Monday, December 12, 2011

The Scientific Mindset

Not only is the scientific mindset absolutely essential for performing good science, but it's also advantageous to cultivate this way of approaching the world in day-to-day life.

Curiosity

Curiosity is the heart and soul of science. Scientists never lose that childhood infatuation with the question "Why?". This single question has guided many of our discoveries and has led to much of our understanding of the world around us.

A scientist approaches the universe with an insatiable curiosity. We look for patterns in the world around us. We ask questions of "why" and "how" and "what if" about everything we see. It's not enough to know something is; we want to know why it is, how it became that way, and whether it will ever change. 

An Open Mind


A good scientist always keeps an open mind. When beginning to attempt to answer the many questions her curiosity brings to light, she considers ALL possibilities. She relies upon the scientific method to separate the true from the ridiculous. In the beginning, all possibilities are valid. 

Despite what many among the ignorant think, science is NOT about having a "pet theory" and designing experiments to "prove" that theory. That's called "pseudo-science". A good example of pseudo-science is the load of horseshit called "Intelligent Design". (Don't take my word for it, the teaching of intelligent design was ruled unconstitutional in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. Learn more in this excellent NOVA program.)

Rather, a scientist seeks to DISprove a hypothesis through experiment. Experiments can only disprove a theory, nothing is truly ever proven in science, because there's always the possibility of new data and understanding modifying a hypothesis. This happens all the time in science as our understanding grows. For instance, it was once believed that nothing could escape a black hole, but now it's believed that black holes actually emit what's called "Hawking radiation".


Many scientific theories that are now accepted and widely used in technology were originally discounted by many as "crazy". For instance, Einstein's idea in special relativity that time doesn't flow at the same rate at all places in the universe--that the flow of time is affected by gravity and velocity. We now know this to be true, even though people once thought it was crazy (because it defied "common sense", or as I like to call it, "common nonsense"). In fact, GPS works based on this principle. It's because of the variable rate of time that the GPS in your car or phone can tell you exactly where you are.


Skepticism

A scientist's open-mind must be tempered by a very healthy dose of skepticism. While in the beginning of the experiment all possibilities must be considered, eventually we must start weeding out the erroneous ideas in our quest for truth. A maxim in science is "correlation is not causation". Scientists must always scrutinize their results and conclusions. They always search for hidden variables--things that may be producing the observed effect that are outside what they've considered. 

Most of us know people who believe everything they've heard or read, no matter the source. A good scientist always checks for the sources of information. Every piece of data must be scrutinized. Unfortunately, as humans we love "proving ourselves right". Skepticism combats this tendency, which can often blind us to evidence that we're not right. 

All scientific findings are open to peer-review. This is another hallmark of science that many among the ignorant don't understand. Every published paper is open to debate and debunking. A proper scientific paper gives the reader all the information they need to carry out the experiments themselves, and many do. Many of the lovers of conspiracy claim that science is "bought". While it's true that any given scientist's ethics may be compromised by large sums of money (we're only human, after all), the peer review process will weed these out pretty quickly. Scientists are harsh critics, and someone exposed in such a way can kiss his career in science goodbye. 

Humility


Finally, a good scientist is humble. In the search for truth, one must be able to admit when one is wrong. One must be willing to throw out a hypothesis that doesn't hold up to testing. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most scientists are actually happy when an experiment proves a hypothesis wrong. The reason is that this is the way the secrets of the universe are teased out. A hypothesis can never be proven with 100% certainty. Theories in science are those hypotheses that have been supported by countless experiments over years and years of study, but even these theories could be disproven with more sophisticated knowledge in the future (or at least amended, which happens all the time). However, a hypothesis CAN be proven with certainty.


Before science, people answered their questions with superstition. People lived in fear of the unknown, the unknowable. To combat that fear of what hid in the dark, man invented myth, superstition and religion. Today, we have a better way of figuring out the universe. It's true that some people still choose to live in ignorance. But they have the CHOICE, and choice is a beautiful thing.

7 comments:

  1. Compelling article! Really got me thinking and prompted me to post for the first time on your blog.

    No use commenting unless its a disagreement though right? Though I agree with your headers, I had some trouble following your application of them.

    For example, you say that a scientist must have an open mind before proceeding to attempt to discredit rather offhandedly the theory of Intelligent Design. Now before you brand me as some religious nutjob, hear me out for a sec :)

    Science is the study of observable phenomenon. It is important to note though that even what can be observed must pass through the biases and assumptions of the observer.
    Now the study of origins is a field which is largely unobservable, however, scientific theories can be crafted to attempt to explain how we got here. The problem is those theories are often built off of certain assumptions.

    In the example of your article, you have made an assumption that the universe operates STRICTLY under natural laws. This is an invalid assumption as you are in essence claiming that you have infinite knowledge (which extends infinitely into the past and future) allowing you to know fully that no supernatural phenomena have EVER or will ever occur. Obviously this is impossible to know. Just because you have never observed supernatural occurrences does not mean they have never happened. Furthermore, you seem to base your assumption off a court case and a PBS documentary...both of which do not constitute valid scientific inquiries.

    Now you might say that most respected scientists agree that supernatural phenomena do not happen therefore I don't believe they do or that they ever have. This is a statement of belief, and not based on the scientific method.

    Basically, you can't prove something false based on the LACK of evidence.

    Now I do believe we can base assumptions off of certain - what I like to call - "clues". I believe, for example that the human nervous system represents a clear case of design.

    As an illustration, picture a computer chip. Had you never seen one before, you might mistake it for a jumble of silicon pathways and transistors randomly positioned on a piece of plastic (or whatever they are made of). However, you may recognize it for what it is...an amazing example of design! This ought to provide enough of a clue to draw a connection between that chip and the human nervous system.

    You may point out that this observation does not prove a thing...and I would have to agree. However, I would also find it difficult to "believe" your alternative...that the human nervous system came about through billions of years of random mutations (or whatever theory they have come up with now, it changes every so often).

    Ok I'm going to stop before I write a whole article. That was the first thing that jumped out at me. If you are going to disagree with the theory of intelligent design, at least don't attempt to call it "pseudo-science" or "horseshit". Intelligent design represents a field of scientific study based off a set of certain assumptions...much like most scientific fields. Try it! Start with a fact you believe to be true, ask the question "why?", then repeat until you get down to its most fundamental statement...guess what? you'll find it has not been scientifically validated! That's why its called an assumption or "presupposition".

    Overall, enjoyed the read...I could go on but thought that was plenty of writing for a single comment:)

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  2. Thank you for your comment. Your case here illustrates exactly why I wrote this article. Intelligent design is not scientific in any way. It IS, by DEFINITION, pseudo-science. In order to be scientific, it must go through the scientific method. Intelligent design has not done this. Yes, I list a documentary as a source, a documentary of a court case, during which BOTH SIDES presented their arguments. Your comment makes me think you didn't bother to watch it.

    Science can only grapple with things that can be shown empirically in the supernatural world. I've never heard a scientist say "supernatural" things never happen, or never have happened. What they do say is that is beyond the realm of science, because it can't be tested.

    Evolution, on the other hand, has been tested, and proven, time and time again. It has been validated by numerous scientific disciplines. Much of modern medical science is BASED on evolutionary theory. Just as you couldn't build a GPS system that works based on Einstein's theory of special relativity if that theory weren't correct, you couldn't base working medical treatments on evolutionary theory if it weren't correct.

    The problem is that intelligent design takes the exact opposite approach of science. It has created a theory, and has sought to "prove" that theory, while ignoring all data that doesn't jive.

    I am disappointed that while being "compelling", my post has, nonetheless failed to explain to you the difference between science and pseudo-science.

    The scary thing about pseudo-science, to me, is that the creators of such are very good at dressing it up with "scientific-sounding" jargon (which is often nonsense) that sounds very convincing to those who are not well educated in science and scientific methods. This is exactly the case with intelligent design and is a big part of the reason it didn't hold up in court.

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  3. Just a couple thoughts:

    Many inventions were based off of Newton's theory of gravity, but their success does not mean the theory is correct. So your arguments about GPS systems and medical treatments don't prove anything and thus are meaningless. Don't fall prey to the same backward reasoning that you would accuse proponents of intelligent design of using.

    Both evolution and intelligent design end up stepping outside the bounds of science to "prove" themselves.

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  4. Newton's theory of gravity are correct when you're talking about most situations here on Earth. General and special relativity only come into play when you're dealing with astronomical bodies or speeds approaching the speed of light. The reasons inventions based on Newton's theories work is because those theories can be used to accurately predict gravity in the situations on Earth those inventions use.

    On the other hand, GPS relies upon the different flow of time in different places due to the effects of gravity, as outlined in the theory of relativity. If gravity were as Newton saw it, GPS wouldn't work because Newton saw time as flowing at the same rate in all places in the universe. It does not.

    The theory of relativity REFINED Newton's theory; it didn't throw it out the window.

    In a like vein, technologies based upon evolutionary theory wouldn't work if that theory weren't sound. You're comparing apples and oranges.

    Evolution is proved within the bounds of science. If you understood evolution, you'd realize that.

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  5. I wasn't making a point about the validity of the scientific propositions of Einstein or Newton. Rather, my point was that inventions or discoveries based on a theory does not prove that theory correct. At most, it shows that there must be some truth related to the theory. That is a long way from proving anything.

    P.S. I never said that I am for intelligent design and against evolution. I am not attacking either theory, in fact. I am simply pointing out the failures in your argument. The fact that you call me out based on my first comment shows another problem you have: bias.

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  6. One more comment if I may. Thanks for taking the time to read my first post.

    You say intelligent design has not gone through the scientific method and therefore is pseudoscience. As I mentioned in my first post, I don't believe intelligent design can be proven using scientific methods...neither am I trying to get you to agree with my position on it. However, I don't believe the theory of evolution can be proven either WHEN used as a model for the origin of the universe.

    Yes, evolution has been tested using the scientific method many times and can be demonstrated on a MICRO scale. That is, evolution can be seen happening within a certain species. Evolution has never been observed happening between species. Some farfetched extrapolations must be made to explain MACROevolution.

    From a purely empirical standpoint, natural selection has a strong case but from a historical standpoint, it suffers the same weakness as intelligent design: it has never been observed. It is "pseudoscience"...whether wikipedia, NOVA, or a court case call it that or not.

    What makes me less inclined to follow the purely naturalistic approach to the study of origins is due to the aforementioned "extrapolations".

    For example, at least two laws of thermodynamics (off the top of my head) must be tossed out to explain origins from an evolutionary standpoint.
    How do you explain how we went from having nothing to everything without breaking the law of conservation of matter and energy?
    And how do you explain how organisms increase in complexity throughout time and still allow for the law of entropy?

    Again, Lex, I'm not here to debate you on the veracity of a certain position on origins, only to demonstrate briefly how your blanket denial of intelligent design undercuts nearly every point in your post.

    Keep in mind, many of the greatest scientists in history have based their findings from a "supernatural" perspective. Francis Bacon (you know, the father of modern science and the one who actually developed the scientific method) believed that a supernatural approach actually freed a man's mind from the fallible opinions of the leaders of his day. He once stated that he would rather believe any crazy superstitions than that "this universal frame is without a MIND". His view was shared by many scientists from many fields such as Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, etc. These didn't see science as disagreeing with the concept of supernatural causes but rather complementing them.

    To me intelligent design makes more sense philosophically as it suggests rationality behind everything. That's what science claims! The idea of a designer does not go against science. Rather it makes a stronger case for it by suggesting a source of reason behind the phenomena we experience.

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  7. I'm glad we can agree that intelligent design can't be proven using scientific methods, and that it belongs in the realm of philosophy. I will leave philosophy to the philosophers, as I prefer to stick with what can be measured and tested. :) I misspoke if I said evolution has been "proven", because nothing is every truly proven in science, it can only be disproven. However, evolution has been supported by countless studies and disciplines within science.

    You mentioned that the evolution from one species to another has never been observed, and this is true as it happened millions of years ago. Unless you are talking about bacteria, evolution of species isn't possible for us to observe directly due to our limited lifespan.

    However, we can deduce it scientifically by observing the evidence. In a similar way to how astronomers can deduce the mass of the sun without physically weighing it using mathematics and scientific principles that are understood.

    We have fossil evidence of the progression of hominids, including, but not limited to australopitecine afarensis, homo hablis, homo erectus, neandertals, and modern homo sapiens. Compare the skulls and skeletons with these and with modern chimpanzees and other great apes (like bonobos), and the progression of traits is very clear. You are right, it doesn't PROVE evolution, but it's very compelling evidence in support of it.

    Although evolution cannot be observed in the macroscopic world, it can be observed in the microscopic world, as bacteria have much shorter generations than we do.

    What you don't seem to realize, is although evolution hasn't been PROVEN, the evidence for it is just as overwhelming as the evidence for our theories of gravity.

    As to your points about thermodynamics, they aren't being violated by the theory of evolution or the theories of how the universe was formed (which is something else entirely). All of the matter and energy of the universe was present at the big bang. There's no "something from nothing" unless maybe you're talking about BEFORE the big bang. Any talk of that, though, is mere speculation as science can't make any predictions about what was or wasn't before the big bang. So your guess is as good as mine there (although M-theory has some interesting ideas).

    As to your point on entropy, it would take someone much better versed in physics than I to explain it to you properly. However, I can tell you that entropy is not being broken as what we see as more complex organisms (e.g. humans) have far more inherent entropy than naked molecules or "simpler" forms of life.

    I am glad my post has brought about such interesting discussion! At least we're all thinking here, which can never be a bad thing.

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