On the Nature of Science: Definition and RealityTimothy Casey B.Sc. (Hons.)
This article explores the nature of scientific investigation with a view to dispel some popular misconceptions about science itself. Here we consider the scientific process, and the requirements for credible scientific publication.
What is Science Anyway?
Science is the collaboration of scepticism and evidence. Evidence must be verifiable in order to be scientific, and scientific theory is thus constrained to the explanation of verifiable evidence. Science is by nature, subject to scrutiny and refutation and anyone can call science into question. Science is not found in the colourful pages of glossy magazines that report on scientific publication in much the same way as the tabloids report on celebrities. Generally, scientific literature is in black and white, poorly written, and difficult to read. The thing that stands out about scientific literature is the rarity of statements that go unreferenced, and the complete absence of "mystery" or "anonymous" sources.
Ultimately, science is empirical, rather than theoretical. As Fourier points out:
in the present state of physical science, all known facts are naturally explained without having recourse to other properties than those derived from actual observation.
Fourier (1824, p. 164); Fourier (1827, p. 598) - See Translation by Burgess (1837, p. 18)
It is worth noting that, unlike the ideas of more "revolutionary" or "brilliant" scientists, those of Fourier withstood the passage of time because they were directly underpinned by verifiable facts, rather than being deduced from accepted theories. According to the Eleventh Edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary:
Science (noun) the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Empirical (adjective) based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
As you can see, science is conducted through observation and experiment which, in the past tense, are appropriately referred to as observation and experience. In fact, the term experience is used in French (particularly in the 19th century) to refer to experimental outcomes. Science is thus defined by strict empiricism.
Science is not the monopoly of academia or "the intelligentsia". We all conduct scientific experiments every day. We look both ways before crossing the road to make sure it is clear even if the traffic lights or a traffic officer tell us it is safe. When pouring a drink we check the level repeatedly until it is what we want, and we test the temperature of the water before stepping under the shower; all without asking for someone-else's opinion. These are repeatable and therefore scientific tests that tell us something about reality and we do not need to ask what the consensus is before accepting the results of such tests for what they are. In fact, the most reliable way of developing expertise is by verifying for yourself, everything presented to you before actually accepting it. Whether or not the expertise you obtain as a result is lauded on a qualification or entirely unknown to others is largely irrelevant to the reliability of your knowledge and the reality of your expertise. This is, after all, a question of competence - which is independent of recognition. A eminently verifiable example of undocumented expertise is my knowledge of HTML and CSS. I have no formal qualifications in the area and, apart from a passing mention in a most uninteresting resume, my expertise in this field is entirely undocumented and unknown. Yet, whether or not you hate the colours and graphics of my web site, there are only a handful of people in the world who are capable reproducing, from scratch, the combination of features (full standards compliance, interoperability all the way back to Internet Explorer 6, AAA-Accessibility, unscripted drop-down menus, fixed and scrolling layout as appropriate, printability) offered by a page design I developed as a product of my own unfunded and unsanctioned research.
Many people blame science for the ills of the world, whether it is "big brother" watching their every move, the gun that was used in a mugging, or the technology that has been central to major environmental damage, it is often the science that is blamed and not the idiots who for fun and profit, use technology they themselves barely understand. I wonder how many people using a computer to read this article understand the principle of defending the narrowest gap in the terrain and how this applies to online security? Yet time and again, the technology is blamed for the ease with which hackers and worms penetrate personal computer systems when the vast majority of commercial web designers refuse to invest in modern server-side methodologies devoid of active scripting, thereby putting pressure on the public to surf the internet unsecured against the criminal use of active scripting - all because web development bottom line is considered by developers to be more important than your security. The fact that for the entire decade spanning 1999-2008, I have successfully kept hackers and worms out of a RISC based Windows 98 system that could be described as "hole-ier than Thou", proves that it can be done - it is just a matter of reading the instruction manual - and, yes, when the external API is closed to unknown sites by a program like Drawbridge, browsers which actually comply with the registry restrictions to API access (such as Internet Explorer) really are more secure than browsers which ignore the security restrictions specified in the registry (e.g. Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Seamonkey, Mozilla, etc.). This is also an indisputable example of the fact that expertise does not need to be known or even recognised to be effective. After all, no-one knows I have this expertise, but this still does not change how well this unknown expertise of mine has served me over the years. However, in this case, my expertise derives from reading the manual and examining the "advanced" settings - all very basic stuff which very few other people bother to do for applications which perform superficially "simple" tasks such as browsing the internet. Who are we to blame someone else for problems which occur because we were too lazy to read the manual and explore the capabilities and limitations of software which could compromise our computer security if misused? What right has anyone to blame a scientist (or even science itself) for the misuse of applicable technology?
In another example, the technological acceleration of industry is blamed for the subsequent environmental problems when it is the commercial executives of industry and not the scientists, who make the decision to sacrifice the environment for a few extra dollars. Executives are not an inanimate force of nature, but are liable human beings capable of responsible moderation of industrialisation and competition. In the matter of research making technological abuse possible, I would assert that those of us who use technology responsibly should not be deprived on account of those who are criminally negligent.
Commerce ultimately exploits and corrupts science for the financial gain of its executives. In excess of US$50,000,000,000.00 is invested in the research of means to "prove" anthropogenic global warming (Carter, 2007) and represents a very commercial vested interest in Climate Change Catastrophism. Is it any wonder that up until 2004, so few scientists were game to openly contradict the commercial bias vested in the anthropogenic global warming agenda? Royer et al. (2004) calculate temperature and carbon dioxide curves consistent with major glaciations across the Phanerozoic in what is otherwise a very cogent article. However, their failure to maintain a sufficient level of scepticism to avoid employing an article title they could not substantiate by more than a false cause (Shaviv & Veizer, 2004), raises questions about the influence of their financial benefactor on the integrity of the scientific process.
Science is not commerce, and science is not journalism. Science is simply the process of using repeatable methods to acquire and understand verifiable facts and test hypotheses. Neither commercial agendas, political deception, nor any form of journalistic sensationalism have any place in the scientific process. Science is neither authoritarian nor democratic and exists for the exclusive purpose of developing a transparent understanding of reality with practical applications that have nothing to do with infallibility, harmony, unity, consensus, or any other warm, fuzzy, social, feel-good phenomena.
The Scientific Process
Science is not a subject or a topic so much as a discipline of evaluating definitive information. The difference between the "sciences" and the "humanities" is that the "humanities" have an abundance of indeterminate information (such as ancient literature, unsupported historical accounts, etc.) but often lack non-ambiguous definitive information; whereas the "sciences" have an abundance of definitive information and with this there is little enough ambiguity to forgo complex interpretation. As a consequence, interpretive errors in the sciences are glaringly evident when they occur (Eg. argument from irrelevance in Oreskes, 2004; false cause in Royer et al., 2004). An understanding of the differences between facts and interpretations is nonetheless vital to all branches of study. Whereas the theologian is faced with the knowledge that despite a certain statement appearing in a certain context, either or both the context and the statement may be ambiguous, making any conclusion drawn purely subjective. Even skilled translators face the problem of indeterminate features of information. Does Luke 17:21 in the New Testament of the Bible state, "[...]the Kingdom of God is within you[...]" or "[...]the Kingdom of God is among you[...]"? Nobody knows and as there is no evidence to support a definitive context for interpretation, the translation in most bibles has been supplanted with a personal interpretation usually subject to the religious prejudice of the translator and this can be seen in the absence of any footnote to inform readers of this ambiguity.
Science has been blessed or perhaps cursed with the rarity of indeterminate information. Where data does prove ambiguous, successful resolution has come from the gathering of data directly related to the context in which the problem is set. Long experience has taught scientists not to accept conclusions based on ambiguous data. For example, if you show me a picture of a small area with asymmetric ripples on the bedding surface of a sandstone, and propose a current direction, I'll reject your proposal because without knowing if the asymmetric ripples are bifurcated, there are three possible current directions and the trilemma can be resolved with the observation of a greater bedding surface area.
Where the indeterminacy of results is not recognised, the scientific investigation is no longer scientific and the investigation is doomed to lose itself in a minefield of probabilities and chaos. Logic, both verbal and scalar (eg. binary algebra, quaternary logic, etc) play an enormous role in connecting the evidence and the conclusions. Logic is nonetheless an assumed requirement of the scientific process, and I cover this on the logic page of my personal site.
The scientific process is based on independent verification and has four parts; hypothesis, method, results, & theory. These parts embody falsifiability, repeatability, verifiability, and testability that structures the logic that builds the hypothesis out of the evidence, and then acquires more evidence to either falsify the hypothesis or confirm it is a theory.
A hypothesis is a falsifiable statement conjecturing the expected outcome of the investigation based on the state of knowledge prior to the investigation. The most important aspect of the hypothesis is the admission of the very human tendency to form an opinion before the facts have been gathered. By documenting such an opinion at the outset, the investigator has a recorded any prejudice that might effect the conduct of the investigation. This demands of the investigator, sufficient-self knowledge to question convenient results more thoroughly.
It is vital that a hypothesis is falsifiable. A hypothesis that is by definition true in all cases is not scientific. For example, Baha'u'llah states that copper turns into gold in 70 years "in its own mine". This is not a scientific hypothesis, because Baha'u'llah was speaking as a "messenger of God" and as such the meaning and interpretation of his words shifts to make the statement "correct". He may for example, be talking about the soul, and not base metals as he would were he speaking as a scientist.
Prophets are not the only people in society who claim the right to infallibility by variable interpretation. It would appear that political or perhaps commercial exponents of "anthropogenic global warming" also lay claim to special rights afforded those who are allegedly in direct communication with God. For example, the shift in definition of "anthropogenic global warming" to include global cooling and predict ice ages (possibly as a result of the apparent temperature trend decline in the years since 1998) degrades the hypothesis of "anthropogenic global warming" into a cheap prophesy that is impossible to falsify. Even if the media become aware of the work of astrophysicists such as documented by Archibald (2007) demonstrating the insignificance of human impact on global mean temperature, the meaning of the term would once again shift to evade refutation. For a hypothesis to be scientific, it must be of unambiguous and fixed definition; sufficient to allow potential falsification by experiment or research. "Anthropogenic global warming" has been redefined once too often to be a scientifically acceptable hypothesis.
A scientific method is by definition, repeatable. If an experimental result cannot be verified by repetition, it is not scientific. For example, when a geologist points out that that global warming is not unprecedented in the geological record, any adequately equipped individual can remeasure the oxygen isotope ratios from which the paleaotemperature record is calculated. The method of isotope measurement is repeatable and can be conducted at any genuine university in the world.
IQ testing on the other hand employs non-repeatable methods such as Cattell, Stanford-Binet, Wechsler, Kaufman, etc., and is therefore largely unscientific. Resit any of the tests I've mentioned and your experience gives you an advantage that changes the result. Increasing complexity tests such as the Porteus Maze Test (Porteus, 1950) or the growing hierarchy test employed by IQ Power (Casey, 2004) can be repeated in identical conditions to return the same results and this makes the methodology truly scientific. Due to the repeatability of increasing complexity tests, they are much more useful and can be employed to measure IQ with regard to verifying factors that influence IQ such as circulation, cholesterol, inebriation, fatigue, sleep deprivation, waking states, hunger, discomfort, distraction, stress, expectancy, etc.
Scientific investigation of a hypothesis has four possible outcomes. The hypothesis is NEW if the evidence gathered in insufficient to confirm or deny the hypothesis. This usually happens when the experiment fails, or the field is devoid of a statistically valid amount of data; for example a geological field study area with no outcrop. The hypothesis is VAGUE if having gathered a statistically valid amount of data, there is statistically significant uncertainty as to whether the data confirms or denies the hypothesis. The hypothesis is TRUE if the data confirms the hypothesis without statistically significant uncertainty and the hypothesis is FALSE if the data denies the hypothesis without statistically significant uncertainty.
Any fact that can be verified is scientific. It is a scientific fact that water will boil at 100 degrees Celsius at around 1000 kilopascals in pressure. You can test this by placing a thermometer in a pot of water and observing the temperature as the water is heated to boiling point. The boiling point of water is verifiable and therefore a scientific fact.
A scientific theory is set forth to explain the available data in light of new information. All too often we hear people with an agenda exclaim, "it's only a theory" or "it's an untested theory". There is no such thing as an untested theory! What makes a hypothesis into a theory is the fact that it has been tested and is supported by those test results. The "untested theory" is thus an oxymoron and I believe is used to deceive people about scientific issues. Semiconductor theory is not fact, but only a very complex scientific theory whose practical applications, such as the computer you browse this site with, the internet, the printer you can use to print this article with, television, radio, microwave ovens, telephones, mobile phones, satellite navigation, etc are all only possible because this very complex scientific theory is supported by verifiable scientific fact and repeatable scientific methodology. Professor Ian R. Plimer demonstrated this in his 1988 debate with Duane T. Gish by pointing out that electricity, like evolution is only a theory, and challenging Gish to use the theory of electricity to demonstrate his conviction that theory is just conjecture.
Gravity is likewise "only a theory", albeit a much simpler theory. Gravity is not a fact, but is instead a theory used to explain the fact that if for example you drop a ball, it will always fall towards the greatest mass, planet Earth. The exclamation of "what goes up must come down" (popularly attributed to Isaac Newton) is the expression of a scientific fact that can be tested by anyone. However, the force of gravity is the theory used to explain this fact. Evolution began as a hypothesis based on a hierarchy of physiological relationships observed in the anatomy of living creatures, by Charles Darwin and his contemporaries. Darwin proposed that the observation of the progressive expression of anatomical features through time could prove his hypothesis. This is now a scientific fact known as faunal progression. The fact of faunal progression can be observed by anyone keen enough to learn palaeontology and geology and go an look at the fossils as they occur in stratigraphic order and thus through geological time. Faunal Progression is the fact that proves evolution and in doing so transforms evolution from untested falsifiable hypothesis to testable verified theory.
The fact that a theory is tested does not close the case on the theory. It is the nature of science that theory is always and forever subject to new information and can be invalidated by new evidence only so long as a more useful theory comes as a result of that evidence. It was once thought that the rate of speciation was a constant biological process. However, Steven J. Gould used a study of biological radiation through geological history to prove that speciation occurs at a variable rate subject to the available diversity of biologically viable environmental niches. The uniformitarian variant of evolution was disproved by what was initially anecdotal or "cherry picked" evidence. However, in science, it can only take one single anomalous but verifiable fact to disprove or at least require modification of a theory. The theory of evolution thus evolved into the "punctuated equilibria" theory of evolution that is the basis for research into the effect of various global parameters (such as temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, sea level, cosmic radiation, etc.) on biodiversity.
Beware of Charlatan Publishers
Before you agree to publish your work with anyone, please consider this caveat. Authors of articles have a reasonable expectation to retain copyright to the article published. This allows the author to put the article on her/his web site, include it in an anthology at a later date, or even sell subsequent serial rights to another publisher at a later date. It's your work, and that makes it your copyright. Real publishers know better than to demand charity from their authors. Real publishers know that they require only first serial rights or syndication rights in order to legalise the publication of a given author's work.
As you can see, any publisher who demands the entire copyright to your work "in order to make publication possible" is lying to you. If money is involved (e.g. the publisher gets a nice fat $35.oo cheque every time someone buys an electronic copy of your article online), then the financial transaction transforms the lie into fraud, which is a criminal offense. If you do business with criminals, you get burned. If nothing more happens, you can count yourself lucky.
There is a lot of money in article sales. Don't be afraid to ask for royalties in return for serial or syndication rights. The publisher's refusal only serves to indicate that you'd be better off doing business with someone who respects your right to the fruits of your own work. Ultimately, academic writers can get more money out of books than out of articles and, as I show later, the empirical nature of science renders any advantage given by "peer-review" redundant. If you write your science correctly, your readership will be able to verify it for themselves without the reassurance of claims to "peer-review".
You have been warned.
In practice, scientific articles are not as rigidly structured as one might expect. However, it pays to write clearly, following a well defined structure, and thoroughly address the topic. In general, one can expect to see an abstract, a form of introduction defining terms, outlining the hypothesis, and any other sources of experimental bias; a description of methodology, a presentation of results, and a conclusion discussing the implications of the results and addressing the validity of your original hypothesis.
It pays to write a clear abstract that outlines the article. One guideline I've come across suggests taking a list of headings and subheadings and rendering them into a short paragraph of not more than 250 words. If this does not describe the main thesis of your article in a convincing manner, then the structure of your article needs to be improved because your headings and subheadings should carry the logical structure of the article without non sequitur gaps.
The introduction need not be called an introduction and can take on a more meaningful name; perhaps something more relevant to the hypothesis you are testing or definition of a key aspect of your research. Here you can outline any literature research you've conducted or define new or uncommonly used terms as necessary. Most importantly, this is where you put forward the hypothesis that you are testing. It pays to keep in mind that your hypothesis needs to be unambiguous and of fixed definition, so if there are contingencies in your hypothesis, the introduction is the place to discuss them. If you are using a software model to apply your hypothesis to large amounts of data, the modelling program and its results might be sufficient justification for a hypothesis, but they are by no means sufficient basis for a conclusion. Results of computer models need to be verified by real data before any scientific theory can be formulated.
The documentation of your method may be minimal if you are using standard and well established methodology. However, if as common in scientific research, you stumble into circumstances that required special treatment, it is necessary to document your methods with sufficient clarity that they can be repeated by others. You also need to justify your methods, crediting procedures developed by previous authors and citing the science behind any new approaches you choose to adopt with flawless logic. You cannot credibly misconstrue a computer model as a scientific method. Computer models are strictly aids to hypothesis and lack sufficient empirical evidence to support a scientific theory. Formulas and methods for treating or otherwise calculating key variables from the results are also documented in this section. It is vital that any method of data treatment is both documented and applied universally without any arbitrary manipulation. Arbitrary "corrections" to data such as those made by Mann et al. (1998, 1999) or direct manipulation of evidence (eg. Morris & Whiticomb, 1961) are unscientific and can lead to fraud allegations (Bird, 1939; Milne & Schafersman, 1983; Plimer, 1994).
Key results are discussed in the results section without interpretation. At this stage, simply keep to the facts and avoid any more interpretation than the presentation of graphs displaying any key correlations and trends (or lack thereof) within your results. It pays to calculate correlation mathematically if you intend to discuss comparative correlation in our conclusion. You must document all your data and are obliged to show due diligence in acquiring sufficient data to eliminate any random skew of data trends. Both failure to exercise due diligence (Eg. Wang et al., 1990; Jones et al., 1990) and omission of key data (Eg. Setterfield, 1981) generally do lead to fraud allegations (eg. Price, 1990; Plimer, 1994; Keenan, 2007)
Discussion of results, trends and correlations is an exercise in logic. The importance of logical integrity is only heightened by the interpretive nature of this part of your article. Flatly stating comparative differences that are not apparent will disgrace otherwise superb work (eg. Royer et al., 2004) and lead to criticism (eg. Shaviv & Veizer, 2004) that may overlook some important precedents such as the close correlation of carbon dioxide and global mean temperature in recent geological history observed by Petit et al. (1990) cited in the last two examples.
When stating any idea not actually discovered by your research it is necessary to credit the individual who did the research that verifies the idea. This ensures that any theory proposed by you is based on verified scientific theory and verifiable scientific evidence. If an idea supported by your research was already proposed by someone else, it is still necessary to credit the original author. It is also unacceptable to recreate the idea under new terminology.
If a citation is not peer reviewed (Eg. an IPCC report), then it constitutes insufficient evidence upon which to base a theory unless it offers a more conservative alternative to the peer reviewed finding and you are demonstrating that the difference in insufficient to refute your theory. It does make sense to also include a result from a peer reviewed source to offer perspective on this part of the basis of your theory. Royer et al. (2004) base their title on a statement by the IPCC that fails to offer better evidence than the application of false cause to a correlation (Shaviv & Veizer, 2004). This seriously undermines their work and their credibility when it was the IPCC who concocted the fallacy.
Peer review exists to verify the empirical rigor of scientific breakthroughs, and given such breakthroughs are indeed scientifically rigorous, to ensure that the radical new idea is published with clear basis in repeatable tests and verifiable evidence. In this sense, peer-review is not a conservative mechanism but a method of ensuring that those radical new ideas that have the support of empirical evidence are guaranteed public discussion.
Ideally, peer reviewers identify erroneous, missing, and redundant citations. They also identify baseless statements, logical errors, factual errors and interpretations The most important aspect of peer review is the verification of scientific methodology and criteria irrespective of whether the idea would otherwise be considered respectable, conventional or acceptable.
Nearly all publications have a review process. Few, if any, publications have a formal peer-review process. The existence of a formal peer-review process can be confirmed by four things:
- A published academic standard, against which, papers are guaranteed to be held
- A published peer-review policy determining what forms of criticism peer-reviewers are allowed to offer (e.g. banning non-constructive criticism which gives no indication of how the paper might pass peer-review)
- Publically available version history for every paper; which lists all corrections made throughout the review process
- Publically available chain of evidence which can be audited, by anyone, to determine whether peer-reviewers have adhered to the peer review standard and peer-review policy of the publication in question or not
Although most scientific publications claim to have a peer-review process, none meet these criteria adequately. Of all the current peer-reviewed publications, arXiv, of Cornell University, meets the highest proportion of these requirements.
A very common misunderstanding is that publishers have the right to censor anything they don't like. However, claiming a peer-review process implicitly guarantees an unbiased presentation of academic literature which, in turn, can deprive the publisher of any right to censor or block publication of papers s/he does not like. In fact, any censorship in a journal claimed to be "peer-reviewed" can constitute a violation of trade practices law because it proves that the product sold as a "peer-reviewed" and thus academically unbiased journal is not, in fact, academically unbiased and, therefore, not what customers are paying for. Whenever a "peer-reviewed" journal engages in censorship, the publisher is committing a crime known to fraud investigators as "bait and switch".
Fraud is a criminal offense in most civilised countries and, as a crime, carries additional penalties for accessories and accomplices who know the crime is being committed but fail to report it. If you know that a publisher is engaging in censorship practices in the guise of "peer-review", you may be legally obliged report the publisher to the trade practices body under whose jurisdiction the journal is produced.
How Science is Independent of Peer-Review
Peer review ensures the credibility of a publication. That your work would be "highly questionable" in the absence of peer-review is redundant given that the empirical nature of any scientific claim makes that claim testable and, therefore, eminently questionable. Without this verifiability, an article cannot be scientific irrespective of whether it passes peer-review or not.
Moreover, the history of science shows that not only has science proven incorrect in the past, this lack of reliability has not been reduced in any way by more stringent peer-review processes. Part of the problem is that peer-reviewers most commonly make the mistake of treating an original research paper as some sort of exam paper regurgitating already established knowledge. The problem with this approach is that, often as not, new discoveries get rejected simply because they raise new doubts about established and accepted ideas. It is because peer-reviewers so often fail to understand the empirical nature of science that they fail to look beyond convention to the testability of the claims being made. As a consequence, a lot of very convincing rubbish slips past peer-reviewers in the sciences, while much more empirically solid material languishes in the "fringe" publications. It is a fact that, of the major discoveries of the nineteenth century, many more were published by the Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science than more prestigious journals such as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Yet both display an alarming preponderance of error. Scientists and peer-reviewers alike are, after all, only human.
It is therefore up to you, the reader, to review what you read for the empirical rigor that peer-reviewers so often betray. The beauty of science, being empirical, is that it necessitates the simple testability of any and every claim made. If you study the history of science through the primary sources (the historical science papers themselves), the means to distinguish science and pseudoscience becomes blindingly obvious because the science that stands the test of time is always empirical at its core while the pseudoscience that gets debunked is always theoretical at its core. Moreover, the nature of "revolutionary" scientific "leaps" amounts, historically, to little more than the overturn of a long standing and deeply entrenched theories by a simple overlooked fact that even a child could verify.
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