Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Science Says!

One quite often encounters, generally in popular publications, the phrase, “Science says” or its variant, “Scientists say,” or “Science has proven.” Generally this is held to be ‘game, set and match’ in any controversy.
Coming from a scientific discipline myself, I maintain an innate skepticism whenever I come across such language.

Here it is helpful to realise that ‘Science’ falls into three broad categories each with its own methodology:

Applied Science

This is my background, the discipline of Engineering and Technology. She is a stern mistress, for if practice does not accord closely with theory one’s bridges fall down and one’s machines fail to work. It is a very public discipline and one can easily get mud on one’s face. This branch of science has a well-established theoretical basis yet it employs a high degree of empiricism. If something breaks, make another one a bit stronger so that it will not break. If something doesn’t work, try another approach until you find something that does work.

Pure Science

This branch of Science uses the classical scientific method consisting of, postulate followed by repeated experiment followed by conclusion and revision of postulate if the conclusion does not confirm the postulate. It is essentially an iterative methodology and depends on the ability to repeat an experiment. Applied scientists stand on the shoulders of pure scientists and use their findings and their theoretical formulations in building their devices and structures.

Speculative Science

Some may object to this term, but I can’t offhand think of a better and ‘Impure Science’ does not seem appropriate.
This is not to imply that the scientific disciplines falling within this category are not respectable, but simply to acknowledge that the methodology employed here is quite different. This is because they deal with past events which by their very nature are not repeatable. Thus they are not susceptible to the classic scientific method which requires repeated experiments. The methodology used here is forensic such that historic data is analysed and evaluated in order to arrive at the truth. It is like Sherlock Holmes examining the body and its situation in order to determine whether the cause of death was murder or suicide.
Often Sherlock will come to a different conclusion to the police as to the cause of death though they both access the same data.

There are obviously blurred boundaries between these branches of science, but what should be noticed is that the first two employ closed-loop methodologies, the third branch is essentially open-loop. This is why it is a happy hunting ground for theorists whose theories cannot easily be proven or disproved.
Accordingly, when encountering an assertion attributed to ‘science,’ a good practice is to establish which branch of science is making the claim. If it is the third branch, then,


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