|Feature Article - October 2017|
|by Do-While Jones|
We Need More Science
Many years ago, a dear, departed friend told me the difference between a scientist and an engineer.
When a scientist makes a discovery, the first thing he thinks is, “Where should I publish this?” When an engineer makes a discovery, the first thing he thinks is, “How can I make a buck with this?” 1
There is a lot of truth in what he said—but that doesn’t mean that pure science has no practical value.
Some people ask, “Why explore space? What do you expect to find out there?” The answer is that we won’t know what we will find until we find it. If we already knew what we would find out in space, there would be no reason to explore it. At the risk of plagiarizing Forrest Gump, research is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get until you bite into it.
In 1947, when scientists at Bell Labs began exploring the properties of germanium, they didn’t know that they would learn that germanium could be used to make transistors, which would lead to silicon transistors, and the invention of integrated circuits, which would eventually make smart phones possible.
Some scientific discoveries might not have immediately recognizable commercial value. Some discoveries might not ever have any commercial value. But most discoveries do eventually result in an improvement in daily life, to some degree. That makes scientific research worth doing, even if there is no immediate goal in mind. Scientific research is always valuable.
Debates are not scientific, by definition. Consider this example:
Some people say that you can conserve water by keeping your lawn mowed short because the shorter the grass is, the less water it needs. Other people say you can conserve water by letting your grass grow long because it shades the ground, keeping the ground cooler, so less water evaporates. I don’t know who is right.
If the short-grass advocates debated the long-grass advocates, who would win the debate? Presumably, the more skillful debaters would win, regardless of which length actually conserves the most water.
On the other hand, the skill of the debaters might not determine who wins the debate. It might be impossible to convince people who run a lawn maintenance company that it is best not to cut the grass at all, regardless of whether that is true or not.
In any case, at the end of the debate, somebody wins because the majority of the audience believes them rather than their opponent, for whatever reason. The consensus might be different from what is really true. Decisions can be made by consensus—but truth cannot be determined by consensus.
Consensus has no place in science (despite what many people say). If a fact has been shown to be true scientifically, there is no need for consensus. As soon as someone says, “The consensus of scientists is …” you should know that what follows is an opinion, not a scientifically proven fact. There really cannot be a “scientific debate.”
(Please forgive the redundancy in the heading above. Science is experimental, by definition.)
The TV show, Mythbusters, could have taken a truly scientific approach to answering the lawn mowing question. They could have planted the several kinds of grass in many different plots, kept each plot mowed to a different length, and compared the amount of water used by each kind of grass mowed different lengths. I actually posted a message on the Mythbusters website suggesting they do just that because it is important for us Californians (who are still suffering a long drought) to know if it is a myth that cutting grass short will conserve water; but they never took my suggestion. Presumably, watching grass grow doesn’t make for exciting television, and there wasn’t a way to involve massive amounts of explosives in the experiment (a Mythbusters trademark).
If they had done the experiment, they would have come to a conclusion about whether short grass or long grass takes more water. Some viewers might have been inspired to repeat the experiment and confirm it. That’s how real science works. Science depends upon measurements, not speculation and consensus.
These days, one can use a computer to model how grass grows. The computer model could produce an answer in a few minutes, instead of the weeks it would take to actually grow and mow grass. Some people might think that the use of a computer takes the debate out of the realm of philosophy and into the realm of science—but it doesn’t.
As a retired software engineer, I know I could make some plausible assumptions upon which I could base some equations. I could write a program that uses those equations, and the computer could tell me the optimal length of grass that conserves the most water. If I didn’t like the answer, I could easily change my assumptions to get the answer that confirms my prejudice. It might take several iterations, but I could eventually get a computer model to tell me what I want to hear. That’s not real science. That’s using a computer to make a biased philosophical argument appear scientific.
That doesn’t mean computer models are useless. During my career, I wrote and used computer models to determine how several different kinds of missiles would perform in many different situations. Trial and error analysis of a missile design using a computer is much faster and much less expensive than actually building and firing lots of missiles.
Yes, I could have written missile simulation models that would have shown the missile would work perfectly in every situation. That would have made my boss very happy—until the missile was built and missed the target by a mile.
The reason the missile simulations I wrote were valuable is because we verified the simulations with a few carefully chosen test flights. We usually adjusted some parameters after comparing the simulation with the experimental data; but we did it to make the simulated missile trajectory match an actual missile trajectory exactly. We did not adjust the parameters to tell us the missile would do what we wanted it to do. Computer models are valuable only if they can be verified.
Every model must be verified. I’m retired now, and haven’t written a missile simulation in more than a decade; but suppose someone paid me to write a new missile model. The fact that I have written several accurate models in the past does not assure that the next model I write will be accurate. As they say on Wall Street, “Past performance is not a guarantee future results.” Unfortunately, reputation is often considered to be unquestionable proof of accuracy. How can one disagree with anything Stephen Hawking says?
Two months ago we wrote about a computer model of how the stars affected the weather millions of years ago. 2 That model can’t be verified. It was accepted simply because it produced the desired answers. Unverified models are useless.
Science is a reliable method for determining the truth. Some philosophical ideas attempt to gain credibility by masquerading as scientific. Don’t be fooled.
The notion that life arose spontaneously from non-living matter and diversified into many different forms of life by random chance filtered by natural selection, is a philosophical notion, not a scientific fact. Ridiculous stories about how cells that happened to act as a lens accidentally formed over light-sensitive cells, which just happened to become connected to nerve cells which sent electrical signals to a brain that stumbled upon image-processing algorithms, are not scientific. Science is valuable, but the theory of evolution is not valuable because it is not scientific.
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James L. Rieger
2 Disclosure, August 2017, “Astronomical Time Scale”, http://scienceagainstevolution.info/v21i11n.htm