Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sci-Fa-Lit: Introduction

I'm starting a new feature on my blog called "Sci-Fa-Lit" (short for "Science Fact Literature"). Each entry will take a closer look at some book or essay about science (fact, not fiction). It could be about the history of science, the philosophy of science, the politics of science, or the current events of science. Or maybe just a textbook.

Like most of my other blog features, it will be somewhat sporadic. I'll try to update it once a month, but if I'm reviewing a long book, it might take longer. To help you out, I will announce the next two entries at the end of each entry (including this one). I'll also provide a link to either an online version of the text or the book's Amazon page. That way you'll have time to read along.

And, in case you're wondering, the term "Sci-Fa" originates in the 3rd Rock From the Sun episode "Hotel Dick", with special guest George Takei.

The relevant scene occurs at the 5:25 mark.

So, a few words on what constitutes science.

The so-called "hard sciences", biology, chemistry, physics, etc. are examples of science. Duh.

The so-called "soft sciences", sociology, economics, linguistics, etc. are also examples of science. The fact that a lot of these sciences deal with society and, as such, can't be tested in a laboratory, causes some, especially those under the pernicious influence of Karl Popper, to deem them pseudoscience. Furthermore, this perception causes a lot more pseudoscientists and postmodernists than usual to be attracted to those fields. However, a theory in these fields can still have evidence in its favor and against it. When that evidence is overwhelming, you can still make definitive statements about its truth. So you can still test theories, even if those tests aren't as controlled as one might prefer.

Mathematics is an example of science. Some people, while not considering mathematics a pseudoscience, nonetheless consider it a separate entity from science. This is because the methods of mathematics, involving logical reasoning seem distinct from the methods of standard science, focusing on experimentation. But logical reasoning is still a form of experimentation, just very controlled. They are still prone to error (remember when they found that hole in Andrew Wiles's Fermat's Last Theorem proof?), but it's much less likely.

Art is not a science, nor is it a pseudoscience. Since art deals with questions of opinion rather than fact, it's something that people can deal with as they please. However science can be used in art, for example applying optics to painting, acoustics to music, or just drawing pictures of pretty fractals. And one can study art scientifically, looking at biological and sociological reasons for why certain things are considered aesthetically pleasing and others are not.

Religion, chi, new age spirit crap, etc. are not examples of science. Nor are they notions separate from science. Like science, these notions deal with questions of fact, and are subject to scientific scrutiny. However, they are all wrong, and hence pseudoscience.

There is no easy method of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. Newtonian mechanics is technically wrong, because of relativity, but it is still nonetheless a useful tool. Similarly, while the Earth may be round, one can still navigate using a flat map. And, in fact, pretty much any scientific theory is going to have problems like that. The trick is knowing the extent to which a theory applies. Occam's Razor can help, but has its own limitations. Popper's "falsifiability" stuff fails its own falsifiability test and is pretty worthless.

However, just because the boundary between real science and pseudoscience can get a bit blurry doesn't mean that all theories have to be treated equally legitimate. Sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that you can definitively declare a theory to be legitimate.

And let's face it. One of these songs is definitively better than the other.

The series will begin in earnest next month.

And, as I promised, here are the first two entries:

We will start at the beginning, with Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, by Galileo Galilei (1632). Widely considered to be the birth of scientific reasoning, this fictitious dialogue (successfully) ridicules the prevailing notions of astronomy and (unsuccessfully) challenge's Kepler's (correct) view of the tides.

And after that we'll take a look at The Character of Physical Law, by Richard Feynman (1964). This collects a series of lectures on the philosophy of science by a guy known for his hostility to philosophy. He does this by using the science of gravitation as an example, tracing its history from Galileo's time to what, at the time, was the present day.

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