Philosophy of Science

What is Science?

One thing I emphasize with my students – as I’m sure many of us do – is that science is really two things. Most people will think of science as being facts, lists of elements and the strata of the Earth’s crust. It’s true that a lot of what we want students to learn is factual, but to see this as the whole of science is missing the point. These facts include processes, methods for working out chemical equations and techniques for practical tasks. Although these are more challenging, this still isn’t what science is really about.

Science is a way of looking at the world. We have an idea, what we call a hypothesis, that applies somehow to the real world (or universe). We examine a situation, perhaps one we’ve set up ourselves called an experiment, and collect data. When we analyse this data, it tells us if our hypothesis truly describes the real world or not. Either way we can now give a better hypothesis, a description of the world that is, in some way, a better match to reality. This process, simple and elegant, has turned into a separate assessment target where we need to teach our kids ‘how science works’, as if it’s separate from all the facts we’ve discovered using it.

Of course, what matters here is not only what we know, but being able to change things that aren’t right. This is what makes science fascinating, tricky and sometimes downright irritating. Because by this reasoning, science isn’t about facts at all. Everything is subject to change. Any fact could, in principle, be corrected or amended. This is the loophole that intelligent design enthusiasts and Flat Earth fanatics love to exploit. What they tend to miss out is that the more evidence we collect (and both evolution and a spherical Earth have a lot of evidence these days) the less likely it is that a theory will turn out to be wrong.

What isn’t Science?

It’s really easy to mix up science (knowing stuff) with technology (using those facts. The best analogy I found is that science ‘makes’ ideas – knowledge is the end result of doing science. If science is a black box which we feed data, the product is understanding. Aeroplanes, medical treatments, iPhones and a better mousetrap are all products of a different black box, technology. You can’t have technology without science but you can have science without technology, rare as that is these days. Most of the ideas we could figure out simply with a pen and paper are long since solved. On my final year project, back in the mists of time, I spent months producing the samples (layered semiconductors), a while creating the leads for the device I would use to measure the characteristics, a day doing the actual *&$%£* ‘experiment’ then another month analysing the data. Every stage used technology, but what I was doing (badly) was science.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Philosophy of Science”

  1. I like this.

    We examine a situation(somebody with back pain), perhaps one we’ve set up ourselves called an experiment(maybe used chiropractic methods on back pain), and collect data(asked the individual “whats changed?”). When we analyse this data,(how many people report an improvement) it tells us if our hypothesis truly describes the real world or not.(does chiropractic work) Either way we can now give a better hypothesis,(a reason as to why chiropractic works) a description of the world that is, in some way,(the best method of treatment) a better match to reality. This process, simple and elegant, has turned into a separate assessment target where we need to teach our kids ‘how science works’, as if it’s separate from all the facts we’ve discovered using it.

    1. For a medical treatment – or anything which claims to treat a health issue – there are two aspects to consider.

      1) Does it work? (is it effective, which is not quite the same as does the patient say it helps.)
      2) Is it safe?

      Together, these two aspects will help qualified medical staff to make a judgement based on the benefit versus the risk. For chiropractic, There is a fair bit of evidence that it is about as effective as other manipulative therapies, such as physiotherapy or, for that matter, osteopathy, for back pain and related conditions. There is, as far as I’m aware, very little evidence to suggest it is at all effective for conditions such as asthma, ear infection or colic. You could argue that claiming – as many chiropractors have done, and for all I know you may have done – to treat these conditions with chiropractic is ‘bogus‘. And it is a matter of record that chiropractors over-use X-rays to ‘diagnose’ mythical subluxations, in direct opposition to NICE Guidelines. Of course, chiropractors generally (and their ‘professional’ association) have shown a rather poor understanding of research to date.

      Which brings me nicely to the risk. There is evidence that a small number of ‘adjustments’, as performed by chiropractors, can lead to rather severe consequences, including stroke and death. Now, in medicine, if there is a risk of these kind of irreversible side-effects, we manage the risk. We make sure to try alternative treatments first. We check for sensitivity to drugs, and where necessary have crash-carts and trained personnel on hand. Chiropractors appear to lack the insight into possible consequences, which means they cannot adequately balance a non-zero risk against a benefit which appears minimal.

      Talking about looking for evidence, or investigating ‘how’ it works, is an irrelevant distraction. In summary, the research has already been done, and like for so many other forms of alternative medicine, the result is the same. It doesn’t work much (if at all), and the risks – which are so rarely made clear to patients – mean it should be avoided if possible.

      Are we done now?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s