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Tuesday, October 8, 2019
On A Definition Of Science
On A Definition Of
This is a common
description of science:
In simple words,
science is the practice of thinking about things and producing new systematized knowledge.
of science is thousands of years old.
It is long overdue
to rethink what science is, what science is for, and how science is done. Nowadays, too many people can claim that they are "thinking about things and producing new systematized knowledge" - for example, any bloger, or even an active Facebook user.
science, every science proves one point, a point that is common to every
science and accepted by every scientist. This point is very clear and simple –
about the universe changes – it grows.
Today we know much
more about the universe outside and inside of us – humans, than thousands years
ago, or even a hundred, or even
But the fact of
the matter is that the knowledge does not just accumulates, grows.
It also evolves.
What was common
knowledge some time ago may be replaced with completely new.
Of course, the
majority of our new knowledge just covers the areas where in the past knowledge
simply did not exist – in those areas the know knowledge replaces the absence
of past knowledge. However, some new knowledge may clarify, rectify, or negate and
replace some of the past knowledge.
Some elements of
science that used be considered “knowledge” have been removed from science. Some
of the examples are a philosopher’s stone, perpetuum mobile, the Ptolemaic
model, eugenics, and many many more.
This evolution of
science should also involve our understanding of science - what science is, how
does this practice happen, what does this practice include.
In particular, there
are areas that in a past were considered as science, but nowadays is not really
treated as such anymore. For example, botany and zoology both eventually became
a part of biology. Botany is not really a science anymore, but a field of
practice that has some elements of science, starting from classification.
Why is the change?
At the birth of
science, the mission of science was developing new knowledge – any kind of
knowledge. The main method for that was using language for describing observed
events/phenomena, including objects, their properties, processes happening to
those objects, and properties of those processes. The result and the product of
science was – a description.
development of mathematics, that description could employ some abstract
elements, but for a very long time mathematics was evolving on its own and was
not considered as a tool to study the nature (despite the fact that the origins
of mathematics were deeply rooted in naturalistic observations).
The idea of
“predictability” was not really a part of a scientific development until about
18th century (however, it was assumed that a good shaman, oracle,
wiser, astrologists could predict important events).
With the advances
in physics and chemistry, scientific community slowly adapted a new mission of
science – making reliable predictions based on developing new knowledge. However,
even now a scientific community does not have a unified view on the mission of
science. A simple search demonstrates that; try “mission of science” and you
will see missions of science departments, scientific magazines, institutions,
but not the mission of science as a
This fact may have
several interpretations, including that scientists do not really know what they
do (“What do you do? Science. What is it? I don’t know.”).
The central feature of the human practice called "science" is predictability - that is what separates science from anything/everything else. From this point
forward, I define science as a human
practice with the mission of making reliable predictions based on previously collected
knowledge and/or developed of new knowledge.
and collecting knowledge, clarifying and rectifying it – is a part of
scientific discourse, but not sufficient yet on its own to make that practice to
If not science –
By employing this
definition of science, we utilize one deeply scientific action –
classification, part of which involves different names: science v. scientific
field – to giving different objects (physical or abstract).
Now we can make a
statement about a specific scientific area of practice that represents a
scientific field but not a science.
The state of a
scientific practice in education is similar to botany, or alchemy.
The vast majority
of publications in education are not much different from the letters of an
explorer sent back to the academy from an unknown frontier – a simple
description of objects and events encountered during practice, “spiced” by some
speculations on why would those events occurred in the way they did.
The use of some statistical
method doesn't make it more scientific. On the contrary, it covers up the fact
that - what is done is not science (i.e.
fact of using math does not make practice scientific (e.g. astrology,
numerology). If a mathematical analysis of statistical correlations demonstrates
a strong correlation between two parameters, that may have some significance - if the number of important parameters
influencing a system is small. However, when the number of parameters
governing the evolution of a system is large, a strong correlation between two
parameters have no significant meaning. Yes, it exists – and that’s that. There
are, or at least may be, many other strong correlations that the analysis does
not show. Hence, the model cannot be used to make any reliable predictions.
Hence, it is not scientific.
This is a case for
any social system including educational systems.
study/research in education may eventually lead to a transition of this field
into science; in that sense, this field now is in a pre-science state; it is a
pre-science. To make a reliable prediction, scientific practice needs to
collect vast amount of data – i.e. knowledge presented in a numerical form, and
then to analyze the data to establish robust correlations. The difficulty is
that social systems are much more complicated and diverse than physical (even
quantum or astrophysical).
Take, for example,
a simple unit of education – a class. There are almost infinitely many
combinations of students with different backgrounds, cultural histories,
economic circles, etc. But in theory, all possible states of this system – a
class – could be described in terms of the values of specific parameters (age,
gender, race, and more). And the following observations could let the
development of models robust enough for making reliable predictions about the
evolution of this system (and its elements - students). Clearly, this type of
research would require vast funds and completely new approach/strategy to
educational study, and currently is not even being considered by any
governmental of private entity. Some publications on the matter are:
Now, let’s discuss
a more specific matter – a research, because this is what people do in science.
“I’m a scientist,
I research/study this”.
There are two
types of a research - a scientific research, and a generic research.
A genetic research
happens when one just describes what one encounters; it is a search combined
with some verbal description of events. This is what people usually call a
“study”. “I study bacteria (or stars)” used to mean (and often still means) “I
am looking in a microscope (or a telescope) at those tiny (huge) objects and
describe what is happening to them”.
research includes a generic one, but also involves a search for patterns and strong
correlations. Scientific research cannot be done without collecting data. To
test if a research is scientific enough, one checks how many predictions can be
done based on its results, and how reliable those predictions are. Those tests are
often being called – experiments.
There are three types
of a scientific research; they are based on originality and technical
difficulty of a research.
1. Standard research - anyone (in the field) can
come up with its idea, and then anyone (with resources) can do it. It is just a
matter of who comes up with this idea first. This is the type of a research
that one finds in 99.99 % of all science publications. Currently, in physics a
popular research is to check if quantum mechanics still works for large
objects or at high
temperatures. Ideologically that does not represent anything new. For example,
write, quote: “Our results show excellent agreement with quantum theory”. But the
technologies that allow such experiments have become available only fairly
recently; such experiments demonstrate more of engineering power than science.
BTW: the popular treatment of quantum mechanics in this publication
is a good and common example of how a dilettante who does not understand basics
makes simply wrong statements (like “interference means an object exists at two
places at the same time” – no, it doesn’t). More on quantum entanglement in "Can An electron Travel through Two Slits At The Same Time?" or "On Entanglement Between SuperFluidity, SuperConductivity and Entanglement".
research - everyone has an idea of this research, but no one can do it – until
finally someone does. An example is the Fermat's
Last Theorem (until recently).
3. The original
research - not anyone can come up with that idea, but when the idea is out
there, anyone could do it as well. An example of this research is Einstein’s
explanation of the photoelectric effect. The original research is the one that
may lead to a change in a scientific paradigm.
Now a note on the
importance of language in science.
Scientists do not
talk to each other like: “Hey, Jim, look at that thing with a thing doing this thing”.
They develop a specific language to communicate. Some of the words in that
language may sound/look like regular words from an every-day vocabulary, but in
fact they usually have a very narrow, specific meaning; and there are also
words (and even symbols) invented specifically for scientific communication. Everyone
who study science must learn that language.
Nowadays there are
many pseudo-scientific writer who write about scientific discoveries but are
too lazy to learn scientific language. Many do not understand the difference between an actual object and an abstract description of its properties. This happens a lot when people write
about physics, especially about quantum mechanics. Without getting into more
details (follow to this page for the details: Fundamentals
of Quantum Physics), I just want to note that many of those writers do not
know the meaning of even such fundamental terms like “an object”, “a field”, “a
wave”, “a particle”.
An object is
something that represents the focus of our attention. This is what we are talking about. An object can be physical (e.g.
we can touch it; often we also call it a "system") or abstract (e.g. a symbol). A small physical object localized
at a specific place in space is called a particle (usually, we say a "system" when we focus on many particles or on a large object). Some people believe that
this definition should be broaden to: “a particle is a small physical object
that can be localized at several specific places in space at the same time”, but so far, this is
a matter of a debate. Using a traditional definition of a particle, we can say
that it may occupy some location; locations may change with time; and then we
can start developing means for describing that change, and then describing
possible interaction with other particles. A particle may exhibit a
deterministic behavior, or a probabilistic behavior. For each particle to describe what is happening to it, we can
assign a set of parameters, and a specific set of values of those parameters we
call “a state of a particle”. That state may evolve, i.e. change in time; when that happens, we call it "a process", or a "behavior".
A field is a
mathematical (i.e. abstract) description used to represent properties of matter in large
regions of space. A field is used to assign a specific state to many different
locations in space. But at each location in space there is (almost) always an
actual physical object – usually described as a particle ("an atom", "a molecule", "an elementary cell") – in a specific
physical state. This is what we call a physical substance. In reality, a physical
substance always has a structure. A physical substance is composed of many
interacting and localized objects – a smallest portion of a substance that
repeats itself in space; and all of them can have different states, hence, evolve.
Again, a field is an abstract object used to describe
properties of many particles existing simultaneously within a large region of
space. In other words, a field is an abstract construct used to describe a distribution
of possible states in space and time. Every existing field (with one exception, so far)
– even quantum ones – can have such an interpretation. One exception is –
a gravitational field. So far, we do not know if gravitons (quantum particles
associated with a gravitational field) exist. Most probably they do, and in that
case even a gravitational field becomes just an abstract construct. But until we
know for sure, we can treat a gravitational field as a mathematical description
of the actual properties of space and time at different locations and instants
within large regions of space and time. We can think of space-time as a
substance. At a classical level, an electromagnetic field also looks like a field
with no substance that describes a state of each point in space at a given
time, but at the quantum level it becomes a description of light-particles,
When a state of a
substance changes, it is reflected in the changes in the field associated with that substance. That change may
affect different parts of a substance in a specific – consecutive-like –
manner. This process is called a “transfer” or a “propagation” and can be
described in terms of regular (in some way) physical and abstract objects called “waves”. A
wave is just a specific shape of a substance, and a specific way for a substance to change its state. A mathematical
description of a physical wave is an abstract construct that represents a
specific state of a field.
When people who
write about physics do not know its language, what they write often does not
make any sense. It may sound “scientific”, though, for a person who did not have
solid science classes.There is a difference between writing about science and being a scientist (as well as there is some difference between doing science and being a scientists).
The best science
to teach science - its way of
thinking about nature, its language and principles - is physics.
Because physics is
the simplest of all natural sciences, and hence, the most developed and most understood