Monday, October 22, 2012

How Science Works

People who are not scientists often assume that science works more or less in a way that they are able to conceptualize.  They assume that when a scientist "feels like it," he or she will come up with a new idea for no reason other than their desire to be famous.  Then if the other scientists like the idea, they all get together and agree that this will be their new "thing."

But if still other scientists have a different idea, or if they do not like the first scientist, they will not agree to adopt the idea as their new "thing," and so ensues the "Scientific Debate."

In areas such as politics, religion, philosophy and baseball, these kinds debates are unresolveable because they are not based on any objective reality.  The proponents of competing ideas can at best separate into factions so they can be around people who agree with them and allow them to feel comfortable about their ideology.  Thus we have the Democrats versus the Republicans, the Protestants versus the Catholics, and the National League versus the American League.

People assume that science must work the same way. One result of this assumption is that people will think that any general agreement among scientists can only be the result of widespread collusion and a ruthless conspiracy to silence dissent. For people with no training and experience in real science, this is the obvious and only possible conclusion because they have never known anything to be any other way.  They can therefore be forgiven for being so utterly, stupidly, mind-numbingly ignorant.

While science without doubt is an imperfect human activity conducted by imperfect humans, as a system it is yet capable of eventually overcoming humans' imperfection and their tendency towards subjectivity, emotion, conservatism and prejudice. The "Scientific Debate" as a process is therefore singularly different from any other human activity.

How does science work?  To begin with, new scientific ideas are not created just because someone wants to be famous.  There is always an objective motivation and a critical, specific need.

For example, the alchemists of the middle ages, though not yet scientists, began to see how the Aristotelian idea of Earth, Wind, Fire and. . .  um . . .  Cheese or something (no, maybe it was Blood, Sweat, Tears and Young . . . ) was pure nonsense.  They became aware of things called Elements, but still dared not openly disagree with their ideological Master.  Later, Atomic Theory and the Periodic Table of Elements became universally accepted by their scientist descendants, not because they owed its proponents a favor or because they were required to do so to get accreditation, but because overwhelming empirical evidence compelled them to accept these ideas. They were the only ideas that successfully predicted and explained what was happening in reality.

As new technology became available and scientists had interesting new tools with which to probe the nature of matter, observations did not support the view of atoms as homogeneous little balls of stuff as was assumed.  Experiments were giving strange results, as though 99.99% of the mass of the atom was concentrated at an unimaginably tiny point at its center.  It was time for a new idea, and as bizarre as it seemed, the Nuclear Theory of Matter was born.

Scientists didn't just accept this new idea in a meeting after a focus group and checking the polls.  That might be how politics works, but science isn't politics. Scientists tried every imaginable experiment to try to debunk this new idea.  What we don't often hear about are the dozens of alternatives that were quickly debunked, disproved, and discarded, not because they weren't popular with voters, but because they didn't work in reality.  They were objectively false.  But scientists were unable to disprove the Nuclear Theory of Matter, and eventually, after every conceivable alternative was tried and every conceivable test was applied to the idea, it had to be accepted that the simplest explanation for the objective facts before them was that the Nuclear Theory of Matter, if not exactly the Truth, was indistinguishable from Truth at that point in time.

Advances in all fields of science follow the same pattern.  An objective observation can't be explained, so a new idea is formed.  The idea is assumed to be wrong, and every conceivable means to prove it so are attempted.  Most ideas get proven wrong (e.g. Chiropractic, Orgone Energy) and are never heard of again among serious scientists.  Those that can't be disproved by any objective means end up contributing to our understanding of objective reality and invariably lead to new questions to be answered.  Bad "theories" are a dead-end but correct theories always bear viable fruit.

Many people believe that a new scientific discovery might come along at any moment and throw all previous understanding out the window.  This is completely false and stupid.  It is also harmful, because it causes people to assume that whatever science knows today must therefore certainly be incorrect.    Irresponsible and ignorant reporting of medical research is mostly responsible for fueling this particular brand of mass ignorance.  The truth is that once an understanding of reality is achieved, it is here for good.

Aristotle's ideas about matter were utter nonsense because they were not science.  They were religion dressed as philosophy.  They were untested beliefs, dogma, rhetoric or even a form of prayer that people repeated whenever they wanted to exert their authority as a learned disciple of Aristotle.  This idea was overturned and replaced by something true: Atomic Theory.  But wasn't Atomic Theory overturned by Nuclear Theory?

I argue that it was not.  It is still essentially true and still useful, but no one regards it as complete or even relevant to non-Atomic situations.  Similarly, is Nuclear Theory still true now that we understand the components of the nucleus, and even the components of those components?  I'd say it is even more true because it is now more complete and accurate than ever.

Were Issac Newton's famous Laws of Motion rescinded when Quantum Mechanics and Relativity came along?  Actually, one of the often overlooked consequences of Quantum Mechanics is that when you have a collection of more than a few dozen atoms, such as a baseball or a voter, they as a single body no longer behave according to Quantum Mechanics but instead obey Newton's Laws, or laws indistinguishable from them, to the letter.  This is something that Quantum Theory predicts and requires!

Also, one important result of Relativity Theory is that when relative speeds are quite low, say ten times faster than the speed of the fasted vehicle ever operated (the Space Shuttle flew 17,000 miles per hour) then Newton's Laws are obeyed to a precision that is indistinguishable from perfection.  In other words, Relativity predicts and requires that Newton's Laws are obeyed.   Far from overturning a once-proven theory, new scientific advances begin by confirming, embracing and solidifying the truths upon which they build.  

Science doesn't work like most of the other things humans do.  It does not work by popularity, by the dictate of authority, by Revelation, by aesthetic or rhetorical persuasion, by the law of supply and demand, or by social coercion.  Science is a collective human activity that systematically and inexorably weeds out nonsense and thereby exposes objective Truth.

Unlike almost every other human activity, science is not exclusive.  Anyone of any race, color, gender, political or religious persuasion, age, physical capacity, musical talent or lack thereof can participate in science.  Science is open to everyone and anyone, as long as you can do math.

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