Category Archives: Scientific Method

What Is Science?

There are any number of terms and/or concepts bandied about these days that mean many different things to many different people. One of the important features of clear language is the understanding that we all pretty much agree on what words mean. I use the qualifier “pretty much” because definitions shouldn’t be written in stone, impervious to lexicographical evolution. But if I say to you, “Watch out, there’s an angry hornet on your right shoulder,” it’d behoove you to know that yours and my definitions of “right,” “shoulder,” and “hornet” jibe.

Awful [Image: Fotolia/AP]

All languages are fluid, constantly changing. English is no better or worse, in that sense, than any other tongue. Take, for instance, the words terrific and awful. Anybody today who uses either term is conveying a meaning that everybody would get. Something terrific is good to an almost superlative degree. Something awful is bad, to the same extent. Yet terrific originally denoted something that inspired terror. Awful, on the other hand, described a thing or idea that filled one with awe, the interior, say, of the Ulm Cathedral in Germany, once one of the tallest structures in the world. Its stone steeple reaches 530 feet into the sky. Imagine being a rustic Briton in pre-skyscraper days, arriving in the Teutonic big city and strolling up to the edifice. She or he’d be filled with awe. “This,” she’d say, “is awful!”

Back then, those within earshot’d know precisely what she meant.

If she said the same thing today, listeners would be scratching their heads.

And, by the way, most people refer to that structure, officially the Ulm Minster, as a cathedral but, truth is, it is no such thing. A cathedral, technically, is the home church of a bishop, the headquarters of what is called in the Christian nomenclature a See.

See? A didact from the Holy See (the official name of the sovereign state whose capital is the Vatican City), might shake his finger at you for calling the Ulm structure a cathedral, but no one else on Earth would. That bit of inexactness (or, some might say, laziness) among the hoi polloi has led to an effective change in the meaning of the word cathedral. Most people today would say it refers to any grand or awe-inspiring church.

For pity’s sake, the very term hoi polloi itself can mean something quite different from the original intent. About 75 years ago, the term meant the unwashed masses, rubes, un-sophisticates, the common clay. As such, obviously, it was a slur. People of a certain “noble” rank used it to describe the slobs of no rank or wealth they had to suffer seeing whenever they ventured out from their safe estates. Pretty straightforward, no?

No. Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of the term hoi polloi:

  1. The general populace. The masses
  2. People of distinction or wealth or elevated social status. Elite.

Well, which is it?

Fortunately for us in the year 2021, few use the term. It, again, is an insult. Perhaps it fell out of fashion because nobody could could guess with any assurance what you meant when you uttered it.

Back when I was a kid, white people started copping terms from black people, who themselves had been copping terms from jazz hipsters. One of them was bad, as in good. My father and brother used to whip themselves into a frenzy watching the Chicago Bears play football every fall Sunday afternoon. One day, my brother said of Dick Butkus, the legendary Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose very name at the time conjured an image of the immovable barrier, the unforgiving force or, simply, the best pro football defender alive, “Man, he’s bad!”

My father, not yet hip, was flummoxed. You could almost see the wheels spinning within his head: Butkus? Bad?

I could go on. Hipster once was a descriptor most wannabe cool guys would have loved to be called. Anybody who played bebop jazz or listened to it was a hipster. Charlie Parker was a hipster. Lenny Bruce was a hipster. The Beat Writers were hipsters. Outsiders, rebels, anti-establishment types. Today? Let’s go to the Wikipedia reference, Hipster (contemporary subculture):

Affluent or middle class youth?! Charlie Parker? Lenny Bruce? Allen Ginsberg?

Like I said, language is fluid. Dig?

This, natch, is all preamble to the question, What is science? This is important because people are using the term promiscuously in public discourse, on social media, and in their own minds. In fact, the very word has become a definitive marker as emotionally and forensically fraught as religion once was (and, to a vanishing extent, remains). When someone says “That’s just science,” they’re really saying, “That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe it, you’re not going to hell but, man, you’re out of it.”

Problem is, people who buy into astrology, for instance, will argue that the practice of it and belief in it is firmly grounded in science. They’ll say people have been working on its charts and formulae for thousands of years. It’s a noble and entrenched science.

Anti-vaxxers swear to their gods that they have science on their side. Those who believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are poison say their stance is science-based. Conspiracy theorists explain the origin of COVID-19, the collapse of several Manhattan skyscrapers after the 9/11 attack, even the idea that John F. Kennedy was, as The Onion headline blared, “shot 129 times from 43 different angles while riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade,” will tell you, That’s just science.

In each of the aforementioned cases scientific consensus held an opposing view.

The word science today too often connotes Received Wisdom just as much as the Bible or the pronouncements of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon once meant to their adherents. In many cases, science is the new Bible; scientists the new priests. The hoi polloi (there’s that word again) casually surf the internet and, finding some quote or assertion by a white lab coat-wearing figure, accept the same without question.

Science, in millions and millions of people’s minds, is now orthodoxy.

Like so many terms, so many ideas, science today is becoming meaningless.

Which is a damned shame because, not terribly long ago (before the Age of Trump and, to be sure, before the advent of the internet) the word had a hard and fast meaning.

People say, “Science says…,” as if there’s some authority, some panel of infallible experts who speak in its name. As if all the scientists of the world are in lock-step agreement on things. As if there’s a daily or weekly report issued by them, the purpose of which is to posit inerrant truths.

Thing is, scientists are nothing more than a bunch of human beings trying to do the best they can in their chosen fields. There are good ones; there are lousy ones. This is not to belittle their efforts. But it can be assumed that if 90 percent or more of the practitioners in any scientific discipline buy into an idea, it’s likely spot on. Of course, scientific consensus has been wrong before. Many times, in fact. Think of things like phrenology, social “survival of the fittest,” Piltdown Man, the Steady State universe, and many other now-debunked but one-time accepted truths.

Oliver G. Alvar wrote in 2019:

Science makes mistakes, there’s no doubt about it. If it claimed to possess perfect knowledge of the world, it would be no better than religion or other dogmatic doctrines. Unlike religion, science doesn’t deal in absolutes, but in probabilities — which is how we conduct our everyday knowledge anyway.

Science is humanity’s accumulated body of knowledge, ever-changing, constantly being refined, the particulars within it occasionally refuted. With each passing day practitioners of experience, capability, and acclaim within it are trying to make it better, more accurate, closer to the truth. The best of scientists innately grasp that they’ll never fully know any “truth,” yet, they still strive toward it.

They do their work following the guidelines of the scientific method. It’s utterly logical and exquisitely simple. Here’s a chart I found in the website Lumen:

You see the box reading “Form a hypothesis…?” That’s a term people usually conflate with theory. “That’s your theory,” people might say when they’re really implying, “You’re full of shit.” A hypothesis is a guess based on observation, an unproven stab. A theory is a hypothesis that has been either proven or shown to be so overwhelmingly unassailable that it works quite well as a model of understanding, evolution, say, or the Big Bang.

In any case, scientists are not the spiritual kin of Moses, who came down from Mount Sinai carrying the Ten Commandments. People throughout history have craved such a prophet, such a visionary, certain of “truth.” They still do today. If anything, the impulse within us to embrace such a man (always a man) is less in the year 2021 than it was in 1921 or, for that matter, 1121 or 1121 BCE. That’s good. Yet it remains.

Moses, essentially, said, This is so. Ideally, scientists say, This just might be.

Leave it to Isaac Asimov to put it best:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Asimov

Good scientists that he was, Asimov got a bigger kick out of being puzzled by something than he got from finding any sort of “truth.”

From the Minds of Babies

From Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality:

[T]o appreciate the physical universe properly, one must be “born again.”

As I was fleshing out the text of this book, my grandson Luke was born. During the drafting, I got to observe the first few months of his life. I saw how he studied his own hands, wide-eyed, and began to realize that he controlled them. I saw the joy with which he learned to reach out and grasp objects in the external world. I watched him experiment with objects, dropping them and searching for them, and repeating himself (and repeating himself…), as if not quite certain of the result, but laughing in joy when he found them.

In these and many other ways, I could see Luke was constructing a model of the world. He approached it with insatiable curiosity and few preconceptions. By interacting with the world, he learned the things that nearly all human adults take for granted, such as that the world divides itself into self and not-self, that thoughts can control movements of self but not of not-self, and that we can look at bodies and not change their properties.

Babies are like little scientists, making experiments and drawing conclusions….

Wilczek is one of those super-brains-on-two-legs guys who, in their day jobs, are probing into the very existence of…, well, existence while they moonlight as authors penning books for the less cerebral among us to try to pretend to understand what they’re writing about. He knows what quantum mechanics is all about. Or, let me put that more accurately: among humans on Earth, he’s one of the very few who can at least know what he doesn’t yet know about the subject. For, as Richard Feynman once famously observed, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Feynman, of course was one of those super-human intellectuals who wrote a lot for the lay person. Carl Sagan, too. Among the living, there are Dava Sobel and Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, here’s a list of great science writers, living and dead, who can (in most cases almost) be grasped by the likes of you and me:

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Pick any three of the above and delve into one or more of their books and you’ll find your life enriched beyond any monetary figure. A caveat: it won’t be terribly easy getting through any of their books. No matter — the Big Mike philosophy goes: Nothing worth doing is easy.

Anyway, let’s go back to that Wilczek quote. The idea being perhaps the truest and most pure scientists are human babies trying to figure out what those spindly little things on the ends of their hands are for; why things drop; how, if my diaper is full and I howl about it, some big person’ll come along and put a new one on me; and, eventually, what’ll happen when I stick a safety pin point into one of those little holes in the wall.

How beautiful is that idea?

Babies observe. They wonder about what they’re observing. They experiment. Sometimes the result of that experiment hurts. Sometimes the result is they learn something. They file either conclusion away in their memories for future use.

The smartest among us are those who understand they don’t know all that much and are hungry to learn.

The Pencil Today:

TODAY’S QUOTE

“Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.” — George Carlin

LOOK OUT, KATY PERRY

Bloomington chanteuse Krista Detor’s star is getting bigger by the day. Not only is she the subject of a breathless profile in the current issue of Bloom magazine, but tix to her shows are almost as hot as Indy Super Bowl ducats.

She wandered into the Book Corner yesterday, looking for last minute gifts. She told this nosy bookseller/correspondent that her holiday show last week at the Bloomington Convention Center was the biggest yet.

Krista’s 6th annual benefit blast, “Once Upon a Time,” packed the center’s Great Room a week ago tomorrow.

Better grab your chance to see her soon before she starts filling up those big arenas around the Midwest — or even the entire nation!

Krista! Krista! Krista!

SECRETS, SECRETS, AND MORE SECRETS

Many of my leftie pals have been screaming to high heaven about the US government’s alleged propensity these days to engage in undercover hijinks, manipulation of information, and generally act like the USSR-lite.

The Obama Administration — and the Bush Gang before it — claims it must keep the citizenry safe from all manner of mayhem.

Here’s a development from NPR‘s Nell Greenfieldboyce. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity is urging the feds not to release the findings of government-funded research into bird flu mutation to the public. Their rationale — bioterrorists might take the info and create a virulent strain of the virus to unleash on target cities.

Terrorist?

Usually, federally-funded research is promptly released to scientific journals and even to the mainstream media. The normal follow-up to the time-honored scientific method is to publish findings so other scientists can test and, if needed, poke holes in a new theory. This last step, the Board is saying, is a little too risky in this case.

One aspect of the lab work has been to fiddle with the virus’ genes. Scientists already have developed a strain that is far more contagious than the original.

So, it’s the right to know versus a crippling bio-attack.

Don’t know what my suspicious pals are going to say about this one.

WHERE WE ARE TODAY

This is America, some 300 years after the Age of Enlightenment began.

A 17-year-old California boy was sentenced this week to 21 years in prison for assassinating in cold blood a high school classmate who was gay.

Judge, Jury, And Executioner

A young boy in Washington battled a flesh-eating bacterium in 2006. Doctors expected him to die. He didn’t. Relatives had placed a relic of some Mohawk woman at his bedside. Now Pope Benedict XVI says the whole thing was a “miracle” and will declare the woman a saint next year.

Kids: “You Got A Spare Miracle For Us?”

NFL quarterback Tim Tebow is a flamboyant Christian. He kneels and prays every chance he gets on the football field. His team has won a bunch of games. Some fans argue that the creator of the Universe is interceding on his behalf.

God: “Nah. I’m Busy With This Football Game.”

A little baby has been missing in Kansas City since October 4. A Dallas psychic has claimed to have had a vision of where the kid is buried. A party of volunteers actually went searching for her in the area where the psychic said she was. The kid, natch, wasn’t there.

The Renowned Crime Investigator

And, of course, the old standby: 72 percent of Americans believe in angels while only 45 percent believe in the theory of evolution.

Sigh.

I’M A BELIEVER

Yep, the Monkees.

BTW: For all the rage surrounding Davy Jones back in the ’60s, he sure looks dorky trying to keep time to the beat, doesn’t he? And did you notice he’s a monobrow? And his face is shiny?

Oh, alright, I’m still envious of him.

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