Science, Just Science

24 April 2007

The Scientific Method

Filed under: Creationism & Intelligent Design,Science — Kyuuketsuki @ 10:37 am

The following discussion is designed to explain how science as a methodology applies to the real world.

Science is a methodology and any interpretations based with the scientific knowledge base should be necessarily derived from properly derived data. By “scientifically derived” I refer to the characteristics of science which were necessarily established during the US legal trial, McLean? v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1996:

  • It is guided by natural law and is explanatory by reference to those natural laws;

  • It is testable against the empirical world;

  • Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and

  • It is falsifiable.

“Science” which begins with an unshakeable assumption, is not true science. True science is about having no assumptions until they have been accepted through the application of evidence and have demonstrated resilience to genuine falsifiability experiments. Though “creation science” (the foundation upon which the newer “Intelligent Design” theory is built) was once the predominant “scientific” theory it was outmoded in geological terms in the early 1800’s, in natural history terms in the mid 1800’s and in genetic terms in the late 1800′, early 1900’s. The evidence against “scientific creationism” (another near identical variant of “creation science”) is now so huge that it is no longer considered to be an adequate theory (and even ‘hypothesis’ is an inadequate term for creationism in this day & age) to explain the nature of the universe as it is understood today.

A scientific theory is not a guess or an approximation but an extensive explanation developed from well-documented and reproducible sets of data derived from experiments, which repeatedly observe natural processes. From such data models are developed and it is important to note that these models (and their subsequent outcomes) are not decided in advance but can be modified and improved as new empirical evidence is uncovered. Science is constantly subject to peer-review and can be seen to be a self-correcting attempt to understand nature and the observable universe. Science is not teleological that is to say theories do not start with a conclusion, refuse to change and acknowledge only data that the initial conclusion supports. Further, science does not base its theories on untestable collections of dogmatic, mythical or mystical proposals but is characterised by questions, hypothetical proposals, design of empirical models and conceptual frameworks with the aim of researching natural events.

Science is naturalistic in the sense that it is the study of the natural universe turning to the natural universe as a source of the explanation. This can be called methodological naturalism, because it defines the methods and language that are admissible in the scientific study. Many (but not all) scientists are also philosophical (ontological) naturalists; that is, they believe that the physical universe uncovered by science is all that there is. This is a philosophical position consistent with methodological naturalism, but by no means a necessarily consequence of it, as the existence of religious scientists attests. Methodological naturalism is also entirely consistent with a sophisticated, inquiring religious faith.

The scientific method relies upon two phases, those of observation and hypothesis or theory. Hypotheses and theories differ where a hypothesis is the less certain … theories, as mentioned above, are considered to be widely accepted and fully formed explanations of observable data. It is worth noting that scientific laws are theries themselves; simply generalised descriptions of the behaviour of ideal or isolated systems and will seldom, if ever, occur exactly as predicted in the real world because the only truly naturally occurring, isolated system is the universe itself. Hypotheses, although not as certain as theories, must still be verifiable or repeatable, falsifiable and must only use as accepted facts theories which have yet to be found flawed. All laws, theories and hypotheses are constantly under “attack” and may be removed from understood science in one of two ways … an observation may be made which does not fit the hypothesis forcing modification or a new experiment may be devised that proves the hypothesis to be false. While any given theory may ultimately turn out to be incorrect it is in this way that science continues to be certain that each theory represents our best current explanation of the phenomena under consideration.

As outlined in the US legal trial, McLean? v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1996 the major characteristics of the scientific method are that it is guided & explainable by natural law, verifiable (testable against the empirical world), tentative (its conclusions are not absolute and that it is falsifiable:

Natural Law
Natural law is central to science. Natural laws are broad generalisations, essentially descriptions, of the way nature has been repeatedly observed to operate. If a phenomenon depends on supernatural intervention, then it is not relying on natural laws, it is not explanatory by reference to natural law and is hence not scientific. (Overton, 1982)

Another essential characteristic of science is the requirement that a scientific theory be falsifiable, that it be testable and most scientific theories have some trouble with this criterion. Historically based theories such as evolution cannot turn history back so we can view it directly but in that it is no different from many other forms of science. Of course no one can literally look directly back to any time prior to their own lifetimes so what are we to do? Would the critics of science have us assume that everything before our own time is untrue?

Once a hypothesis has been tested through observation/experiment and/or prediction it must be possible for other experimenters to repeat those self-same observations. That verification may employ the same experimental techniques or different ones but it must be possible.

Scientists often say there are no hard facts, that is to say that nothing is “set in stone” in science, although being human, scientists are often reluctant to give up long-standing theories. From this (and from verification) it can be seen that science is self-correcting. If a given hypothesis or theory does not fit the available evidence it is modified or it is discarded to be replaced with one that better fits the observations… it really is that simple.

Within science many things are not directly observable. No scientist is able to see within the heart of a star or planet, no one has directly observed “black-holes”, dinosaurs, gravity or sub-atomic molecules but much data is available concerning these objects and few scientists doubt the validity of such findings. “Black holes” are not directly visible but scientists searching for explanations of the beginning of our universe hypothesised their existence and the effects that would be caused by such bodies and several such bodies were later identified.

Whilst it may not always be possible to demonstrate how something happened in much of science it is often possible to demonstrate how something could have happened. Having demonstrated how something could happen that hypothesis can be used to predict other events and thus confirm or deny their own validity.

At the root of any theory or scientifically derived conclusion there should be a reasonable interpretation of scientifically derived data that means that data that was acquired non-scientifically can be disqualified. Hypotheses do not necessarily require such supporting evidence because hypotheses are essentially unproven assumptions. Nevertheless hypotheses have significant value in that they can form the framework for further research and may, one day, evolve into theories.

Many individuals are under the mistaken apprehension that to carry out science it is necessary conduct experiments … this is a vastly over-simplified view. Science requires that a hypothesis or model is formulated and that that is then tested against observations to determine its validity. Experiments are just one means of generating those observations that the validation of a given hypothesis requires. Stars & volcanoes have never been built in laboratories but science nevertheless knows a great deal about such objects.

In general, claims that science opposes the inspired word of a given religion’s god are unwarranted; scriptural interpretation is rarely so straightforward that a literal reading suffices. In the main, while religions do make claims about the world, and while some of these claims may be subject to scientific scrutiny, the core claims of most religions are historical or philosophical in nature, and are thus the preserve of those disciplines.

As for claims that science or theories and disciplines within science are simply religions in themselves, whilst it must be admitted that some individuals do follow science in such a manner, science neither requests nor requires faith in any measure beyond a belief in an ordered, comprehensible universe, and apart from that, shares none of the main characteristics associated with religious belief systems.

“The Talk.Origins Archive Feedback: August 1999”, Kenneth Fair
“The Talk.Origins Archive Feedback: July 1997”, John Wilkins
“Information For All Biologists”, Dr. Morden
“Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism”, Kitcher (1982)
National Center for Science Education 1999

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