Science is a discipline, it’s noone’s property. The knowledge gained through science evolves, changes and becomes closer to the reality.
Science says nothing.
Our science is great. We have the best science. Our science supports our ideas. Other science is always wrong but ours is the best.
Science has become a thing. A commodity to be traded in futures markets. De-understanding is the new black.
Headlines continuously claim science says strange, contradictory and outrageous things. Headlines seldom interrogate who is this science saying this things. I’ve also never seen headlines claiming politics find fascism is the best or economics finds new evidence for slavery. Somewhere surely someone is saying fascism is the best and someone is defending slavery but oddly those headlines never show up. Every politician, economist and pundit has a name.
Scientists however are a uniform faceless mass, never referred to by name. At best it’s a research team from a prestigious university. But over all, it’s “science” saying. Science has been made an entity, standing in for all the majority of people doesn’t understand, care to understand or even know. It’s not even important to understand, a faceless mass of the morlocks keep on pushing the gears of science and normal people can go on pondering what’s real important, whether or not eating detergent capsules will go viral on Chinese media.
Around 1940 science detached from the ordinary world. The physical macroscopic world was mostly conquered and anything vaguely interesting dealt with the invisible, the unreachable and the unthinkable. That lift off accelerated the development of technology and further propelled science into the realms of atomic, then the subatomic and now quantities of energy totally outside human experience. Scientists sprinted ahead of engineers and engineers sprinted ahead of politicians and accountants. It was bound to happen and we’ve done a rather poor job of answering “how does going to the moon put food on my plate?”
.the new religion
Any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic. And by extension, any complicated enough equation is indistinguishable from scripture.
Most live in a world where the mystical and the divine was substituted by invisible real time communication, heating food without flame and curing illness without prayer. In the modern world anyone with AirPods can be Joan D’Arc. So in this spiritual vacuum technology has become religion for some people.
If you’ve been reading the past parts you’ll realize this is foolish and as dangerous as any other faith. There are many aspects to this misplaced faith and many interpretations. From my observation one the most common is confusing science and technology, “science” being a placeholder for any technology that’s not obvious, and a blind trust “science” will fix everything. Science however only generates the knowledge necessary to develop technology and developing that technology requires will and resources.
Another form of faith in “science” comes in the form “scientists know better”. This is dangerous in a number ways, there’s no official scientist card and we see in the news claims by “scientists” who never practised science way too frequently. The concept of scientists bringing us the crystalline truth is also very anti-science, if we can expect scientists to bring us anything is more doubt.
So no, science is not the new age religion.
Science is a discipline and there’s different forms and strengths to discipline. A lot of fields fall short of having discipline at all while others look like having it from the outside but in fact don’t.
Mathematics is not science. It is used by scientific fields and usually confused with those fields but mathematics is a purely theoretical discipline. Mathematics only exists in our minds and doesn’t depend on reality in any way or can be disproven by experiment. Theoretical physics is not a science by itself either. It is more like mathematics, an hypothesis generator for experimental physics to test. In fact, the biggest problem in physics today is theoretical physics is so far ahead of our technology and experimental capabilities that we’re just spinning out multiple hypothesis we can’t verify and converge on.
Economics is a weak science, most of the macroeconomic theory was never tested. In vanishing few occasions could an economic intervention cobe tested reproducibly against a control, which means despite the better efforts of economists they’ll never have a theory as sound as Newton’s Gravity. Not that economists should give up! Their work is generally serious and as rigorous as possible but headlines about economics should take into account they’re mostly really well founded opinions.
Human and social sciences are sciences in the sense they seek knowledge, but their thesis are even weaker than economics. Almost all experimentation in these fields is immoral and research is limited to small studies and accidental natural experiments, uncontrolled happenings which accidentally produce useful data. These fields are full of competing theories without a way to test, prune and iterate forward.
And then there’s “occult science”, “alternative science”, astrologies, energy healings and other worse charlatans. These are the fields of ignorance and con artists. If they had anything in common with science they’d just be science, not alterntive.
.two steps forward
Our thesis seem sound. All things fall to the ground. That is, until a school replicates it and child lets an helium balloon lose. It doesn’t fall to the ground. It shoots up into the air.
"School children prove eggheads wrong"
You’d imagine the scientific community to be enraged. How dare children mock them ? More likely, you’d imagine that if you are an army general. The scientific community however is ablaze with excitement. Multiple labs replicate the balloon experiment, it checks out. New data, multiple new hypothesis flourish. They have work again!
You might find this tale ridiculous, but it’s just allegoric to the real history of research into gravity. It really did start with vague empirical knowledge of things falling. In ancient times most things feel like rocks (most where actual rocks) while others seemed to float like feathers (specially the ones that were feathers). This led to a non unified theory of things that float, things that sink, things that fall fast and things that fall slow and philosophers musing about the nature of the elements and what causes things to not float.
And this was the state of understanding of things until around the time Aristotle was formalizing the basis of the scientific method and Archimedes was observing bodies displacing water and finding their buoyancy being related by the mass of water they displace. Prior to the development of science and research into how things float, whether boats would stay afloat or not was up to the gods.
While Aristotle did formalize the basis of the scientific method that didn’t stop him from concluding heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. His thesis was supported by his observations and no one imagined a counter experiment. Heavier things fall faster was established knowledge until Galileo nearly 19 centuries later through imagination and new experimental evidence showed all objects accelerate at the same rate towards the ground.
"Crazy new science says heavier things don't fall faster"
This was one of the greatest triumphs of science, through relentless experimentation and rigour 2000 years of common sense was blown away, making way for most of the modern world. This left the question, why do lighter things appear to fall slowly ? Galileo’s hypothesis was correct, it was due to aerodynamics and air resistance, not the weight itself. However, as is common in science, he lacked the technology to construct an experiment to test his hypothesis.
Less than one hundred years later Newton developed a comprehensive theory of gravity. Finally it was demonstrated beyond any doubt things not only fall into the ground but every thing falls into every other thing. Newton also formalized the model of the force between two objects being proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance. This was revolutionary, not only accurately and completely modelled the earth not being the centre of the universe but also that everything revolves around everything else.
Multiple mysticists before Newton failed to find the laws of movement under the false Ptolemnaic geocentric model. They were guided by faith rather than science. Newton however, labouring on the work and observations of Copernicus and Kepler arrived at the undeniable laws describing the universe. How can we say they are undeniable under the methodic scientific doubt ? Not only Newton laws describe all the available observations at the time but they also predicted the existence of the still undiscovered Neptune. That was the true test of Newton’s theory of gravity and any theory, describing not only the discovered but also providing testable new predictions.
"Boffins say we're wrong about gravity"
Being right doesn’t mean being totally right though and a bit over two centuries later Einstein showed Newton’s laws were an approximation to a much more complex theory of gravitation. Seldom a theory with the soundness of Newton’s is proved wrong by new evidence but rather is proven incomplete. Newton’s formula is a complete and precise enough description of the universe to go to the moon, even if 300 years later. To develop GPS, however, we needed Einstein’s Relativity.
The story of gravity is the story of most scientific theories over time, incorrect and incomplete theories are replaced by ever more correct and complete theories. But always forward, never back to mystical beliefs failing the experimental test.
After Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity one would think we fully understand gravity. Sadly, that is not the case. In fact we understand gravity no more than Newton did. If anything, we understand it less.
Newton developed a simple equation and there was hope it would reveal the mechanism behind the force. Then Einstein showed the effects of gravity to be better modelled by the result of the interaction of matter with time and space. While General Relativity allows us to calculate the effects of gravity with more precision than we can measure, it gives us no more insight about the mechanism of gravity than Newton’s theory did. Fundamentally, we don’t understand gravity. If we did we’d know how to make gravity and anti-gravity, but we don’t and so far we can’t.
So, having a theory that correctly models and predicts reality doesn’t mean we understand it. In fact, we understand nearly nothing about gravity and nuclear forces which means we understand nearly nothing about matter. We just know how to model it really well. Keep this in mind when reading headlines about breakthroughs in understanding of something. It usually just means we have better, more accurate, equations.
.what is science
Science is definitely not a thing to be had. Quite the opposite, it’s not even the body of knowledge we have but the discipline we use to obtain that knowledge. A scientist is someone who practices that discipline, not someone who claims something in the media. And the same way engineering is vital to build reliable bridges, science is vital to obtain reliable knowledge.
The scientific method is a simple recipe for honest results. Not necessarily good or absolute results but honest and without fundamental errors. A scientific experience starts with an hypothesis, something that might be true or not and we want to verify. An hypothesis might be, all physical objects fall to the ground. Next, an experiment to verify the hypothesis needs to be imagined. This is the most difficult part of the process as all external effects must be taken into account, even the ones we don’t know or understand. The experiment is where most scientific errors come from and that’s part of the process. In the example, our hypothesis is rather hard to test, we can’t have all the physical objects and even if we could testing them all would take infinite time. We draw on our existing knowledge and take a large sample of objects with diverse physical properties. That’s noted on the experiment and as caveat of the conclusion. Other scientists will think of other objects and will try other versions of the experiment to disprove it. But this is our experiment and we let all our objects fall and observe the results. We probably build a release apparatus so our handling doesn’t influence the results. We let them fall in a chamber without wind or other external perturbations. At the end we look at our results table and indeed, all objects fell reliably to the ground. Our hypothesis seems valid so it turns into a thesis. Sadly, because we didn’t test all objects, we can’t thesis all physical objects fall to the ground but a rather weakened version such as experimental results support falling to the ground is a common property of all physical objects.
At this point a “science reporter” publishes an article in a science themed magazine titled “New results show things fall” and mainstream media picks up that up and runs the headline “science says ground sucks up everything”.
But we don’t have established science yet, we have a thesis from a researcher. The discipline of science requires the results to be replicated and confirmed independently and other researchers to form the same thesis for agreement to be reached. Mainstream media usually confuses replication with a political process where multiple groups converge on a result they all can agree on. It is anything but, either the original results are sound and are replicated and they become established or other researchers arrive at different results and we all learn something. When other groups in other parts of the world replicate the results the thesis becomes more established. After all, it doesn’t say my things fall on my laboratory, it needs to be replicated multiple times in different places with multiple thing as it might be a just local phenomena and might not be true for some places or things.
By this time the headlines are long forgotten, things falling to the ground is old news, This is however when “new science” is established, not when the tabloids picked one lone experiment. However as most thesis aren’t confirmed mainstream media shows the world “strange new science” and then latter on “contradicting and wrong science” which certainly sells more advertising than “process works - thesis unconfirmed”.