a Theory” shows both the ignorance of Cobb County, Georgia public school administrators and anyone else who tries to use that phrase to belittle a scientific conclusion.

Colloquial Use

To use math expressions, the general use of these words goes in order of importance as: Fact > Law > Theory > Hypothesis.

“Fact” in Everyday Language: A “fact” is something that is true. Whether you like it or not, “facts are stubborn things” (thank you, John Adams … or, “facts are stupid things” courtesy of Ronald Reagan). In general use, a “fact” is the strongest thing that can be said about, well, anything.

“Law” in Everyday Language: In everyday language, a “law” is generally on the same level as a fact. A law is something that is true, that generally explains or answers lots of different things. However, outside of politics, “law” is rarely used unless actually referring to something scientific.

“Theory” in Everyday Language: This is where the supposed insult to scientists comes in when you call something “just a theory.” Outside of scientific circles, a “theory” is more of a supposition. “I have a theory that my cat will meow when it hears someone at the door.” It may or may not be “true,” but it’s a supposition I have that is probably supported by at least some sort of observation. But it’s really “just a theory” and is just as likely to be shown wrong at any given time as it is to be shown right.

“Hypothesis” in Everyday Language: A “hypothesis” is sort of on the same level as a “theory,” if slightly below. To most people, they can be used interchangeably, though most will just resort to “theory” because “hypothesis” is an extra syllable longer and makes you sound like a nerd.

Scientific Use

In science, the order of importance of these is almost reversed: Theory > Law > Hypothesis > Facts. In addition, each term has a specific, well-defined use.

“Fact” in Science: It may surprise you to know that a “fact” is generally used the same way – it is an observation – but it is very specific. For example, if I drop a ball while holding it in the air above a surface, it is a fact that it will fall to the surface. This term is usually not used, however — we resort to “observations.” For example, I observe that when the wind blows, a flag will flutter.

“Hypothesis” in Science: This is an “idea” that is formulated to explain observations (or our “facts”). In the above to examples, I might hypothesize that there is a force that pulls on the ball, counteracted when I’m holding it. Or that the wind exerts a force on the flag that causes it to flutter. The purpose of a hypothesis is to explain one or more observations in a cogent way. A good hypothesis must be testable – it must be able to make predictions about what would happen in similar situations – otherwise a hypothesis can never be verified nor refuted … and it remains “just a hypothesis.” At present, String “Theory” is really just a hypothesis.

“Law” in Science: Laws are a descriptive generalization about how some aspect of the natural world behaves under stated circumstances. For example, Kepler’s Three Laws of Planetary Motion are (1) Planets travel in ellipses with one focus being the Sun, (2) planets sweep out equal area in equal time, and (3) a planet’s period-squared is proportional to its semi-major-axis-cubed. Laws are generally made from many facts/observations and are effectively an “elevated” level from a hypothesis. Another example are the Laws of Thermodynamics. Because a Law is just a description of how something behaves and it does not explain why it behaves that way, it is usually considered to be below the level of a theory.

“Theory” in Science: A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law. Examples these days are the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the Germ Theory of Disease, and yes, the Theory of Evolution.

I should note that theories are usually conglomerations of several different hypotheses, laws, facts, inferences, and observations. For example, while the Theory of Evolution is a theory, various mechanisms for it are generally still hypotheses, such as Natural Selection (though some may quibble with me over that).

Another good example of a Theory is the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This describes how fundamental particles and forces interact. It is based upon countless experiments and observations and it rests on solid mathematical framework. It has many different laws in its make-up (such as how particles behave, or how forces interact) as well as many observations (such as the mass of the proton, or the energy of a tau neutrino).

A third example was partially mentioned above – Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion. Tycho Brahe and Johannas Kepler made many detailed observations of planetary positions over the course of many years. Kepler formed a hypothesis about how planets moved based upon the data. From the hypothesis, he made predictions on where planets would be later on. When these were confirmed, his hypotheses were elevated to laws. Later, Isaac Newton came along and with his Theory of Gravity was able to provide a physics-based framework for why and how those laws worked.

Finally, it should also be noted that nothing in science is “forever.” It is always subject to further tests and observations. In many cases, people really do try to do this since that’s how you make a name for yourself. If you’re the scientist who has verified for the 123,194th time that a ball and a feather fall at the same rate in a vacuum, so what? But, if you’re the scientist that has found evidence that gravity itself is not a force emitted by an object but rather a bending of the fabric of space itself, then, well, you’d be Einstein – a household name.

(I make this note because a common argument you’ll see from creationists is that they say materialists always want to uphold the status quo.)

Final Thoughts

That’s really about all I wanted to do with this post – clarify these terms and what they actually mean in science. I’m not naïve enough to think that now suddenly this’ll clear everything up and no one will ever say something’s “just a theory” again, but at least now I’ve gone through all these terms step-by-step so that I can refer back to them when need-be.

Edited to Add: I think my post on “the final epsilon” is a relevant follow-up to this one. If you’re interested in the concept of how classical mechanics can still be a theory even though it disagrees at some level with the theory of relativity, I recommend reading it.

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