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Scientific method


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Let's not be too hard on philosophy. Those asserting that an hypothesis can become a theory without passing observational tests are not philosophers (or, at least, not ones who have much hope of going unchallenged!) Philosophy is a discipline which can play an important role in ensuring that we are not making hidden logical or conceptual errors. It is also worth noting that no single person invented scientific method. It 'grew' during the scientific revolution and was then 'discovered' by philosophers of science who analysed what, in abstract terms, the scientists (or 'natural philosophers') were doing. I have a friend, a retired post-doc researcher, who said that it was only years into her post doc work that she really encountered 'scientific method' as a procedure laid out clearly. She had just followed 'good pratice' in the lab without having thought about it.

Is maths a language? I don't think it is. This is not to demean it. I admire the hell out of it, though I can't for the life of me do it.  It has some things in common with language but I can't see too many of them. I don't see the 'maths as language' analogy as doing much to elucidate either maths or language. Maths cannot be undermined, perhaps, in that its conclusions about number seem to be incontrovertible. It seems hard to imagine a circumstance in which 2 and 2 don't make 4. But what does it have to say about toothache? Sure, you can count nerve stimulii and calculate the speed of neuralogocal communication but ask a person with toothache whether this has anything to do with toothache and stand well clear when they reply. If we insist on the 'maths as language' analogy then I think that maths is big on syntax and seriously short on vocabulary. Applied maths borrows its vocabulary from language.

Olly

Edited by ollypenrice
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We once had the evidence that everything revolved around the Earth, it was all there to be seen in the night sky, around us they all went day after day, the Sun et all.

But we also had evidence that it didn't. It just took a while to see that. T'was ever thus, and so it will remain.

Olly

(The sidereal day being shorter than solar day by an amount that, over a year, adds up to a day would be one example.)

Edited by ollypenrice
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We once had the evidence that everything revolved around the Earth, it was all there to be seen in the night sky, around us they all went day after day, the Sun et all.

Just because our ancestors held erroneous beliefs can't be used to handwave away a current set of understanding, especially if that understanding stands on a mass of verifiable evidence.

Geocentricism was certainly a widely held  belief, partly to do with Judeo-Christian thinking, but not everyone held it to be so. Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric view of the universe in ancient Grecian times. Some Islamic texts and ancient Sanskrit texts also refer to a heliocentric view. 

Is maths a language? I don't think it is. This is not to demean it. I admire the hell out of it, though I can't for the life of me do it.  It has some things in common with language but I can't see too many of them. I don't see the 'maths as language' analogy as doing much to elucidate either maths or language. Maths cannot be undermined, perhaps, in that its conclusions about number seem to be incontrovertible. It seems hard to imagine a circumstance in which 2 and 2 don't make 4. But what does it have to say about toothache? Sure, you can count nerve stimulii and calculate the speed of neuralogocal communication but ask a person with toothache whether this has anything to do with toothache and stand well clear when they reply. If we insist on the 'maths as language' analogy then I think that maths is big on syntax and seriously short on vocabulary.

What does it say about toothache? That argument can be flipped on it's head. English (or indeed any other language) can't be used to prove many mathematical concepts...you HAVE to use maths.  "My own attitude, which I share with many of my colleagues, is simply that mathematics is a language. Like English, or Latin, or Chinese, there are certain concepts for which mathematics is particularly well suited: it would be as foolish to attempt to write a love poem in the language of mathematics as to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra using the English language. "  R. L. E. Schwarzenberger

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While we can talk about the development of philosophical ideas (and in particular the limits of falsification) perhaps the real challenge to the validity of a lot of physics ``conjectures’’ is the nature of the information theorists have to work with.

We know that ALL current physics theories have limits of applicability. This is illustrated by the generation of infinity for variables which should not reach these values in limiting cases (hence the authors quote from Hilbert). Somewhere between what we can observe and these limits the mathematical model is breaking down. In addition although we suspect there are other forms of matter, and even alternative states for `vacuum’, at this point we don’t know what they are or how to access them. We also don’t know other important things, like: can gravity be shielded, or would Einstein’s principle of equivalence survive quantization of space-time.

It makes a good start to treat all such theories as ``effective’’ rather than ``fundamental’’ (i.e. believing it is really the way the world is). Unfortunately, combining effective theories and extrapolating to circumstances which are not observable through laboratory or astronomical observation can then not be guaranteed to be correct, regardless of how sure we are that the mathematics is otherwise solid.

If such a mathematical solution generates extraordinary claims perhaps it is more as a form of entertainment than useful conclusions   :eek: . Keeping our eyes on the idea of falsification is one of the easiest ways to avoid over interpretation of these results.

This is why I feel the original argument put forward in the OP has merit.  :smiley:

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It makes a good start to treat all such theories as ``effective’’ rather than ``fundamental’’

Its been a little while since I did a philosophy module as part of a non-philosophy degree, but that's how I remember it being described. Something along the lines..."I see that A+B = C" so I come up with the theory A+B=C. And its fine until X comes along and points out if A+B happens while D is present the result is E. So being a theorist I don't simply fall into an "I'm right you're wrong" argument, instead I thank them for the input and opportunity to refine my theory to "If D is not present, A+B=C". 

The great thing about theories is discussing them can be entertaining, enlightening and endless. But the best thing about them is they aren't laws, you can modify and improve them. A sound theory is never going to be wrong, but it might be made more likely to be right.

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Theories stand until they fall. My feeling is that if I can't test these whacky ideas then they are just philosophy, even if they make the headlines.

I take satisfaction that we know so little about things. we keep make making massive discoveries across science, it's fun to be around at this point in time. Let's keep on pushing, keep on testing and see where we can get for the benefit of everyone.

PEterW

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Really interesting thread this one with some excellent input from everyone.

I find myself a little torn on the subject as on the one hand I find it difficult to see what part a "theory" can add to scientific understanding without testing. Surely a "theory" without testing can never be more than just pure conjecture,  a experiment in stretching the dimensions of thought? On the other hand when the Higgs Boson was first proposed in the 1960's I dont think there existed a means to test for it and yet it seems to have kick started a whole field of expensive experimentation to find it. If "theories" without testing were not accepted by science would CERN even exist? It seems to me there already exists a level of acceptance without testing in the field of science. 

Perhaps this is or should be about sciences levels of acceptance rather than whether is should accept at all.  5 Sigma is in place to deliver a level of testing that defines a high probability and sets boundaries for science to accept theories as being correct. Yet perhaps the science community isnt the best to judge on the subject as it seems to me they can be a selective bunch both championing 5 sigma a mark of purity and then accepting theories that dont meet it. After all although we have good evidence of its existence the theory of dark matter or energy certainly doesnt pass 5 sigma.

However i do feel there is a very important place for philosophical "theories" being promoted in science as it undoubtedly stirs interest. Science is in a golden period in terms of both discoveries and public interest. The public interest is largely due to access to the passionate ideas of theoretical scientists. They stir the minds of many and their passion firmly puts science in the same regard as the great adventurers and discoverers of old, on the brink of uncovering wonders to change mankind. Science without the injection of untested ideas runs the risk of becoming locked in a cycle of procedures, stagnated and worst of all dull. Radical new theories tested or not often produce interest and even excitement especially with the plebs and their interest along with that of business drives funding, funding drives research, research drives discovery.

I suspect i have contradicted myself several times but i did say i was torn.

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A theory untested isn't a theory, it's an hypothesis. Science needs these, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell has argued that we have not spent enough time thinking about how these initial hypotheses are generated. That seems like a good point. Once generated, they need testing. That also seems like a good idea. Someone who doesn't think that this is a good idea sounds like someone who spends too much time working with computer models - or so it seems to a scientific spectator like me. Could we be passing through a phase in which we are in danger of being seduced by what our simulators tell us?

Olly

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A theory untested isn't a theory, it's an hypothesis. Science needs these, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell has argued that we have not spent enough time thinking about how these initial hypotheses are generated. That seems like a good point. Once generated, they need testing. That also seems like a good idea. Someone who doesn't think that this is a good idea sounds like someone who spends too much time working with computer models - or so it seems to a scientific spectator like me. Could we be passing through a phase in which we are in danger of being seduced by what our simulators tell us?

Olly

I don't see nay issues with modelling in a simulation. Our supercomputers and the models that they run are now sophisticated enough to allow things like nuclear detonations to be simulated accurately. The 2013 Nobel prize for chemistry was awarded to the team that developed computer simulations of chemical reactions.

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Pythagoras theory still seems to hold. Theory/hypothesis... Ideas that we can then go and try to prove/falsify. Quite often the explanations are just approximations or simplifications that help with the right level of detail and allow for predictions to be made.

PEterW

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Is maths a language? I don't think it is. This is not to demean it. I admire the hell out of it, though I can't for the life of me do it.  It has some things in common with language but I can't see too many of them. I don't see the 'maths as language' analogy as doing much to elucidate either maths or language. Maths cannot be undermined, perhaps, in that its conclusions about number seem to be incontrovertible. It seems hard to imagine a circumstance in which 2 and 2 don't make 4. 

My 2p worth

If language is understood as a means to communication, then maths is one of the great universal languages. And as in language both syntax and semantics are crucial. Take the 2+2 = 4 example. In modulo arithmetic this is not necessarily true. Take a filter holder with 3 slots: move it twice, then move it twice again, and you don't get 4 but 1, an outcome described by this branch of mathematics. Hence it is important to denote the meaning of symbols as well as to define their allowable manipulations. As in language, maths is constructive and hence applicable to new situations (filter holders were probably not the inspiration for modulo arithmetic). 

But maths can indeed be undermined -- look at the demise of set theory in the early part of the 20th century via Russell's Set Paradox ("is the set of all sets a member of itself?") which led to the conclusion that all of maths is based on an unstable foundation. Often other mathematicians are doing the undermining… though perhaps we can also call them philosophers.  :smiley:

cheers

Martin

Edited by Martin Meredith
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Could anyone recommend a good read on 'What maths is' or words to that effect? I'd love to think more about this. The philosophy of maths. It would need to be for a non-practiitioner in my case...

Is language primarily about communication? I've never thought that it was, or not in the sense of communication between individuals. I've generally seen it as being mainly about communication within one's self. It's a means of allowing bits sensory information to be classified, specified and allowed to interact with each other constructively. Without words for 'next Thursday' and 'Dentist' and 'Two-thirty' and 'Drake Street' and 'Shepton Mallet' a totally banal thing like a dentist's appointment would be impossible to create within one person's brain.

Olly

Edited by ollypenrice
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Could anyone recommend a good read on 'What maths is' or words to that effect? I'd love to think more about this. The philosophy of maths. It would need to be for a non-practiitioner in my case...

Is language primarily about communication? I've never thought that it was, or not in the sense of communication between individuals. I've generally seen it as being mainly about communication within one's self. It's a means of allowing bits sensory information to be classified, specified and allowed to interact with each other constructively. Without words for 'next Thursday' and 'Dentist' and 'Two-thirty' and 'Drake Street' and 'Shepton Mallet' a totally banal thing like a dentist's appointment would be impossible to create within one person's brain.

Olly

That's a tough one… there is the classic book by Richard Courant "What is mathematics" which is supposed to be for the non-practitioner, but it depends on your equation-threshold. 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Mathematics-Elementary-Approach-Paperbacks/dp/0195105192/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422128965&sr=1-1&keywords=courant

I think you can learn about what maths is about by reading a history of the development of maths. I'd recommend this book by Victor Katz. Its absolutely fascinating in its own right to see where the various numbers systems came from, the importance of place-value, why we count in 5s, etc. Have you ever considered why the various number systems are named the way they are: negative, imaginary, complex, transcendental? Their very names reflect the difficulty in introducing new ideas to overturn or extend existing ones. 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Mathematics-Introduction-Victor-Katz/dp/0321016181/ref=sr_1_71?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422128653&sr=1-71&keywords=history+of+mathematics

I take your point that words (or language strings in general) are represented internally and open to manipulation and introspection but I doubt that they are the main agents of thought processes. Language as we understand it may be a "mere" step during perception (both auditory and visual) and production (both vocal and written), which starts and ends instead with something more flexible, unconstrained by syntax and capable of accommodating representations across modalities, something language is pretty bad at (think wine-tasting).

Its interesting too that when we want to communicate with ourselves at a later date we tend to write things down. Human memory is really quite terrible for the banal. On the other hand, you can listen to a few seconds of a noisy phone call and identify which one of 100s of familiar voices is calling, regardless of the actual word sequence being used. There's tons of paralinguistic information in the speech signal that isn't really in the words themselves but that is essential for communication. And conversing is dead easy whereas monologues are dead hard… This is a nice article on the subject:

http://www.speech.kth.se/~edlund/bielefeld/references/garrod-and-pickering-2004.pdf

Probably well off topic by now  :smiley:

Martin

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A really nice thread.

Briefly, I enjoyed the bits about the rejection of philosophy which is itself philosophy :p and if this unavoidable circularity of logic is perhaps the point :evil: , I'll leave that puzzle aside for the time being :grin:.

Again, the cracking display of irony about the idea that whatever philosophy is it cannot be the attempt to find out about the universe because that is the task of science, didn't go amiss, seeing that the idea that only science can lead to knowledge is a philsophical stance :cheesy:.

Aye....... :rolleyes2:

Without trying to move the goal posts this way and that and just concentrating again on the OP and the notion of a 'universal scientific method' that all scientists in all the sciences must adhere to in order for it to be a science, I think it is safe to acknowledge that different sciences - we still haven't identified what exactly is a science - will often employ different methodologies, very often within the same field (Einstein, Dirac, Ehrenhaft, positive and normative economics, for example) and thus are not as uniform as folk like to believe.

In this light, raising a simplified understanding of 'science' to the status of dogma deprives an understanding of just how rich sciences actually are. More worryingly, the attempt to force it into a methodological straightjacket goes against the very idea of science whose history has time and time again demonstrated that it refuses to be bound by what is expected of it.

Needless to say, and for the record, the philosophy of science is not about conjuring sci-fi ideas but predominately about worrying the methods of enquiry used in various sciences. It's a tool which allows folk to probe deeper and uncover and question assumptions implicit in scientific practices that scientists themselves may take for granted or do not explicitly discuss, many of which have been raised in earlier posts.

- - - - - -

Olly, a general introduction to the philosophy of math can be found here. The idea of Universals is itself an extremely complex Platonic idea and a link to this can be found here.
 

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hmmmm, What is science?

"we still haven't identified what exactly is a science"


Good question thinking about it. One could ask to what end are we really looking for and/or hoping for?

I would imagine at the end of the day, most would want for nothing else but to be back with oh so lost loved ones, no more suffering, no more pain, rest etc. But then, having experienced various kinds of people/life on my travel through life you never can tell !

Could science ever give us anything more than an easier, maybe more interesting life?

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Could science ever give us anything more than an easier, maybe more interesting life?

Just about every aspect of modern life stems from advances made in science. If you want a basic example take average life expectancy which has more than doubled from the early 20th Century (31) to 2010 (67).  I don't think that it is possible to envisage life without the advancements made in the science subjects. Certainly, it would be close to a Neanderthal existence.

Science (or rather it's application) can also give a shorter, more brutal life. Witness our increasingly sophisticated methods of killing each other in greater and greater numbers.

The question is almost too vague to give a meaningful answer though. I think that you would have to start to distinguish the difference between the scientific method of exploring the world and the application of the knowledge gleaned from that endeavour for a start.

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I realise I shouldn't ask such questions but then, well, if I don't, will anyone else I ask myself.

When it comes to science affecting the modern world, then I guess that boils down to how much easiser science has made our lives .. less discomfort, less pain, less effort, less suffering .. when compared to how the rest of life on Earth lives.

I guess the desired end result of scientifc method is to ultimately learn how to malipulate the world/universe around us to suit our own human foilbles, maybe to also maybe one day make some kind of comforting contact with others out there?

Which I guess probably implies that scientific method ought to as accurately as possible reflect/apply to the desired outcomes we seek with that desired malipulation of the world/universe around us?

As to how we apply the scientifically gained knowledge is another question entirely. That can all come down to how inadequate we are as a race and individuals (an exaggerated need for control/power etc), how selfish we are, how much less unpleasant we want to try and make life, the love (or lack of) we have for others, etc etc.

I guess?

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I guess the desired end result of scientifc method is to ultimately learn how to malipulate the world/universe around us to suit our own human foilbles, maybe to also maybe one day make some kind of comforting contact with others out there?

Perhaps for the Applied Sciences.

Science itself is the acquisition of knowledge through the application of a method (Observation > Hypothesis > Prediction >Testing/Experimentation > Conclusion). It produces models or descriptions of reality.

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Which I guess probably implies that scientific method ought to as accurately as possible reflect/apply to the desired outcomes we seek with that desired malipulation of the world/universe around us?

An emphatic YES! If, by accuracy of scientific method, you mean getting the best

and most likely experimental measurement, reporting it truthfully, warts and all. :)

But I was only an "experimentalist". My mates used to "drone on" [teasing] about

"Popper", but I guess I am "too thick"? Theorists need minimal funding for chalk

boards & chalks. lol. What harm can they do? I do feel uncomfortable with the

hard core "science renders philosopy redundant" brigade among scientists... :o

Aside: Many things really worry me about contemporary science. Advocacy of

"peer review" as being quasi-infallible?!? The "leaking" of results on t'internet.

Celebrity Scientists!The TWITTER brawling with "religionists & new agers"...

Unquestioning support of the "BBC" establishment, public surveillance etc. :(

P.S. No "Professorship in the "Public Understanding of Science" etc. here(!)

But I encourage (your) kids to "Do Science" at school. Go to an "Astro Soc"! 

We still need more "women in science". Science transcends far more barriers

than politics. It saddens me, science (society) becomes ever more tribal...

Edited by Macavity
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Cath, the problem you've raised is that there is nothing about how the world is that can tell us how it ought to be. I could discover all kinds of scientific knowledge about how the world "is", but no matter how hard I look I cannot find 'out-there' information on how it "ought" to be.

This is a deep problem for ethics or for the way we go about our everyday lives. From the "is/ought" perspective the way we carry out much of our day to day existence seems arbitary, grounded on habit and tradition and opinion, but there doesn't appear to be a basis for this in fact because there is no right or wrong in facts. Facts just are.

The upshot is that science cannot determine human values or tell us what’s objectively true about morality or give answers about right and wrong. The domain of science is to describe nature and explain those descriptions in terms of deeper patterns or laws. Science cannot tell anyone how to live or how to think.

This is one of my aversions to the implicit assumptions maintained in the OP and many of the posts which followed it. If a system of thought claims to be telling you what is right or wrong, or how you ought to be doing things, it cannot be science. They are no longer descriptive sentences about the world but persciptive sentences on how it should be. If a scientist tells you how you ought to behave, these sentences are not scientific statements, and they are no longer speaking to you as a scientist. What is natural doesn't entail what is right and what is unnatural doesn't entail what is wrong.

No one would deny that science can feed us amazing facts on how to live, or how we ought to live to improve our own and other creatures' well-being. But so what? That is what science has always been able to do. And in a sense, this is what secular moral philosophy is all about, taking careful note and minding the facts.

At this junction, I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's very poignant insight, "the universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent". 

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