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The Philosophy of Science

June 4th, 2010 · No Comments · Philosophy of Science

Since I have lots of work to do and assignments due I’ve decided now is the perfect time to play around with my blog and publish a couple of articles that I wrote for Chaff about SCIENCE! Well maybe science rather than SCIENCE! But what you gonna do? Anyway with apologies to Dr Ngaio Beausoleil and Dr David Gray I present for your reading uhhhhhm pleasure-ish;

The Philosophy of Science

Or, My Argument is So Powerful. © 2010 The Extraordinary Rick Giles Inc.

Science is ridged, science is fixed and immutable, science is absolute.

Science is the Truth.

This was how I viewed science all through my days at high school. I would go to my physics class or my chemistry class (don’t ask me about biology – biology is not a science, so there) and I would learn the laws of science. “This is how things work and this is why they work, don’t question it, these are the laws and must be obeyed.”

During my undergrad years things got a little fuzzy – statements like “in these cases” or “with these exceptions” started showing up around science’s nice solid laws. Quantum theory stuck its head in to say “Hi, here’s some uncertainty. HOW DO YOU LIKE THESE APPLES?” (Quantum theory doesn’t have an inside voice). The ground started to feel a little shaky under my feet but was still solid enough to stand on. “That’s ok,” I thought, “I can work with that.”

Then I started my postgrad this year and one of the first things I learnt was this:

Science is based on lies.

LIES? Lies, you say? How can this be true? No, no – they’re laws, that’s the way it works, there are laws and they are unbreakable. (Actually, maybe using the word “lies” is a bit harsh; let’s use the word “theories” so that people don’t get scared. “Hey! I’ve got a new theory!” sounds so much better than “Hey! I’ve got a new lie!” but basically I’m still going to tell you a theory is a lie.)

Why are theories lies? For that we need to look at the problem of induction. Induction is the process whereby theories are created, facts are observed and from these observations a theory is inferred. For example, Isaac Netwon is sitting under a tree and an apple falls on his head. He has observed other apples falling in the past and therefore infers that apples will fall in the future – and that there must be some kind of force that causes these apples to fall. In this moment of scientific legend, a man who should really know better than to sit under apple trees has used induction to develop the theory of gravity.

Which sounds fair enough. I’ve seen apples fall too, and the theory of gravity is patently awesome. The problem is this: has Mr Newton observed every single apple falling? And not just every current apple, but every previous apple that has ever existed, and every future apple that will ever exist? No, of course not. That’s impossible and stupid, but nonetheless the limitations of his observation mean he cannot say 100% that it has and will always happen that way. What if apples start falling up, or build tiny helicopters, or it turns out the apples were always falling up and the rest of the world was in fact upside down? That gravity is in fact a multitude of space gnomes with fishing rods who like moving apples about? This is the problem of induction, induction can only be based on what has been previously observed. (It is also the problem with space gnomes, who should really get a real job and do something with their lives.)

Time for a new example: Once upon a time it was thought that swans could only be white because people (well, people from Europe. People from other countries didn’t count at that point) had only ever seen white swans. Then a bunch of explorers showed up with a black swan. SHOCK!

“It’s false! They’ve dyed a white swan black”

“No, it’s just a breeding abnormality, like that calf I saw with six legs”

“No no, it’s obviously not a swan, it’s some other variety of bird”

“Well whatever it is doesn’t matter because all swans are white”

How wrong they were, more and more black swans started showing up till the tipping point was reached and nowadays we know swans can be black, grey and in at least one case, fluorescent pink. Though from the pink graffiti decrying “Jason luvs da cock” on the wall next to the pond, and the empty cans of spray paint I inferred possible outside forces at play there. See? Yet another case of induction! Did I see a bunch of kids spray paint a swan pink? No, but in the past I’ve seen kids do dumb stuff and can assume that they will continue to do dumb stuff right now and in the future.

That’s kind of the heart of the issue: we have observed something happening and we “assume” that it will happen in the future, but is an assumption the truth? Not in my book. So scientists call these lies “theories” and work with them, mainly because otherwise we’d all be spinning meaningless in the void. (And it would be difficult to publish.)

Happily though, we can counter the problem of induction with that helpful little fellow deduction. As stated, the problem with induction is that there is no way we can 100% prove a theory. On the other hand it is perfectly possible to disprove one. Look at the white swan/black swan example; we couldn’t prove the theory that all swans are white because we could not possibly observe every single swan that exists or will exist, but a bunch of black swans showing up sure as hell disproves it. We can do a similar trick with any valid theory; we can run experiments that either upholds the theory, adding to its credibility, or the theory fails the test and is disproven.

So this process of testing theories is called deduction. The normal way it works is that a prediction based on a theory is made – eg. “According to the theory of gravity, if I let this apple go it will fall and hit the ground.” Then an experiment is run – we let go of the apple. If it falls, sweet, the theory is upheld. Hooray for the theory of gravity! But what if the apple didn’t fall? Is the theory wrong? Maybe…in any case it’s most definitely time to pull out the questions marks and look really hard at that theory. Can we accept this failure as an exception to the rule? Or is it the straw that breaks the camel’s back? Is it time for a new theory?

Then we can get into some real fun territory. Even if a theory is disproved we may still run with it because, basically, hey, it’s the best we’ve got.  Time to pull out my favourite example.*

Anyone who has done physics or chemistry (but not crappy biology) knows the Bohr model of the atom. Nucleus in the middle, electrons wizzing around it. This model was disproven yonks ago, as electrons moving in circular orbits would constantly be under acceleration and lose energy so rapidly that the universe would lasted for approximately 10e-8 seconds. But the Bohr model works in so many cases and is so simple to understand that it is still used today even though there is now a better theory (Quantum theory) to replace it.

So, just to make things super clear, here’s a summary of how the process of science actually works:

A scientist watches some stuff and thinks to himself “I reckon this will explain that”. They then presents this idea and other scientists throw shit at it. If it doesn’t fall over everyone then acts like it’s the truth until a new and shinier lie comes along.

That’s science and I think I’m in love.

* Shield your eyes! – Ed.

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