Thursday, April 10, 2014

But what is science?

As important as science is--it's hard to imagine life without the great things, like computers that science has brung--it's worth asking: what is it?

And I came across a simple sentence years ago with an answer that encapsulates it completely:

Science is the art of prediction.

Whenever you flip a light switch, oddly enough, you're doing science. You know the light will come on, and it's not magic or mystical. And usually, you're right! But sometimes it doesn't come on, and you can work out the reasons: light bulb out maybe, or you didn't pay the power bill, or storms have cut power, etc.

And I can encapsulate everything scientific within that paradigm of prediction, as medical science can predictably set broken bones. Rockets can predictably put satellites into orbit. Computer scientists can predictably, well, are there actually computer scientists?

With the easy definition above--which you may doubt--we can answer that question: to the extent that computer scientists engage in research that leads to predictability they are scientists.

There is no science without prediction.

Our ancestors were not just silly to call on the gods or spirits or whatever for things they needed. They really needed those things, like fire, or good weather for their crops. And could die, and often did die when those things weren't available.

They were willing to try anything to get what they needed, but could not reliably get those things regardless. The gods were maybe not into being as reliably servile as a light switch.

In contrast we have lots of important areas where things are remarkably predictable, and even do ok in areas where they are not. Like we have weather scientists who are pretty good at predicting, though not perfect, and now we can easily transition into where scientific research gets really interesting.

Scientists around the globe work quite simply to extend the arena of prediction.

So yes, you do science when you flip a light switch--whether you realize it or not--but at the upper limits of scientific discovery, scientists are trying to get repeatability--prediction that works--with far more complex things.

Let's consider how big that is, like if they succeed in certain areas, we can have, say, predictable power from fusion reactors. Or predictable treatments for all types of cancer.

Or we can predict our weather and climate better given large inputs of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Still doubting the utility of that simple sentence claiming science is the art of prediction?

Well then consider what you can now say is beyond science, like, can you predict anything about God?

What about when we die? Science can predictably tell you what happens to a human body, but where is prediction when it comes to other concepts, like what predictions could be tested about a soul?

If you cannot present a testable predictive framework it is NOT scientifically manageable.

But what does art have to do with it then?

Well, remarkably enough it is not completely clear how we manage to do well when we do well at figuring things out well enough to predict things like how electricity will flow, which allows us to have light on demand.

Consider, back during the Roman Empire, steam was known, over 2000 years ago was the Antikythera mechanism, an early analog computer made out of gears. What if? What if Romans had built steam engines? Why didn't they? What if people of the time had continued to build ever more complex computers? Why didn't they?

And in mathematics Archimedes was doing calculus, long before Newton or Leibniz were even born.

The simple explanation for the need for "art" when talking about science is that we're not really sure how it is we know what we know, or why we know it, when we know it!

Political science can help you predict political trends or even who is likely to win a political election, but it cannot predict if a particular person will be a great leader or not.

You can survey art students all you wish, but who of them, if any, will produce a work of art on the level of the Mona Lisa?

You can consider this idea that science is the art of prediction with hefty skepticism and try to see what efficacy it has in your life. I see it as a functional way to look at science which can tell you when people are doing science, and when they are not. It can also help you understand the limits of science.

And best of all, it can elevate the wonder about art in our world.

Art is something beyond science. Science can study art. You can probe the Mona Lisa. Consider how it was made. Puzzle out who was portrayed.

But can you really truly explain that painting or any great masterpiece?

I suggest to you that science will never explain art because art is bigger than science, and in fact encapsulates it. Which is an opinion, and a prediction!

So yes, it is science, or as I like to say: meta-science.

Isn't knowledge fun?

My opinions are my own, but you can search on: "science is the art of prediction"

The web makes it easy to look over the history of that phrase. It also lets you look easily at how others talk about what science is.

As for my qualifications for making this post, I need none. It's my blog. But it might be helpful to note I at least have an undergraduate degree in physics, having a B.Sc., which is a Bachelor of Science, from +Vanderbilt University. That means I have a little training in the subject, though the experts in the field tend to have doctorates so I'm not claiming expertise.

Enjoy the search. Find out more about what is predictable in your life, and why.

Science can tell you.

James Harris
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