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When is a subject one of science?

  1. Sep 15, 2003 #1

    Ivan Seeking

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    When does a subject qualify as a subject of science?

    Consider ball lightning. This phenomenon was long thought to be a simple matter of false perceptions and exaggerations. Now I understand that this is considered to be a genuine meteorological phenomenon. When and how did this happen? The pictures that I have seen don't constitute proof of this claim. I don't think we have ever made the stuff to any degree of satisfaction.

    Earthquake lights are another example. This used to be treated as pseudoscience. Now it is used to explain other pseudoscientific propositions. When did this happen. Where is the evidence for these phenomena?

    How does a disputed subject make this transition? Is this just a matter of a popularity head count? Is there some kind of magic number? Does one, or one hundred good pieces of evidence constitute a credible subject?

    You all know where I'm coming from, but I think the question is valid. Despite the best efforts of many credible scientists, some subjects mysteriously remain taboo.

    Were Einstein an Heisenberg right: Science progresses one death at a time.
     
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  3. Sep 15, 2003 #2

    hypnagogue

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    I would have to agree with that. The issue you raise illuminates the social construction that underlies the scientific enterprise. As much as we would like to believe that science is a system of thought that is free of bias, it is only as free of bias as its practitioners.

    I don't think there is any easy or clear-cut answer to your question. It's like asking, at what point does a song become "popular," and through what mechanisms? Obviously there is something of the flavor of a general concensus, but exactly what constitutes a sufficiently general concensus and how that concensus is established are very difficult (and I would say ultimately intractable) questions. Essentially what we are dealing with is an emergent phenomenon of the complex, chaotic system of socially constructed belief and attitudes in the scientific community. As a consequence, it's very hard to get anything more than a sweeping, precursory understanding of the phenomenon in question.
     
  4. Sep 15, 2003 #3
    I have a book called Handbook
    Of Unusual Natural Phenomena

    By William R. Corliss, 1977, which
    is essentially a collection of
    eyewitness acounts of things like
    ball lightning. It is a cut above
    most books of this sort because
    the accounts are primarily from
    people who were excellent obser-
    vers, boat captains, naturalists,
    meteorologists, astronomers and
    the like - credible and articulate
    witnesses.

    About Ball lightning, the author
    says: "Thousands of people have
    seen ball lightning, and hundreds
    of scientists have written about
    it. Nevertheless it remains as
    inscrutible as ever. Science ad-
    mits the objective reality of
    these strange, mobile globes of
    light, but has been unsuccessful
    at explaining their origin or
    their explosive demise."

    About earthquake lights he says:
    "Like ball lightning, earthquake
    lights are accepted as real by
    many geophysicists, although their
    acceptance is somewhat grudging,
    primarily because the mechanism of
    generation is unclear."

    So this would suggest the less
    a phenomenon can be explained the
    more taboo it is. In some cases,
    like those above, it appears the
    taboo can be overcome with suf-
    ficiently numerous eyewitness
    reports of acceptable quality.
    Full adoption into the arena of
    "science" is contingent on a
    provable explanation, it seems.

    -Zooby
     
  5. Sep 15, 2003 #4

    selfAdjoint

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    Nevertheless what emerges from that social construction is solid in terms of the questions it can answer.

    If the MRI researchers were to discover a well-defined, repeatable material basis for telepathy, then telepathy, so defined, would become science. But as long as it is just reported by high-status observers (who can lie and be mistaken like anyone else) it's not.
     
  6. Sep 15, 2003 #5

    Ivan Seeking

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    I don't agree. It seems to me that what emerges is an evolving set of paradigms that presumably become more accurate with time. Thus far they have ALL been wrong.

    Exactly what questions have been answered?

    Again, I point to this little survey to illustrate my point:
    http://physicsweb.org/article/world/15/4/2/1#2

    It seems that physicsts can find much about which they don't agree.
     
  7. Sep 15, 2003 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    Interesting since provable explanations is the job of science.

    So by definition, all real science starts with the fringe?

    I wonder what the result would be if we found physical evidence for the existence of God. How many scientists would be willing to consider this as a credible explanation for the evidence? What possible evidence could be found that could not be denied? Outside of a personal visit by God to each and every scientists, couldn't any evidence by questioned indefinitely so as to prevent the acceptance of such a notion purely as a function of personal bias?
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2003
  8. Sep 15, 2003 #7
    Ivan,

    That survey in the link has some
    real problems.

    It gives a word, then you're
    supposed to choose if you believe
    it's real or not real.

    With words like "stone" there's
    not much difficulty in understand-
    ing what they're asking.

    But when it comes to the word
    "emotions" is it asking if people
    actually experience emotions, or
    is it asking if peoples emotions
    are always accurate? Do you see
    the problem? The vagary of the
    question accounts for the dis-
    agreement in these cases.
    Hallcinations: do people actually
    have hallucinations? Or is it asking if there is some reality
    to hallucinations (i.e. are they
    seeing something real that others
    can't)?

    -zoob
     
  9. Sep 15, 2003 #8

    Integral

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    A phenomena moves from the fringe to the mainstream with understanding. Mainstream physical phenomena have in common a rigorous mathematical model and reproducibility. The trouble with things like ball lighting is that it apparently forms under very special and rare conditions. If a “scientist” were on hand with proper instrumentation at the time of an occurrence of ball lighting we may learn enough to form a model of it thus, understanding and control. With understanding and control we would have the ability to reproduce it in lab conditions. Thus ball lighting would then be mainstream knowledge.

    I think that scientists must be able to say, “We do not know”, without the implication that the phenomena is supernatural or extraterrestrial. There is much in this universe that we do not understand, but that does not mean that we are incapable of understanding, or that it is not covered by the current state of Physics. it is just that we do not know enough of the phenomena to apply our knowledge. Observation is simply not enough, we need measurements, to get the correct measurements we need basic knowledge. Is Ball Lightning Electro-Magnetic or chemical? Without even that bit of basic knowledge we cannot know what instrumentation to have on hand when the event occurs.

    The real question is how do we separate observed phenomena which are unexplained but explainable from those which are hoax..
     
  10. Sep 15, 2003 #9
    What is and isnt science can often be determined by what is trendy. So use a word like chaos and you get publishable work suitable for scientific journals. The application may not be particularly scientific.
    I dont realy think astronomy is good science, it doesnt seem to serve any real purpose. But you can get huge grants to build new telescopes, all because its trendy.
     
  11. Sep 15, 2003 #10
    A scientific field is objective only to the point that scientists do not include themselves in its description. This is difficult in that we are creatures of space, molecules and cells.

    Think in terms of the evolution of history as theory, where one generation removes itself from the immediate tumult of the near present to a less impassioned future perspective. Physics, indeed, includes "a history of time," but is still subject to the vacillations of the mind and the reality of science.

    I would say the scientific to have elements of both popular and academic legitimacy. Many of the examples quoted above are transiting from the practical knowledge and experience of the former to the theory and experiment of the latter. This process accelerates as society generally becomes more scientifically based, and science in turn becomes both more comprehensive and better defined for all.
     
  12. Sep 15, 2003 #11

    Ivan Seeking

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    ...or boloney...

    And this becomes even more difficult with the advent of advanced hoaxing techniques...which applies to the mainstream as well as the fringe. But this is the problem: There is money to be made on fringe subjects whether or not they deserve consideration. Since they are fringe, interpretations can run wild with nothing to really counterbalance the perspective. IMO, many credible people then fall into the trap of being true believers; and then lose perspective accordingly. When it comes to aliens being the source of UFOs, by the way, I am not a true believer; though at times no small measure of discipline is required. Could the unwillingness of many scientists to address fringe issues really help to perpetuate false prophets?

    But at the core of this lies the question: What is the subject of real things that presently cannot be measured; perhaps because they are too rare or unpredictable, or even because they may involve some unknown force or quality of nature?
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2003
  13. Sep 15, 2003 #12

    Tom Mattson

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    I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding reflected in this question. The way I see it, any and every subject pertaining to observed reality can be a subject of science as well as a subject of pseudoscience. I am going to re-post something I said to Kerrie on the subject.

    Here is the original thread:
    The purpose of pseudoscience

    Kerrie: but wasn't copernicus ridiculed because of his (edit: heliocentric cosmological) hypothesis? wasn't he the one who studied and gathered the evidence for it?

    Tom: Yes, but that is not what makes a method of inquiry "pseudoscientific".

    Kerrie: i think what we need to realize overall is that our science is a:

    WORK IN PROGRESS

    therefore, an incomplete process, therefore more wonderful discoveries out there to understand...

    Tom: And we do realize it. In fact, we brag about it. Science is self-correcting, and it is through self-correction that our ideas about the universe come ever closer to The Laws of the universe (which are undoubtedly not the same as the equations we currently know).

    Here is what makes a theory "scientific".

    1. It must be consistent.
    That is, for no statement X should it be possible to deduce both X and NOT X from the axioms of the theory.

    2. It must be valid.
    That is, its claims must be correctly derived via logic and, if applicable, mathematics.

    3a. It must be satisfiable.
    That is, it must make claims that are subject to empirical investigation. If a theory is analytically false, then it is known to be trivially false with no need for investigation.

    3b. It must be falsifiable.
    That is, it must make claims that, if false, will show the theory to be false. If a theory is analytically true, then it is known to be trivially true with no need for investigation.

    Points 3a and 3b can be summed up as:

    3. It must be contingent.
    That is, it must be contingent on the outcome of experimental investigations.

    Kerrie: the point i was trying to make is, that there might be "theories" that are considered pseudoscience because of the lack of scientific evidence, but scientific evidence is only as good as our technology of classifying it as such...as we continue to expand our understanding of our reality, it might be possible that something once considered pseudoscience becomes scientifically provable due to our evolving technonology ad understanding...

    i am not saying that the loch ness monter exists we just haven't found him yet, but i think pseudoscience gets more negative criticism then it deserves at times...

    Tom: Such theories would not be so considered (edit: considered 'pseudoscientific') by trained scientists and philosophers of science. If you look at the criteria I gave, you will see that classification of a theory as "scientific" and "not scientific" has nothing to do with gathering evidence. The judging of a theory is done solely on the basis of the claims made by the theory itself.

    Take string theory for example. It is by no means proven, as we do not have the technology to see if it is predictions are satisfied or falsified. Is it scientific?

    Yes.

    Let's look at the criteria again.

    1. It must be consistent.
    String theory is an elementary (albeit sophisticated!) mathematical formalism from which it is not possible to derive contradictory conclusions. Thus, it is consistent.

    2. It must be valid.
    String theory is derived from its base assumptions without resorting to any questionable mathematics. Thus, it is valid.

    3a. It must be satisfiable.
    The predictions of string theory are, in principle, accessible to experimental verification. While we do not yet have the technology to check whether or not the claims are in fact satisfied in nature, we do know that the claim is satisfiable, and that is all that is required. Thus, string theory is satisfiable.

    3b. It must be falsifiable.
    The predictions of string theory are also such that, if one of them is found to be contrary to nature's workings, the whole theory is proven wrong. An example is the low-energy manifestations of the single, unified force. String theory correctly separates into the more familiar 4 forces at low energies. If it did not, then we could say for certain that string theory is wrong. Thus, string theory is falsifiable.

    3. It must be contingent.
    Because it meets both 3a and 3b, it is contingent.

    Thus, string theory is scientific, even though it has not been adequately tested due to technological limitations.

    I picked that one because it addresses your point head-on.


    And then I posted an illustrative example:

    Tom: Let's take a look at the development of a toy pseudoscientific theory.

    Hypothesis 1a: I have a rock that keeps tigers away from my home.

    (Yes, that comes straight from The Simpsons. Is there anything that show isn't good for? )

    This theory is both consistent and valid, but only trivially so because it has only one prediction!

    This theory is also both satisfiable and falsifiable:

    *Satisfiable because the theory is satisfied when no tigers are around.

    *Falsifiable because the theory is shown to be bunk if a tiger is around.

    This theory is thus scientific.

    So, how do I investigate it? Well, I could observe the area around my home, and if no tigers show up then I take that as strong inductive evidence that the theory is good.

    But is that enough? I could also deliberatly bring a tiger around and see if something (presumably attributable to the rock) doesn't keep the tiger from coming around. If that works, then I try to develop other explanations (besides the rock) that caused it. If it does work, then I know the theory is no good, and it is thus said to have been falsified.

    Now, let's say I really like my theory, so I weaken its claim so that I can hang onto it.

    Hypothesis 1b:
    I have a rock that keeps tigers away from my home, except when there is a tiger around.

    What happens when there is no tiger? The theory is satisfied.
    What happens when there is a tiger? The theory is satisfied.

    Those are the only options! Since it is impossible for the theory not to be satisfied, it is unfalsifiable and therefore pseudoscience.
     
  14. Sep 15, 2003 #13

    Ivan Seeking

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    Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    Granted. Strictly speaking these terms apply only to the method of investigation. My point focuses on the question: Who decides what may be investigated? For example, I am sure you would agree that the public study of UFOs can be quite a career damaging proposition. I suggest that you submit a well balanced paper on UFOs and tell all of your friends and colleagues if you don’t agree. I have personally suffered damage in business [working with engineers] because someone saw my SETI@HOME screen saver. From what I see, in practice it is not just the method, but the subject that connotes the proper interpretation as being a scientific or pseudoscientific arena of study.
     
  15. Sep 15, 2003 #14

    Ivan Seeking

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    Re: Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    ADD: Note that whenever someone mentions UFOs, it tends to be assumed that a supporting theory about aliens is close behind. This illustrates my point exactly. I suspect the reason that this happens is that given the claims, few other explanations seem to address the issue. Here we find that because we can't imagine an earthly explanation to account for the claims, the subject automatically transforms from unidentified, to extraterrestrial and unrespectable. I must add however that according to Dr Sturrock from Stanford university, the journal Nature has agreed to start publishing well penned UFO papers. This appears to be a significant shift in the perception of this subject. But again, we see how the perceptions of relatively few people can detemine what is and is not treated as a subject of science.
     
  16. Sep 15, 2003 #15

    russ_watters

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    Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    Extremely important and oft misunderstood distinction.

    To put it more succinctly (and less thoroughly) for people with short attention spans like me - it isn't the subject matter itslef that determines whether it is science or pseudoscience, its the method in which its investigated.

    I've recommended The book before: "Voodoo Science" by Robert Park. In depth (and entertaining) discussion of various levels (as he sees them) of bad science. Great book.
     
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2003
  17. Sep 16, 2003 #16

    Ivan Seeking

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    Re: Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    This is an idealism that sometimes finds little truth in the real world. The accepted subjects of science are determined by perception and money; not just the proper methodology.
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2003
  18. Sep 16, 2003 #17

    russ_watters

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    Re: Re: Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    What is accepted by scientists can certainly vary but that is not what defines what is science and what is not. The rules are what define it. If scientists break their own rules, then they are not "doing" science. I liken it to politics: Congress can pass pretty much any law they want, but that doesn't mean the laws are Constitutional. Congress has on occasion violated the Constitution.

    My favorite example of science and pseudoscience mixing is cold fusion. For a brief couple of weeks, real scientific investigation went into the subject of cold fusion, ultimately revealing it to be pseudoscience (at best - and fraud at worst). Part of the reason real scientific investigation was put into it was that Pons and Fleischman had impressive resumes. So the scientific community thought it might be real science. That doesn't mean it was real science. The media initially misinterpreted the firestorm in the scientific community as a validation of P&F's work and concluded it must be real science.
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2003
  19. Sep 16, 2003 #18

    Ivan Seeking

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    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: When is a subject one of science?

    First, I must admit to a very poor choice of words for this question. I really meant the practical aspects of perception and acceptance rather than the literal definitions. Surely you will admit that some subjects are deemed as nonsense almost by definition. You also know that I disagree with a few of these perceptions. I don't understand the mentality. I am not talking about accepting any particular theory here. The gathering information and evidence for study requires no attached theory; but this can be a career ending endeavor.

    As far as Pons and Fleischman, from what I saw, their greatest mistake was that they flubbed the neutron measurements. Then they went on the PBS news hour and announced the discovery of this new energy supply. I think they were too worried about the guy at the other Utah University - I forget his name...Steve something - who was apparently in competition with their cold fusion work. I actually got to see Pons and Fleischman taken apart by the people from Cal Tech. This was at the meeting of the American Electrochemical Society in which they formally presented their cold fusion data. It was an ugly and brutal, but great demonstration of the process of science. As you might imagine, the room was packed. I was actually hounded by reporters when I left the main hall during the meeting to hit the restroom. I told them that now the dicussions were focused on anti-gravity. OK really I didn't but I thought about it just for fun.
     
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