Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Scientific Method

Science Wednesday: Great Scientific Advances

The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.
Thomas Henry Huxley
On the Advisableness of Improving Natural knowledge (1866).
In Collected Essays (1893) Vol. 1: 41

Philosophy is written in this grand book — I mean the universe — which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth.
The Philosophy of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966) 
By Richard Henry Popkin
[Science] is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. ... The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true.
Carl Sagan
Cosmos (1985): 277

Galileo Galilei, the 17th century Italian physicist and astronomer, is considered The Father of Modern Science. As Galileo points out: "All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."

Often lost in the business and media-led hype about technology is how basic science informs technological innovation. And when we discuss modern science we do so in light of the Scientific Method. Modern science and the scientific method go hand in hand. Without science and its scientific methods quietly and elegantly acting as its guiding force, we would not have the Web, the Internet, search-engine technologies and social-networking sites.

When I was a young student of science and then engineering in the late 1970s and early '80s, I marveled at the advances of technology, including the advent of the desktop personal computer. It certainly made many things easier for humanity. Even so, I have taken enough science courses in math, physics and chemistry to understand the importance of certain scientific laws and principles, which greatly explain how nature operates in our world and beyond.

One of the roles that a scientist plays is detective, delving into these laws, which are at first often mysterious (think mathematical string theory and particle physics), but are necessary to our further understanding of the complexities of our world. Science helps our fundamental understanding of how the laws of nature operate, both within the confines of our world, and beyond to the extended space of the universe.

All modern science operates within the well-thought-out rules of the scientific method, which ensures that the results are based on science, and not on alchemy or magic. The scientific method is easily misunderstood, particularly by non-scientists. Yet, without it, our world fall victim to the many false claims and bad science evident today, which is not science at all.

So, we need some scientific rules and the scientific method ensures that everyone follows similar rules, as in a sporting competition. To that end, the scientific method essentially entails the collection of data by way of observation and experimentation, and the thinking and testing of hypotheses. Scientific researchers propose hypotheses to explain phenomena they are studying, and then design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. A sound study must be be repeatable and predictable, otherwise it's not scientifically valid.

The scientific method has four basic but important steps:
  1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena.
  2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation.
  3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations.
  4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments.
If the experiments validate the hypothesis it may eventually, through repeatable and predictable results, become a theory or law of nature. If the experiments do not validate the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified. It is often said that in science theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory. Such is the power and beauty of science and the scientific method.

The scientific method can be traced to antiquity, but its modern form took shape during the Renaissance and to Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the 13th century and William of Ockham (Ockham's razor) in the 14th century. It evolved, as others built and contributed to its intellectual foundation, including thinkers like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650).

But it took empirical scientists like  Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who not only questioned the status quo but also provided hard evidence that  brought science into modernity. Although it must be said, not without strong resistance from the political and religious authorities. Of the three, most eminent scientists, including Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein, name Galileo as the Father of Modern Science.

Johannes Kepler {1571-1630]: Frontispiece and title page of: Tabulae Rudolphinae: quibus astronomicae, 1627, or Rudolphine Tables. It celebrates the great astronomers of the past: Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe  The Rudolphine Tables use logarithms, which Kepler developed, and provide perpetual tables for calculating planetary positions for any past or future date. For most stars, the tables have an accuracy of one arc minute.
Source: Treasures of the NOAA Library Collection Photographer: Archival Photograph by Mr. Steve Nicklas, NOS, NG
Hawking says:  "Galileo, perhaps more than any other single person, was responsible for the birth of modern science." With more clarity, Einstein writes in Ideas and Opinions:
But before mankind could be ripe for a science which takes in the whole of reality, a second fundamental truth was needed, which only became common property among philosophers with the advent of Kepler and Galileo. Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts form experience and ends in it. Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality. Because Galileo saw this, and particularly because he drummed it into the scientific world, he is the father of modern physics—indeed, of modern science altogether.
Galileo stands out, no doubt, because he stood fast in the face of opposition, even when his life was in peril. His work stands tall and his contributions to the Scientific Revolution are fondly remembered. It is somewhat ironic that Galileo's defense of heliocentricism was based on his interest in truth,a scientific truth on how nature operated, This truth bruised the sensibilities of the religious leaders of the time, which is somewhat ironic when one considers that the domain of religion and philosophy is the love of knowledge, notably as it leads to truth.

Obviously, something else was at stake here. Galileo was a voice fighting against conventional thinking:
Galileo had taken common knowledge and proven it wrong by testing it, or experimenting. In 1609, he would do it again when he turned a telescope to the sky and discovered that the Moon had mountains and valleys, that the sky was full of more stars than the eye could see on its own, and that planets were dots that could be objects just like the Moon and the Earth —orbited by their own moons.

Galileo’s discoveries convinced him that the Sun was the center of the solar system, a belief that put him at odds with the powerful Catholic Church. Galileo was brought to trial and forced to take back his statements that the Sun was at the center. Though he spent the rest of his life under house arrest, he continued his work and research until his death.
Of course, later on Galileo was vindicated, and within a century after his death his views became the accepted norm. The views of the Scientific Revolution took hold. We can thank Galileo for helping pave the way to modern science and democracy:
By the standards of his time, Galileo was often willing to change his views in accordance with observation. In order to perform his experiments, Galileo had to set up standards of length and time, so that measurements made on different days and in different laboratories could be compared in a reproducible fashion. This provided a reliable foundation on which to confirm mathematical laws using inductive reasoning.
As it should be on matters of science. In a letter discussing the astronomical characteristic of sunspots that Galileo wrote to Max Wesler in December 1612, before his trouble with the reigning religious authorities began, Galileo remarked that on matters scientific, the authority of politicians and religious leaders bear no relevance. "In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

Such statement describes in a pithy yet elegant manner the necessity of an impartial measure like the scientific method to guard modern science and modern society from abuse. Without its universal underpinnings, there would be no science, and by extension no technology and no democracy. It is not by fiat or by decree that decisions are made. They are made based on evidence. Such is democracy.

So, by extension, we enjoy democracy and freedom to pursue scientific discovery and innovation thanks in large part to the modern scientific method. Science doesn't hold all the answers, but it has some of them. And our understanding and way of life are richer for it. If we understand the connection, then we can understand why the scientific method remains one of the keys to our humanity.


  1. Here are the two final paragraphs of my book, THE BLESSED HUMAN RACE:

    The May 4th Movement, which was active in China in 1919, chose "Science and Democracy" as its slogan. A brilliant choice! Democracy and science are inseparable; both are reflections of modesty, of the fact that we need to look and listen and measure. Perhaps science and democracy are different sides of a single phenomenon: searching. Both, through exploration and debate, reject cynicism and make politics possible. Science is the enemy of the grotesque superstition that had been persecuting China since Liberation. The Democracy Movement demanded science as well as freedom and democracy. The Movement understood these three things are inseparable. That is where its strength came from. "Science and Democracy" is a Chinese slogan. It dates back to the May 4th Movement of 1919. Ironically, there is a May 4th Street in many Chinese cities, and May 4th is celebrated as a holiday, called "Students' Day."

    The scientific method - questioning, testing, measuring, drawing conclusions, and reconsidering them in the light of fresh evidence - is precisely what we mean by free speech. The Beijing Spring Movement of 1989 is a logical consequence of the May 4th Movement of 1919. Science and democracy are the gifts of the blessed human race. Democracy is the political realization of the scientific method.

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    Thank you for your comments and sharing an excerpt
    from your book. It's undeniable that a society will prosper and advance only within the framework of individual and social freedoms.


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