Sunday, October 13, 2013

What is Science?

I can see from my previous blog post that I haven't posted in a few months.  I've been thinking many deeply trivial thoughts but just haven't had the time to sit down and organize them coherently.  But a couple of recent conversations prompted me to sit down and write once again.

One conversation dealt with the definition of science.  A commenter argued that "science was bogus" because the findings are always changing and contradicting what was found previously; I decided to deprive the trolls of food and not respond.  Another dealt with religious extremists.  I actually got involved in this conversation and argued that religion fulfills a basic human need of explaining our world.

In fact, a variety of human enterprises are meant to explain our world and help us understand and navigate the many environments and situations in which we find ourselves.  When we make many observations systematically, we call it science.  However, finding patterns does not help us to truly understand what is occurring, so we need to apply an explanation for the pattern we observed (without going into the true meanings of various words with regard to this concept, we will simply call this "theory").  This is where things get tricky.

The way we explain the pattern we observed is highly influenced (I even go so far as to say "biased) by our current knowledge.  When we observed that certain metals "stick" to other metals, we recognize that pattern.  However, the way we explain that observation is influenced by our level of knowledge and observations about other things.  In the past, we might have referred to this phenomena using magical or supernatural explanations.  Today, we recognize that magnetism occurs because electromagnetic fields are generated from the behavior of our planet's core.  What we know about our planet (from other scientific endeavors) has helped us to understand another pattern in a nice, well-rounded theory.

The point I'm trying to make is the explanation for and labeling of these patterns is not in and of itself science.  But it is a necessary part of human discovery that we give a pattern a label and explanation to help us wrap our head around it, and make it fit into our understanding of the world.  A bunch of disparate patterns from research is only useful when we can tie it back to something we already know.  In addition, this is why scientific findings are constantly changing, and a theory that was long believed to be true is found to be incorrect.  The theory is not science, but an essential adjunct to science and a way to tie multiple scientific findings together.  We couldn't truly understand and explain magnetism until we had the knowledge of our planet.  This means that, in the future, when we learn even more, our explanation may change drastically.

The types of things we can observe is also constantly in flux.  Psychologists in the early 20th century were more drawn toward behaviorism and downplayed the activities occurring within our brain mainly because we couldn't observe the brain directly, at least not in a living, normal functioning state.  We could only measure the outward behaviors of people and animals.  Today, we can examine the brain directly, which has led to some amazing discoveries, the most recent of which is that dogs can experience very similar emotions as humans, such as happiness and love.  Who knows what we will find in the future?  Perhaps we will discover that other species are more similar to us than we realize, which will have interesting ramifications for things like animal research.

Science is a useful way to understand our world.  And it is one of the many ways we discover knowledge about ourselves and our way of life.  But the explanation portion is more difficult to label as "science" or something else, because of limitations in our knowledge and biases that color our worldview.  We laugh now at "scientific" explanations from hundreds of years ago, but often fail to recognize how puny our current knowledge is compared to where we may be in the future.  Hundreds of years from now, this time in human history may be viewed as the "dark ages."

Scientifically yours,