Michael Battalio


Friday, October 30, 2015

Serious conversations (part 64): What is science - part 2

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

Before we summarized the conversation we will have.  In essence, we are trying to determine who is a scientist and why is it we have this hierarchy in science.  Now, we get to the question at hand.

So what is science?  A first, working definition might be the systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena.  This leads to a lot of questions.  Must science have the end of brand new knowledge?  Is science the actual research and discovery of new knowledge or does it include the repetitive grunt work too (like performing labs in a doctor's office or is even a medical doctor practicing science?)?  As humans are a part of nature, is the study of history or music or art or even the analysis of sports statistics also science?  Given this broad definition, then what is not science?

This is a bit overwhelming, and I fear I’m going to have to rely on intuition to lead me.  I don’t think science requires the discovery of new knowledge.  It could be the redefinition of knowledge in a new paradigm (like atomic theory for instance).  I also think that the reproduction of knowledge at its most basic form is still science, so I think that duplication is still science. Consider a student in a Chemistry 1 lab.  Say they are producing salicylic acid.  Are they performing science?  Given the definition that science is systematic observation of nature to discover facts and then formulate laws about nature, at first glance what they are doing is not science because the production of aspirin is a well described process.  It is not new; they are not contributing to the knowledge of nature.  Here are two counter points:  One, since they are reproducing the method, are they not in some minute way proving that method?  Doesn’t that have scientific value, even though it has been done probably millions of times?  By reproducing it, they prove the method accurate again.  Demonstrating something to be a fact requires reproducibility.  Two, expanding the knowledge of humanity can have two definitions.  You could be expanding the knowledge of all of humanity (all ~40 billion of us that have existed) or you could expand the knowledge of the one person, yourself.  By performing the experiment, the student increases their own knowledge of nature.  It is a personal science.  Considering these points, I argue that even a student performing a basic experiment that has already been proven is still doing science.  Given this definition almost everything is science in some form.

  As far as the where to draw the line to call science, I am open to a debate on that.  There are definitely components of art and music that are science based, like the spacing of notes or the definition of intervals or keys in music or the color wheel in art.  However, you cannot ascribe scientific methodology to aesthetics.  Aesthetics is something we could spend a whole discussion on in and of itself.  So I would say that art and music have components of science that help us define why some types of music or art are more appealing to us, but science cannot define why some people like country music or don’t like classical.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Serious conversations (part 63): What is science - part 1

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

This first post merely defines the question and serves as an introduction to this longer sub-series.  So what is science?  And related:  Who is a scientist?

I’d like to take a paragraph to talk about the science of meteorology.  Recently, I put some thought into this because I know a lot of colleagues who have gone into forecasting or broadcasting and consider what they do science and themselves scientists.  Don’t get me wrong; many of them are actually practicing science.  Forecasting in and of itself is science, even though it is very repetitious and monotonous, in the same that grunt lab work is still science.  Many of the good ones actually review the models and observations on their own without the help of the National Weather Service, and some of them ignore the NWS altogether.  Some of them are better at forecasting than the local NWS office.   That is science, but many others just want to look pretty on camera.  Delivering science isn’t science itself.  They are not scientists.  In their forecasts, they merely copy what others have said.  Distribution of science is not science in and of itself.   Summarization is not science.  It bothers me that those people think what they do is science.  It is demeaning to other meteorologists or atmospheric dynamicists, physicists, and chemists.  Meteorology is fluid dynamics, which is applied physics.  When a lot of people enter broadcast meteorology, they don’t realize that you have to take a lot of math and physics, but they are so enamored with the potential fame that they somehow squirm their way though the math and physics with C’s and think that they are scientists at the end even though all they did is temporarily memorize some formulae to pass a test.  (This is a bit of a rant against people who have mediocre grades yet still get the degree thinking they’ve accomplished as much as those that did with GPA’s close to 4.0’s.  This is elitism, but I have no problem calling myself an elitist.  Society doesn’t reward high grades enough.  Once you get your first job, they no longer matter.  That’s sad, especially since I have worked so hard [at times] to get them over the last 20 years.)  


I also want to take a moment to comment on the hierarchy of science.  In my academic career I’ve gotten the general impression that physics looks down on the other sciences as being lesser, easier, and derivative.  This is somewhat true as all the other sciences are in some way or another applied physics.  (I also feel the disdain of pure theorists who look down on experimentalists.  That is a different conversation.)  One reason I’ve always been drawn to physics even though I’m reasonably happy as a atmospheric dynamist is that I feel that physics is somehow a higher pursuit, and at times I still regret having gone into atmospheric science in the first place when I think I would be much happier in particle physics or astrophysics.
 
2003-2016 Michael Battalio (michael[at]battalio.com)