Tag Archives: philosophy of science

How we edit science part 5: so what is science?

The Conversation

Image 20170323 13506 1ysdg65
The best scientists, such as Marie and Pierre Curie, are committed to the experimental method. Wikimedia

Tim Dean, The Conversation

We take science seriously at The Conversation and we work hard at reporting it accurately. This series of five posts is adapted from an internal presentation on how to understand and edit science by Australian Science & Technology Editor, Tim Dean. We thought you would also find it useful. The Conversation

The first four posts in this series covered the scientific method and practical tips on how to report it effectively. This post is more of a reflection on science and its origins. It’s not essential reading, but could be useful for those who want to situate their science reading or writing within a broader historical and conceptual context.

Fair warning: it’s going to get philosophical. That means you might find it frustratingly vague or complicated. If you find yourself getting infuriated at the inability to settle on clear definitions or provide clear answers to important questions, that’s a perfectly natural (and probably quite healthy) response.

These issues have been intensively debated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, without resolution. We’d likely have given up on them by now, except that these concepts have an unfortunate tendency to influence the way we actually do things, and thus retain some importance.

The foundations of science

Explaining what science is, and entertaining all the debates about how it does or should work, would take up an entire book (such as this one, which I highly recommend). Rather than tackling such issues head-on, this section will give a broad overview of what science is.

While it doesn’t get mentioned often outside of scientific circles, the fact is there is no one simple definition of science, and no single definitive method for conducting it.

However, virtually all conceptions of science lean on a couple of underlying philosophical ideas.

Francis Bacon (not the artist) was one of the leading voices to reform ‘natural philosophy’ into an observation-led endeavour, which ultimately evolved into science.
richardhe51067/Flickr, CC BY

The first is a commitment to learning about the world through observation, or empiricism. This is in contrast to alternative approaches to knowledge, such as rationalism – the notion that we can derive knowledge about the world just by thinking about it hard enough – or revelation – that we can learn from intuition, insight, drug-induced hallucinations, or religious inspiration.

Another philosophical basis of science is a commitment to methodological naturalism, which is simply the idea that the best way to understand the natural world is to appeal to natural mechanisms, laws, causes or systems, rather than to supernatural forces, spirits, immaterial substances, invisible unicorns or other deities.

This is why scientists reject the claim that ideas like creationism or intelligent design fall within the purview of science. Because these ideas posit or imply supernatural forces, no matter how scientific they try to sound, they break methodological naturalism, so they aren’t science.

(As a side point, science doesn’t assume or imply the stronger claim of philosophical or ontological naturalism. This is the idea that only natural things exist – which usually means things that exist in spacetime – and that there are no supernatural entities at all.

This is a strictly philosophical rather than scientific claim, and one that is generally agreed to be beyond the ken of science to prove one way or the other. So, if cornered, most scientists would agree it’s possible that intangible unicorns might exist, but if they don’t exist in spacetime or causally interact with things that do, then they’re irrelevant to the practice of science and can be safely ignored. See Pierre Laplace’s apocryphal – but no less cheeky – response to Napoleon, who remarked that Laplace had produced a “huge book on the system of the world without once mentioning the author of the universe”, to which Laplace reputedly replied: “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”)

This is where we come to the role of truth in science: there isn’t any. At least in the absolute sense.

Instead, science produces facts about the world that are only held to be true with a certainty proportional to the amount of evidence in support of them. And that evidence can never give 100% certainty.

There are logical reasons for this to be the case, namely that empiricism is necessarily based on inductive rather than deductive logic.

Another way to put it is that no matter how certain we are of a particular theory, and no matter how much evidence we’ve accrued to support it, we must leave open the possibility that tomorrow we will make an observation that contradicts it. And if the observation proves to be reliable (a high bar, perhaps, but never infinitely high), then it trumps the theory, no matter how dearly it’s held.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume couched the sceptical chink in empiricism’s armour of certainty like this: all we know about the world comes from observation, and all observation is of things that have happened in the past. But no observation of things in the past can guarantee that things in the future will operate in the same way.

This is the “problem of induction”, and to this day there is no decisive counter to its scepticism. It doesn’t entirely undermine science, though. But it does give us reason to stop short of saying we know things about the world with absolute certainty.

Scientific progress

The steady accumulation of evidence is one reason why many people believe that science is constantly and steadily progressing. However, in messy reality, science rarely progresses smoothly or steadily.

Rather, it often moves in fits and spurts. Sometimes a new discovery will not only change our best theories, it will change the way we ask questions about the world and formulate hypotheses to explain them.

Sometimes it means we can’t even integrate the old theories into the new ones. That’s what is often called a “paradigm shift” (another term to avoid when reporting science).

For instance, sometimes a new observation will come along that will cause us to throw out a lot of what we once thought we knew, like when the synthesis of urea, of all things, forced a rewrite of the contemporary understanding of what it means to be a living thing.

That’s progress of a sort, but it often involves throwing out a lot of old accepted facts, so it can also look regressive. In reality, it’s doing both. That’s just how science works.

Science also has its limits. For one, it can’t say much about inherently unobservable things, like some of the inner workings of our minds or invisible unicorns.

That doesn’t mean it can only talk about things we can directly observe at the macroscopic scale. Science can talk with authority about the microscopic, like the Higgs boson, and the distant, like the collision of two black holes, because it can scaffold those observations on other observations at our scale.

But science also has limits when it comes to discussing other kinds of things for which there is no fact of the matter, such as like questions of subjective preference. It’s not a scientific fact that Led Zeppelin is the greatest band ever, although I still think it’s a fact.

There are similar limits when it comes to moral values. Science can describe the world in detail, but it cannot by itself determine what is good or bad (someone please tell Sam Harris – oh, they have). To do that, it needs an injection of values, and they come from elsewhere. Some say they come from us, or from something we worship (which many people would argue means they still come from us) or from some other mysterious non-natural source. Arguments over which source is the right one are philosophical, not scientific (although they can be informed by science).

Science is also arguably not our only tool for producing knowledge. There are other approaches, as exemplified by the various non-scientific academic disciplines, like history, sociology and economics (the “dismal science”), as well as other domains like art, literature and religion.

That said, to the extent that anyone makes an empirical claim – whether that be about the movement of heavenly bodies, the age of Earth, or how species change over time – science has proven to be our best tool to scrutinise that claim.

Tim Dean, Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs

Is this the worst popular philosophy piece ever? A philosopher argues that science is no more reliable than philosophy at finding truth

Why Evolution Is True

When I read the title of this New York Times piece in The Stone philosophy section, “There is no scientific method,” I thought at first it would be about Paul Feyerabend’s contention that, in science, “anything goes.” I discuss this in Faith versus Fact, agreeing that the classic presentation of “The Scientific Method” in the classroom is misleading.  That presentation usually goes like this: concoct hypothesis—> test hypothesis —>support or reject hypothesis based on test.

But not all science is done like that. For example, facts usually precede hypotheses, at least in biology (Darwin often used that method to concoct his theories).  And much good science can be done without any hypotheses at all. An example would be describing all the species in an area like a patch of Amazonian rain forest. Those facts may be useful some day (e.g., for conservation or for finding new drugs from plants)…

View original post 1,577 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

The Birth of Experimental Science

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
June 2016, Vol 36, No. 2, under the title ‘Out of the Dark’).

To the ancient Greeks, science was simply the knowledge of nature.  The acquisition of such knowledge was theoretical rather than experimental.  Logic and reason were applied to observations of nature in attempts to discover the underlying principles influencing phenomena.

After the Dark Ages, the revival of classical logic and reason in Western Europe was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress.  It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods in the thirteenth century, which I think were even more important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  The two most influential thinkers in development of scientific methods at this time were the English philosophers Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) and Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292). (Note: Roger Bacon is not to be confused with Francis Bacon).

Apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.[1]  But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[2] [3]  These translations of ancient works had a major impact on Medieval European thought.  For instance, according to Pasnau, ‘when James of Venice translated Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics from Greek into Latin in the second quarter of the twelfth century, ‘European philosophy got one of the great shocks of its long history’.[4] This book had a dramatic impact on ‘natural philosophy’, as science was then called.

Under Pope Gregory VII, a Roman synod had in 1079 decreed that all bishops institute the teaching of liberal arts in their cathedrals.[5]  In the early twelfth century, universities began to emerge from Cathedral schools, in response to the Gregorian reform and demands for literate administrators, accountants, lawyers and clerics.  The curriculum was loosely based on the seven liberal arts, consisting of a trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; plus a quadruvium of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.[6]  Besides the liberal arts, some (but not all) universities offered three professional courses of law, medicine and theology.[7]

Dialectic was a method of learning by the use of arguments in a question and answer format, heavily influenced by the translations of Aristotle’s works.  This was known as ‘Scholasticism’ and included the use of logical reasoning as an alternative to the traditional appeals to authority.[8] [9]  For the first time, philosophers and scientists studied in close proximity to theologians trained to ask questions.[10]

At this stage, the most influential scientist was Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) who was a leading English scholastic philosopher, scientist and theologian.  After studying theology in Paris from 1209 to 1214, he made his academic career at Oxford, becoming its Chancellor in 1234.[11]  He later became the Bishop of Lincoln, where there is now a university named after him. According to Luscombe, Grosseteste ‘seems to be the single most influential figure in shaping an Oxford interest in the empirical sciences that was to endure for the rest of the Middle Ages’.[12]


Robert Grossteste  (1175-1253)

Grosseteste’s knowledge of Greek enabled him to participate in the translation of Aristotelian science and ethics.[13] [14]  In the first Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, from the 1220s, Robert Grosseteste distinguishes four ways in which we might speak of scientia, or scientific knowledge.

‘It does not escape us, however, that having scientia is spoken of broadly, strictly, more strictly, and most strictly. [1] Scientia commonly so-called is [merely] comprehension of truth. Unstable contingent things are objects of scientia in this way. [2] Scientia strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always or most of the time in one way. Natural things – namely, natural contingencies – are objects of scientia in this way. Of these things there is demonstration broadly so-called. [3] Scientia more strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always in one way. Both the principles and the conclusions in mathematics are objects of scientia in this way. [4] Scientia most strictly so-called is comprehension of what exists immutably by means of the comprehension of that from which it has immutable being. This is by means of the comprehension of a cause that is immutable in its being and its causing.’[15]

Grosseteste’s first and second ways of describing scientia refer to the truth of the way things are by demonstration, that is by empirical observation.

Grosseteste himself went beyond Aristotelian science by investigating natural phenomena mathematically as well as empirically in controlled laboratory experiments.  He studied the refraction of light through glass lenses and drew conclusions about rainbows as the refraction of light through rain drops.[16]

Although Grosseteste is credited with introducing the idea of controlled scientific experiments, there is doubt whether he made this idea part of a general account of a scientific method for arriving at the principles of demonstrative science. [17]  This role fell to his disciple Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292CE) who was who was also an English philosopher, but unlike Bishop Grosseteste, Bacon was a Franciscan friar.

Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292)

Bacon taught in the Oxford arts faculty until about 1247, when he moved to Paris which he disliked and where he made himself somewhat unpopular.  The only Parisian academic he admired was Peter of Maricourt, who reinforced the importance of experiment in scientific research and of mathematics to certainty.[18]

As a scientist, Roger Bacon continued Grosseteste’s investigation of optics in a laboratory setting.  He supplemented these optical experiments with studies of the physiology of the human eye by dissecting the eyes of cattle and pigs.[19]  Bacon also investigated the geometry of light, thus further applying mathematics to empirical observations.  According to Colish, ‘the very idea of treating qualities quantitatively was a move away from Aristotle, who held that quality and quantity are essentially different’.[20]

The most important work of Roger Bacon was his Opus Majus (Latin for ‘Greater Work’) written c.1267CE.  Part Six of this work contains a study of Experimental Science, in which Bacon advocates the verification of scientific reasoning by experiment.

‘…I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience;..’[21]

Bacon’s aim was to provide a rigorous method for empirical science, analogous to the use of logic to test the validity of deductive arguments.  This new practical method consisted of a combination of mathematics and detailed experiential descriptions of discrete phenomena in nature. [22]  Roger Bacon illustrated his method by an investigation into the nature and cause of the rainbow.  For instance, he calculated the measured value of 42 degrees for the maximum elevation of the rainbow.  This was probably done with an astrolabe, and by this technique, Bacon advocated the skillful mathematical use of instruments for an experimental science.[23]

Optics from Roger Bacon’s De multiplicatone specierum

The optical experiments that both Grosseteste and Bacon conducted were of practical usefulness in correcting deficiencies in human eyesight and the later invention of the telescope.  But more importantly, Roger Bacon is credited with being the originator of empirical scientific methods that were later further developed by scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke.  This is notwithstanding the twentieth century criticism of inductive scientific methods by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, in favour of empirical falsification.[24]

The benefits of science to humanity – especially medical science – are well known and one example should suffice here.  An essential component of medical science is the clinical trial, which is the empirical testing of a proposed treatment on a group of patients whilst using another group of untreated patients as a blind control group to isolate and statistically measure the effectiveness of the treatment, whilst keeping all other factors constant.  This empirical approach is vastly superior to the theoretical approach of ancient physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, and owes much to the pioneering work of Grosseteste and Bacon.  This is why I think that the development of empirical scientific methods was even more important than the revival of classical logic and reason, in terms of practical benefits to humanity. However, it is somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.

Whilst the twelfth century revival of classical logic and reason was very significant in terms of Western intellectual progress generally, the development of empirical scientific methods were in my view the most important intellectual endeavor of the European thirteenth century; and Bacon’s contribution to this was greater than that of Grosseteste because he devised general methodological principles for later scientists to build upon.


 Primary sources

Bacon, Roger, Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962).

Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Secondary works

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/roger-bacon/&gt;.

Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005).

Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/grosseteste/&gt;.

Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp.350-376.

Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery. (London and New York 1959).


[1] Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).pp.x-xi

[2] Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p.351.

[3] Colish, p.274.

[4] Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.357.

[5] Moran Cruz and Geberding p.351.

[6] Ibid. p.353

[7] Ibid. p. 356.

[8] Ibid, p.354.

[9] Colish, p.169.

[10] Colish, p.266.

[11] Colish, p.320.

[12] Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). p.87.

[13] Colish, p.320.

[14] Luscombe, p.86.

[15] Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 358..

[16] Colish, p.320.

[17] Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[18] Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005). p.80.

[19] Colish, p.321.

[20] Colish, pp.321-322.

[21] Bacon, Roger Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962) p.583

[22] Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Section 5.4.3.

[23] Hackett, Section 5.4.3.

[24] Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery.(London and New York 1959). Ch. 1.’…the theory to be developed in the following pages stands directly opposed to all attempts to operate with the ideas of inductive logic.’

Copyright notice: © All rights reserved. Except for personal use or as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act, no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner, Tim Harding at tim.harding@yandoo.com, or as attributed on individual blog posts.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Make a Donation Button

1 Comment

Filed under Essays and talks

Progress in Science — III

Footnotes to Plato

laws of physics[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Progress in science: different philosophical accounts

The above discussion has largely been framed in terms that do not explicitly challenge the way most scientists think of their own enterprise: as a teleonomic one, whose ultimate goal is to arrive at (or approximate as far as possible) an ultimate, all-encompassing theory of how nature works, Steven Weinberg’s famous “theory of everything.” However, the epistemic, semantic and functionalist accounts do not all seat equally comfortably with that way of thinking. Bird’s epistemic approach can perhaps be most easily squared with the idea of teleonomic progress, since it argues that science is essentially about accumulation of knowledge about the world. The obvious problem with this, however, is that accumulation of truths is certainly necessary but also clearly insufficient to provide a robust sense of…

View original post 3,251 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Progress in Science — II

Footnotes to Plato

science[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

Progress in science: some philosophical accounts

I now turn to some philosophical considerations about progress in science. The literature here is vast, as it encompasses large swaths of epistemology and philosophy of science. Since what you are reading is not a graduate level textbook in philosophy of science, I will focus my remarks primarily on some recent overviews of the subject matter by Niiniluoto (2011, an expansion and update of Niiniluoto 1980) and Bird (2007, 2010), because they capture much of what I think needs to be said for my purposes here. Niiniluoto (2011) in particular will offer the interested reader plenty of additional references to expand one’s understanding on this issue beyond what is required in this chapter. Readers with a more general (i.e., less technical) interest in the history…

View original post 5,458 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Progress in Science — I

Footnotes to Plato

Karl Popper[for a brief explanation of this ongoing series, as well as a full table of contents, go here]

“The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right; for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.”
(Karl Popper)

View original post 2,787 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Feynman on scientific method

Physicist Prof. Richard Feynman explains the scientific and unscientific methods of understanding nature.


Filed under Videos

Dennett on philosophy-free science


Filed under Quotations

A brief conceptual history of Philosophy

Does philosophy make progress? Of course, but it does so differently from, say, science. Here is a brief conceptual history of how philosophy evolved over time, from the all-purpose approach of the ancient Greeks to the highly specialized academic discipline it is today. Written and narrated by philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Videos

Where’s the proof in science? There is none

The Conversation
By Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney

UNDERSTANDING RESEARCH: What do we actually mean by research and how does it help inform our understanding of things? Those people looking for proof to come from any research in science will be sadly disappointed.

As an astrophysicist, I live and breathe science. Much of what I read and hear is couched in the language of science which to outsiders can seem little more than jargon and gibberish. But one word is rarely spoken or printed in science and that word is “proof”. In fact, science has little to do with “proving” anything.

These words may have caused a worried expression to creep across your face, especially as the media continually tells us that science proves things, serious things with potential consequences, such as turmeric can apparently replace 14 drugs, and more frivolous things like science has proved that mozzarella is the optimal cheese for pizza.

Surely science has proved these, and many other things. Not so!

The way of the mathematician

Mathematicians prove things, and this means something quite specific. Mathematicians lay out a particular set of ground rules, known as axioms, and determine which statements are true within the framework.

A statue of Euclid with something very interesting added to his scroll. (Source: Garrett Coakley)

One of best known of these is the ancient geometry of Euclid. With only a handful of rules that define a perfect, flat space, countless children over the last few millenia have sweated to prove Pythagoras’s relation for right-angled triangles, or that a straight line will cross a circle at most at two locations, or a myriad of other statements that are true within Euclid’s rules.

Whereas the world of Euclid is perfect, defined by its straight lines and circles, the universe we inhabit is not. Geometrical figures drawn with paper and pencil are only an approximation of the world of Euclid where statements of truth are absolute.

Over the last few centuries we’ve come to realise that geometry is more complicated than Euclid’s, with mathematical greats such as Gauss, Lobachevsky and Riemann giving us the geometry of curved and warped surfaces.

In this non-Euclidean geometry, we have a new set of axioms and ground-rules, and a new set of statements of absolute truth we can prove.

These rules are extremely useful for navigating around this (almost-)round planet. One of Einstein’s (many) great achievements was to show that curving and warping spacetime itself could explain gravity.

Yet, the mathematical world of non-Euclidean geometry is pure and perfect, and so only an approximation to our messy world.

Just what is science?

But there is mathematics in science, you cry. I just lectured on magnetic fields, line integrals and vector calculus, and I am sure my students would readily agree that there is plenty of maths in science.

Albert Einstein. (Source: Wikimedia/Doris Ulmann)

And the approach is same as other mathematics: define the axioms, examine the consequences.

Einstein’s famous E=mc2, drawn from the postulates of how the laws of electromagnetism are seen by differing observers, his special theory of relativity, is a prime example of this.

But such mathematical proofs are only a part of the story of science.

The important bit, the bit that defines science, is whether such mathematical laws are an accurate description of the universe we see around us.

To do this we must collect data, through observations and experiments of natural phenomena, and then compare them to the mathematical predictions and laws. The word central to this endeavour is “evidence”.

The scientific detective

The mathematical side is pure and clean, whereas the observations and experiments are limited by technologies and uncertainties. Comparing the two is wrapped up in the mathematical fields of statistics and inference.

Many, but not all, rely on a particular approach to this known as Bayesian reasoning to incorporate observational and experimental evidence into what we know and to update our belief in a particular description of the universe.

The only way is down for these apples.
(Source: Flickr/Don LaVange)

Here, belief means how confident you are in a particular model being an accurate description of nature, based upon what you know. Think of it a little like the betting odds on a particular outcome.

Our description of gravity appears to be pretty good, so it might be odds-on favourite that an apple will fall from a branch to the ground.

But I have less confidence that electrons are tiny loops of rotating and gyrating string that is proposed by super-string theory, and it might be a thousand to one long-shot that it will provide accurate descriptions of future phenomena.

So, science is like an ongoing courtroom drama, with a continual stream of evidence being presented to the jury. But there is no single suspect and new suspects regularly wheeled in. In light of the growing evidence, the jury is constantly updating its view of who is responsible for the data.

But no verdict of absolute guilt or innocence is ever returned, as evidence is continually gathered and more suspects are paraded in front of the court. All the jury can do is decide that one suspect is more guilty than another.

What has science proved?

In the mathematical sense, despite all the years of researching the way the universe works, science has proved nothing.

Mark the spot where nothing was proved. (Source: Flickr/Rob)

Every theoretical model is a good description of the universe around us, at least within some range of scales that it is useful.

But exploring into new territories reveals deficiencies that lower our belief in whether a particular description continues to accurately represent our experiments, while our belief in alternatives can grown.

Will we ultimately know the truth and hold the laws that truly govern the workings of the cosmos within our hands?

While our degree of belief in some mathematical models may get stronger and stronger, without an infinite amount of testing, how can we ever be sure they are reality?

I think it is best to leave the last word to one of the greatest physicists, Richard Feynman, on what being a scientist is all about:

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.”

This article is part of a series on Understanding Research.

Further reading:
Why research beats anecdote in our search for knowledge
Clearing up confusion between correlation and causation
Positives in negative results: when finding ‘nothing’ means something

The Conversation

Geraint Lewis receives funding from the Australian Research Council, including a Future Fellowship.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Filed under Reblogs