What is Science?

It’s a unifying theory. General relativity unified so many things it brought together Newtonian gravity, time dilation, relativistic aberrations, gravitational lensing, black holes, just about damn near everything is explained by this. Everything but quantum mechanics was explained by this new theory of gravity, general relativity. So wow that’s great we still use Newtonian mechanics to send spacecraft to the planets.

The Rational View is a weekly series hosted by me Dr Alan Scott providing a rational evidence-based perspective addressing important societal issues.

Greetings I’m Dr Al Scott welcome to the first episode of The Rational View. Are you like me appalled by the rise of anti-science sentiment in society and the storm of misinformation getting from the media and what it’s doing to society? Have you been confused by people telling you about the frequency of the universe and vibrations and how you must get in sync with them not really understanding what they’re talking about especially if you know anything about science and the fact that if you have a vibration then you should be able to specify what that frequency is in perhaps gigahertz or megahertz. Have you been concerned by the dangerous rise of the anti-vaxx movement and their acceptance of pseudoscience or the dangerous climate change denial folk who are preventing solutions to be implemented in a political sense to a very important crisis that we’re facing? Have you had to argue against flat earthers all of these ideas are flourishing in the fertile manure of protected echo chambers on the internet and I have been fighting against them as much as I can through various social media platforms but unfortunately I feel like I’m losing the battle and I thought, well I’m a scarred veteran of this and I would like to bring more people onto the side of good and so I’m appealing to you to help me push back the tide of ignorance. If you also feel strongly about this I appreciate you coming to listen please like comment and share this podcast. I’d appreciate if we get the word out and help to normalize the discussion, decrease the polarization and get people talking again.

Now I’ve seen what passes for discussion on these internet sites and basically it’s a lot of yelling and name calling and I think that’s mainly because there are uninformed folk on both sides of most issues and these people are pushing their own agendas or their leaders agendas without really understanding one or the other. It’s mainly tribalism and science succeeds by people actually thinking and questioning and going out and looking at the original sources and trying to do their own research so to arm you in this fight I’m putting together this podcast and this first one is the basics what is science. It’s commonly misconstrued in popular culture.

Well at the first iteration science is what scientists do collectively but that’s too simple and not very helpful but yes if you can listen to scientists instead of journalists instead of politicians on particular issues. Now science is not a list of facts. Many people think science is an accumulation of knowledge and that’s not science that’s more technology or engineering. Science is a process of applied skepticism by which we learn about the universe as it presents itself. We gain knowledge through science. So the scientific method is simplified to observe, make measurements, produce hypotheses about these measurements so how they came to be. Try to develop a calculation or a theory, test your hypotheses, test them rigorously and without bias and discard them when they’re found to be inaccurate, and then repeat. And this is the heart of science. This is what it is. It’s a tool. A tool to gain knowledge. And as in any human endeavor there will be errors and there will be people misusing it and there will be inaccurate popularizations and demagogues pushing agendas and it’s hard to sort through this if you’re uninformed.

Now I’m going to say something here: every paper that you read in science is not correct. There are a lot of errors out there and any one paper in its own is not necessarily gospel truth when it comes from science. Science advances through the weight of replication the weight of massive replication and evidence and as that evidence builds up scientists begin to realize that this particular theory is better than that particular theory and so it builds itself up and it’s self-correcting. If someone makes a mistake in a paper someone will try to replicate it or disprove it and science will then go back and say oh well this hypothesis was wrong.

Now a little bit of terminology in science: scientific laws are observations that can often be measured and demonstrated and repeated and often they have a formula that describes them like for example newton’s laws of motion which govern force equals mass time acceleration, every action has an equal and opposite reaction; the law of gravity you know and the popular statement of this is what goes up must come down; or Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. So these are all laws, well-observed things. Typically a formula can be used to represent them and they have limited explanatory power. Now there’s hypotheses. Hypotheses try to explain observations and these are things that scientists will put forward and test and try to put together a framework which has a predictive power and is able to predict how things happen. And then there are theories and theories are better than hypotheses. Theories pull a lot of stuff together, a lot, and they have a vast explanatory framework and typically they are hypotheses that have been tested and not disproven so they’ve been successfully tested over time and built up a lot of evidence behind them. And these are things like the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution and these are very different from Steve on the internet’s theory that the government is creating Covid viruses with cell phone towers. That usage of the word theory is not the scientific usage of the word theory.

Now to be a scientific theory obviously it has to have great explanatory power. It also must be falsifiable and that means you must be able to envision a measurement or a test that it could fail that would make you discard it. Otherwise if it can’t be tested it’s philosophy and this distinction is important. I mean some theories have been tested to such an extent that we don’t think that they will ever be falsified and that doesn’t mean that they weren’t originally falsifiable when they came into play it’s just that they’ve been so many times tested and found to be correct that we don’t expect a particular measurement will falsify it because the measurements have been made. Now what this means is one must be able to posit a measurement or discovery that would cause the theory to be discarded so this for example takes most of religion out of the realm of science. In fact if you were to say that ‘god did it’ is your theory of everything you could be right and no I’m not going to argue with you. I respect your opinion and your views and that’s fine. You may believe what you believe but it’s not science because you can’t falsify it. You can’t identify a particular thing that happens that would cause you to discard that hypothesis or theory, right? it’s not a theory from science because there’s nothing that could happen that wouldn’t be consistent with ‘god did it’ because you can just say god has a mysterious mind and this is part of his plan and we just don’t know it, right? So it’s not science and that’s fine.

Now another tenet of science, ‘nothing is ever proven in science’. “My product has been proven to do x y and z”. Well no, it hasn’t been proven. It’s been tested in a particular study and in this study there was statistical evidence that your product did x, right? it’s not proof. A better study could come along and find out that maybe we missed something in the first study or there was a confounding factor that hadn’t been controlled precisely that caused this thing. So one study isn’t proof. A lot of studies are a weight of evidence but it’s never proof in the sort of sense that most people would think of proof in science, right?

In science in fact I would say Stephen J Gould, an evolutionary biologist, said it best when he said “in science fact can only mean something that’s confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” So when scientists talk about facts they talk about something that’s very very well demonstrated, you know? Like you know laws, these sort of things that you don’t expect them to be, you would have to be perverse to say that they aren’t a fact even though they haven’t been quote unquote proven, there could be something that comes along to disprove them in the future.

At this point I’d like to take a break and thank my sponsors this podcast brought to you by my wife and covid-19 thank you for giving me the time to do this.

So I want to give you a statement by Bertrand Russell that I think I find is true. He says “the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves but wiser people so full of doubts.” And I’m sure any of you scientists out there will understand where I’m coming from. Scientists pride themselves on objectivity. We’re trained to identify and eliminate self-bias. We sound uncertain though when we’re talking to the general public. In scientific discourse we give our theories out and we are required to show the potential counter arguments and where we might be wrong or proven wrong in the future. So we have to present equally both sides of the argument and this makes us sound uncertain to the general public because obviously the fools are very certain of themselves. And I’ll talk about that in another podcast about the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Scientists all around the world come to the same conclusions by looking at the evidence. It’s not like religion where it depends on where you were born which theory you will follow. Scientists all around the world come to the same conclusions on all the same problems because they have the same measurements to look at, the same data to look at, and the same theories and equations. A core principle of science that you should understand is Occam’s razor. Occam’s razor basically states that the better theory has fewer assumptions. In other words if you have two theories describing something, scientists will try to get the more explanatory one as the basis. Scientific explanations basically evolve to become more elegant as they are refined and unifying theories are thought to be better if they can explain more observations with fewer assumptions. This is how science progresses, by getting more and more elegant theories using Occam’s razor cutting down to the more powerful explanatory theories, right?

And one example of this is in astronomy. The Ptolemaic geocentric theory was invented by, popularized I guess, by a guy named Ptolemy thousands of years ago in ancient Greece who said that the earth was at the center of the universe and everything revolved around the earth, the sun and the moon and the stars. And they had these great concentric spheres these crystal spheres and the outside was the sphere of the heavens or the fixed stars, right? And outside of that was the domain of gods, the perfect heavens. Along came a guy called Nicholas Copernicus and he said, ‘well now wait a minute. Yes we’ve been using this theory for a thousand years but it’s not really that good at predicting the positions of planets, right? You have to add these things called epicycles which are little circles about which the planets rotate on their spheres. They don’t stick to the motions of these fixed spheres but they have these circles that are added to the spheres that they need to do to make the observations fit.’ And we now know that this is because the orbits aren’t circular, they’re actually elliptical but at the time they were just adding these knobs to twiddle the theory to match the observations. And Copernicus basically said, ‘well what if we put the sun at the center? That explains some interesting things. It explains the apparent retrograde motion of the outer planets: Mars especially. Basically when earth passes mars in its orbit mars appears to move in the opposite direction with respect to the background stars as it does most of the time, which is the pro-grade motion, right?’

So this was great. Copernicus came up with this theory and it explained retrograde motion, but it had a drawback. The planet now has to move. Earth has to move around and spin and it doesn’t feel like the earth is moving. Why would the earth be moving? And he also still had to add epicycles to his heliocentric theory because he also used circular orbits instead of ellipses which we now know to be the true motion of the planets. And he had to have these epicycles so at the original time the Copernican model wasn’t any better at describing the positions of the planet than the Ptolemaic model but it explained an extra thing without having to have an epicycle for retrograde motion, so it was a little bit better in the scientific sense. And that it had more explanatory power.

Then along came a guy named Kepler. And Kepler is the guy who basically said, “well wait a minute, if I take this great data that my friend Tyco Brahe has given me on the orbit of mars; mars is the most elliptical of orbits of the inner planets that we know of. Now if we take this great data and fit it to an ellipse suddenly the epicycles go away. And this is an amazing breakthrough right now. We have even better models so science is progressing on the shoulders of each person. There’s an additional advance that gets us closer and closer to what we think of as the correct theory. So Kepler basically got rid of all these epicycles so there’s a lot there’s no more knobs necessary. We still have the planet moving about and we don’t know why the planet’s moving about. Many people think that, ‘oh well maybe it’s angels pushing the planets about’ and the church isn’t too pissed off if we do this. We think about it this way nobody knows really why the planets go around but here’s a very good explanation of why they do this. And he came up with Kepler’s planetary laws about how planets move and this was good. And you know it was a good calculation framework for calculating positions of the planets. It was really good. It didn’t have to keep track of epicycles, you just have to keep track of the ellipse.

Then along came Newton. And Newton was a genius who worked out the laws of motion and he was able to work out the law of gravity, universal gravitation. Universal gravitation explained Kepler’s orbits and this is really interesting. So Newton was the guy he basically, you know, you’ve heard of the apple falling, the story of the apple falling on his head. And he said “gravity”. Well people knew apples fell down. That wasn’t the thing that he realized. His great realization was that the same force pulling the apple to the earth pulls the planets to the sun. It pulls the moon to the earth. And the same equation that governs that apple falling on his head, when applied to the planets in orbit about the sun, gives you Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. So he came up with this amazing thing. An apple and the moon are falling following the same gravitational force. It’s universal gravitation. What an amazing breakthrough! And to be able to reach out to the planets and describe this thing and learn this first new thing… This is a scientific revolution.

And now we’ve all been told, you know, science has been proven wrong many times, right? Scientific revolutions come along and disprove and overturn everything before them but it’s not really the case that everything before it gets thrown out. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Almost always the previous understanding is retained as a special case of a more general better theory. And then this story that I tell you about Newton’s universal gravitation, well it got disproven by a guy named Einstein who came along and invented relativity which is basically our current theory of gravity. And it completely overturned Newtonian mechanics, right? Newtonian mechanics is only good for slow speeds, low masses, these sort of things. Einstein took these postulates about the speed of light and time and space and basically said, ‘well when you go close to the speed of light space is different’. Newtonian mechanics is wrong in these special cases. Newton is basically only used for when you’re not close to the speed of light but Einstein is much more general. It’s a unifying theory.

General relativity unified so many things it brought together Newtonian gravity, time dilation, relativistic aberrations, gravitational lensing, black holes just about damn near everything is explained by this. Everything but quantum mechanics was explained by this new theory of gravity, general relativity. So wow that’s great. We still use Newtonian mechanics to send spacecraft to the planets. Most of the work that’s done by rocket scientists to send probes and land them on the moon and mars is using Newton’s equations and very little actual practical stuff is using Einstein in terms of you know rocket science. It’s all based on Newton. So that’s really kind of an interesting thing to think about, right? Newton even though he’s been disproven is still used because he still accurately predicts things in the realm where speeds aren’t close to the speed of light.

Okay, so in closing I just want to go into a little bit of the philosophy of science. Many people will ask. ‘is science the path to truth?’ What about religion? What about, you know, philosophy? All these things. Is science the path to truth? Well what’s truth? Most people would say that truth implies some sort of correspondence to an objective reality that we all share and if you’re a philosopher please let me go with this I don’t want to get into the details about whether there’s a reality or whether we all share it. This is really quantum mechanics and we’ll talk about that some other time so the answer is nobody knows if science is the path to truth. You can’t really from science make claims on a path to truth. It could very well possibly be that Last Tuesdayism is a better description of reality than science. Perhaps we were all created last Tuesday by some all-powerful being with all of our memories intact and the earth is created with all this evidence of great age but it’s just a trick by some sort of omnipotent god who wants us to believe that the earth is old, and perhaps wants us to believe that it was created last Tuesday. Who knows? That could be true. You can’t say that that’s true or not.

Science mainly just tells you what an observation of the universe as we see it, as it presents itself, will be in the future. So it’s predicting. It’s making observations and predictions about the world that we seem to be in. It could be the matrix, right? We could be living in a simulation– a computer simulation. We could be, who knows what? So I’m not making any claims to truth science isn’t making any claims to truth. All it’s making is predictions about how things work in the universe as we find it and science is the best method for finding out about that.

So thank you very much for listening if you enjoyed this podcast please feel free to tune in again. My next podcast I’ll be talking about covid-19. Thank you for listening.

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