Thursday, October 08, 2009

“Good science” vs. “Bad science.”

I have written before about the scientific method, but I’ll give a quick little summary here, for all you humanities majors out there.

You start with a set of what should be undisputable facts or observations. “See, that big barn over there on my neighbor’s property? It’s red. Right?” It’s something that everyone can, or should be able to, readily agree to. Then you start asking, “Well, how did it come to be red?” You might start making a hypothesis that explains your questions about whatever it is that you have observed. “See that guy over there? He’s my neighbor. It’s his barn. He probably just got finished painting it that color.” Of course, you don’t know for certain that your neighbor just painted the barn. However, there are all sorts of clues that your supposition might be a true one. That’s your theory. You just have to go about figuring out if your theory is valid or not, such that other people armed with the same starting point and facts as you will come up with the same conclusion. You are out to give validity to your theory.

The reason I said “give validity to” instead of “proving” is that the term “proof” implies absolute certainty in something. Many times in science, there will never be 100% certainty of something. However, if you can get your theory in good enough shape that your peers agree with your conclusion and no one can really come up with either 1) major points your theory doesn’t address or ) a better alternative, then people start using the word “proof.”

Anyway, to get back to my red barn analogy… There may be a number of ways you might go about trying to figure out if your neighbor painted his barn red. For instance, you could ask him. If he says “Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with that?”, then your work is pretty much at an end. Unless, of course, someone calls your neighbor a liar or, even better, comes up and declares, “No, I painted the barn! Don’t listen to that man!” Then you are kind of stuck. You now have two competing conclusions that cannot simultaneously both be true. You now need some additional input about why your original theory might be the correct one.

Say you observe that your neighbor is holding an open can of red paint. Additionally, he is also holding a paint brush full of wet red paint, his pants and shirt are all covered in very wet paint, and there are red footprints leading from the barn directly to where he is standing. This is getting very close to becoming your “proof.” You have convinced yourself, your wife and anyone else who will listen. However, those people may not actually know anything about painting. Or barns. Or perhaps they just don’t really care one way or the other.

Therefore, the next thing you need to do is get your peers (those who DO care about painting, barns and painting barns red) to agree with your conclusions about why that barn is red. You may go speak at a conference specializing in barn construction and circulate a paper you wrote on the subject of your neighbor and his barn. You might write an article for “Barns Monthly” magazine and “The Journal of National Association of Animal Husbandry Buildings”. Those, of course, are the most widely read publications for those who care about such things. Your peers read your article and most come to an agreement that, yes, you are correct in your starting point (it is indeed a barn and it is red) and how it got that way. Yes! You have triumphed! You are the King of the World! Fame and a lucrative speaking career beckon.

However, the next month, you might receive a letter from one of your rivals. He puts forward an alternative hypothesis. “No, the barn is red because the local lumber company, five miles down the road from your neighbor’s barn, is selling barn siding that is already painted red. Your neighbor bought his lumber there. I have a copy of his receipt.”

Your first reaction is, of course, “Oh, crap!” Your finely crafted case about how your neighbor’s barn came to be red is about to come crashing down around your ears. Utter humiliation awaits. Your wife isn’t speaking to you and your dog bit your hand when you tried to pet him. You must do something to rectify this terrible situation. Immediately, if not sooner.

So, it appears obvious that your theory needs to evolve to take these new facts, which are not really open to dispute (sale on red lumber, copy of the sales receipt) into account. Aha! You have it! Yes, your neighbor bought lumber already painted red, but he didn’t use it to build his barn! He used it to build a garage instead! Your original hypothesis is still sound! How else do you explain the wet, red paintbrush, the open can of paint and the footprints?

And so it goes. The reason I went on at such length about such a seemingly trivial and/or stupid scenario is that I wanted to put what really happens during the scientific method into a concept that non-scientists could easily understand. Even with its dramatic oversimplifications and stupid analogies, the scenario above gives an approximation about how the scientific method actually works. To repeat, this is how my “good science” of my title works. It doesn’t matter what kind of answer you get. It’s the process that matters! Start with facts. Make a hypothesis that fits the facts and answers all open questions. Peer reviews. Continually adjust your hypothesis whenever new facts come to light or when someone points out where your logic is not sound.

Here are the points I want to highlight. There are rarely absolute proofs to anything. You might have a model of understanding that comes very, very close to answering all the open questions about some phenomena. Maybe not all questions, but your theory works very well. Or maybe, your theory does indeed answer all open questions, until the day that someone either asks a new question that no one has ever thought of before, or perhaps some new facts or observations are uncovered that now cast some doubt on your hypothesis.

A very good and very understandable example of this is of Newtonian physics. You remember Sir Isaac Newton, don’t you? The chap who got bonked on the head with the apple? Described his theory of universal gravitation? One of the most influential scientists and mathematicians to have ever lived? Yeah, him. His theories worked incredibly well to describe how gravity affects our world. You could use it to set the elevation of your cannon so that your cannonball hits the enemy over across the valley. Terribly useful stuff. Newtonian physics ruled the day.

However, when one gets looking closer, it appears that Newtonian physics doesn’t exactly predict the motion really big things, like planets, when you start examining it in detail. Surprise! It turned out that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. It didn’t predict everything that it should. And the closer that people starting examining the facts and data, the more it appeared that there were some major shortcomings into his theories. Enter Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the floodgates were opened.

I don’t want to get into a history lesson about classical vs. modern physics. That would be pretty tedious. My point is that Newtonian physics was never The One True Answer. Oh, you got very good predictions about how everyday objects react. But it was never more than an approximation. At the scale we cared about, those approximations did not matter. You never saw the errors because they were so small. Now, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and cosmologists are getting into some very, very strange and disturbing theories about the universe. They are nowhere near the classical Newtonian physics. However, Newtonian physics still predicts some things, like that apple or that cannon shot, extremely well. So, was Newton’s theory wrong? Or right?

I apologize about how long it has taken me to reach this point, but I am now getting to what I really wanted to discuss. This is what really upsets me when I hear religious fundamentalists or ideologue conservatives talk about something like evolution or global warming in absolute terms. They obviously do not understand the scientific method. They just do not. There are very, very few absolutes. Black/white answers are sometimes only aren’t possible; they are also a pipe dream. And something you may be absolutely certain about one day can crumble right before your eyes with the introduction of a new set of data. That does not mean you were totally incorrect! That just means you need to go back to the drawing board. Your theory may need just a tweak, or it may need to be totally scrapped. You don’t know until you start digging into it, armed with your newly acquired facts and data.

The one “criticism” that I hear about the theory of evolution is “It’s only a theory!” Of course it’s only a theory! Jeez. That’s a really, really dumb thing to say. So is the theory of gravity. Do you disagree that gravity exists? Of course not. But the explanation we currently have as to why gravity exists is incomplete. Those scientists and mathematicians who work out on the esoteric edges of their fields may feel they are getting close to having an answer (hint: it’s called M Theory and involves a universe made up of eleven dimensions), but they are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot of the answers already worked out. “It’s only a theory!” is not a valid criticism! That’s how the process works! Anthropologists, geneticists and researchers in many other fields agree that evolution is a fact. They just cannot explain every aspect. There are still many unanswered questions. So what? That does not mean that the entire concept is wrong! It just means it is still a work in progress.

Another problem that seems to occur in today’s society is that we demand everything be “dumbed down” to the point that every single person feels that they must be able to understand something before they will admit it to be true. If they can’t understand it, then, by definition, it isn’t true. What hogwash. Experts in a field are experts for a reason; they know more than you do about something! That’s what makes them an expert! There is a reason it takes eight years plus to get through college and earn a Ph.D. in something. It’s complex! It’s difficult! Their conclusions do have more validity than yours do! You probably don’t know jack about the subject, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter.

Yet another problem is that many people seem to feel that they are free to disagree with a scientific conclusion if it doesn’t support their already set-in-concrete opinions. If science doesn’t come to the conclusion that they wanted it to, then it becomes “bad science.” The Earth’s climate is actually getting warmer, and the activities of mankind are a major contributing factor. The Earth is much, much older than 6000 years. Evolution in living things does indeed occur. Earth is not at the center of the universe, nor does the sun revolve around the Earth. On and on… Many people throughout history have taken a very dim view of scientific conclusions that are at odds with a position in which they have a vested interest (e.g., the Church, Galileo, and is the Earth at the center of the universe or not?). The scientific method does not care if you have just had the rug jerked out from beneath your feet. That's too bad, but that is your problem, not science's. Deal with it.

It does not matter to the scientific method what the answer turns out to be. You cannot dictate your preferred answers to the scientific method. That’s dishonest and manipulative. You must start with the question, make a hypothesis and then end up with a convincing answer! You cannot start with the answer first! Nor can you object to the facts and observations that the scientific method started from. The barn really is red. It is not green. To say otherwise is false and it makes the holder of such views look like an idiot. That is what bad science is; it is not science that doesn’t give you the answer you wanted.

In the last 25 years--but it has really picked up speed in the last 10 years--our society has devalued science and the answers it can provide. Sometimes we may not like the answer. That doesn’t mean science is somehow wrong or bad. It just means that we should probably either adjust our way of thinking or possibly do something to change the outcome that the scientific method is predicting. That might be anything from cutting the emissions of greenhouse gasses significantly to perhaps realizing that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the existence of God.

What we have now is a society that values opinions more than answers reached by the scientific method. And, the current thinking goes, the more fervently you believe in something, the better chance it has of being true. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. That is the way that civilizations collapse. They cannot cope with the reality that will ultimately come crashing down on their/our collective heads.

Photo from here.

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