Sunday, September 12, 2010

It's Pretty Predictable.

The Process and Problems of "What is Science?"

Many pursuits and studies are called (a) science. But, are they? Is it determined by what you believe? Is your answer to that question predictable?

Astrology? Once upon a time many believed ! (many still do???)

Xenobiology ? Many universities offer studies in this you believe?

What is pseudoscience ? (Read the articles..from Abracadabra to Zombies. © Copyright 1994-2009 Robert T. Carroll )

Natural Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences

(Hint: The Physical Sciences link is great)

So, what makes a science a science?

Excerpts from a superb article in the St. Petersburg Times, Sept 12, 2010 by Jim Manzi from City Journal.

...Unlike physics or biology, the social sciences have not demonstrated the capacity to produce a substantial body of useful, non-obvious, and reliable predictive rules about what they study—that is, human social behavior, including for example the impact of (public, civic, commercial, institutional, or) government programs.

The missing ingredient is controlled experimentation, which is what allows science positively to settle certain kinds of debates. How do we know that our physical theories concerning the wing (of an airplane and flight) are true? ...In the end, not because of equations on blackboards or compelling speeches by famous physicists but because...the airplanes stay up.

Social scientists may make claims as fascinating and counter intuitive as the proposition that a heavy piece of machinery can fly, but these claims are frequently untested by experiment, which means that debates .... will never be settled.

Over many decades, social science has groped toward the goal of applying the experimental method to evaluate its theories for social improvement. Recent developments have made this much more practical, and the experimental revolution is finally reaching social science. The most fundamental lesson that emerges from such experimentation to date is that our scientific ignorance of the human condition remains profound. Despite confidently asserted empirical analysis, persuasive rhetoric, and claims to expertise, very few social-program interventions can be shown in controlled experiments to create real improvement in outcomes of interest.

(People make for really poor experiments .. they are just so unpredictable!)

To understand the role of experiments in this context, we should go back to the beginning of scientific experimentation. In one of the most famous (though probably apocryphal - not really happen exactly like the story says) stories in the history of science, Galileo dropped unequally weighted balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and observed that they reached the ground at the same time.


About 2,000 years earlier, Aristotle had argued that heavier objects should fall more rapidly than lighter objects. Aristotle is universally recognized as one of the greatest geniuses in recorded history, and he backed up his argument with seemingly airtight reasoning.

(Was Aristotle some kind of idiot?)

Almost all of us intuitively feel, moreover, that a 1,000-pound ball of plutonium should fall faster than a one-ounce marble. And in everyday life, lighter objects often do fall more slowly than heavy ones because of differences in air resistance and other factors. Aristotle’s theory, then, combined authority, logic, intuition, and empirical evidence. But when tested in a reasonably well-controlled experiment, the balls dropped at the same rate. To the modern scientific mind, this is definitive. The experimental method has proved Aristotle’s theory false—case closed.

However, 3000 years ago he predicted some science "stuff" with mastery !!!

Of course, Aristotle, like other proto-scientific thinkers, relied extensively on empirical observation. The essential distinction between such observation and an experiment is control. That is, an experiment is the (always imperfect) attempt to demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship by holding all potential causes of an outcome constant, consciously changing only the potential cause of interest, and then observing whether the outcome changes. Scientists may try to discern patterns in observational data in order to develop theories. But central to the scientific method is the stricture that such theories should ideally be tested through controlled experiments before they are accepted as reliable. Even in scientific fields in which experiments are infeasible, our knowledge of causal relationships is underwritten by traditional controlled experiments. Astrophysics, for example, relies in part on physical laws verified through terrestrial and near-Earth experiments.

Thanks to scientists like Galileo and methodologists like Francis Bacon, the experimental method became widespread in physics and chemistry.

(He also figured out why Wint-O-Green Life Savers make sparks in your mouth .. a few hundred years before they were actually invented)

Later, the experimental method invaded the realm of medicine. Though comparisons designed to determine the effect of medical therapies have appeared around the globe many times over thousands of years, James Lind is conventionally credited with executing the first clinical trial in the modern sense of the term. In 1747, he divided 12 scurvy-stricken crew members on the British ship Salisbury into six treatment groups of two sailors each.

He treated each group with a different therapy, tried to hold all other potential causes of change to their condition as constant as possible, and observed that the two patients treated with citrus juice showed by far the greatest improvement.

Not all science is BOTH valid and reliable ....

Three things to consider..

What is your definition of science?

How can you detemine if an activity or study is scientific?

How can you assure reliability and validity in an experiment?

The Comments box in open... for response, questions, and participation!

(leave your first name and class period color for identification...)

Good luck!


  1. I also liked the Rainbow video, I learned that when you move the rainbow moves with you and that there are reasons for it always being in a half circle shape.
    Another thing I enjoyed was the game where you drop the cannon balls to determine which one would hit the ground fist. I thought it would be the heavier one but it wound up hitting the ground at the same time.
    - Savanah Heideman

  2. Savanah, great comments. Did you do any of then other Galileo games?

    remember to identify yourself with first name and class color, for example "Bob Red"

    2 points in the bonus box

  3. My Definition of Science is that it is the study of all things, be it Social, Economics, Astronomy, and many, many other things. Mainly, Science is associated today with E=mc2 and other scientific laws such as that. That is not true. There is a science called Social science, which basically studies ways of life.
    - Justin, Blue

  4. No sir, i didn't understand how to ask Mr. Galileo a question, but I will try again tonight.
    - Savanah Yellow

  5. I love the fish thing at the very bottom of the screen. I was very entertained while using it. I clicked and all the fish follwed.
    - Savanah Heideman Yellow
    (I put my last name because there are two Savanah's in the yellow class.)

  6. Hmmmm I'm having trouble with Galileo too. I'll work on it.

    Savanah... use you last initial(s)

    Glad you like the fish... I trained them myself you know. (lol)


  7. Justin,

    I like that your thoughts are supported by examples... (support your claim)

    Put 2(two) in the bonus box.

    Thanks for the comments.

  8. The definition of Science in my words would be the study of everything around me that is proven by facts. For instance that water has a reproducible temperature at which it would freeze.
    (p.s.-the fish are awesome)

    Paul Sabadish

  9. You can prove a study was Scientific by seeing if the Scientific Method was used.That involves studying the facts, making a hypothesis, testing while using controls, collecting and analyzing the data, making a conclusion, and finally seeing if other people can reproduce the results.
    You can assure reliability and validity in an experiment by using controls and controlling as many variables as possible.
    Paul Sabadish Yellow

  10. Hey Paul, two GREAT comments! I like your demonstration of understanding regarding "reproducible"... not every one gets that at first! ( glad you like the fish too! )

    Good stuff with your ideas on the Sci method!

    Put 3 points in the bonus box !!

  11. Hey Mr.V!! I was really curious on the Galileo video! So i decided to check it out! I remember at one point learning a little facts about him but i new just a little. i didnt know that he was blind when he was older and that he created a telescope that magnified 20 times! I knew he made a telescope but not magnified to 20 times! I also have a question on the video he was arrested in 1653 and died in 1642???? So i didnt know if there was something wrong there! I also learned that he discovered the force of jupiter and verify the face of venus! I learned alot and i still want to see more videos!:)
    Sabrina Yellow/Red

  12. I'm so glad you have found Galileo interesting... he would be considered a real rebel in his day. I am sure he would give Steven Hawking (Do you know who that is?) a challenge for title of "smartest"!

    I will check on the mix up in the dates, thanks for bringing that to my attention!

    Put two(2) points in the bonus box!

  13. My definition for science is, any science, such as physics, chemistry, or geology that deals with mainly matter and energy.

    I liked learning about Galileo and his histoy.

    I also thought it was intresting about the rainbow and why it is in that shape.

    I learned a lot of facts on this.

    Megan H. Blue

  14. Very well stated Megan I think that worlK well for physical science.

    Anything in particular about Galileo?

    Put two(2) points in the bonus box

  15. Mr.V I like the Scienctic method video. I was reading the Wint-O-Green Mint article and I had some in my house so I tried it. Well, long story short it didn't work. Can I bring in some tomarrow and can you should me how?
    Allie yellow!!

  16. Sure...

    hmmm I wonder what didn't work???

    Two points for trying though!

  17. Well, my definition of science is a complete and organized understanding of the physical and material world achieved through many, many observations and experiments only to gain knowledge from it! The example could be the word "SCIENTIA" which is the Latin word of science meaning... knowledge. That's exactly what you get when you observe and do experiments thoroughly.
    Erin; Blue