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also The Scientific Method — In a broad sense, science is the exploration and search for the truth about all things that are able to be experimentally demonstrated through the application of methodical, and self-consistent, processes and tools. The most primary of tools used in science is the Scientific Method.

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The Scientific Method

To simplify: The Scientific Method is the informed formulation of a theory, which makes unique, testable predictions, along with the testing of those predictions by physical experimentation. If the experiments show that the predictions made by the theory actually occur in practice, then that is taken as evidence for the correctness of the theory. If the experiments show that the predictions made by the theory are not produced in practice, then that is taken as evidence that the theory is wrong.

To simplify further: Science says “show me.” It is the insistence that any theory asserted be demonstrated to be valid by making a prediction based on the theory, and then performing physical experiments to determine if the prediction made by the theory actually happens in the physical universe.

The scientific method is composed, generally, of four components
  1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena, for example, a causal or coincident relationship. The description is often expressed in mathematical notation, but the only requirement is that it be unambiguously described.

  2. Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. Most adherents, though not all, agree that this also must be unambiguously described.

  3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other observed phenomena, or to predict the results of new/future observations.

  4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters with properly designed and executed experiments.

If the experiments are performed, and the predicted behavior occurs, then the theory is considered to be validated by the experiments. On the other hand, if the predicted behavior does not occur, then the theory is considered to be invalidated by the experiments. This is not as final as it sounds, especially for the “valid” branch. It is usually considered to be evidence in support of the theory's validity, and not (almost never, but with a few contentiously notable exceptions) considered proof of the theory's validity.

In other words Science is the business of coming up with a theory that perfectly explains all current observations of a phenomenon, and that correctly predicts all future observations. A theory is invalid, if its predictions about future observations turn out to be incorrect.

One of the better attempts to sum up the scientific method in a pithy phrase, is this one:

"It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is,
it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't
agree with experiment, it's wrong."

  —Richard Feynman

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Hard vs Soft Science

Colloquially, science is often separated into hard, and soft sciences.

Restricting the broader sense alluded to above, are the hard sciences, which are (generally) all those based in phenomena that are volumetric (three dimensions plus time). These include objects and forces that occupy space and time. They are generally referred to broadly as “physics,” with many sub-disciplines.

On the other hand, the soft sciences generally include disciplines that attain to a better understanding of phenomena and entities that are non-volumetric in nature. These include, for example, phenomenal consciousness, and entities that are comprised of it, such as people, societies of people, and behavior. These disciplines include well-known subjects, such as psychiatry and psychology, but also include many of the philosophies, such as the science of mind (i.e., mind/brain, and cognitive studies), as well as the philosophy of science itself (e.g., Karl Popper).

Hard and soft sciences are both able—and expected—to employ the scientific method to achieve their goals.

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What Science Is Not

Science is not peer review

No matter how you dress it up and make it look formal and rigorous, peer review is, ultimately, just a popularity contest, and the trouble with popularity contests is that the one with lots of money to spend is always going to be the most popular (e.g., this).

Science is the attempt to evaluate, categorize, and classify experimentally knowable phenomena through the application of methodical tools such as logic, and (most primarily) the scientific method. Science is not asserting a point of view, or opinion, and then finding/developing a group of allies who will validate and promote your expressed beliefs (see, for example, Sokal, Alan). That which is called peer review within academic and industry settings is, in fact, indistinguishable from the process referred to in high school as a clique, or popularity contest.

It could be argued that countering this grouping/schooling/flocking/herding behavior within normal human nature is part of the reason the scientific method needed to be developed.

Science is not The Jerry Springer Show

When confronted with an opposing view, science's only retort is "show me." Science does not resort to personal attacks, nor does it call, or work, for the personal, economic, or career destruction of those with opposing views. Such attacks tend to take on two distinct characters. On the one hand, there are large multinational interests with huge amounts of money on the line, who may see such revenues directly threatened by a given scientist. In these cases many millions are spent on advertising campaigns, as well as whisper campaigns in an attempt, not merely to counter a scientist's threatening positions, but to destroy the scientist himself.

On the other hand, and much more common, are attacks on the Internet, made by anonymous people claiming to be scientists. More often than not, these are youthful males, waiting for mom to call them down for dinner. One hint that this may be the case, beyond the Jerry Springer, in-your-face, "science," is that the message may clearly have been carefully composed and edited off-line, prior to posting. The author may also try to cover for the youthfulness of his post by claiming to be drunk while writing it. Most of us have been there. When we're drunk, however, we usually don't take the time to carefully compose our rantings off-line before posting. One other, easy-to-relate-to, indicator is that posts by drunk adults are usually followed by deep regret the next morning, along with a heartfelt mea culpa. :)

Science is not cynical

Science is skeptical about all things and assumes nothing. When faced with an assertion, science neither believes the assertion to be true, nor believes it to be false. The primary response is always "let us see."

Cynicism, in this context, is identical to optimism. That is, they both assume a specific conclusion to be the overwhelmingly likely conclusion. Cynicism always assumes a negative conclusion, while optimism always assumes a positive conclusion. Ideally, there is no place for this in science as it is defined here.

Science is not new or modern

The methodical search for the truth has been a part of the human experience throughout recorded history. In fact, many of the philosophies, and notions, upon which the scientific method is based, can be found in age-old texts. Consider the above attempts to present the scientific method as succinctly as possible, then note this verse from Deuteronomy:

“If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place
or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has
spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”

— Deuteronomy 18:22

Science is not coy

In the general sense, it doesn't really matter how many degrees you have, or how many of your "peers" are willing to vouch for you, if you're not showing your work, you're not doing science.

Your work includes all raw data, including the raw data you may have culled and your reasons for culling it. How you may have preprocessed and normalized it (algorithms and procedures), the input data after it has been preprocessed and normalized. The procedures and algorithms used in the experiments, and the full design (code and algorithms) of any processing models and simulations used.

Science is not excuses

If your theory makes a prediction that future observations show was wrong, your theory is wrong. Your theory doesn't get a do-over. You need to come up with a new theory that is completely consistent with all the current observations, including the new observation that your old theory failed to properly predict. Promoting a position that claims your theory is essentially correct and that reality was simply wrong in this one instance is not science. It is, in fact, an example of the kind of foibles of human thinking that make real science so necessary and useful in the pursuit of the truth.

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Sources and Resources

Also: Sokal, Alan     Popper, Karl R.    


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