Reason for a New Age

The Scientific Method

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/02/13


As I stated in Paper, when the production of paper began in the Islamic territories, there was the Islamic Golden Age. The importance of this time and place is–or at least was in my education–overlooked by modern society.

Over 500 years before the Islamic Golden Age had begun there was Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and all the other geniuses of Ancient Greece. But, for being geniuses, these men had had a problem. Most illustrative is the case of falling weights. Aristotle had decided that if one were to drop weights of different mass, the heavier one would fall faster. If it is twice as heavy, it will fall twice as fast. This decision remained as the official decision on this matter until Galileo, 2000 years later.

The problem with the Greek philosophers is that if something sounded plausible….

Actually, let me restate that: The problem with people is that if we come up with an idea and we like our idea, unless someone challenges us on it, we’re just as likely to parade it about as the truth. Sometimes we go on to actually make a stab at proving our idea to ourselves, but just as often we don’t. When it came to math, the Greeks tended to be quite good at making sure that their formulas actually worked. For most other things, though, they were quite happy to simply make stuff up and then gather around 20 or 40 boys and tell them all the things they had made up, without explaining that these were just things they had made up. So the boys wrote it down as fact, and the world believed odd things for millenia to follow.

With the introduction of paper, however, it is far more likely for one genius to encounter the random blather of another genius, and actually call him out on the things he had said. Knowing that he himself might have to actually survive scrutiny, he is also far less likely to send out his own blatherings far and wide until he has made at least some effort to prove what he said.

One might say that Leonardo da Vinci is mostly famous as an inventor because we are looking at his personal notes which he never planned to show to anyone else; he was sufficiently confident that he had no idea what he was talking about. And so we end up with thousands of doodles of random things that were entirely impossible. There may have been any other number of men at the same time who had come up with helicopters and scuba tanks and other such things but, knowing it was physically impossible with the materials and production methods of the time, had simply ignored these ideas and spent their free time working on things with more plausibility. Or perhaps they doodled these ideas down as well, but their notes were lost where as da Vinci’s lasted through the years.

It might not be quite as entertaining to rein in your geniuses, making them deal with the questions that are pertinent to modern times and solvable with modern methods, and certainly even they would rather be free to conjure up fanciful creations, but for practical reasons we are much better when we call our bright minds out when they are spouting off science fiction and fantasy.

Once they are forced to prove themselves, then the question becomes how.

The first man to put thought to this question and publicize his method was a man named Ibn al-Haytham (often called simply Alhazen), a scientist who was principally interested in optics, though he busied himself in many other pursuits.

A simple statement of the Scientific Method is as follows:

1. Use your experience: Consider the problem and try to make sense of it. Look for previous explanations. If this is a new problem to you, then move to step 2.

2. Form a conjecture: When nothing else is yet known, try to state an explanation, to someone else, or to your notebook.

3. Deduce a prediction from that explanation: If you assume 2 is true, what consequences follow?

4. Test: Look for the opposite of each consequence in order to disprove 2. It is a logical error to seek 3 directly as proof of 2. This error is called affirming the consequent.

But, this is a very simplistic view of how science actually works. While a good guideline for personal, original work, the real world imposes more rules upon a scientist.

Alhazen wrote of one of these:

Truth is sought for its own sake … Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough. For the truths are plunged in obscurity. … God, however, has not preserved the scientist from error and has not safeguarded science from shortcomings and faults. If this had been the case, scientists would not have disagreed upon any point of science…

Therefore, the seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.

That is to say, read what others have proposed and theorized, and attack it.

Even ignoring a fundamental dislike of proving ourselves wrong–which can lead to errors of cognitive bias–we are also limited to our own imagination. Say that I observe that the children of single parents are more likely to commit crimes than the children of dual parents. I look up the actual figures, confirming this fact. And so I publish a paper saying that single parents have difficulty raising a socially healthy child. But now one of my peers reads this, and he thinks to himself that single parents generally have a low income and that the children of low income families often turn to crime. He looks up numbers and discovers that the children of single parents are no more likely to commit a crime than the children of dual parents, if the parents are of the same income bracket. (Note that this was an example only. I do not know the true answer.)

I did follow the scientific method, and it was good of me to do so, but that doesn’t mean that I will always think of all of the other possible explanations. But notice that if people had simply accepted what I had stated as “fact”, you might suggest legislation to the effect that single parents can’t adopt nor bring babies to term. If you accept my peer’s correction, then you’d prefer legislation which said that the poor couldn’t adopt nor bring babies to term, and single, wealthy parents would be perfectly free to do as they prefered.

There’s also always the chance when you do an experiment, that regardless of having had a perfect methodology and having thought of all of the alternatives, that you will still be wrong. You might not have had a very big sample size and ended up with a non-representative group; you might have accidentally forgotten to carry the 2 in some mathematical calculation. In the one case, you weren’t wrong so much as that the margin for error is too wide to allow for anything to be called “conclusive”, but in the other you are dead-on wrong.

In real science, others need to be able to replicate your work. If your methodology seems valid to someone else, but he doesn’t agree with your results, he should be able to do the same exact test as you and come to the same result as you did. If he does, then he must consider changing his opinion or in figuring out the flaw in your methodology (if it is to be found). If he doesn’t, then the issue is up for further tests by others–it might be the second fellow who made an error in his testing.

The profession of a scientist is in believing everything that they know, everything that they have read, and everything that they think as being probably completely wrong. They must think of why it might not be, and how to show that it isn’t. And even for all of that, after thousands of scientists have all worked over some point of physics and come up with theories that seem correct, it’s still always possible that one guy will come along with the one idea that no one else ever had, and prove hundreds or thousands of years of science as being incorrect.

A thing to note, though, is that even when something is proven wrong, this often doesn’t make everything known before useless. Science is an iterative process, slowly chipping away at imperfections. But for every bit chipped off, there are smaller imperfections all around the indent. As a whole, you have created a more perfect object, but you might possibly never achieve a 100% completed version.

Take for example that we have a space ship. This ship is traveling at 2/3rds the speed of light. It shoots out a bullet at 2/3rds the speed of light. According to Newtonian physics, you would have a bullet that is traveling  1 1/3rd the speed of light. According to Einstein, it will actually be traveling something more like 0.9 times the speed of light. Newton was, so far as we can tell, wrong. But, for purposes that aren’t anywhere near the speed of light, you can barely tell the difference between Einstein’s or Newton’s math. Saying that Newton was wrong is somewhat simplistic. It’s perfectly right, for a certain margin of error. Einstein simply provided a tool for even smaller margins of error. Someone might eventually come along and show that even Einsteinian relativity is wrong for particular levels of precision. Science is an iterative process of coming closer and closer to reality. Anything that’s become generally accepted is probably a decent model, even if it’s not the best. Overturning it means that something more precise has been found, not that the old was entirely wrong.

For instance, it may have been right that single parents are perfectly okay parents, but keeping them from adopting would have still prevented criminals. You would have had a greater effect, with less waste, by coming down on the poor, but you will still have achieved something.

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