Thursday, April 16, 2009

Science and Its Misapplication

Science is observation.

It is the systematic search for knowledge – a striving to understand the reality that we live in. It’s exciting and fun in the same way that it is exciting and fun for a young child to discover the environment that she is placed in – touching, feeling, and tasting everything. The skill with which we observe is at a much higher level, but the basic process and motivation are the same. We want to know what is going on around us.

Science is limited.

Because science is observation, the only knowledge that we can attain using it is knowledge that can be obtained through first hand observation and inference. Anything else is not science. If you hear your science professor tell you that the Earth is round and believe him, this is not science – even though she is a science professor. If your mother tells you that the stove top is hot and you believe her – this is not science.

Science is not enough.

It is sheer arrogance to think that through direct observation we can get a hold of enough knowledge to make good decisions about how to live. To re-use a previous example: if when you were a child and your mother told you the stove top was hot – the best approach is not the empirical one. Similarly, you don’t need to directly observe the effects of a severe car accident to believe those who tell you that it is important to wear a seat-belt when riding in or driving a car. Imagine how many problems we would have if before we made a life decision we had to systematically observe the exact same situation – it would be paralyzing – and ridiculous.

Science evolves.

All of these things should be fairly self-evident – I think most people would agree that science is about observation and that there is knowledge out there that isn’t observable. However, I think a lot of people miss that scientific understanding about a particular bit of knowledge evolves and is often times found to be downright wrong – to say that again with a more positive angle – scientifically obtained knowledge is constantly refining, drawing closer to the actual state of reality. Take gravity for instance – Newton was pretty sure he figured that one out – but it turns out there are situations where gravity doesn’t work like he thought. Or take tree rings – trees are typically expected to add a single ring for every year that they are living – however conditions have been observed where trees either add extra rings or don’t add any rings – contradicting previously held assumptions.

So to finish – it is important to remember that when thinking through life’s big issues: scientific observation is a phenomenal tool that we’ve developed however it is not the Inerrant Complete Answer to Everything™. Also, when thinking through a particular issue, if it is important to you to use science, it is not “more scientific” to believe someone whose profession is science as opposed to believing someone of another profession – both are faith.


Kevin Fleming said...

Excellent post Kyle and good understanding to the definition of science. I took a history of science once where the professor argued that science is evil because it create the Atomic Bomb. I argued that "science" is not evil or good. It is the pursuit of knowledge. What is done with that knowledge, in the case of the atomic bomb, by politicians, can have an attached moral value. Anyway, good separation.

I would add though that science can be used to project possibilities based on observation although the actual event may not be observed. Example:

Train is seen going into the tunnel, train is seen leaving the tunnel. We can extrapolate through other observation (an object must move through space) that the train must have gone through the entire tunnel. Maybe not complete truth (the train quantum jumped or something), but probably a strong assumption based upon previous observation. To apply this principle to some of your examples. If I had put my hand near a fire earlier, I could make an assumption that the stove also would burn like the fire did. I do not need direct observation to derive likely truth.

Kyle said...

I agree - that's the bit I left out - prediction. I may write a post just on that - I will have to read up on it first though.