Wednesday, July 08, 2009

What Is Science?


I think I'm becoming a HUGE fan of Helen Quinn.

I highlighted one of her writings in Physics Today a while back, and flat out wrote that you must read her article. That advice still stands, but now, add another one that is written by her that you MUST read.

The article is titled "What Is Science", published in the July 2009 issue of Physics Today. IT IS AN EXCELLENT ARTICLE, and practically mirrored almost 100% of my own opinion (maybe that's why I like her writings so much! :)). She wrote it in a very sensible manner, and accessible for the general public that isn't trained in science. For example, she tries to describe the process of science that is typically covered in what we normally call the "scientific method" that is taught in elementary education:

Readers of PHYSICS TODAY know that science is a process, based on interpretation of experimental or observational data using models and theories, within a tightly constrained logical structure. The constraints arise from needing a logically self-consistent explanation of multiple phenomena. Any apparent contradiction between different theories or models, between evidence and theory, or between different sources of evidence must be examined and resolved. Asking questions is a big part of doing science, and choosing to pursue answers to the more compelling and productive ones helps shape a given field. Eventually, something resembling an answer might emerge, only to be tested against further observations, models, or theories, a process that often leads to further questions. The work continues, iteratively refining both the theory or model and the questions being examined. Iterations are essential because the process is inherently messy. There are many false starts, with misinterpretations and incomplete information sometimes sending science off on a wild goose chase for a while. We scientists could well be more forthright about the fits and starts of research; after all, clearing up the inconsistencies is what confers much of the authority on the results.

But I think what is even more important is when she addressed the differences between asking WHY about something when asked by a scientist, versus that of the general public:

In everyday usage the question “Why?” can be either about the mechanism by which something occurred or about the reasons for or purposes behind an action. Thus the distinction between reason and mechanism, or between effect and purpose, is often blurred. Religion and philosophy are interested in reasons and purposes, but science cares only about mechanisms. That apparent reduction of the goal is a powerful step that separates modern science from its ancestor, natural philosophy. Modern science focuses our attention on just those questions that can have definitive answers based on observations. Where science does find a path to compare theory with observations, the theories so developed provide a powerful way to understand the world and even to make some predictions about the future. Science offers us new options that may be applied—for example, in technology and medicine—to change the way we live and extend our capabilities. However, scientists tend to forget that issues of reason and purpose are central to many people’s questioning, so the answers they get from science seem inadequate.

Excellent! If you've followed this blog for any considerable period of time, you would have seen several entries on similar topic, where the use of the same word can mean different things in science, and for the general public (example: "theory").

If you have a subscription to Physics Today, you may access it directly here. PT should really make this available for free, since this is one of those article that everyone should read.

Highly, highly, recommended reading.



Peter Morgan said...

Hey Zz,
I like the quotes, but the positivist in me has a slight quibble with Helen Quinn's "but science cares only about mechanisms", in that I am content enough to record measurement data in an effective systematic way. Heisenberg's early approach to QM can be understood to have abjured mechanism, for example, and the contrast between thermodynamics and kinetic theory is surely significant.

One might say that it's only when mechanisms have been found that Physicists understand a class of Physics experiments, although I would say that this is a metaphysical claim that has no basis in experiment, but still a Physicist would be interested in the unvarnished experimental data and in effective non-mechanistic theories and models, at least until mechanistic models have been found. Even after relatively accurate mechanistic models have been found, however, one still hopes for better mechanistic models, without necessarily being constrained by the conceptual structures of earlier mechanistic theories, so one still cares about the experimental data and any non-mechanistic models we have managed to construct.

Cantium said...

ok I'm reasonably impressed Zz, and I have a soft spot for Helen myself, but the argument's a bit too simple and I now can't resist asking a couple of questions;

1. Do we really think, when a physicist asks 'why', our meaning and response are purely inductive? We're all affected by ruling pardygms and prejudice. It seems that not to admit that to ourselves can be very dangerous!

2. Do we also think that when a good and solidly, inductively, provable new answer is found, that goes against the ruling paradygm, it will automatically be studied and judged without prejudice?
In reality it seems if it's doesn't arise from an established academic source or big bucks business it won't even be looked at!
I've found no evidence otherwise, but would love to be persuaded.

I beleive Helen's comments about complex thought processes being 'messy' are spot on, but she doesn't identify any answer. The truth is there is one but not in common use in physics, which, deductively, must leave our current thinking about science inherently messy!

I'm afraid Helen seems to me to perhaps err a little on the self satisfied, self delusional, self congratulationary side of self analysis. This itself can be dangerous in seriously discouraging progression. I feel a little more recognition of the fact that things aren't perfect, and that there are weaknesses in the present state of things, seems to be needed. Only then can improvements be made.

Or does anyone really beleive Physics is now entirely sorted and the system we have is as perfect as it needs to be?