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Science and the Universe Science, scientific theories, and how they impact our view of the world and existence.

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Old 06-19-2009, 12:43 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Debate on Science

I often feel in my interactions here that science is misunderstood by many. Some seem to see it as a theology in its own right. I strongly disagree. To me science is a methodology or a process.

To get a debate going I paste below statements from three scientists that give a brief description of what science means to them. I look forward to hearing what science means to you.

ON SCIENCE

CHOMSKY: Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. The reason why physics can achieve such depth is that it restricts itself to extremely simple things, abstracted from the complexity of the world. As soon as an atom gets too complicated, maybe helium, they hand it over to chemists. When problems become too complicated for chemists, they hand it over to biologists. Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on. But it’s a complicated matter: Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.

KRAUSS: It is absolutely true that science relies on extreme simplifications in order to be effective. The more “basic” the science, the easier it is to isolate the key questions and investigate them. I have often said that I chose to be a physicist because biology was way too complicated.
As a result, as one moves from physics, to chemistry, to biology, to social science, the ability to isolate questions, and provide definitive answers becomes progressively more difficult. But I think I would say that science is based on being able to address difficult questions and find simple answers.
Moreover, I disagree that whenever one is at the edge of understanding, things appear far from simple. They are only simple after one understands them. It may be true understanding that human affairs may be yet far more complicated than, say, quantum gravity, but that doesn’t change the fact that the edge of understanding in science is always confusing until a good theory has been developed.

CARROLL: When Galileo first realized that he could understand motion by considering idealized situations without friction or air resistance, he set modern science in motion. The real world is a complicated, messy place, and there are many interesting questions about which contemporary science has little to say. However, anyone who has watched a television or gone to a hospital should know that science has nevertheless managed to have a substantial impact on our lives.

From: Science in the Dock, Discussion with Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss & Sean M. Carroll
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Old 06-19-2009, 01:27 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

"Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on."

- Chomsky thinks history is a science? Or at what point does his passing over go from science to non-science?

(just so you know I read it )

There's clearly a time and a place for science, Null hypothesis and all that, or else how else could I watch crap TV and drive to the shops.

I still find Kuhn alluring...

  1. A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs.
    1. These beliefs form the foundation of the "educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice".
    2. The nature of the "rigorous and rigid" preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs exert a "deep hold" on the student's mind.
  2. Normal science "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" —scientists take great pains to defend that assumption.
  3. To this end, "normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments".
  4. Research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education"
Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions - outline


...makes them sound like a bunch of religious nutters!

s.
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Old 06-19-2009, 01:44 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Let's take a look at the best science of the day... 2000 years ago...were their scientists...or folks that claimed science (or some such similar elitist notion of we know better than the rest of ya, and held themselves above the religous nature?)

I think there were, they may have called themselves diffently...but they studied nature and astronomy from a scientific perspective.

Where were their ideas 1500 years ago...abolished by the new scientific regime.

And doesn't that happen every 500 years..."Yeah back then they were trying, but they didn't know what they were doing"

And didn't these scientific discoveries lead to medicine and first do no harm as we stick our dirty hands in your belly??

So 500 years from now, does anyone imagine that what our esteemed colleagues the elite we know better than those G!d people scientists will be looked upon just as ignorant as every 500 year increment??

(since I can't keep up with the hi-faluten discussions)
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Old 06-19-2009, 02:15 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Snoopy View Post

- Chomsky thinks history is a science? Or at what point does his passing over go from science to non-science?
I presume he means anthropologists.

Quote:
I still find Kuhn alluring...

  1. A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs.
    1. These beliefs form the foundation of the "educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice".
    2. The nature of the "rigorous and rigid" preparation helps ensure that the received beliefs exert a "deep hold" on the student's mind.
  2. Normal science "is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" —scientists take great pains to defend that assumption.
  3. To this end, "normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments".
  4. Research is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education"
Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions - outline


...makes them sound like a bunch of religious nutters!

s.
Which is his whole effort?
These "received beliefs" he leaves unqualified, as though they were in dispute. But the received belief is the scientific method and is not a belief at all, it is a system or process or methodology. The chain from question to hypothesis to theory to probable fact is a long and meticulous one. It is not a simple 'belief'. It requires evidence that is repeatable to each and every person who looks at it and must withstand that scrutiny to progress through the chain. And even when it makes it to the top of the chain is subject to change in light of new information.

This process does, and should in all cases, have a strong hold on the students mind. You cannot cut corners or else it is no longer credible science. This guy devilishly leads the reader to think that this 'belief' in the process of science is akin to an opinion but it is not an opinion at all. The scientific method is demonstrably excellent at doing good science, it works. That is not a matter of opinion, that is a matter of hard fact.

"is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like" —scientists take great pains to defend that assumption." This is an utter lot of nonsense which I note he makes no effort to qualify.

No 3 too is a lot of bollox. Wherever there is an idea there is a scientist researching it.

No 4 Again is total bollox. Guy needs a slap for that one I think. Science does not try to force... it searches possibilities till it finds answers that fit. It does not force fit. The guy is basically a twat.
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Old 06-19-2009, 02:22 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by wil View Post
Let's take a look at the best science of the day... 2000 years ago...were their scientists...or folks that claimed science (or some such similar elitist notion of we know better than the rest of ya, and held themselves above the religous nature?)

I think there were, they may have called themselves diffently...but they studied nature and astronomy from a scientific perspective.

Where were their ideas 1500 years ago...abolished by the new scientific regime.

And doesn't that happen every 500 years..."Yeah back then they were trying, but they didn't know what they were doing"

And didn't these scientific discoveries lead to medicine and first do no harm as we stick our dirty hands in your belly??

So 500 years from now, does anyone imagine that what our esteemed colleagues the elite we know better than those G!d people scientists will be looked upon just as ignorant as every 500 year increment??

(since I can't keep up with the hi-faluten discussions)
You make it sound like science is the exclusive property of some elite. We all do science all the time as we learn. Science evolves of course, because it is always questioning and looking for better explanations. If we just say 'whats the point - this science will be outdated in the future" then it wont be. It will remain stagnant. The progress of science through different times is a sign that science is healthy.
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Old 06-19-2009, 02:36 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Snoopy View Post
  1. A scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of received beliefs.


...makes them sound like a bunch of religious nutters!
Science develops pet theories which are reflected in publishing trends. Since no one is interested in negative findings, only support for the pet theories has visibility. This leads to a very skewed "scientific" world view.
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Old 06-19-2009, 02:46 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Netti-Netti View Post
Science develops pet theories which are reflected in publishing trends. Since no one is interested in negative findings, only support for the pet theories has visibility. This leads to a very skewed "scientific" world view.
I agree with that. Yet these counter-productive trends in science are the failings of scientists, and for a variety of reasons. They do not impact on the question of what science itself is.
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Old 06-19-2009, 03:38 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tao_Equus View Post
I presume he means anthropologists.
Presume away. He said "historians".


Quote:
Which is his whole effort?
No, it's a brief intro.


Quote:
bollox.
Quote:
bollox. The guy is basically a twat.
And this is the debate that you want? Sorry, this is way above me.

s.
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Old 06-19-2009, 04:00 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Snoopy View Post
Presume away. He said "historians".


No, it's a brief intro.


And this is the debate that you want? Sorry, this is way above me.

s.
lol, come now Snoopy... you really expect me to have much else to say based on that? It is utterly foundationless nonsense. It does not even begin to make sense when analysed.
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Old 06-19-2009, 05:28 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Netti-Netti View Post
Science develops pet theories which are reflected in publishing trends. Since no one is interested in negative findings, only support for the pet theories has visibility. This leads to a very skewed "scientific" world view.
Not necessarily - there's an editorial in this month's New Scientist about a paper either being published in one of the science journals (or about to be) which argues that according to taxonomy, the Orang Utan is man's closest relative - as opposed to the chimpanzee, which is ascertained through genetic analysis.

The New Scientist editorial makes the point that few people will change the view on the relation, as the genetic identification is regarded as stronger.

However, it defends the principle of publishing the report - even though Creationists may use it as evidence that "the theory of evolution is in disarray", precisely because Science is based on scientific method, which means hypotheses and theories need constant testing.

Therefore publishing a study on man's relation with other apes that may appear obviously wrong in fact is the most scientific thing to do, because even a null hypothesis is an essential part of science.
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Old 06-19-2009, 05:36 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

I see science as an approach, a mode of inquiry about the world. As such, it is (ideally) more like a process and suite of methodologies than anything else.

However, because it is humans who do science, and we are social critters, science also develops a sub-culture of its own. This sub-culture has, just as any other culture has, beliefs, core values, social networks, and social sanctions.

This is why I would say all of the commentators are correct, depending on what aspect of science one is looking at.

Tao- just FYI- Kuhn is very widely respected and he has done some of the best work on scientific paradigm shifts as well as science as a culture. His observations do hold true in many regards, explaining why it is that science often progresses quite slowly until a shift occurs (which is a lot like how culture progresses in general). At any rate, your assertions about him would not be taken very seriously by those who study science itself (i.e., those that do the science of science) and reflect more your own biases than your openness to the reality of how science actually works.

I would say that the ideal of science is a process of inquiry through experimentation and unbiased observation. However, this is very rarely possible. As complexity increases, two things often occur. First, experimentation becomes more difficult and more ethically nebulous, rendering more and more of the work from observation of what naturally occurs. Second, humans' cognitive limitations become more apparent as they struggle to collect and analyze complex data, so their cultural frameworks become more and more relevant to their analyses. I would argue that this does not mean that those who study at higher levels of complexity, for example anthropology, are exempt from attempting scientific rigor, but that there must be an attentiveness to one's own bias and worldview, leading to a balance of self-reflexivity and theory so that others understand not only what one's analyses are, but also where they come from. This allows ongoing scientific debate in a way that leads to useful theory despite the necessary subjectivity. I think that the simpler levels of inquiry- physics, chemistry, and the like- could also benefit from some amount of self-reflexive discussion, because culture not only guides analysis, but the types of questions we ask to begin with. Thus, science is permeated with broader cultures and cannot escape it. However, this does not doom it to uselessness or being "the same as" some other form of inquiry, say- mysticism. It is distinct in its ideals even if it is impossible to be fully objective.

Netti points toward other issues within science, that is, that science has itself become a sub-culture and society and therefore has its own systems of politics and power, social sanctions and groupings, and this has very real (and undesireable) impacts to scientists' capacity to approach the ideal science. I think these are problems that are, like most social problems, capable of being solved and will hopefully improve over time. But they are very real problems right now, and so we have to evaluate scientific works with this in mind.
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Old 06-19-2009, 06:05 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Quote:
Originally Posted by Netti-Netti View Post
Science develops pet theories which are reflected in publishing trends. Since no one is interested in negative findings, only support for the pet theories has visibility. This leads to a very skewed "scientific" world view.
That is a very skewed view of science. One would have to ask how we ever made any advances at all if your point was true.

Yet science has advanced, old theories are constantly being improved upon or cast aside.

"Since no one is interested in negative findings, only support for the pet theories has visibility."

This sentence is utter rubbish. Why even go here Netti-Netti? It sounds as if you are harboring a personal grudge.
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Old 06-19-2009, 07:50 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

Netti perhaps overstated the case, but it is a reality that there are several trends in science that limit the ideal form of science from being practiced.

Among them, negative findings rarely get air time because they are boring and often considered a waste of funding. Also, there is a lumping/splitting problem in evolutionary biology in which it is more professionally profitable to find the first example of a new species than the 134th version of a known species. Hence, there is incentive to split species more than may be scientifically reasonable. Also, funding and publications come partly from scientific merit, but also partly from social networking with potential reviewers.

I recently sat in on a panel of people from NIH, CDC, and NSF and they were curious how to get people taking more risks with their grant proposals. I found it an odd question, since the reason many scientists do not take risks with proposals is because high-risk research is often unfunded, since funding agencies want "bang for buck."

There are a lot of politics to how science is actually done in terms of who gets funding successfully, who gets published, and what gets published.

Science still does all kinds of great stuff and is the best mode of inquiry we have for a variety of practical questions. But to act as if it is not also a social and political game is to take the ostrich route. One figures out the game midway through graduate school, at the latest, and while it doesn't mean one eschews scientific rigor, it does mean that to be successful professionally one generally must at least give a nod to the "rules" every so often. This means, minimally, that one forms networks of potential reviewers, which skews the review process in one's favor. And also that one doesn't propose research that doesn't have at least some background chance for success. What I mean is that one asks for funding after one has some indication of likelihood for success based on prior, smaller studies or hunches based on prior studies. This is not exactly how research should work, but it is how it must work to obtain funding, since one is obligated in the proposal to justify the proposed research. I worked as a grant writer in a variety of fields for two years and I found that obtaining funding requires a balance of innovation and "safe" research. You have to appear innovative, but not too innovative or challenging to the existing research. Otherwise, the research is considered too high-risk to be fundable by most mechanisms. This means our research, as scientists, is guided not only by the ideals of scientific inquiry, but also the practical and political considerations of funding organizations and professional networks.
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Old 06-19-2009, 09:05 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

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This means our research, as scientists, is guided not only by the ideals of scientific inquiry, but also the practical and political considerations of funding organizations and professional networks.
You've helped to reveal some of the obstacles that scientists must overcome. However, they are no different from those experienced by artists, writers, musicians, chefs or many other fields.

In all of these arenas most progress or innovation occurs in small steps based on past success. Rock music today is still most likely comprised of electric guitars, synthesizers and drums, virtually unchanged for decades. Artists still apply paint on canvasses with brushes, even though the technique is centuries old. And these are supposed to be our creative innovators!

Scientists are no different. While most scrabble for funding to put food on their table, there are explorers and innovators that push the envelope beyond what is safe and secure. Progress requires both the great leaps and the small steps, the discoveries that open new frontiers and the ones that merely improve on existing ones.
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Old 06-19-2009, 11:08 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: Debate on Science

I entirely concur. But what is interesting is that some, such as Tao, would like to make the case that science is uniquely situated to contribute innovation in a way that is not bound by the same obstacles we find in art and other such modes of inquiry.

I'm pointing out that while science is unique in its approach, it faces the same problems that every other mode of inquiry does in its execution.
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