Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Scientific Method - 1/2

Natural phenomena can be investigated only by the scientific method. The human species can take genuine pride in the fact that it developed the scientific method.

In science we begin by formulating a hypothesis for explaining a given set of observations. A good hypothesis leads to a theory if it not only explains the original set of observations, but also makes predictions, all or most of which also turn out to be confirmed by experiments designed to test those predictions. A theory acquires respectability with time if it is able to explain more and more observations.

The above flow-chart gives you some idea about the scientific method, but it hardly brings out the real character of the scientific approach to seeking knowledge. Let us not lose sight of the fact that all this is done by human beings. And humans tend to have weaknesses like deceit, ego, jealousy, national pride, emotional baggage, etc. The power of the scientific approach to reality is that it rises above all these human frailties. In science there is no respect for reputation or authority. Anybody can be wrong, irrespective of his/her past record as a scientist. I often give the example of the great scientist Albert Einstein. His views on quantum mechanics were at variance with experiment, and were therefore brushed aside while creating the present edifice of physics.

And science has no hesitation in throwing away even its most cherished theories if new evidence makes that necessary. Tomorrow if Einstein turns out to be right about what he thought about the quantum theory, no problem. A new theory of reality will replace what is accepted today.

This is true intellectual humility. Compare it with what prevails in most religions: You are just not allowed to question certain statements, even when there is overwhelming evidence against them. Why?
It's hard to overestimate the importance of the scientific method. Human culture contains much more than science—but science is the part that actually works—the rest is just stories. The rationally based inquiry the scientific method enables is what has given us science and technology and vastly different lifestyles than those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In some sense it is analogous to evolution. The sum of millions of small mutations separate us from single celled (organisms) like blue-green algae. Each had to survive the test of selection and work better than the previous state in the sense of biological fitness. Human knowledge is the accumulation of millions of stories-that-work, each of which had to survive the test of the scientific method, matching observation and experiment more than the predecessors. Both evolution and science have taken us a long way, but looking forward it is clear that science will take us much farther (Nathan Myhrvold).