Monday, November 9, 2009

Scientific Method

The term "Scientific Method" refers to a specific procedure for acquiring knowledge. It has been around since the 17th century.

Scientific Method consists of systematic observation and measurement, and the formulation, testing and modification of hypotheses.

The above is from a dictionary. The following are my personal conclusions from the above definition.

1. There is only one reality: that which is true.

2. If we THINK something is true, but it is not REALLY true, our thinking it is true doesn't make it "our" reality; it is simply something that is untrue. Remember that it was once thought "obvious" that the sun moved around the earth each day.

3. A good scientist must not allow himself to be unduly influenced by outside opinions, even if those opinions come from well known and well-respected people; even from other scientists. A good scientist will accept as fact - as truth, as reality - only things which are provable by observation, testing, measurement or by producing an unassailable formula. Even then, a good scientist would want to continue to question his conclusions.

4. When gathering information, a good scientist will ALWAYS be skeptical of the source of the information. He will ask himself, "What is the background of the person or institution who is presenting this information? Are they scientifically neutral, or do they have a personal position to defend, or an agenda to promote? Do they have anything to gain by putting out false information?"

Here are some examples of invalid sources, in my opinion.

1. In the days of widespread cigarette smoking, the tobacco industries were presenting "arguments" that smoking wasn't harmful to a smoker's health. No good scientist who was investigating the effects on the human body from smoking cigarettes would (or never should have) EVER given much weight to statements made by these obviously biased institutions and individuals. The same holds true for individuals and institutions who would obviously benefit from the reverse being true, whatever it was. Neutrality is needed for the truth to emerge.

2. In these days, much is being said about "Global Warming" or "Climate Change". A good scientist would NEVER give huge weight to statements made by oil companies or people who stand to benefit by keeping the status quo. The reverse is also true in this case as well: people who stand to realize some sort of financial or other non-altruistic benefit from proving there IS global warming, need to be suspect until their information is proven.

More to follow. I stop for the sake of brevity. I am only laying foundations today.


Sheila said...

So far, so good. I can't argue with anything there. Yet.

Stephanie B said...

(1) There is only one reality. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what it is other than through our perceptions (which are limited).

(2) Our perceptions determine what we think reality is. It has no effect on the actuality of reality, but, unfortunately, there is no absolute benchmark for positively distinguishing truth or the appearance of truth because of those perceptual limits. The unknowns preclude proving most things, even things generally accepted by the most knowledgeable as definitively reality (which is why scientists use the term "theory" even for such things that are readily demonstrable, like plate tectonics). However, we can also determine some things that are patently false as what objective data is available can disprove things even if the unknowns preclude proving things. For example, we can demonstrably prove that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

(3) True, to a point, and that point is public good. It the conclusion is of academic interest only, gathering facts indefinitely without making a conclusion is acceptable (unless you want to get tenure). However, if the preponderance (or even trending) of data indicates significant implications to the public, a scientist is negligent if he or she refuses to voice concerns. If I have indications a volcano will soon erupt and I say nothing because there's a chance I'm wrong, people could die. When people's lives are at risk or even considerable expense, and data indicates risk, scientists must ethically raise the alarm especially when time is of the essence. (In other words, don't wait for multiple readings on a possible tsunami initiation event).

On that last point, scientists can't win. If we raise the alarm and nothing happens, we're alarmists. If we wait for data and people die, we not only have their deaths on our conscience but we are massacred by the press. Even if we're right, if the implications are less because of our warnings, it becomes a reason to discount our future predictions (It wasn't nearly as damaging as they said it was). I've seen this first hand many time - my father worked for EPA.

(4) There's a difference between being skeptical and dismissing out of hand. Being skeptical means you reserve judgment until it can be verified with objective data. In the end, even if your source is impeccable, the data should drive the answer. Always. Even the biggest assholes in history have occasionally spouted the truth. In NASA's mission evaluation room, there is a saying: "In God we trust. All others bring data."

1. Agreed, though you should have to provide data to back the notion that inhaling smoke on purpose isn't harmful. I mean, duh!

2. The vast majority of those who are complaining about global warming not only have nothing to gain with their opinion (scientists), many have put their jobs at risk to sound the warning while working for organizations that want the status quo, and that is just as compelling a reason to listen as to discount the paid talking heads.

Sage said...

I like it Max it shows an interesting perspective on scientists... is it backed by any research data? just kidding my friend xx

soubriquet said...

There is only one reality?
I'm not sure what Schroedinger's cat would say to that.

As for "In God we trust", I'd point out that if I trusted in god, and stepped out of an aeroplane at considerable altitude, I'd have a much smaller chance than an atheist with a parachute.

An illustration of Stephanie's scientists dilemma was the sacking of Professor Nutt, britain's chief scientific adviser on drugs.
In a paper in a scientific journal, he suggested that the outcry against the recreational drug known as ecstasy was statistically irrational, and gave a counter argument about something he named "Equasy". "Equasy" is to blame, in britain, for up to ten deaths per year, and about a hundred serious road traffic casualties.
Ecstasy kills about two...
Should, therefore, "equasy" users be subject to harsh penalties?
Should they be jailed?
Should there be treatment programs?
What is "equasy"?.
Equasy is horse-riding.

What he was talking about was how we perceive risk, how we define unacceptable behaviours.
And the fact that the occasional user of ecstacy, or of cannabis, is statistically less likely to be severely harmed or killed, in any one year, than a horse-rider, or a sportsperson, or a cyclist.
Yet these activities are seen as desirable and "healthy".
Of course, the tabloid newspapers had a great time deliberately failing to get the point... "Nutty Professor calls for ban on horse-riding!".

Relax Max said...

@Sheila - So far, huh? That sounds like you are just waiting in the wings to attack!

@Stephanie B - Well, I guess. I wasn't meaning to get quite so deep and philosophical. I was only trying to lay the groundwork of how to logically analyze what is fact or not. I think if you can see it walk and quack, it's ok to call it a duck. I didn't mean to set the bar so high right now. More later.

@Sage - Sage! A troublemaker! I would never have suspected! :) :)

@Soubriquet - How can I counter arguments like yours and Stephanie's? Not possible.

But I would say the reality of "In God We Trust" is only that those words appear on our money. And it also reminds me of a sign you see from time to time in U.S. restaurants by the cash register: "In God We Trust. All others must pay cash."

Stephanie B said...

What a lovely set up your response was.

With regards to "walk like a duck, quack like a duck," you make my point wonderfully. It may feel like a cat to a blind man, but so might a rat on one's lap.

All of our perceptions are limited by our available means of gathering data. Prior to Gallileo it was taken as "fact" that weightier things fall/accelerate faster than light things as readily evidenced by feathers vs. rocks. Gallileo demonstrated differently and, in fact, the difference was not a difference in the acceleration of gravity, but in the forces opposing it (air resistance).

Aristotle believed lakes spontaneously created life because he saw a lake, dried up, fill up with water and, surprise, forms of life. But he was still wrong.

Naturally, today, our forms of detection and perception are far in advance of those in centuries gone by. Someone who was at the wrong place at the right time, who in the past would have been automatically considered guilty, can be exonerated via DNA. Our understanding of the make-up and dynamics of the earth, the air, water and even fire are far and away beyond what Gallileo ever imagined. And we are more systematic and rigorous in the data we accept as a result, and our conclusions require vetting by disinterested parties with similar backgrounds.

But it's still limited. No one's ever seen an atom directly or a quark. We are reduced to deducing reality on those aspects that are, by the way, quite counterintuitive to classical physics, using traces of where something has been or how it's behaved rather than what we can observe. Scientists are well aware of the limitation of our readings and data, the models built on assumptions that must be challenged periodically or they will lose all relevance.

Let me give you an example of objective data. Things we've already seen on Global Warming: unprecendented loss of glaciers (many of which feed rivers that support literally billions of people), Greenland ice cap (which can affect ocean levels), Antarctic ice loss (ditto), Arctic ice (which doesn't affect ocean levels but isn't a good sign). We've detected a distinct change in global temperature (and I'm not talking about your thermometer outside, I'm talking about average temperatures world wide that tell you how much more energy is staying with the earth than used to stay - and, yes, going up - on average) and changes in atmospheric dynamics. There is unmistakable data showing the effects of ocean acidification (which is a side effect of oceans absorbing carbon), particularly coral bleaching. Loss of coral has a huge impact on ocean life dynamics and also a huge impact on many of the poorest parts of the world. Several of our tropical cyclones are larger, more devastating than they've been since the "Great" Hurricane of 1780. And they've journeyed to unprecedented places like Europe and the Middle East.

I can't tell you for a "fact" that man-driven changes in atmospheric carbon make all that so or mean that it only gets worse from here as we continue with our thoughtless wasteful ways.

But it's sure as hell walking and quacking like it is. Thanks for giving us leave to call it as we see it. :)

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