Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Is deep time in danger of becoming a fad in a "post-fact world" ? Reply To: Is deep time in danger of becoming a fad in a "post-fact world" ?

James MacAllister

Here is a first draft of Jennifer’s request for “a simple definition and then have different categories covering nuances, such as the ones you talk about in the last post.”

I am concerned that this forum topic seems to have garnered little interest from the DTJN community. Perhaps it needs better PR. It should be a very hot topic because I would venture that there is quite a bit of content posted on DTJN that is not science-based and some that is contradicted by science. Facts really do matter and it is critical that people understand what sets facts supported by scientific knowledge apart as the most reliable, useful and reproducible compared to other ways of knowing. Here is the draft:

What Makes Science the Most Practical and Reproducible Way of Knowing?

“Science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Contemporary science is typically subdivided into the natural sciences, which study the material universe; the social sciences, which study people and societies; and the formal sciences, which study logic and mathematics. The formal sciences are often excluded, as they do not depend on empirical observations. Disciplines which use science, like engineering and medicine, may also be considered to be applied sciences.” – Wikipedia

What is scientific knowledge?

Science can be done by anyone with a sound mind regardless of his or her nationality, language, race, gender, sexual preference, creed, religion or atheism. Science does require faith, but it is faith that nature is knowable through empiricism, the idea that what we know comes through our senses and is based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation, experience, and measurement. Unlike religion, science does not claim to know the absolute Truth. In fact, all science knowledge is approximation based on the best evidence available. Scientific debates are generally over disagreements about what constitutes the best evidence available and what conclusions can be drawn based on that evidence.

Formal sciences that use deductive logic and mathematics are certain, universal, necessary and timeless, but natural scientific knowledge is different and most often acquired by induction that works from many particular instances towards general principles. No matter how accurate and precise natural science knowledge is it can always be improved or disproved and replaced by new observation and evidence. Therefore, natural science is uncertain, particular, relative and corrigible. This is strength, not a weakness.

Martin Brasier, an Oxford scientist, defined science as “a unique system for the measurement of doubt.” So while scientific knowledge may not be certain, it has been shown to have the least doubt about its veracity. It is the most reliable way of knowing when it comes to describing, predicting and providing control of natural phenomena. The evidence of this is our modern world with its constant innovation and technology based in science.

We tend to be partisan toward our own ideas and often hold uninformed opinions. Most of us seek out those things that simply reinforce our cherished beliefs. Scientists are human too, but there is a strong motivation to prove or falsify one’s own ideas. Supporting ideas that do not hold up is very bad for a career in science, while pointing out error in someone else’s study enhances a career. It is much better to find the flaws in one’s own work before anyone else does.

The word theory in common vernacular is used as synonymous with a guess, but that is far from the scientific meaning. A theory is a statement about nature based on what is already known that also extends that knowledge by providing a framework the can suggest new research and predict certain results. A theory has to be testable in ways that will support or falsify it. Theories often suggest further questions and research, and may provide control of something in nature.

Natural scientists must maintain a balance between skepticism and open-mindedness in order to judge evidence. Scientists must avoid the “temptation of certainty,” the idea that any idea represents an end to investigation. For this reason, giving something a name that is a conclusion without investigation, such as junk DNA or something natural is the product of an Intelligent Designer are not science.
Scientists recognize that as humans they have implicit bias that will tilt results. Consequently, their studies and experiments employ blinding so prevent the researcher or analyst from introducing their bias into the results.

To learn about nature, natural science uses observation and measurement. Experiments are designed to produce some answer. Often an experiment is compared to a control. A control allows observation and measurement of the same procedure without the parameter being tested in the experiment. In a blind study, the scientists do not know if they are working with the control results or the test results.

There are two primary methods used in science, reductionism and systems. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Reductionism arbitrarily reduces, or takes apart, a complex system or phenomenon into parts or pieces and then studies these independently. Sometimes a model of the object of study is substituted for the actual phenomenon in order to make disassembly and reassembly possible. This examination of components is a strategy that yields a great deal of useful information about the various parts of the process. When those parts are reassembled, an understanding of how the complex whole functions can be gained that would have been extremely difficult or impossible to achieve from the actual phenomenon. Most of our modern world of scientific knowledge, technology and innovation is based in the reductionist method of study.

Systems science attempts to study the system as a whole or a model of the system. The complexity and dynamics of systems can obsure observation or make measurement difficult. Our ability to study whole processes or systems, such as the weather, has been very limited until the advent of modern technologies and super computing. Now, we can model, study, measure and predict highly complex systems that were once thought to be chaotic. Systems are “more than the sum of their parts.” The more is not a thing, rather it is the system’s emergent properties, such as it’s autonomous organization, performance, dynamics, and interrelationships. These are often vanish when a whole is imagined and studied as parts, or overlooked in the design of a model.

Natural science requires a balance of both of these approaches, reductionism and systems science to produce the best and most complete models and understandings of nature. A model is not the actual phenomenon and consequently the limitations of a model must always be recognized. Because whole natural systems do not consist of parts, reductionism is limited in the answers it can provide. When a whole system is reduced to parts, it is easy to begin to think of a dynamic process as an assembly of static things. A system is requires all of its parts and none can be privileged, whereas reductionism can lead to certain parts being given more importance or mistaken as being the active cause of the system. In both systems and reductionism, there is also the tendency to conflate a model with the actual phenomenon under study.

The results of studies are reported in a primary science journal after undergoing a process of peer review by a panel of scientific experts in the field. The report, or paper, must meet rigorous guidelines for discussion, citation of references, the materials and methods used, the results, including the margin of error, and what conclusions are provided. Peers examine the paper for errors and omissions in the science and the researchers conclusions. It is the journal and reviewers’ reputations that are at stake when a paper is published. Then the scientific community the paper and weighs in with its criticisms. Finally, the results must be reproducible by other independent and often competing scientists using the same materials and methods as described in the paper. It is only after results are confirmed as reproducible that scientific knowledge is accepted as having been proven.