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Charasteristics of Science

3. Observation, Theory, and Prediction

Science relies on quantifiable observation of material objects as its starting point and its source of data. These data are then summarized in statements which we collectively call theory. The phrase “It is just a theory” does not apply to scientific theories, because the latter are the outcome of a large number of quantitative observations and experiments and have been confirmed by an equal number of tests. At the early stages of the development of a theory, various conjectures, models, or hypotheses may have been proposed. But once the statement is christened as “theory,” it acquires a permanence that is not even remotely shared by “just a theory.”

Not every quantifiable observation is scientific. Neither counting the number of cars crossing an intersection to find the traffic pattern of that intersection, nor contacting people to gather “data” about voters’ behavior is a scientific observation. Observation in science is either prompted by a theory, in which case it becomes a test of that theory, or is performed with the intention of discovering a secret of nature. Because physics, chemistry, and molecular biology all deal with atoms and molecules,

The instruments used for observation are very similar in the three branches of science.

A theory explains the existing observational data for which it is designed. But if it stopped there, it would not deserve to be called a “theory.” The third characteristic of science is that its theories predict new results that are numerical and could be proven wrong. A statement like “Santa Claus exists, but whenever a skeptic tries to find him, he vanishes into another dimension.” cannot be proven wrong. It is not falsifiable.

Prediction, numerical prediction – risky prediction as Karl Popper so aptly called it – is one of the most significant characteristics of science which distinguishes it from pseudoscience.

For pseudoscience, such as psychoanalysis, every occurrence is a confirmation of the theory, because the theory is reinterpreted retrospectively so that the new interpretation accommodates the new occurrence. A pseudoscientific “theory” is not falsifiable. In contrast, the general theory of relativity, for example, predicts the bending of star light in the gravitational field of the sun, and gives an exact value for this bending. If observation confirms this numerical value, the theory stands; if it doesn’t, the theory falls. This is what is meant by falsifiability.

The time lapse between the creation of a theory and its predictions could vary considerably. Einstein’s general relativity predicted the bending of light in a strong gravitational field almost at the same time as it was proposed, while it took several years before it predicted the big bang. Similarly, it took many years before the predictive power of the double-helix was fully appreciated.

A scientific theory, once proposed and proven experimentally, becomes detached from the person who created it. There is no mark of the personality of the theorist on the theory, and scientists do not go back to the original article as an “authority.” Erwin Schrödinger wrote his equation in January 1926. The equation had a “psi” function, which no one knew how to interpret. When in June 1926 Max Born correctly interpreted the function as probability (amplitude), an uproar emerged in the physics community opposing such an interpretation. Schrödinger was one of the fiercest opponents of this interpretation. Nevertheless, Max Born was right, and ever since June 1926, the Schrödinger equation no longer belonged to Schrödinger! It was completely detached from him and took a life of its own.

A scientific theory is completely detached from the scientist who proposed it and future scientists don’t go to the original article as an “authority.”

4. Historical Continuity

Science evolves. Each generation of scientists creates milestones upon which the next generation erects new milestones. That is how the edifice of science is fashioned. This historical continuity is the fourth characteristic of science. The accumulated knowledge of the present era becomes the raw material of the next era from which new knowledge emerges and to which this new knowledge is added. Therefore, science is as old as the humans themselves. There is a continuous line that connects the knowledge contained in Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the knowledge that harnessed fire more than half a million years ago.

A discipline whose present generation of experts tramples the knowledge of the previous generation and creates new knowledge only to be trampled by the next generation of experts, is not science, irrespective of the -ics or -ology or any other such suffix attached to its name.

5. Mathematics

The fifth characteristic of science is that, at its most fundamental level, i.e., at the level of theoretical physics, and to some extent theoretical chemistry – if there is a way of distinguishing the two! – it speaks in the language of mathematics. In the same way that language – abstract, symbolic language – is the means by which we communicate with other members of our species, mathematics – abstract, symbolic mathematics – is the means by which our species communicates with nature. This has been demanded by nature itself. In fact, this demand has been so strong that nature has set aside a part of our brain specifically for math, just as it has set aside an area for language. If nature has changed the anatomy of our brain to accommodate mathematics so that we can communicate with it, then we should expect more and more usage of (more and more sophisticated) mathematics as we discover deeper and deeper secrets of the universe. And this expectation has been borne out over and over again as physics has progressed from the fall of an apple to the creation of new particles and antiparticles in mammoth accelerators around the globe.

6. Communication in Science

Every human being has an instinctive fascination with the mysteries of the universe, and a sublime desire to untangle them. The joy that comes with the discovery of the solution to a puzzle of nature is second to no other joy. Combine this with the fame associated with that discovery, and you get a swarm of crackpots who think that they have discovered the ultimate secret of the universe, and want to tell the world of their discoveries. That is where the sixth characteristic of science comes in. To separate sense from nonsense and true science from crackpot science, peer-reviewed journals have been created. The team of editors, associate editors, assistant editors, and an army of reviewers – all belonging to the scientific mainstream – go through thousands of articles they receive daily to ensure their validity and accuracy. The prestige of a scientific journal is in direct proportion to the rigor with which the submitted articles are reviewed. This process of publishing scientific articles has worked for centuries now, and is the only way that discoveries are reported. To the crackpot, however, the process is elitism, and the mainstream scientific community is a bunch of personal enemies conspiring to stop his/her ideas from reaching humanity.

A rigorous review process effectively filters out articles by crackpots. But it does not stop them from publishing. The freedom of speech allows them to present their papers orally in scientific (predominantly physics) conferences, where their fifteen-minute talks, although attentively listened to by other crackpots, is completely ignored by the mainstream scientific community. Unsatisfied by the brief attention received in conferences, they pay printing companies out of their own pockets and publish their nonsensical findings themselves. This trend has grown considerably with the advent of personal computers and self-publishing software. It is not uncommon for the physics faculty to occasionally receive books with flashy covers claiming to have disproved the relativity theory or quantum physics, or to have discovered a new theory of gravity, a new theory of light, or the final theory of the universe. In all cases, these books contain very little mathematics – not going beyond the lowest-level high school algebra – or none at all.

I have emphasized the word “mainstream” above because the desire of making profits and the popularity of pseudoscience among the scientifically illiterate, who make up the majority of the population, has prompted some otherwise reputable publishers to offer “peer-reviewed” journals whose executive, associate, and assistant editors are all pseudoscientists, and all submitted articles are reviewed by pseudoscientists.

Publication of “peer-reviewed” journals edited by pseudoscientists whose articles are “reviewed” by pseudoscientists has nothing in common with the scientific peer-review process and is a dangerous manifestation of society’s surrender to pseudoscience.

7. Absence of Controversy/Falsifiability

Because science is based on objective, verifiable, quantitative observation, it leaves no room for controversy in the mainstream science. If there is a new theoretical proposal with which the mainstream science is uncomfortable, there may be a short period of controversy. However, when observation verifies or nullifies the theory, the controversy ends – except for a few potential crackpots who find a good excuse in the proposal to form a new “society.”

I have to emphasize that

There is always disagreement between the mainstream scientists and the fringe/quack scientists in any given discipline. That disagreement never goes away and should not be considered as controversy.

There is another form of non-falsifiability which is related to the presence of controversy and occurs in some disciplines. It is more subtle than the statement about the disappearing Santa Claus noted earlier. It occurs when there are different “schools” of thought in the mainstream of a discipline, which disagree with one another. If one “school” of a discipline makes a statement and claims that it is true, and another school in the same discipline claims that the statement is false and neither can prove the other false, the statement is not falsifiable (see this for a concrete example).

Any mainstream discipline that is composed of various “schools,” which cannot agree on some given statement and each school takes pride in “debunking” the other is not a scientific discipline.

8. Insensitivity to Removal of Statistical Sampling

Thanks to the scientifically illiterate media, the use of statistical sampling in any “study” makes that study “scientific.” In this spirit, insurance becomes a “science” as do gambling, marketing, opinion polls, keeping track of traffic accidents, and a host of other activities that use statistics to “predict” the behavior of the population. This prediction is not of the kind discussed in the third characteristic of science. It is a prediction inherent in any application of statistics involving sampling, and unlike the prediction of science — which is often unrelated to the original investigation — it cannot go beyond the very investigation for which the sample is used. The statistical analysis of highway accidents can be used only in highway accidents, that of marketing a new product for ages between 12 and 30 can be used only for the sale of that product to that specific age group. On the other hand, the predictions of the general theory of relativity, for example, encompass the bending of light, the slowing down of clocks in gravity, the precession of the perihelion of planets, the explosion of large stars into neutron stars and black holes, the operation of GPS, and the big bang.

Physics also uses statistics. Statistical mechanics is, in fact, one of the important branches of physics and is the underlying science of thermodynamics. However, the crucial difference between the statistics used in physics and the one used in other disciplines is that physics derives the probability laws governing its statistics, and is very general: it is used in the behavior of a gas, a liquid, a superconductor, a diode, a transistor, a glowing object, … . Quantum theory is another branch of physics which predicts — with mathematical precision — the probability of the occurrence of physical phenomena. It too is very general: it is used to describe lasers, light emitting diodes, transistors, nuclear fission and fusion, the behavior of fundamental particles such as quarks, electrons, neutrinos, and the condition of the universe right after the big bang. Neither statistical mechanics nor quantum theory needs a statistical sample to predict the behavior of a physical system.

If the removal of statistical sampling takes away the prediction capability of a discipline, then that discipline is not a science.

 9. Relation to Technology

Science improves the old technology and paves the way for the new. As in the prediction property of science, the time frame in which it becomes useful in technology varies. Newtonian theory of gravity was used in space technology almost three hundred years after its discovery. It took almost eighty years before general relativity became relevant in technology through the invention of GPS. On the other hand, less than thirty years after the inception of quantum mechanics, transistors were invented. Genetic engineering became possible about thirty years after the discovery of DNA. I don’t want its relation to technology to be a solid identifier of science. However, if a discipline claiming to be scientific has absolutely no application in technology throughout its history, then it may not be a science.

10. Science is not “Too Complicated”

The absence of decisive observation in non-science renders any theory questionable. A popular phrase that it used by both the proponents and opponents of the theory is that the problem under investigation is “too complicated,” with the intended meaning that no theory can explain the problem because “too many variables” are involved in that problem. Thus the proposed theory is neither right nor wrong, it is just incomplete. In this sense, science is not “too complicated” because scientific theories are verifiable.

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