How Scientists Work
The ultimate goal of science is to understand precisely how Nature works: physical Nature, chemical Nature, biological Nature, social Nature, human Nature. Scientists seek to learn how humans can best adapt to Natural reality in order to make our lives safer, more productive, more enjoyable, and more predictable. Most scientists believe that Nature is decipherable and will ultimately be explained by a relatively small number of basic principles.
In science, we make observations and hypothesize about their most probable cause. The first problem is to determine how reliable and how representative an observation is. The second problem is to determine which of the many possible causes explains the broadest variety of observations in the most logically consistent manner. The third problem is to test these hypothesized causes against new observations. The success of science is ultimately measured by how well, and often how simply, the hypothesized causes explain the broadest range of observations. We build the edifice of science while continually trying to improve its foundation. Sometimes the foundation that was most useful in building an elaborate edifice turns out to be insufficient and we have to reverse engineer a new one. Science ultimately is a logical attempt to reverse-engineer Nature. It is an iterative process, with a history, a present, and a future. Science provides the most logical basis for making public policy, but we can never be absolutely sure that current scientific concepts are absolutely right. But science is self-correcting over time and scientists seek ultimate truth.
We all must adapt
Every living entity spends every moment of its life adapting to its physical and social climates that are always changing. It is not typically the fittest who survive, but the best adapted.
Change is normally slow, allowing time to adapt. But sometimes change is so large or so rapid that living things cannot adapt sufficiently and die.
We each exist because we were born. A species exists because sufficient numbers of its members were able to adapt long enough to give birth to new members, who could adapt long enough to give birth to new members, and so on. We are the offspring of a long line of successful adapters, many of whom survived major changes in physical climate such as ice ages with minimal technology.
We adapt based on our understanding of personal experience, of what we learn from the experience of others, from education, from training, from research, etc. We observe what happened; we wonder what could have caused it so that we can anticipate how to adapt in the future.
Our bodies and our brains have evolved biologically to use experience to decide how to adapt. We think in terms of experience. We dream in terms of experience. Language simply codifies experience. Logic is basically a way of relating past experiences to determine the best way to adapt now or in the future. The greater our net experience, both in breadth and depth, the more rationally we can adapt to new situations.
Even non-living organizations created by living things must adapt. A business that does not adapt to changing human needs and market conditions, will ultimately fail. Most do.
Living things can be defined as those that have the ability to adapt, to change over time.
We all want to know what to expect
We feel most secure in life when we know what to expect. Therefore we attempt to explain or justify our own concepts of reality with reasons that we think are logical and plausible and that we tend to believe are true. We interpret from a rational standpoint; we try to make thoughts or actions rational; we rationalize. We each rationalize to ourselves what actions we should take and we defend our rationalizations for what actions we took. The essence of human beings is not in their ability to reason but in their ability to rationalize.
When life gets difficult, we need hope that things will improve and especially that by adapting, we have the power to make things improve. Hope is based on our belief in an idea, in a principle, in our ability to adapt, or belief that others might help.
We each construct our own sense of reality based on our net experience (knowledge) tempered by our biological predilections such as a preference to conserve things the way they are versus a more liberal desire to develop new ways to adapt.
It takes effort (energy) to adapt and there are typically many options for taking action. We choose based on our beliefs about how things happen and what actions would be most effective. We are motivated primarily by belief in certain ideas, belief in appropriate actions to take, and belief in our own ability to take meaningful action.
Before the rise of science and technology, religion was the primary group motivator. Belief in superhuman gods was a way of rationalizing fate. Belief in a benevolent god gave hope for the future if you lived a socially appropriate lifestyle. Rational thinking thru science provides hope for effectively adapting to change in the future.
With increasing population and improving rates and modes of communication, the pace of social climate change is increasing rapidly. With global warming, the pace of physical climate change may be increasing.
The role of science
The human race has improved its ability to adapt by developing technology. For example, less than 200 years ago, famine and plague were common and widespread. Through better agricultural practices, better ways to store food, and more efficient ways to transport and distribute food, famine is largely unknown except in poor regions unable to afford these technologies. Modern medicine and health practices have reduced loss of life substantially in developed countries.
Science provides the foundation for modern technology, medicine, social practices, etc. that make our adaption to the realities of life easier and more comfortable.
Science is a logical attempt by broad groups of specialists to codify knowledge gained from the most reliable experiences. Science helps us determine how best to adapt now and in the future.
A primary goal of science is to determine how Nature works, how things happen naturally, and how to use this knowledge to improve lives. Most scientists believe that there is a logical, straight-forward system to Nature that can ultimately be deciphered.
How we do science
Science is an objective method for fact finding and fact checking based on observation and logical deduction that can be independently verified and is thus self-correcting.
Scientists seek ultimate truth, but can only determine the most likely causes of observations based on current and past experiences. Science lives and has a history; scientific theories are continually evolving, building on past experience, adapting to new observations.
In Science, reliable observations are ground truth. Ultimately our theories must explain all reliable observations. Yet observations that two phenimena occur simultaneously does not prove they are related or that one causes the other.
In Science we typically deduce a cause based on observed effects and then seek to determine if that cause can explain all other related observed effects. For every experienced effect there are typically many possible causes or combinations of causes. Our “preferred” cause varies with time, based on our current understanding that has evolved along a certain trajectory through time.
Sometimes theories built on extensive past experience cannot be adapted to new observations and need to be discarded. A first indication of such a need is when it takes inordinate rationalization (arm waving) to explain new observations in terms of old theories.
All humans, including scientists, defend what they believe to be correct. All humans seek to rationalize the present in terms of past experience. People with more beliefs to defend, tend to be less open to new ideas. A practical rule of thumb when explaining Nature is: the more arm waving, the less likely that the ideas being defended are correct. The line between making something rational and rationalizing it is very thin indeed.
Is it time to adapt to new scientific theories?
The Greenhouse-Gas Theory of global climate change was developed and debated over more than 200 years. Since 1990, it has become the “preferred” explanation for climate change believed to be accurate by most scientists (IPCC, 2007). But since 1998, global temperatures have remained essentially constant while concentrations of greenhouse gases have continued to increase at even greater rates. Dozens of papers have sought to explain this “inconvenient truth” as natural variations within a complex climate system (arm waving). Most authors propose that temperatures regularly remain constant for at least 5 or 10 years due to natural variations. Few propose, however, that natural variations could explain constant temperatures for the 15 years since 1998.
On this website I not only explain how well the Ozone Depletion Theory of global climate change fits all reliable observations of climate, but also why several assumptions behind the radiation codes used to model Greenhouse-Gas Theory cannot be physically correct.
Similarly, humans have debated since the time of Ancient Greece whether light travels as a wave or as a particle. For more than a century, quantum mechanics has been founded on the principle of wave-particle duality, that electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, can best be explained as viewed sometimes as a wave and sometimes as a particle. Quantum mechanics is arguably the most successful theory in physics for explaining observations and predicting future events related to electromagnetism that is the foundation for all modern technology involving light, electronics, digital computers, and such. But quantum mechanics, as explained in all introductory textbooks, leads to arcane predictions that just do not seem to make physical sense. My work trying to understand precisely how electromagnetic radiation is absorbed by gases and matter suggests that light in space is neither a wave, nor a particle; it is a field. It may be more productive to think of field-particle-wave triality: light is a field in space, has particle-like behavior when interacting with particles of matter making up a gas, and has wavelike behavior when interacting with extended matter through which waves can propagate.
Mathematics is a symbolic language that is very useful for codifying logic, but it can only be used to determine the logical consequences of the initial assumptions that may or may not reflect physical reality. Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the gravitational “force” exerted by one body on another, has proven very accurate and useful in calculating the paths of projectiles, the orbits of planets, the navigation of space ships. But it tells us nothing about what gravity really is. If Einstein is right, the force we visualize as gravity is simply a warp in space-time.
Similarly, Maxwell’s equations explain observations of electromagnetism in exquisite detail used to design essentially all modern electronics. But Maxwell’s equations assume that electromagnetic radiation is a wave even in space. This led to the still unresolved argument in the late 19th century about what “material” electromagnetic waves travel in through space (the lumniniferous aether).
Equations that explain observations with great precision are extremely useful, but they rarely explain the ultimate cause of those observations. They simply show whether our assumptions could provide a possible explanation for the observations.
Science is deduced from observations. Science evolves. Is it time to rethink some fundamental ideas?
Objective analysis of all of the relevant data in the light of improving ideas will lead the way.
Scientists are human after all, adapting their theories to improving data as best they can.
About new ideas in science
- “New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.” (1936)
- “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (1948)
Goldman (2006) provides an excellent historic to present overview of what scientists know and how they know it.
Firestein (2012) provides short and very useful insight into how ignorance drives science. We accept what we know and only spend time studying what we do not know. Sometimes we need to question the basis for what we think we know.