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AlsoThe 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, in which a theory's Predictions must agree with Observation.
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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
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.
Formulation of a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. Most adherents, though not all, agree that this also must be unambiguously described.
Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other observed phenomena, or to predict the results of new/future observations.
Performance of experimental tests of the theory's 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 an explanation (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."
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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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The Doctrine of Falsifiability
Relatively recently Karl Popper has refined what it means for a theory to be a truly scientific theory, by introducing the doctrine of falsifiability. Simply, it states that in order for a theory to be considered serious and scientifically rigorous it must be falsifiable. It can't be open-ended, constrained only by the passage of some unspecified duration of time. That is, it must be possible to name some experiment which, if performed, could show the theory to be invalid. A "theory" that can never be experimentally demonstrated to be wrong can never be invalidated, even if it has not been proven valid after centuries of trying. Sadly, since one of the most vaunted, and subscribed-to "theories" of our time, turns out to be unfalsifiable, many people have railed against this simple, common-sense scientific doctrine.
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There is a general requirement in the scientific method that multiple experimenters, working independently of one another, must be able to reproduce the experiments and obtain results that are consistent with the original scientist's results. This not only allows other scientists to ensure repeatability, but allows them to refine the original experiments and weed out any errors in their design. It also allows them to come up with entirely new predictions that the theory makes, along with experiments which validate or invalidate those predictions. In modern "science," this step has been almost completely conflated with, and replaced by something called peer review, which has, in practice, become a mutually beneficial social activity.
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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. The only way a scientist, following the scientific method could review a fellow scientist's work, is to perform the experiments herself and make her results available to the public.
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.
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, in which assertions are validated or invalidated based on observation, 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 the religion of the same name
A relatively new religion has sprung up that goes by the name "science." It isn't the science being defined in this entry, which I'll refer to here as real science to avoid confusion with the religion. Science, the religion —being a religion— is the antithesis of science as defined here. Real science makes no claim of unquestionable authority. In fact, countering appeals to authority (which were being made by the primary authority of the time, the Catholic Church) was a precise, expressed purpose for developing the scientific method.
Invites questioning from all quarters, considering it THE primary means to test and refine its theories and understanding
including this relatively new one that goes by the same name, often smears, silences, and persecutes anyone who questions its authority or its central assertions. Perhaps, most unscientific of all, it makes such claims based solely on its promoted authority, without admitting any need to demonstrate the veracity of its assertions through observational evidence. Worse, it aggressively moves to silence any and all observational evidence that contradicts its assertions.
In short, if it isn't inviting questioning, and skepticism, it isn't science. If it is hostile toward questioning and skepticism, it is a religion.
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
The rise and fall of peer review
"Only one of Einstein’s papers was ever peer-reviewed, by the way, and he was so surprised and upset that he published his paper in a different journal instead."
Three statisticians go hunting. When they see a rabbit, the first one shoots, missing it on the left. The second one shoots and misses it on the right. At that, the third one jumps up and shouts: "We've hit it!"