"Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points." ~D.T. Suzuki

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Nature of Science

The Nature of Science
The Nature
of Science

“Not explaining science
seems to me perverse.
When you're in love,
you want to tell the world.”

One of the most beautiful things about science is that it equips you to think for yourself
Adrian Gaylord
Ever since I was very young I've had an insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge. I can't remember when I fell in love with science but I guess it was quite early. My mother recounts a story of when I was about 2 years old and took apart my older brother's toy tank. It spit sparks from the the gun on the turret and I wanted to know where the fire came from. The mystery intrigued me. And I just had to know.

Of course my brother was pissed because while I could take it apart, I couldn't (and either could he) put back together again.
Science has been my passion.
It still is and will always be.

Science is behind all of our modern accomplishments and conveniences.

But it has also taught us how to think.
And perhaps more importantly,
how to think critically.
But what is science? 

Most people have these common questions at some point in their lives. Who am I? What am I? How am I? Why am I? Perhaps metaphysics and spirituality are best for the why. Empirical science has the best answers for the physical nature of ourselves and the universe. And while I agree with my evolutionary hero Stephen Jay Gould that science and "religion" (as distinct from spirituality) are non-overlapping majisteria, I also agree with my astrophysist hero Carl Sagan that science and spirituality are rather complimentary. There is no need for conflict between them.
Research is essential to science!

Baloney Detection Kit 
Warning signs that suggest deception. 
Based on the book by Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World.

The following are suggested as tools for testing arguments
and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments: 

Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.

Encourage substantive debate on the evidence
by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no "authorities"). 

Spin more than one hypothesis - 
don't simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. 

Quantify, wherever possible.

If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work. 

Occam's razor -
if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified
(shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable?
Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

Additional issues are: 
Conduct control experiments - especially "double blind" experiments where
the person taking measurements is not aware of the test and control subjects.

Check for confounding factors - separate the variables.

Common fallacies of logic and rhetoric

Ad hominem - attacking the arguer and not the argument. 

Argument from "authority".

Argument from adverse consequences (putting pressure on the decision maker
by pointing out dire consequences of an "unfavorable" decision).

Appeal to ignorance (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).

Special pleading (typically referring to god's will).

Begging the question (assuming an answer in the way the question is phrased).

Observational selection (counting the hits and forgetting the misses).

Statistics of small numbers (such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes).

Misunderstanding the nature of statistics
(President Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that
fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence!)

Inconsistency (e.g. military expenditures based on worst case scenarios but scientific projections on environmental dangers thriftily ignored because they are not "proved").

Non sequitur - "it does not follow" - the logic falls down.
Post hoc, ergo propter hoc - "it happened after so it was caused by"
- confusion of cause and effect.

Meaningless question
("what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?).

Excluded middle - considering only the two extremes in a range of possibilities
(making the "other side" look worse than it really is).

Short-term v. long-term - a subset of excluded middle
("why pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?").

Slippery slope - a subset of excluded middle - unwarranted extrapolation of the effects (give an inch and they will take a mile).

Confusion of correlation and causation.

Caricaturing (or stereotyping) a position to make it easier to attack.

Suppressed evidence or half-truths. Weasel words - for example, use of euphemisms for war such as "police action" to get around limitations on Presidential powers. "
An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions
which under old names have become odious to the public" 

(excerpted from The Planetary Society Australian Volunteer Coordinators
Prepared by Michael Paine )
Why is Science Important?
If you have read all the way down here...
Then you probably have discipline, patience, persistence and maybe passion too. 
The are qualities that I have seen in all the best scientists.
© 2016 MU-Peter Shimon

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