Science and scientific thinking

I saw this blog link on another page about science and scientific thinking. The author, Chad Orzel, a physics professor at Union College has something things right and others not. I agree with some parts of what he says, but here is my take.

Science is a process, not a collection of facts … Yet, 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 …

Chad is confused about science also. While he is correct in his view that scientific thinking it not different from regular thinking, one must be careful in how the terms are used. The general use of the word “science” refers to the facts and not to the process. When one talks about chemistry or physics, they are talking about the facts, not how those facts came to be. For example, a discussion of gravity is a reference to the phenomena by which an object, if lifted from the surface of the earth and released, will fall back to the surface of the earth. That is a fact and it shows gravity in action. If you were to ask the ‘man on the street’ to determine the velocity of the object when it hit the ground, he might reply, “Oh, I am not good at science.” What he means is that he lacks the skills necessary to do the calculation or to use the mathematical formula to determine what data he needs to acquire and then make use of it for the calculation.

In Chad’s discussion, he does get this right. The skills are not foreign to what ‘the man on the street’ could acquire. What we don’t (and ‘the man on the street’ doesn’t) know is what diligence and time it would tale to get them.

Back to the main point that Chad was addressing. Scientific THINKING is not different from regular thinking (though understanding science is). Scientific thinking is how we view the world, what certainty it has, and how we might predict its future. For this, you do not need to be a scientist. There used to be a program on the radio, “Kids say the darndest things”. The essence of the humor was the incorrect conclusions that can be drawn from someone lacking in knowledge and experience. Ironically, considering ALL possibilities (even ones we think are not possible) can be a great asset to scientific breakthroughs (science in the usual meaning).

When I taught a general science course, I likened scientific thinking to regular thinking with the corresponding words. A law is something we know, a hypothesis is something we think, and without scientific thought is something we believe. I still think this is true. This is where I think Chad was heading. When we think of scientific facts, the difference between regular facts is that arguments of science are such that anyone who observed the same facts would come to the same conclusion. This is the difference between science and religion. Two people can look at a set of facts and rationally come to different conclusion based upon their religious beliefs. You should note the paradox here. Religious beliefs do not have scientific proofs supporting them. If they were, they would no longer be religious beliefs.

Now, taking one step further back, I think our brains are pattern matching machines. That is what they are good at, including inventing possible patterns without needing complete proofs. Religion is an example. Bad things will befall those who lead bad lives, that is, the gods are monitoring behavior and punishing those who violate their rules. When we talk about a scientific law (or something we know), we mean the patterns are so certain, that everyone would agree to the likely outcome of the prediction. What we do in science is to transfer or substitute one example for another that is believed to represent the same pattern. This what we do with mathematics or arithmetic. When we use a formula 2 + 2 = 4, this is a representation of Arabic characters for objects. That is, if you were to add two balls to a basket with two balls, the basket would not contain four balls. This is a pattern that exists independent of the characters of the equation. When we talk science, we are equating the two examples. We are using an equation as abstraction of the real thing. It is science because everyone would anticipate the number of balls that would be present in the basket. That pattern can be anticipated by anyone able to recognize the pattern. My dog can anticipate clues for being fed or to do a trick, but he cannot grasp arithmetic.

What makes science difficult (classical science) is the proofs and abstractions that it may use are very complex. Learning organic chemistry requires application of an abstraction. Those able to apply this abstraction can do well in understanding and predicting reactions. Those who do not, struggle. The abstractions that are used with the sciences can differ quite greatly. In fact, some individuals may do very well in one scientific area while struggle in others.

For me, the disappointing aspect of this argument is that it seems easy to apply scientific thinking but we are surprising unwilling to do so. Imagine that Darwin predicted or described a truth about inheritance before the principles of heredity were known. Logically (this is a kind of thinking pattern), that also means that humanity’s predecessors were not aware of the same rules of heredity. Those who described how the world might have begun would not have the knowledge of DNA, a genetic code, and properties of inheritance. However, the possibilities are simple, either our genes are fixed (and were created at some primeval event) or they are not. Evolution only asks this question. If our genes are fixed, evolution cannot occur. If they can change, evolution. Can anyone find any evidence for genes being changeable? Unless you have been hidden under a rock for the last ??? (I realized, this statement is problematic. What if you are from a region in which education is absent or out of touch?) How can a sizable portion of the US population (including our president and presidential candidates) think our genes are fixed? 17 Saudis attack the US and we attack Afghanistan and then Iraq. What sense of logic exists here? Were we just bad at geography? Should we be fearful of the Afghannies attacking our country if we lost the war (as though winning was a thing, like a race)? Are we still fearful of a North Vietnamese attack? Is the mortgage crisis a real crisis or a result of a weak economy and a shift of wealth away from those wishing and able to buy homes? How many friends can you make with a gun?