What Everyone Should Know About Science

Michael Nielsen is planning to attend an “unconference” and is considering possible topics. He quotes one from Eva Amsen:

My idea: find 4 or 5 volunteers from different backgrounds to sit on a 20 minute panel and (with audience feedback) make a list of Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science. Since we have a wide audience, this hopefully would be a varied list. Actually, maybe we could just put up a large sheet of paper and have people write down what they think should be on the list and get back to it later.

Michale offers a suggestion, which leads him to ponder scientific literacy, but I’m going to stick with the original question:

What Should Everyone Know About Science?

I have three suggestions, which are really all part of one big idea:

1) Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts The essence of science, broadly defined, is that it is a systematic approach to figuring out how the world works:

  1. look at the world around you
  2. come up with an idea for why it might work that way.
  3. test your idea against reality.
  4. tell everybody you know the results of the test.

Put those steps together, over and over, and you have the best method ever devised for increasing our store of reliable knowledge. The precise facts found by this method are not as important as the process for finding them– given the process, and enough time, you can reconstruct whatever facts you need. The facts without the process are worse than useless, they’re dangerous.

2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.

You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)

(And, from a purely practical point of view, science and the products thereof are the reason why we have the free time to sit around making and appreciating works of art. Without science, we’d still be plains apes scavanging the kills of more efficient predators than us.)

3) Anyone can do science. Science doesn’t depend on race and it doesn’t depend on gender. You don’t need to be rich to do science. You don’t even need to be good at math.

Science is, fundamentally, nothing more than a systematic approach to looking at the world around us and figuring out how it works. Money and mathematics are tools that can help with this process, but the core of the enterprise is nothing more than a habit of mind.

One of the most pernicious lies told by our culture is that science is an elite and exclusive activity only available to a few. It leads to scientists being stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks,” set apart from the rest of humanity, and it leads to tenured professors with Ph.D.’s in the humanities to say with a laugh “I just don’t understand science.”

Science does not require innate abilities beyond the standard-issue human genome. If you have the full complement of senses and a brain, you can do science. In fact, the core business of humanities scholars– sifting through texts looking for evidence to support a particular argument– is not really any different than the business of science. You come up with a theory of what’s going on in a particular work of literature, and then you check to see whether that holds up by systematically evaluating the evidence found in the text. That’s one step removed from doing science.

You may not understand a particular set of facts produced by science, but see point #1 above: Science is a process, not a collection of facts. You won’t necessarily understand all the facts of a particular science outside your own field of expertise– I don’t understand microbiology worth a damn– but if you have the brain power necessary to function as an autonomous adult, the process is within your grasp.

And again, if you have the process, you have the ability to eventually understand the facts. I don’t understand microbiology, because I haven’t been trained in those facts, but I know that I could understand it, and if I ever need that understanding, I know the process by which to get it. For that matter, I don’t understand feminist literary criticism, but I know that I could if I needed to, using the same mental toolbox.

You might guess from the slightly rant-y tone of the above that this is partly in response to some pet peeves of mine about academia and American society. If so, congratulations! You’ve grasped the basic process of science.

So, what do you think everyone should know about science?

42 thoughts on “What Everyone Should Know About Science

  1. Your three points are an excellent starting point. I’ll add a fourth:

    Science and ethics (e.g., religion) need not be incompatible; they should be complementary.

    One of the biggest intersections we see in this country between science and society is, unfortunately, the battles over teaching evolution. These battles are seen as being between science and religion since many of the evolution opponents are, overtly or covertly, pushing the Biblical creation myth as fact.

    While I would agree that science and fundamentalist religion are incompatible, there are many examples of scientists who are religious in non-fundamentalist ways, and even cases like the Vatican Observatory where a religion is directly supporting science.

    While science is a process for accumulating knowledge, it does not include any prescription for how to use that knowledge (except as a means for accumulating more knowledge). For example: certain heavy nuclei (most famously U-235 and Pu-239) will undergo fission after being hit by a neutron, releasing significant energy and several neutrons which can go on to hit other nuclei. One can use this fact as the basis for creating an electricity generating plant or to construct a highly destructive weapon. Science alone cannot tell you which (if either) of these applications you should pursue; you need a system of ethics (which may or may not be derived from religion, but most are) to tell you that the first might be beneficial to society and the second is so abhorrent that one should consider using it only in retaliation against an enemy who has already done so, if even then.

  2. Science is a collective behavior. It is not something one does by oneself (see step 4 of your first point); the image of the “mad scientist” is wonderful fiction, but the process of science allows–no, requires–others to check your work.

    Closely related…

    The scientific method is not “how scientists think”, but rather a method to guard against how we think. Your point 3 goes both ways; scientists are human beings first and foremost, and as such, we are prone to the same perceptual and cognitive biases anyone else is. We tend to try to confirm our pet hypotheses, and defend them when disconfirming evidence comes to light. And that is ok, because science (see above) is a collective activity. If we do not see the flaws in our explanations, we can sure bet that others will! Scientists may actively battle one another–if we do it properly, the most devastating weapon is data. And (gradually or quickly) the scientific community reaches a consensus (rarely an absolute stance), accepting one idea tentatively, but confidently enough to build upon.

  3. (physical reality) – (empirical reality) = faith

    You don’t need a license to think. However, a stroke of the brush does not guarantee art from the bristles. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong,” Richard Feynman.

    Religion does not fare well against science. What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence. When religion rides with science it is a fifth wheel.

  4. In step 4 of point 1, isn’t it just as important to tell everyone you know how you conducted the test? I guess you might say that “the results of the test” are not complete if they don’t include the method, but if we’re talking about what “everyone should know,” well, everyone should know that “dogs are smarter than cats” doesn’t qualify as “the results of the test.”

  5. What science isn’t — it’s not about (religious) faith and having all the answers. It doesn’t. Science deals with unknown things, and tries to quantify the uncertainty that is present in its results. Having uncertainty does not mean “no certainty whatsoever.”

  6. These are great! I want to see if I can put up a sheet of paper at SciBarCamp where attendees can write down their suggestions, and maybe do some kind of session around the theme (summarizing, discussing).
    Is it okay if I copy yours (and some commenters’ suggestions) to print/cut/paste on as well?

  7. (And, from a purely practical point of view, science and the products thereof are the reason why we have the free time to sit around making and appreciating works of art. Without science, we’d still be plains apes scavanging the kills of more efficient predators than us.)

    Well … provided you’re willing to go with a definition of science that’s so broad as to approach meaninglessness.

    It’s a great append, but this sort of overstatement just weakens your underlying point unnecessarily. It’s no better than the equally overstated “it’s only the humanities that make life worth living” stuff.

    Why (in scientific terms, of course) is it a stubborn human trait to overstate the importance/influence of own own field of expertise and denigrate others either explicitly or implicitly? 🙂

  8. These are great! I want to see if I can put up a sheet of paper at SciBarCamp where attendees can write down their suggestions, and maybe do some kind of session around the theme (summarizing, discussing).
    Is it okay if I copy yours (and some commenters’ suggestions) to print/cut/paste on as well?

    Everything I post can be freely copied, provided it’s attributed to me. There’s probably some Creative Commons category for this, but I’ve never bothered to figure that out and make it official.

  9. I’m not a scientist, but I love science. I think science is collaborative. It’s not just other people checking your work, but other people’s work combining with yours to create a more complete body of knowledge.

    I have first hand experience with emergency health care professionals from different functions (e.g., physician, administrator, EMT) work collaboratively and seen the EM system in our area becoming increasingly effective.

    For me, knowledge sharing (and that includes blue-sky ideas) is at the heart of all successes.

  10. Great list. You might try to add something to the effect that, while the activity of science is an essentially human endeavor (as you are right to emphasize), the products of science (data and theories) stand or fall regardless of attachments to any human beings. One Einstein wrote down general relativity, anyone could use it or investigate it just as well as anyone else. There are no true authority figures.

  11. Science is as much about what we don’t know as it is about what we do know.

    There’s a lot to that statement. First, scientists recognize that we don’t know everything about the world, but we seek to learn as much as we can. Further, scientists (and people in general) need to be ready to abandon or alter previously held beliefs if new knowledge disproves them substantially.

    Second, in terms of performing science, scientists must be aware of what an experiment does NOT measure or prove/disprove so as to draw proper conclusions. Much bad or pseudoscience is out there based on bad interpretations of good data.

  12. Hmm. My summary of the method would be like this:

    1 Have an idea that explains something.
    2 Try to prove your idea wrong (look for counterexamples).
    3 Ask what the idea predicts.
    4 Go see if the predictions are correct.
    5 Share idea.

    I avoided the words “test your idea” and “experiment” because they are vague, scare laypeople, and don’t stress the fact that scientific ideas MUST be predictive, not just explanatory.

    In fact most people in the world could wildly enhance their apparent intelligence simply by taking care to ask the following question every time they have what they think is a good idea: What does the idea predict?

    Once you are used to asking that question, the method becomes a natural part of everyday life, and allows you to quickly evaluate the quality of other people’s ideas as well.

  13. If 3, “Anyone can do science” would be on the list I’d immediately want after that 4 “Not everyone can do all science” – Many areas of science require many years of study and collaboration with others. Just because anyone can do science doesn’t mean that any random opinion off the street matters. (This can be expanded in an obvious fashion. But it seems to be a big issue when dealing with creationists or proponents of a vaccine-autism link (where parents of autistic children say that their opinions matter and should be given weight due to their personal experience)).

    Also, I’d suggest maybe a few *big* discoveries of science that tell us a lot about the world around us. Off the top of my head the really big ones are (the wording would need some clean-up)

    1. DNA- All life on earth encodes the main information about itself and passes that down through a molecule called DNA. These molecules have four base pairs that encode data in triplet sets to amino acids which make proteins. (Maybe a bit more detail about DNA-> RNA -> Protein and the notion of a gene).
    2. The earth is old, at least 4 billion years old. Explain basic methods of getting an old earth.
    3. Common descent with natural selection being a major force behind that (no need to go into how much neutral drift or other events matter).
    4. The earth is roughly spherical and orbit the sun. Explain how we know this, especially with the phases of venus (which anyone with a good telescope can check if they are patient) and other methods like the aberation of light.
    5. The atomic theory. All matter we encounter is made up of small units. These units are the smallest unit of that material beyond which if you break it up it acts very differently. These atoms bond together to form other chemicals from which everything is made.

  14. Science is a sceptical inquiry based on careful reasoning from observation and experiment AND the sum of organised knowledge where the facts have varying degrees of certanity and ovelaping explanations work at different approximation levels.

    With a new idea, you must check it for consistency with the things known so far (apart from making some additional predictions). If you propose a brilliant theory which implies that under certain conditions the charge is not conserved – or that a sum of all probabilities does not add up to one – you better produce an extraordinary convincing explanation why no-one noticed a crazy stuff like this yet. Crackpots fail to understand this point.

  15. @Uncle Al: “”It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong,” Richard Feynman.”

    One could also aptly apply this quote to global warming – the current research that “proves” it can’t be duplicated. Despite the number of celebrities who have jumped on the band wagon, this does not make it science.

  16. You forgot faith…Science is about faith as much as religion is about faith. Do black holes exist? No one knew for a long time, but they predicted they did. Much of our knowledge today incorporates the idea that we don’t know how it works, we just know it does. Is that bad science? I don’t think so. We start with a question, formulate answers, look for proof, enlist support and … well, it was only a short time ago that people thought the world was flat. The greatest minds of the world were convinced that “vapours” controlled our bodies. We laugh at this now but what silly idea of ours will cause a chuckle from people a thousand years from now?

  17. I would add that science is not about certainties. When we show something in science it’s not the same as 2 + 2 = 4 but rather what we think happens to day can change in the future as we learn more and getting better and measuring. I think a lot of people see science as a process but see it as this micro level thing where you see a problem, apply the scientific method and you have the solution, not the most likely solution at this point in time which could change.

  18. Theory is different from law is different from fact. I think that heirarchy is important. (i.e. “Evolution is only a theory” is wrong because theory is as high as you go in science)

    Also I recently came across a Ghost Hunters wannabe group and they didn’t understand why I said their experiments were crap. They didn’t understand things like control groups or bias. Experiment design should be an item.

    Lastly recognizing logical fallacies. This may be more philosophical, but “the universe is too complicated to come into existance by accident” or “god perfect, he must exist to be perfect, therefore he exists”. Both are easily dismissed as logical fallacies by anyone with logic training but they make sense on first glance.

  19. So, what do you think everyone should know about science?

    I think everyone should know that there is “good” science and “bad” science- just like any other endeavour. I don’t mean “good” and “bad” as a moral or aesthetic quantifier- rather that the process and intrepretation of scientific inquiry can be conducted in a thorough, rigorous and sound way- or can be conducted in a haphazard, sloppy and at worst an intentionally misleading and manipulative way; -in the later case using the language and process to lend support to a faulty position.

  20. David wrote:

    You forgot faith…Science is about faith as much as religion is about faith.

    This statement is just simply wrong. No ifs no buts and no discussions, wrong.

    He also wrote:

    …it was only a short time ago that people thought the world was flat.

    The last time that any educated person in the western world thought that, was about 600 BCE which is a short time ago if you happen to be a paleontologist but is a fairly long time for anybody else.

  21. Hey Thony C. How about backing up your statement with an argument. Your opinion is worthless if you can’t back it up. But let’s bring the argument closer to the present. In 1950 all engineers and scientists agreed that the sound barrier couldn’t be broken. The fact is it couldn’t be then. But they had faith that they could produce a machine that would. And they did. Is that better for you? Or would you argue that engineering isn’t science?

  22. http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/?p=55

    Thony C., let me make your argument for you. The link above is about why science isn’t based on faith. It is a pretty good argument. The only real flaw in the logic is the writer replaces the word faith with the word trust. On the edges of our knowledge are things we can’t prove because there is no evidence yet. But as a scientist I must trust that the proof I do have points in that direction. If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it probably isn’t a horse. That is a fair argument.
    So the real problem here is a matter of semantics. I have faith in the truth. Science requires proof before it believes. Religion believes before it has proof. But both trust/have faith that the truth is out there and the universe can be understood. Please don’t get hung up on words that mean one thing to me and another to you. Are you seeking the truth? Are you willing to accept it when you find it? That is what science and religion do. The priority, as shown above, is different, but both seek to know. This is why scientists can be devoutly religious and why clergy can be such good scientists. The two are not mutually exclusive. They can, and do, complement each other. I invite you to give me your side because I have faith that you want the same thing I want…the truth.

  23. David wrote:

    In 1950 all engineers and scientists agreed that the sound barrier couldn’t be broken.

    The facts that the German V2 rocket bomb developed by Wernher von Braun flew faster than sound in 1944 and that the manned Bell X-1 was flying faster than sound in 1947 kind of make a nonsense out of your statement! Just a couple of examples of the truth you apparently crave.

  24. Hit a nerve huh Thony C. Ah well, I didn’t check my facts as closely as I should but then there are always little people for that. The point I am making which you so certainly are missing is we are hung up on semantics. No one knows everything but they have faith that if they need to know, they can. That’s all science is, the search for truth. But you are really into nitpicking what ever I say so here is a tidbit. I have faith that you will someday grow into a mature human. Think on it and have a nice day.

  25. David, you made a posting in which you made an unfounded and incorrect claim whose aim was to set the epistemological status of religion equal to that of science. In order to achieve this end you made two factual statements, one in your first posting and one in the second, that were intended to illustrate that which you believe to be the process of historical evolution of the sciences (and/or technology). All I did was to point out that both of these statements are factually false as well as wildly inaccurate and thus in no way capable of fulfilling their implied intention. Science lives from the use of correct facts and data and the checking and confirmation of facts and data in an essential part of the scientific process. In your own words you say that such checking of facts is “nit picking”, “immature” and beneath your dignity (“there are always little people for that”). Your statements show that you do not have the least idea of what science is or how it functions. This is also illustrated by your constant references to “truth” a concept that plays no role in modern concepts of scientific methodology. As for religion it has never ever dealt in truths but only in unsubstantiated, untestable and unprovable claims and thus requires faith; “belief without proof”. There is no faith what so ever involved in the scientific process that only deals with testable hypotheses so as I said at the beginning your original claim is just simply wrong.

  26. Thony C. I apologize for my indignity at your attack. Really, I do. You assume you are correct and therefore I must eventually come to your way of thinking. My claims are not unfounded or incorrect just because you think they are. What we are dealing with here is not even related to science or religion. It is about a difference of opinion. You can no more prove your claims than I can. I didn’t check my references yesterday, something I most always do. I do not pass on e-mails that come to me about Obama being muslim or illegal aliens make more money than our own pensioners. I believe in truth. But the reference to truth was made by the person to whose article I linked. I am talking about faith. This word apparently has a far different meaning for you than for me. I have had many discussions about scientific method and I agree that it is a process that requires facts that can be checked using experiments that can be duplicated. The scientific method deals only in facts.
    I said that science (not the method) also deals with faith. Scientists have faith in their ability to find facts and to reproduce those facts at will. They have faith in their predictions. The scientific method they employ points to a theoretical conclusion that cannot, as yet, be proven. If their calculations were incorrect, then the theory must change. This is science. It seeks the truth of a knowable universe. It makes our life different. Sometimes better, sometimes not. There is good science and there is bad science.
    I did not equate religion to science. I stated that both use faith to seek truth. You and I have a difference of opinion. Yours is no more right or wrong than mine despite your intolerance of mine. You think I am wrong and I think you are intolerant. Who is speaking the truth? Maybe both of us. Is it possible in your world to have that option?
    From your comments it appears you are an atheist or perhaps an agnostic. You obviously do not believe there is a higher power for anything. Again, you may be right. I do believe in God. There is good religion and there is bad religion. But there is only one God.
    Anyway, it’s been fun. Whether or not you think I am wrong or whether or not I think I’m right really doesn’t change anything. We have a difference of opinion and isn’t grand that we can. Many scientists disagree on things. That doesn’t mean their methodology is wrong. Many clergymen disagree on God. That doesn’t make Him less viable. Whenever you can, prove your point. When you can’t…well I have faith.

  27. Gee, I was going to say we should add Science is not Faith, and Faith is not Science, but that pot has already been stirred. Perhaps we could say it more generally: Science is not Philosophy, and Philosophy is not Science. Newton looked at his equations and saw the mind of God. Laplace looked at the same equations and saw the God Hypothesis as superfluous. Their philosophical (theological) musings disagreed, but they both agreed that the equations worked. They could prove they work scientifically.

    David is right that science isn’t about whether God does or doesn’t exist, but that he confused a lack of (absolute) certainty with requiring faith would seem to show a needed point of clarification.

  28. How about:

    Scientific theories generally start by making assumptions about the world. Often these assumptions are made to simplify a complex problem. The quality of a theory is only as good as the assumptions on which it lies. Good science is largely about knowing what assumptions you can and can’t make and knowing how realistic those assumptions are.

  29. No, David, you and Thony C. cannot agree to disagree — and not only because your mock contrition splashes wildly with the spleen of passive aggression. The two of you cannot agree to disagree because you are in no way having the same conversation. Your fundamental point seems to be that scientists have faith in their abilities to discover the unknown. Frankly, their faith in their ability is less than worthless in that context, it is anathema to the scientific method, which simply sets up factors to test and records the results. Hypotheses are the least valuable part of the process of collecting data; indeed, my one query to this post of Chad’s was going to be whether step two of point one mightn’t be toned down a bit so as to give stronger value to empirical objectivity. The objective reality of data and the (potentially subjective) reality of a hypothosis regarding that data are entirely separate phenomena.

    Your smug ad hominem attacks and lambaste detracted from the worthwhile function of this post as a forum for educators and students of the subject. Congratulations.

  30. @David,
    You have a fundamentally, though common, misunderstanding of science. It is something that this article itself should have helped clear up, but apparently didn’t in your case. You say things like “The scientific method deals only in facts.”, “Scientists have faith in their ability to find facts and to reproduce those facts at will. They have faith in their predictions.”, and “The scientific method they employ points to a theoretical conclusion that cannot, as yet, be proven.”

    None of these are accurate depictions of science. A simple definition of science would be “a complete lack of faith of any sort”. That’s a bit of a negative way of saying it, but that is accurate. If faith falls in any part of the process you are performing then it is, by definition, not science.

    Science is exactly what this article talks about. The only points that humans even have to enter the process is that the ideas (hypotheses) have to initiate from somewhere, though that’s not strictly required. You could, for instance, put together a random generator of ideas (verbs, nouns), test their predictions against observations, and keep only the ones that are consistent. That brute force approach isn’t really feasible in most cases right now, but could be in the future.

    “Facts” and “proof”, in layperson terms, are meaningless to science. Science is all about models of how things work, predictions that derive from them, and consistency of those predictions with observations. Models are usually improved by evolution (incremental improvements that give predictions closer to observations) and occasionally by revolution (new approaches that give predictions closer to observations).

    No scientific model (“theory”) is ever proven. There are no “facts”. When somebody says “fact” in science they are referring to an observed phenomenon, such as “My hammer fell to the floor when I let go of it.”. Science is, by definition, skeptical of everything, even itself. If any act of faith ever shows up in any work claiming to be scientific, that faith is immediately questioned and the results are, at best, inconclusive until the “faith” is removed from the process.

    That all being said, in a practical sense it is impossible for every scientist to start from scratch (no knowledge) every time, and then determine the laws of the universe, and so on. New work is accumulated on top of old work as a starting point. In that sense, starting from an existing well-tested and successful model (to some accuracy), one might use the word “faith” or “trust” to describe the provisional acceptance that the old model is valid and accurate. What differentiates this from religious “faith” is that if the basis model is questioned and fault is found with it, the new work that relies on it also comes into question. This rejection of the validity fundamentally differs from religious “faith” which holds the exact opposite position — that you both accept a belief without demonstration of its accuracy and that you hold onto it in the face of evidence to the contrary.

    If this is the “faith” of science you are talking about, this is a HUGE semantic difference. You are using the same word to describe two different, and opposite, concepts.

    On top of that, you refer to this as a difference of opinion. That is not true. Language is a limiting factor in definitions and usage, and people can disagree on those, but the concepts behind religious “faith” and any “faith” you might attribute to science are fundamentally different in concept to begin with. That’s not a matter of opinion any more than saying whether or not the Sun and the Moon are the same thing is a matter of opinion. Definitions and semantics can get in the way, but conceptual they are incompatible. It’s not a matter of my opinion, authority, or otherwise in the definition of “science” and “religious faith”. It is the concepts behind both that are fundamentally different. That is why I say that science can itself be defined as a complete lack of “faith”. The more faith you remove, the closer you are to the concept of science.

  31. With regard to the David / Thony problem I can’t resist further stirring the pot.

    David says

    “I believe in truth.”

    Thony says

    “… ‘truth’ [is] a concept that plays no role in modern concepts of scientific methodology.”

    I will have to side with Thony on this one – no where in the [peer-reviewed] scientific literature will one find a reference to “the truth” as a stand-alone concept. “The truth is that 2+2=4” – is just another way of stating a fact. David’s use of the word “truth” is in fact nebulous and unique to religious ways of speaking.

    David says
    “I am talking about faith. This word apparently has a far different meaning for you than for me.”

    Yes and no. I think we all believe (have faith) that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. This usage is clear: we are referring to a prediction based on past observation and our knowledge of Newtonian physics. The other kind of faith, as in “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body”, is completely and utterly of a different character, since it is explicitly _not_ based on past observation or on any independently testable means (such as the scientific method) for separating fact from fiction.

    Everyone knows this, but for some reason certain flavors of religious people continue to make statements such as

    “They have faith in their predictions.”,

    referring to scientists. This is not the same kind of faith as religious faith at all.

    After years contemplating this (being a scientist myself), I have come to the conclusion that religion and science are by a large mutually exclusive.

  32. An interesting fact about science that most people ignore or overlook, is that science doesn’t explain things: It makes working models to fit the facts and correlates them. The models are not explanations of what is really happening, contrary to popular beliefs, they are working prediction models.

  33. I may have mentioned before, and don’t want to repeat, my meta-claim that there are 5 non-overlapping magesteria, each of which has a paradigm of “truth” and a paradigm of “proof.”

    The two at issue here (leaving aside for now Legal-political; aesthetic; and revealed/religious) are Axiomatic Truth and Empirical Truth.

    Mathematics does make claims to absolute truth, in the Axiomatic magesterium.

    Science (including Physics) does not. Science (properly) makes limited, temporary, partial, conditional claims, contingent on experiment design, experiment execution, instrumentation, noise, error, data analysis, interpretation, and the feedback mechanisms of The Scientific method.

    When I was a boy, the Noble Gases could not form compounds; Pluto was a planet (and the most distant); the role of DNA in heredity was mere hypothesis; there had only ever been once species of humans; Mars had always been cold and dry; nobody considered building machines nor computers at the nanometer scale; computers were classical (nobody thought of making them quantum); spaceflight was the domain of Science Fiction, despite those troublesome Tsiolkovski, Goddard, von Braun, and Clarke fellows; extraterrestrial intelligence was purely the domain of science fiction (and woe to the scientist who discussed it in public); the cosmos was smoothly expanding; and venereal disease could be easily avoided or treated.

    Ahhh, the Good Old Days.

    Firesign Theatre released in October of 1974, on Columbia Records, a comedy album entitled: “Everything You Know Is Wrong.”

    As wikipedia reminds me, after it was recorded, a movie version was made, with the group lip-syncing to the album. The cinematographer for this was Allen Daviau, who later filmed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The film was released on a VHS format videotape in 1993 by The Firesign Theatre. (UPC barcode 735885 100131. Currently available from
    the Lodestone Catalog / SKU# MSUG001.)

    Two of the characters introduced on this album, Ray Hamburger (pronounced Ham-ber-jer’) and Harold Hiphugger, reappear on the group’s later album “Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death.”

    The “Official stolen government training film of the secret plan to deal with an alien uprising” is a parody of, among other things: General Curtis LeMay’s statement that the Communists of North Vietnam should be “bombed back to the stone age”. LeMay is also noteworthy for having furiously informed Barry Goldwater that he was not permitted to access rumored secret UFO information supposedly being kept at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, leading UFO-philes to suspect that LeMay knew of the existence of alien spacecraft and was hiding information related to First Contact. The album’s title was appropriated by Russ Kick for a collection of writings for his Disinfo series.

    The more that I read, study, research, and teach, the more I suspect that, indeed, “Everything I Know Is Wrong.”

  34. Chad says,

    Science is a process, not a collection of facts … I don’t understand microbiology, because I haven’t been trained in those facts …

    Maybe Chad should read his writing?

    There are two sciences, the normal one, chemistry, physics, etc., and the process, scientific thinking. They are both hard. The former because it is difficult and the latter because we are unwilling.

    My comments are here.


  35. Yeah, David is a tool – he’s obviously trolling. It’s apparent he’s familiar with the ongoing contextual discussions re science vs. religion and is “stirring the pot”. But some interesting stuff came out of the woodwork. I’m going to throw out my observation and see what people think of it. It’s not any attempt to put science on an equal footing with religion; it’s more an attempt to discover if one can *really* separate philosophy from science; I don’t think so, personally.

    As a scientist, one obviously does not completely re-create the prior science. You start close to where “we” are at. You also don’t re-create every experiment that is published in the journals. One counts on the perspicacity of oneself and one’s peers to review the publication and spot obvious failures. You count on historical exposure to have unmasked most egregious inaccuracies (or at least out-and-out deception).

    In other words, science appears to be like a PKI – it has a ‘web of trust’ architecture, that we have to trust in. We have to believe that those we collaborate with actually do follow the same basic philosophical process we do in acquiring data. A failure of that ‘web of trust’ cripples the entire architecture because every one of us has to backtrace every prior conclusion, perform every relevant experiment, conduct every relevant study, etc.

    But the defining difference, as I see it, between a religious claim taken on faith, and a scientific claim taken on the value of the ‘web of trust’ is that we could, technically, personally study and re-create any previous or current claim that is published in the spirit of the philosophy of science one might subscribe (or at lease aspire) to.

  36. LOL. Just realized that Chad (above) discussed the same point. But I didn’t see much feedback discussing that point.

  37. My suggestion:

    4′. Science is a community.

    Everyone does steps 1-3 some of the time. From a hunter-gatherer trying to track an animal to a programmer trying to fix a computer creates theories and tests them. But in the last three hundred years or so, the scientific community, with the goal of trusting only tested ideas and freely sharing all discoveries, has accumulated more knowledge about the natural world than had been discovered in all of previous history.


    Modern science has during its three centuries of constant struggle made a number of discoveries, as established facts and as hypotheses and our philosophers have placed their interpretations on them. Yet out of various probable lines of interpretations, the philosophers have assumed a line that evidently appears as the echo of the doctrinal implications of early Greek Atomism, implications that are basically atheistic and exact antithesis of the doctrines of revealed religion. Science has discovered that (a) our home, this earth is incredibly small in comparison to the unimaginably vast-universe- around it. (b) life could exist only in zones that are utterly insignificant against the immensely vast regions of the universe incapable of producing life. (c) life can only exist on the planets like earth and such planets are a rarity. From these facts our philosophers have argued that this universe could not have been designed primarily to produce life like our own. Had it been so, a better proportion between the magnitude of the mechanism and the amount of the product could have been expected. At first glance, at least, they say, life appeared as unimportant by product. We living things were somehow off the main line, they thought.
    Although the early Greek Atomists did not hint at this point, yet the line of the argument of our philosophers follow the same trace. The point of the insignificance of earth and life upon it will deprive man of his position of special honour on earth and in the creation, and will throw away life from its position of honour in the sight of the Creator, and will thus strike at the doctrine of trial, purpose, resurrection and all the religious doctrines. It has to be observed that religion itself has assigned a very low place to the life in this world. But it has done so against the eternal life of the next world for which the sacrifice of this transient life is desirable. But what a difference exists between the two similar approaches to the same question. Our philosophers and the religion both regard this life insignificant. Yet our philosophers strike at the very root of religion by calling the life insignificant, while religion strikes at the root of atheism by calling this life insignificant.
    Science has discovered that Physics played an incomparably great part in the Universe than Biology. From this our philosophers have inferred that unless the Creator were not a magnified man—like being activated by feelings and interests like our own, it were hard to believe that life could from a special interest of the great architect of the universe judging from the utter insignificance of life. If then life were so insignificant in the sight of the Creator, all the doctrinal structure of revealed religion, man’s vicergency, trial, purpose, resurrection would stumble down and disappear. A sailor who is capable of forming al ink between the process of tying the knots and the design of the Creator of the universe is in the sight of our philosophers a fellow totally devoid of the faculty of imagination, while monkeys strumming on a type-writer unintelligently were likely to work wonders. Plato or Aristotle would have wondered at such a philosophy appearing in an age in which man’s knowledge were regarded to have reached its utmost pinnacles Our philosophers have discovered this universe as indifferent to life, so that emotion, ambition, and achievement, art and religion all were foreign to its plan. For the most part empty space was very cold, and most of the matter was extremely hot. Space was traversed, and astronomical bodies constantly bombarded by radiation of a variety of kinds much of which is probably inimical to, or even destructive of life. And so our philosophers have regarded the universes as actively hostile to life like our own. They have neglected the religious doctrine of man’s trial, this world according to religion being a house of trial full of afflictions. Our philosophers, however, have regretted the mistake of man’s stumbling into such a universe. How dearly it has to be wished, that the philosophers and the scientists were half as enthusiastic in describing the horrors of atomic war and atomic radiations. Our philosophers have regarded the appearance of life on earth as accidental. If monkeys strumming unintelligently on typewriters infinitely could accidentally produce a book, why then the millions of millions of stars wandering blindly in space for millions of millions of years could not meet with every kind accident including a kind which calls planetary systems into being, and is fit for producing life. How our philosophers have come to such a conclusion is known only to themselves, for, science has hitherto made no discovery in the light of which the accidental nature of the appearance of life could be confirmed. No, but perhaps it is by the force of habit that our philosophers have hit upon a conclusion which at once carries away with it the entire galaxy of the religious doctrines, design, purpose, trial, divine government of the world, resurrection, judgment and life in heaven, and is the reflection of fortuitous of atoms.
    Our philosophers have spoken against the evidence of science, after science has shown that atoms are arranged in a living cell in a particular manner and according to a fixed design. Yet our philosophers have suspected, that it is in a blind play of chance that the atoms might have found themselves arranged in a manner in which they are arranged in a living cell. Here the old idea of the fortuitous concourse of atoms evidently appears at play. The only point in which our philosophers have differed from the views of ancient atomism is that of the destructibility of the universe and has anticipated the end of life through either heat-death or some celestial collision or cataclysm. But here too they have regarded the event as final. Nothing of the resurrection is said or alluded to. In fact science could give no guidance in this matter. Yet it is a fundamental doctrine of religion. As far as the question of the purpose of man’s existence is concerned, the philosophers have experienced nothing but increased be bewilderment. How it is wished that Sir James Jeans had after writing his ” Mysterious Universe” in 1930, written ” A manifest threat to the Mysterious Universe”, in 1945, alluding to the atomic threat. What a picture would Sir James Jeans have drawn of this most burning topic due to his great ability and particular talent.
    As far as the Quran is concerned, it will be seen to stand-in direct opposition to these ethical philosophic views of the philosophers. It denies accidental nature of creation and asserts a complete design and full control of the Creator, and ascribes a particular purpose to man’s existence, and teaches resurrection, and assigns a special place to earth in creation, and declares man as a creature that maintains a place of special interest in the sight of the Creator of this creation.
    Dear sir,
    Kindly publish this article on your website please.
    Allama Yousuf Gabriel Idara Tasnifate Gabriel
    Nawababad Wah Cantt Distt Rawalpindi

  39. Science simply is the factual brother of philosophy – nothing more nothing less. Science seeks “empirical evidence”, philosophy springs forth abstract thoughts. At the cutting edge of science, scientists do make assumptions but they again are factual assumptions.
    Every religious quote can be twisted to whatever you may want to think they say, but knowledge is not static and we have come much farther than we have 3000 or even 300 years ago. Agreed there are still things that are unknown to science but hey what’s life without a few unknowns for us to go after..

  40. Yes, there are many unknowns remaining to be investigated by the scientific method. A question I have though is are there any phenomenon in our universe which even in principle would not be amenable to investigation by the scientific method of inquiry.

Comments are closed.