A Quick Note on How Science Works

I don’t intend for this to be lengthy, so if you’re interested in this kind of thing, I would strongly suggest that you get a book on philosophy of science to get a better idea of how these ideas cash out in more detail.

First, some people are of the opinion that science proves things, that it can provide absolute certainty.  This is not the case.  The explanations provided by science are to be judged on how successful the predictions made by such explanations turn out to be.  However, even very successful explanations merely provide corroboration.  This is because there is always the possibility that the next set of events predicted by some scientific theory could turn out to be wrong.  Even worse, there are always hypothetical counterfactuals that can never be tested but which are thought to conform to scientific laws.  Think of it this way.  Imagine that someone holds up a piece of plastic and claims “If this were made of copper, it would conduct electricity.”  This is considered true because within the theory of electricity there is a law that says that copper conducts electricity.  However, this is, in principle, not the kind of thing that can ever be tested.  Because the piece of plastic in the above example isn’t, in fact, copper, it doesn’t conduct electricity.  This does not, however, prevent us from believing that it is true that, were it copper rather than plastic, it would do just that.  The ability to test every conceivable instance that needs to be true in order to demonstrate absolute certainty is, in principle, not possible, and, for this reason, science cannot “prove” anything.

What makes something scientific is that it makes predictions that are falsifiable.  That is, there must be some test that would show the theory in consideration to be false.  If the theory does not have this property, if any failure to have the expected outcome is explained away in terms of the theory, then the theory is not falsifiable, and, as such, is not scientific.  A classic example of this is psychoanalysis.  While proponents of the position hoped for the method to be scientific, it is fraught with issues, the biggest being that there is no way to falsify it.  Within the theory, any failure by an individual to exhibit expected behaviors is always explained by an appeal to hidden beliefs or desires.  As such hidden variables are always imaginable, there is no way, in principle, to show psychoanalysis to be incorrect by judging the success of its predictions.  As such, it is not science.  There are several current theories that are hotly debated as to their status as science or non-science.  Examples of such would be string theory and evolutionary psychology, both of which are debated to be unfalsifiable.

It is important to note that a debate over what may or may not count as legitimate evidence for any theory is not the same as suggesting that there is some issue about the kind of thing that qualifies as evidence.  Such evidence must be predictive and falsifiable in order to count as evidence for a scientifically credible position.  Debates over evidence center around whether or not something qualifies as such, not whether or not such is the appropriate type of evidence.

Science was once thought to be an example of inductive reasoning.  Simply put, this is moving from the particular to the general.  For example, under induction, one is justified in believing that water (assuming a lack of impurities, a certain pressure, etc) will freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit because one has observed water doing just that repeatedly in the past.  However, for some time now it has been recognized that science is an abductive process.  This is also known as reasoning to the best explanation.  This works by taking some set of facts and looking for the explanation that would best fit those facts.  This, then, becomes a theory, a model which allows for deep explanation and for the generation of novel predictions based upon that model.  It is worth noting that science cannot be an inductive process, and it is easy to demonstrate why this is the case.  The way that scientific theories are tested is by making novel predictions and seeing whether or not those predictions are true.  If they are, the theory is corroborated (though never proven).  If they are not, the theory is falsified.  It is the fact that novel predictions are made by the theory, things for which there is no past experience, that the theory is excluded from being an inductive process.  One thing that must be pointed out here is that, as science is reasoning to the best explanation, there is always the possibility that some new explanation will turn out to be better than the one currently used.  At that point the old theory is displaced by the new one which is used until some new, better theory comes along.  This is, again, an example of how science doesn’t prove anything.  There is always room for some new, better theory to come along and show the current theory to be in error.  No amount of corroborating evidence for any theory grants it absolute certainty or makes it logically necessary.

Looking at the above it should be clear that the justification for believing in the conclusions of science comes from the predictive success of the the theory in question.  As long as a scientific theory produces accurate and testable predictions, we have good reason to believe that such conclusions are true.  It is the radical success of science that grants us confidence in the process as a whole.  No other method in the history of of humanity has produced anything like what science has.  Every person reading this necessarily relies upon the products of science as this communicative medium is wholly a product of the scientific process.  The fact that no other method has consistently produced clean water, abundant food, medicine, the contemporary marvels of transportation and communication, protection from the elements, or innumerable other benefits shows the stark contrast between other such methods and the scientific method.

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4 Responses to “A Quick Note on How Science Works”

  1. Jack Angstreich Says:

    The statement that “as long as a scientific theory produces accurate and testable predictions, we have good reason to believe that such conclusions are true” is question-begging since “good” is here being defined circularly to mean “having predictive success”, but there is no logical necessity to suppose that predictive success is a guarantor of truth. Thus, we have “good” reason to believe that the conclusions of the scientific method are true if and only if predictive success is a “good” guide to whether propositions are true — but nothing could logically establish such a claim. Believing that predictive success provides “good reason” to believe the conclusions of science is, then, a matter of “faith”. The putative “radical success of science” may indeed inspire confidence in believers in the scientific process but whether such confidence is justified or not is something which cannot be known; such confidence, then, is a mere matter of “faith”and may, in fact, be radically misplaced. The statement that, “No other method in the history of of humanity has produced anything like what science has”, even if true, is no guarantor that science has any validity whatsoever as a means to acquiring knowledge of the world.

    • Johnny 5 Says:

      If observing the world, making hypotheses, and testing them is not how you gain knowledge of the world, then how the hell do you do it? Oh, right. Read a magic book. MUCH more logical.

  2. Jim Says:

    Jack, I’ve responded to these issues already. You’re unsatisfied with my responses. That’s fine as I’m unsatisfied with your responses. I see no need to say the same things I’ve already said in the comments to an earlier post. I find it dull and tiresome to repeat myself, especially when much of your criticism is explicitly acknowledged in the post itself.

  3. Brent Says:

    I was just reading a book last night on scientific theories, etc. I could not agree more. Science is giving us things that are in the realm of possibility, but has not “proven” much of anything.

    The author goes on to say that science has made many advances over philosophy. That philosophy has fallen completely flat in explaining the things that science hasn’t. But then goes on to say the only explanation for things that science has no explanation for is God! How incredibly weak to point out any shortcomings of philosophy and then reduce scientific shortcomings to the existence of God!

    You might guess the author.

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