Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Wingnuts and Science

Salon has this photograph for your education:

It goes with an article which asks some questions about the wingnuts and their funny attitudes towards science. To me the wingnuts appear to fall into two groups: those who believe in God and no science, and those who believe in science as God. Both approaches are unscientific. Science is not some hundred-percent-proof alternative for religion or some panacea that solves every question we might have about life, universe and stuff. Science is one way of studying answers to various questions, a laborsome way, a slow way, and a way that doesn't always proceed correctly. But it has the advantage that the steps the explanation takes are laid out for all to see. This is not true of the religious approach, and neither is it true of the approach which says that if something is called science then it must be true and nobody must ask questions about it.

A simpler way of making the same point is to refresh your memories about the meaning of the scientific method:

The scientific method has four steps

1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.

2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.

3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.

4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.

If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature (more on the concepts of hypothesis, model, theory and law below). If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified. What is key in the description of the scientific method just given is the predictive power (the ability to get more out of the theory than you put in; see Barrow, 1991) of the hypothesis or theory, as tested by experiment. It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.
(Bold mine.)
This is a very simple initial definition. Each of these steps may have additional refinements, and as my added bolding of the word "may" is intended to indicate, alternative theories might actually explain the same evidence. Thus, it is not always the case that a hypothesis which appears to predict well is the only one, or even the best one, to explain a particular phenomenom.