Home | Feedback | Feedback-General |     Share This Page
Reader Feedback to "What is Science?"

Selected reader responses will be posted here.
All names and some identifying details will be withheld.
The visitors' prose and grammar is in all cases uncorrected.

Portions Copyright © 2008, Paul LutusMessage Page

Quick Links:
I'm Confused | Is a College Degree Important? | Scientific Laws | Theories vs. Laws I | Theories vs. Laws II | Thoughts on the Definition of Science

(double-click any word to see its definition)

I'm Confused
(Unidentified Poster #2): Science is generally defined as "Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation."

(Paul Lutus): [At this point my correspondent has acquired a dictionary definition of science. For reasons explained here, this is a mistake.]

(Paul Lutus): Somehow I knew you would offer your own definition. But in point of fact, "systematic knowledge" is the product of science, not the process. Science is defined by how it gathers and evaluates evidence, not by the evidence itself. Your definition of science as systematic knowledge is on a par with defining agriculture as potatoes. There is more to it than that — at some point, someone has to get his hands dirty.

(Me): How is it a mistake to use a textbook definition of science,
I didn't object to a textbook definition of science, I very clearly objected to a dictionary definition of science, for reasons given here:


To summarize, one of my correspondents tried to use a dictionary definition of science, but dictionaries don't define words, they report how people choose to use words, sometimes in incorrect and inconsistent ways, as in my example using the dictionary entry for "literally" (which is regularly used to mean "figuratively").

I objected very clearly, and I gave the grounds for my objection, again very clearly.
but, at the same time, you use the textbook definition for support of your argument? The definition of science must be by consensus. The consensus of what constitutes science is very well-established, but it happens not to be located in a dictionary. I've made this point very clearly. I appreciate your proposal here, but there are far too many holes in your argument Name one. You very clearly did not read or understand the argument before declaring it a logical Swiss Cheese. - at least, you are quite contradictory when your posts are viewed as a whole. Where is your evidence? I have been utterly consistent. Dictionaries cannot define science because that is not a dictionary's purpose. An encyclopedia does a much better job, which is why I quoted one at length in my article "What is science?".

Point out a contradiction that arises from a balanced reading of the debate and that doesn't misunderstand and quote out of context.
I have more to come. Please read the material you have objected to first. I never claimed that a textbook definition of science is flawed.

Once you understand what a dictionary's purpose is, your objection evaporates.
I hope that you do not take my pointing this out in a bad way; You haven't pointed out a logical inconsistency. You have revealed that you haven't read and understood the debate on its merits.
Is a College Degree Important?
Thanks for your interesting article on science. I'd like to believe your statement, but I suspect this (your statement) is an idealism:
"If a scientist submits a paper to a reputable scientific journal ... the content of the paper is the only issue."
How did you determine that?
By being a scientist, of course. Even though I don't have a degree, in 1986 I was named "Scientist of the Year" by the Oregon Academy of Science, and I have never been asked to produce a degree in 30 years of publishing scientific and technical articles.

Many scientists eventually acquire a degree as a way to increase their status among uneducated people (or are granted honorary degrees), but this has no bearing on their status among scientists.

Notable autodidacts (self-taught people) include: This list is by no means complete (or organized). The correlation between scientific and technical education and accomplishment is slight, and where it exists, the cause-effect relationship is indeterminate. The educational establishment does all it can to keep people from finding this out. One way educators do this is by awarding honorary degrees to successful scientists and technologists, thus bringing them into the fold ex post facto.

Addendum — a more complete list is located at: Autodidactic Hall of Fame.
Scientific Laws
I do want to offer a comment about your discussion of theories. I completely agree with the basic tenets you set forth, but would disagree about your statement "...there are no scientific laws." I was taught (by the great Professor Mark Zymansky!) Are you aware that science rejects authority? Given this, if you want to put forth a scientific idea and if you want to set the proper tone, avoid quoting an authority to back it up.

Also, if this is what you were taught by the "great Professor Mark Zymansky [sic: Zemansky]," you wasted your tuition fees. Based on Zemansky's reputation I personally think there was a communication breakdown between what he said and what you heard.
and still believe there ARE physical laws and they are taken as a given until such time as they fail to behave as such. But this contradicts the meaning of the word "law". Laws aren't mutable or subject to debate, and this is by design. Scientific theories are perpetually mutable and subject to debate, and this is also by design. Newton's second law, for example, (F=MA) has been shown to be true (in significantly sub-light-speed velocities) so many times that it is no longer presented as a theory. This is false, and you have chosen a perfect example. Newton's Second "Law" is now known to be an approximation of reality, one based on an underlying theory that has been falsified.

Laws don't work this way. Laws don't make statements that depend on circumstances. The law against murder doesn't depend on the circumstance that someone is a powerless figure in society — the same law must apply to all [at least in principle].
However it is not taken as religious gospel, But that is how "laws" must be treated — they aren't subject to debate or personal judgment. If this condition isn't met, it isn't a law.

You are reduced to saying that F = ma is (1) a law, but (2) "not taken as religious gospel". In other words, you have posed a contradiction.
at least not by practicing engineers or experimental physicists. In point of fact, Newton's entire theoretical structure was built on sand. It has been replaced by a theory that is based on different principles and that makes different predictions. As it happens, those predictions are in much better agreement with reality, which is how scientific theories are judged. Every once in a while we try smashing something against a wall (or another particle) to get an F that still meets the MA relationship. This is simply false. F = ma is only true at zero velocity, in which case there's no "a", if you get my point. F = ma (as written) was never true, and it wasn't properly tested until recently.

A relativistic treatment of F = ma:

What is relativistic mass?
And then of course, there are the Three laws of thermodynamics. They ... aren't ... laws. This kind of talk is meant to pummel ignoramuses, not inform thinkers. It is just a deplorable way of speaking, created by technical elitists intent on dominating ignorant people. And this way of speaking reveals the ignorance of the speaker more than the listener.

History proves this kind of talk is dangerous. After we declare an idea a law, it is only a matter of time before we start burning heretics at the stake for doubting it. It's all theory!

Law respects force and authority. Theory respects evidence and reality-testing. Law is top-down and hierarchical. Theory is bottom-up and subversive.
Contrast F=MA with the Theory of Relativity. There is no contrast. The two theoretical statements are based on different foundations. And the relativistic form passes modern tests that the Newtonian form fails. That is still up for grabs Nonsense. If there were a serious debate about the distinction between the Newtonian and relativistic theories, we wouldn't have accurate GPS. GPS relies for its present high accuracy on the predictions of the special and general theories of relativity (both of them, and for different reasons). Remember this the next time you are in an airliner landing after dark, or in foggy weather:
  • The only reason you are not killed during such a landing is because
  • GPS is supremely accurate, in turn because
  • It takes into account a number of subtle relativistic effects not even present in the Newtonian picture of reality.
and every few years there appears to be an observation that contradicts the theory. If by "theory" you mean relativity theory, I invite you to name a contradicting observation that is reliable and repeatable, and remember that you said "contradicts". (Don't bother to mention quantum theory in this connection, because quantum and relativistic theories address different domains.) Not disproven yet, physicists are still not convinced to grant the mantle of Law to it. Physicists will never call relativity a law, and they never described Newton's system as law either. That's the province of ignorant journalists, which is where you are getting this "law" nonsense. Some day we may have the Laws of Relativity. Just not now.
  • Relativity theory regularly make predictions accurate to ten decimal places.
  • We could not communicate as we do, or travel as we do, if relativity theory was in any significant way contradicted by reality.
  • Nevertheless, relativity theory will always be ... a theory.
All you have done is show that you have been misinformed about the nature of science. It is not the point of scientific theory to eventually become law, the sole point of theory is to organize and test what we know.

Scientists are encouraged to test theories — that is the business of science. But adults are not encouraged to test laws — that is the business of teenagers.

As scientists mature and become more effective, they realize that all theories are testable and potentially falsifiable, and this is by design.

As teenagers mature and become more effective, they realize that no laws are testable except by fools, and this is by design.

This means science isn't remotely like the rest of life, where the point is to reduce the number of ideas it is acceptable to hold, until everyone believes the same brainless thing (and people like George Bush can be elected president).

To an educated person it becomes apparent that science is an open system, which is why politicians don't trust scientists (and they shouldn't). By contrast, laws are a closed system, and as the world's population increases, people create more and more laws to reduce friction, until finally it becomes impossible to obey all the laws and everyone becomes a felon.

Naturally, under these circumstances, it is inevitable that people will try to portray science as part of the legal system. But such a "perfect" scientific system is a threat to meaningful science, in the same way that a "perfect" legal system is a threat to meaningful life.

On a smaller scale, the problem with calling a theory a "law" is that it denies the possibility of modification or falsification. Falsification lies at the heart of science, and all scientific theories are in principle falsifiable by new evidence.

Laws are not falsified, they are repealed. But they are not repealed by Swiss patent clerks.
Theories vs. Laws I
Hi... reading one of your psychology articles, which I found really interesting, you said that once something becomes a 'law' it leaves the domain of science. What about the laws of thermodynamics or the laws of motion? Are these actual laws, or just as referred to as such, and if they are actual laws, are they not science? These aren't actually laws — this way of describing scientific results only reveals an ignorance of science that is sadly common among journalists.

Everything in science is either a hypothesis or a theory, and there are no laws. A hypothesis is an idea that doesn't have any supporting evidence. It might eventually have evidence, or it might be shown to be false, but as long as it's just an idea with no evidence, it's a hypothesis. Theories differ from hypotheses by having some supporting evidence. String theory in physics, in spite of its name, is a hypothesis because there is no realistic prospect for obtaining evidence for it.

The Theory of Evolution is a theory because there is excellent supporting evidence, both in nature and in computer models. The computer models show how very complex results can evolve from simple beginnings — they don't know what the result will be, but use selective pressures to choose the next step, e.g. they evolve. In my article Mathematical Locusts I reveal how a computer model can imitate a well-known locust behavior and create the same complex result seen in nature, but without knowing in advance what outcome nature chose.

Einstein's relativity theories were hypotheses from 1905 until the 1960s, when they were validated in experiments. Plate Tectonics was a hypothesis from 1912 until the 1960s, when it was confirmed by evidence. In spite of the excellent supporting evidence, these examples are theories, not laws.

The label "theory" is meant to remind everyone that scientific ideas are provisional and open to debate, and that any of them may be falsified by new evidence. Theories are never proven true once and for all, but they can be falsified. There's a famous saying about this — “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion” — David Hume.

A law is not open to debate. You don't argue with a law unless you're a teenager, and if the latter, you quickly learn why you don't argue with laws.

Laws are immutable, respect authority and precedent, and are top-down. Theories are flexible, respect creativity and evidence, and are bottom-up.

This theory/law dichotomy lies at the heart of science, and it represents a clear signal that any idea is open to challenge. Consider the case of Albert Einstein, who in 1905 was a lowly patent clerk in a Swiss patent office. Einstein had not completed his degree and had no academic position, but from this position he overthrew most of the physics of his time. He could do this because there are no scientific laws and because in science, evidence trumps eminence.

Once an idea moves from theory to law, it leaves the realm of science. This happens because science isn't defined by its results, it's defined by how people acquire those results. Science isn't the product, it's the process, and for that process to succeed, everything must be open to investigation. Ideas that aren't open to scientific investigation are not part of science.

Religious fundamentalists play games with science's respect for new ideas. They try to claim that, because everything in science is provisional, scientists aren't sure of anything, and therefore science has no value. These critics manage to miss the irony that lifesaving vaccines spring directly from science's openness to new ideas.

A society that begins to prefer laws to ideas quickly grinds to a halt. Societies that survive do so by being open to new ideas, by evolving to meet new challenges, by imitating nature. It is in this way that science reflects nature.
Theories vs. Laws II
So — are you saying they've just been applied to the term laws by non-scientists and are actually theories? I don't really understand your phrasing. I'm saying there aren't any laws in science, just hypotheses and theories. just looking for clarification ... I'm actually going into chemical engineering, but we don't cover much general 'science theory' and just specific stuff related to the field I'm sorry to hear that. Understanding science is rather important in modern times. If you don't understand science, some "expert" might come along say, "it's a scientific law!" and have his way with you. This kind of authoritarianism has nothing to do with science and can't be distinguished from religion.

I'll never figure out why educators won't teach just a little science while indoctrinating you. Oh, I guess I just answered my own question.
Thoughts on the Definition of Science
Your conversation with the person whom believes that psychology shold be seen as science has prompted a thought. I was wondering if the issues of Science would not be better served by a review of the definition, since there seems to be such a lack of understanding of the current definition. We should review the definition of science because people don't understand the present one? That's how dictionaries work, it's not how science works. Dictionaries pay total attention to what people think words mean — that's a dictionary's purpose. But science has a higher calling and it can't be allowed to change just because people don't understand it.

If science didn't work, if science couldn't create lifesaving vaccines, spacecraft and lasers, that would be different. But science works, and it's not responsible for the fact that people don't understand it. The burden is on people to comprehend science, not on science to make itself comprehensible.
I put that question forward because the issues that arise from the formulation of a Hypothesis and then the falsification of that therory seems to essentially mean that the therory is true unless you can prove it doesn't. Did you actually read the article you are replying to? This is not how science works. In science, an idea is assumed to be false unless and until there is evidence to support it. In this, do we not create shadows and strawmen wasting as much as 95% of our resources of time and energy, effort and creativity that could be utilized much more efficiently? That is a point I make in my article, almost word for word. Maybe you should read the article before making all its points over again. Could we not observe our surroundings, develop an understanding of what is reality and utilize what we see as utilitarian and work with our realities to best utilize them? That is science's purpose, and one of science's ground rules is to assume that a hypothesis is false until it has evidence. And this is covered in my article. Instead of disproving an hypothesis should we not prove our observations, and use them to better our existance? Okay, I see the problem. You are replying to the article's title, not its content. Please ... read ... the ... article.


I can't make a YouTube video to help you understand science. You have to read.

Home | Feedback | Feedback-General |     Share This Page