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What is Science? (4 of 12)

October 6th, 2007 · Posted by Who Knows? · 31 Comments

Scientists seem to have one really big secret: science can’t prove ANYTHING!

We can observe an apple, and wonder, “Will it fall, or will it jump over the moon?” We see one falling, and think “hey, apples fall!” With that conjecture, we watch another apple, and it also falls. After watching a dozen apples or so, we conclude “apples always fall”. How do we know though? We can watch a million apples falling, and we still won’t know for a fact that the million-and-oneth apple will not jump. You know what we do? We take it on faith.

We can only hypothesize that the apple will always fall. We can never prove it. We can only have faith that the theory that the next apple will fall, is correct. What, then, makes science any different from religion?

This is the crux of the scientific method, of what makes something “scientific”: scientists do not try to prove their hypotheses, instead, they try their best to disprove them. A scientist comes up with the hypothesis that apples always fall. He then observes as many apples as he can, trying his best to find one that jumps over the moon. If he were to find one, he would conclude “ah, so my hypothesis was incorrect, apples do indeed not always fall”, and go searching for a better hypothesis.

The harder a scientist tries to disprove a hypothesis, and the more the scientist fails, the more faith can be placed in that theory. In this way, Newton’s theory of gravity became generally accepted as “fact”.

However, at some point, people started noticing jumping apples. Originally they thought their eyes were deceiving them – that their measuring instruments were not accurate enough, or that there is some other influence at work which they have over-looked. One of these jumping apples was the planet Mercury. It did not move exactly as predicted.

This is where the “no deferring to divine influence as an explanation in science” comes into play. Humans could simply have concluded: “Wow! Conclusive proof that God exists! God is pulling Mercury around, breaking all the known laws of physics!” This is not valid science, whether God exists or not. Instead, scientists continued scratching their heads.

In 1915, Einstein presented his theory of General Relativity. This theory includes a new formulation for the effect we know as gravity. In simple cases, this reduces mathematically to Newton’s laws, indicating he was correct for the cases we have here on earth. However, for Mercury, General Relativity’s prediction was spot-on, while Newton’s law of universal gravitation was inadequate. For highly accurate science and technology applications, such as GPS satellites, Einstein’s relativity is of the utmost importance, Newton doesn’t cut it.

So yes, science also requires some “faith”. However, science is a process that is self-correcting, that improves over time, and that searches incessantly for its own flaws. Effectively, science is continually examining its own eye in the mirror, to determine if there isn’t maybe a beam in it, or even just a splinter for that matter, that could be removed in order to further improve its vision.

If “creation” is a book written by the hand of God, then science is our basic reading skill. All humans should become literate, so that they may part-take in the wonderful stories that are there to be read.

This is the fourth post in a series inspired by a recent Creationism Seminar in Stellenbosch. The previous post was Is CMI Scientifically Illiterate?

For more on the attempts to prove General Relativity incorrect, please see Tests of general relativity. Any experiment, any test in science, serves to try to disprove the theory, not to prove it.

Categories: Religion and Science
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31 responses so far ↓

  • 1 gloep // Oct 6, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Fourth year BSc and we’ve never had a serious discussion and investigation about the way and being of science. Go Stellenbosch University.

  • 2 Hugo // Oct 6, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Wow! At least at Engineering we had some philosophy for six months, which included “philosophy of science”. Why the Engineers but not the BSc bunch? That’s just bad. Go ECSA?

    (BTW, Squirt is a great back scratcher.)

  • 3 Negate // Oct 7, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Hugo this is often a view on science that creationists take! There is a huge difference between science and religion! If i may use your example of the apple, we can observe the apple and make our hypothesis about the apple, after studieng and observing the apple for a long time we come to a conclusion of it!

    The difference between this science and religion is quite obvious, you can not observe god, you can not study god and make your hypothesis about him and his behavior!

    We can see the apple, thats why science can try and explain its use!(its not to say science will be right, but science takes its best assumption supported by solid scientific laws) you can not observe god, thats why science can’t explain god, you can not compare 2 different things that have now correlation with each other and them come to a conclusion!

    Thats the whole point of science hugo, If a apple suddenly jumps then scientific theory will change! but if have solid scientific laws of newton thats impossible for apple to jump! (For every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction.) If there is no force pushing an inanimate object it wont fall or jump! Science is the best accurate assumption we can make of the world around us now, But in 200 years another more accurate assumption would be made. When talking about science also hold in mind the principle there is no absolute truth! so science will always be the best assumption not necessarily true

    Also i saw what you were trying to do, you are taking a heave unlikely scenario of something just falling and then jumping! you cant approach a logical subject like this in this way, you are going to come to wrong conclusion like you did 😀

  • 4 Hugo // Oct 7, 2007 at 11:20 am


    You do so love exclamation marks, you only have two full stops in your comment. Why does it not surprise me that it seems you are somehow completely misinterpreting me? What exactly is your complaint here? You repeat a lot of what I thought I said…


  • 5 Negate // Oct 7, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    I know its a metaphor. Did you read my point, i said you cant make assumptions on these metaphors Hugo! I agree with you assessment that scientific theories chance (your example of newton and Einstein) and i also agree that there is no valid science for, whether god exists or not, as i pointed out in my comments. It is when you compare religion to science that confuses me

    “If “creation” is a book written by the hand of God, then science is our basic reading skill”

    This is true, science would be us observing the environment that was created(but of course this is a creationist point of view)

    I Think science is the attempt to explain our existence, and our existence don’t have to be attributed to god! With science hugo we observe space, chemicals and make a assumption of how the planets and stars could have come into existence (big bang) Again as you pointed out science can not observe god waving his wand creating everything. So we have to make the best accurate assumption on this matter!

    We need to observe god first before we can attribute his creation to him!

  • 6 Steve // Oct 7, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Hugo: from my side, I think you did a good job of representing what science is and isn’t, and the approach taken by good scientists.

    Are we heading for nonfalsifiability any time soon, because the Mercury example is a good way of explaining it: humans can indeed say, “alright. new hypothesis: there is a god (who sometimes pulls things around)”. But then, even if we solve the Mercury thing, it doesn’t disprove the hypothesis. And Nothing we find can disprove the hypothesis.

  • 7 Hugo // Oct 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    With Negate’s agreement, I have hidden six of Negate’s comments, and my responses to those. It was a little tricky figuring out where the misunderstanding was. In the end, it came down to the definition of “faith”, which led to a misunderstanding of a lot of what I wrote.

    The first definition of “faith” on matches quite well the way I use it:

    “Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.”

  • 8 Hugo // Oct 7, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    Good comment Steve. What do you think of claims like “prayer can heal” though? Are those falsifiable? And prayer for rain, say?

    I’ve pondered if God doesn’t want to be provable, God, hypothesised to be omniscient, could easily avoid working miracles that would prove his/her own existence… in such a case, the existence of the scientific method is suppressing miracles.

    Of course, my idea of a “trustworthy God” is “one that doesn’t willy-nilly break the ‘laws of nature’ at the whim of some arbitrary human’s prayer”.

  • 9 Johan Swarts // Oct 7, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Akkoord, dis ‘n knap opsomming van die wetenskaplike metode. Kommerwekkend egter is sciëntiste wat maak asof dit die moeilikste ding in die wêreld is om te verstaan en die intellektuele higher ground claim omdat hulle kwansuis die heilige metode(tm) beter kan begryp en dit nie vir die prolatariaat en sy leke beskore is nie.

    Meanwhile is dit pretty damn straight forward.

  • 10 Steve // Oct 8, 2007 at 8:24 am

    “What do you think of claims like “prayer can heal” though? Are those falsifiable? And prayer for rain, say?” These claims are nonfalsifiable. The best you can do is collect examples where praying for X did not work. And, using statistics, not accept the hypothesis that praying works. Which still doesn’t prove it.

    Besides, with these sorts of things, there’s a general danger that this God one is praying to is aware of the experiment, so that independence in the experimental design is violated. Not something easy to get around. It’s like you say: God could willfully be concealing himself from scientific exposure, in which case all our experiments most likely won’t find him.

    I have often thought that the advance in science is a possible reason for observing less miracles today, with the greatest incidence of reports of demonic activity and miracles still coming from third-world countries and primitive cultures. Still, that could just be a higher incidence of superstition in those areas.

    By the way, nog first-hand accounts of demonic activity, witchcraft, mense wat dinge vooruit weet, ens. die ander dag gehoor. Die tipe goed is nogal moeilik om te verduidelik as jy die mense ken, en hulle nie “madmen over the sea” is nie.

  • 11 Hugo // Oct 8, 2007 at 8:47 am

    For sure. I had accounts from friends in res, such accounts can seem quite convincing. Can we ever know for sure… we can’t really.

    I love how Carl Sagan deals with such issues in “The Demon-Haunted World”. I love Sagan’s humility. I was shocked at how much serious thought he gave what I thought were absurd claims. I learnt a lot from him. I suppose that kind of thing can backfire, it can make you “too open-minded”, if you give too much weight to the serious consideration of incredible claims without giving enough weight to skepticism.

    As you know me, I’m sure you know I think it is extremely likely that reports of demonic activity and miracles is purely due to more superstition. 😉 I’ll post about alien abductions in the creationism seminar series early next week.

  • 12 Stefan // Oct 9, 2007 at 12:37 am

    Negate states “you can not observe god, you can not study god and make your hypothesis about him and his behavior!”. I have to wonder what the theological students do all those years. I suppose knowing Hebrew has its perks.

    Since we cannot make hypotheses about god and his behaviour, we are left to trust the writings of an ancient people who claimed to have this ability. I remain unconvinced.

    If there is a god, I very much doubt that the bible describes him well.

  • 13 Hugo // Oct 28, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    An interesting titbit that Steve sent me just now, which he found on the internet, I think on the Discovery Institute’s website (that’s the Intelligent Design people):

    interesting argument:
    “2. “Empirical testability,” “falsifiability,” and “confirmability” aren’t synonyms. “Empirical testability” is the genus, of which falsification and confirmation are species. Something is empirically testable when it is either falsifiable, confirmable, or both. Moreover, something can be confirmable but not falsifiable, as with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or the existence of a cosmic designer. Both of these claims are still empirically testable. Further, recent work in the philosophy of science has revealed the degree to which high level scientific theories tend to resist simple refutation. As a result, Karl Popper’s criterion of “falsifiability,” which most commentators seem to presuppose, was rejected by most philosophers of science decades ago as a litmus test for science. Nevertheless, it’s certainly a virtue of scientific proposals to be able to say what evidence would count against it.”

    I need more philosophy as well. Philosophy, science, theology, and a whole bunch of things that fall under those umbrellas…

    While I’m using something from DI, let me balance it with something against DI, from Pharyngula (that raving atheistic science blogger):

    Pharyngula: The Discovery Institute doesn’t like smart college students

  • 14 A Synchronicity? // Nov 14, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    […] The scientist? What will the scientist do? Ideally: neither. The scientist would think: “Hey, this is interesting! Can’t we test it? Let’s test whether it is nothing other than coincidence, or something more…” (assuming funding could be found for such experiments). A scientist that would love to “prove” it, should ideally try his or her best to disprove it, in order to avoid his or her own bias. (See What is Science?) […]

  • 15 gerhard // Nov 19, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    i still think you should disprove the existance of yetis ..

  • 16 Hugo // Nov 19, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    The point here, of course, is that the creationist’s request that one gives “conclusive, irrefutable proof of evolution”, is silly. They will always dig up some silly reason why one could interpret it in some other way to support their pre-conceived ideas… never mind how good those reasons are.

    Scientifically, evolution is all there is. There is no alternative theory challenging evolution.

  • 17 gerhard // Nov 20, 2007 at 11:54 pm
    , its actually considered a cognitive bias. it effects every aspect of life. we base things off things that have been. it makes sense if you think about it. why waste all the computational time on starting fresh on each action, tought or idea. same goes for information gathering , you start looking for the things you know you should be looking for that lets you get a basic idea of what you are looking at which should normally get you to your goal quicker. this is also why acceptance and understanding is always so relative.

    I try overcome confirmation bias by arguing opposing side with people who are doing the same. i think it gives you a better understanding of arguments made because it forces you to look for arguments to attack your own points of view while defending against it.

  • 18 gerhard // Nov 21, 2007 at 2:30 am

    ‘This self-delusion, the result of what’s called cognitive dissonance, has been demonstrated over and over by researchers who have come up with increasingly elaborate explanations for it. Psychologists have suggested we hone our skills of rationalization in order to impress others, reaffirm our “moral integrity” and protect our “self-concept” and feeling of “global self-worth.”’

  • 19 Batten #2: Transitional Fossils and Quote Mining // Mar 16, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    […] theories, and they try to disprove these theories, including their own. (As I explained in What is Science? in my (incomplete) series on the previous creationism seminar, one of the foundations of science is […]

  • 20 Practising Science Requires Methodological Naturalism // Aug 5, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    […] Material: my old post titled What is Science? — I may want to revise it some time, but in the mean time, I believe you may find it […]

  • 21 Teapot // Jan 8, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    I think that I can give a rather more elegant rebuttal than “Negate” of the claim below:

    Scientists seem to have one really big secret: science can’t prove ANYTHING!

    We can observe an apple, and wonder, “Will it fall, or will it jump over the moon?” We see one falling, and think “hey, apples fall!” With that conjecture, we watch another apple, and it also falls. After watching a dozen apples or so, we conclude “apples always fall”. How do we know though? We can watch a million apples falling, and we still won’t know for a fact that the million-and-oneth apple will not jump. You know what we do? We take it on faith.”

    First of all, lets just be clear about what we are talking about here.
    Belief is the acceptance that a proposition is true, and faith is belief in the absence of empirical evidence.

    Your first statement is roughly correct – the scientific method never provides absolute proof.
    Read: Scientific_method

    The relevant section is: “Scientific researchers propose hypotheses as explanations of phenomena, and design experimental studies to test these hypotheses. These steps must be repeatable in order to dependably predict any future results. Theories that encompass wider domains of inquiry may bind many hypotheses together in a coherent structure. This in turn may help form new hypotheses or place groups of hypotheses into context.”

    Empirical evidence gained in this way never provides absolute, irrefutable and final proof that the hypothesis is correct, because the next measurement may invalidate the hypothesis, and a new better hypothesis has to be made.

    You probably see this as a weakness.
    It is actually science’s greatest strength, it provides a mechanism that allows the scientific understanding of the universe to be continually honed to more closely match the reality of the universe.

    I am afraid to say that you are incorrect to say that Scientists take it on faith that the Apple will always fall.
    The reason for this is that faith is defined as “belief in the absence of empirical evidence”, and the scientific method’s central precept hinges on empirical evidence.

    It feel that I should also state that proponents of science are much less certain about their beliefs than religious believers are (for the reasons stated above).

    So, in conclusion, science differs from religion fundamentally in the way that it’s practitioners arrive at a belief.
    Religious practitioners arrive at belief through faith, and scientists arrive at belief through the scientific method.

    I hope that I have satisfactorily answered your question: “What, then, makes science any different from religion?”

    Kind regards,

  • 22 Teapot // Jan 8, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    On your question “What do you think of claims like “prayer can heal” though? Are those falsifiable?

    I thought that I should just point you here:

    Draw your own conclusions….


  • 23 Hugo // Jan 8, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Ooh, Teapot is still around.

    Teapot, be careful. You’ve shoved me in a box I don’t belong in.

  • 24 Hugo // Jan 8, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    (And that question was not an open question, it was one that I was answering in the following paragraphs. My point: it would be helpful to you and the value of your comments if you don’t tackle my posts with an attitude of fault-finding, expecting me to be wrong at any point where you’re uncertain about it. Benefit of the doubt, please, but of course you’d then also have to start with doubt in the first place.)

  • 25 Teapot // Jan 9, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Doubt is an important component of science and the central precept of Skeptical Agnosticism.

    I don’t expect that you are wrong where I am uncertain, but I think that you are wrong to be so certain.

    Please explain which box I have “shoved” you in, and how you don’t belong in such a box what ever that may be

  • 26 Teapot // Jan 9, 2009 at 7:51 am

    p.s. I saw that you attempted an answer to your own question – I just disagree with that answer.

    I find it interesting that you want the benefit of the doubt, yet you are so sure of your own position, that you are not willing to accept my constructive criticism and try to understand its implications for your own argument.
    Being a rationalist, I am intellectually honest, and if you present a rational argument, I promise to evaluate it fairly.

  • 27 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Sorry if I came across a bit strong. 😉

    Here’s the thing, first principles:

    First of all, lets just be clear about what we are talking about here.
    Belief is the acceptance that a proposition is true, and faith is belief in the absence of empirical evidence.

    That first sentence would be key, yes. I’m not being very clear. Typically, I don’t take the “reductionistic empircial scientist”‘s definition of faith. I take a more subjective one, more the “I’ve got faith in my wife” kind. So what we’ll end up arguing, is about definitions. Sorry about that, it certainly causes people to pull their hair out, and I cause all sorts of trouble for myself by not sticking to the Canonical definitions agreed upon by A Certain Community. I will continue to be careful about the chaos I might cause due to this, and will try better to be clear.

    So my definition of “faith” in the post above is defined such that “trusting that our empirically determined theories will hold into the future” can be called faith. Circular reasoning? No, I’m not defining things as “this is faith”, because I don’t care about words as much as the concepts I’m writing about. I use words only point to concepts, I don’t define them strongly.

    Slight evidence of boxing:

    You probably see this as a weakness.

    Nope. It is most certainly a strength.

    I hope this helps a bit. I’ve gotta go to work now. I appreciate your input, I’m not arguing against any of it. Rather, I’m finding it mostly useful in figuring out what I need to watch out for in the future, when I continue to write as I do.

    This post was written with much “confidence”, which can come across as “certainty”, which is troublesome if I’m misunderstood (which *will* happen often). If I were to write it again, I’m sure I’d do things a bit differently.

    And I’ve got “a glossary for words” in the pipeline. It will be critical, because I’ll be doing similar things a lot in the coming year. And I have been doing so a lot in the past.

    Thanks for your input! Much appreciated.

  • 28 Kenneth Oberlander // Jan 9, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    So, you are in effect arguing for a definition of faith as “justified, provisional belief”?

  • 29 The Teapot // Jan 9, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    So my definition of “faith” in the post above is defined such that “trusting that our empirically determined theories will hold into the future” can be called faith.

    Even by this definition, you are still incorrect – scientists do not trust “that our empirically determined theories will hold into the future” .
    I don’t think that it is possible to express this any more clearly than I have done above.

    Circular reasoning? No, I’m not defining things as “this is faith”, because I don’t care about words as much as the concepts I’m writing about. I use words only point to concepts, I don’t define them strongly.

    This is quite an admission.
    I am not interested in continuing this discussion until you have raised your game.

  • 30 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 7:13 pm

    Kenneth, not quite. This discussion has urged me to add a “On Faith” post high up on my list of posts to write. It’s one of those that requires careful wording to try and phrase what I mean well.

    @Teapot, I’m not interested in “raising my game”, because continuing the discussion doesn’t interest me. 😉 We’re talking about “rational reductionistic definitions” here, and I’m too wishy washy in my definitions. I feel I really need to sit down and write, with high concentration, for two hours, on “faith”, if I’m to express the “feelings” I associate with the concept adequately.

    On the way to work, I thought “faith in your wife” isn’t actually that good a simple example. “Faith in yourself” might be better.

    I was curious to see if anyone bites on “reductionistic empirical scientist” -> when someone saying that is placed in a certain box, that comes across as a negative statement. Which isn’t how I mean it. Kinda like who’s the one saying “nigger” -> those in one box may, those in another box may not.

    “Quite an admission” does indicate I’m expressing myself badly though. The point is: I’m not reasoning. I’m not saying “X is faith”, and then based on that, “foo is X, hence foo is faith”. The point was that my words are so much in flux, that the statement “foo is faith” is as much a statement about how I use the word “faith” as it is a statement about “foo”.

    And the meaning of the post as a whole is more important, which was an attempt to explain the basics of science to young earth science deniers. It does irritate me when the general idea being communicated gets buried in arguing about little words and sentences. Maybe I should explicitly write poetry, rather than prose. 😛

  • 31 Hugo // Jan 9, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Back to the example. That very example. The apple falls. We trust the apple to fall. We trust that what we have empirically observed to happen for many years, centuries, millenia, will continue happening. It is certainly based on evidence, yes. But I’m willing to bet that no scientist sat back and decided to believe that apples will continue to fall only because they’ve always been falling. And in *this* instance I’m talking about a concrete example, not an abstract metaphor for something more amazing, more cutting-edge science.

    But yes, that was *also* supposed to be a metaphor for a more abstract principle on how scientists approach cutting-edge science, so that’s not a solid argument. (Which is the point: I’m not interested in arguing about “little trivial details”.)

    Oh, let me first acknowledge that I was arguably wrong in my word choice. It can be misleading. If I were to improve this post, to communicate one idea clearly and unambiguously, that was clearly a bad choice of words. One of my “flaws” is clearly that I like mixing things up and being a little loose with words.

    Now back to defending this old post of mine. There’s something fundamental about these basics of life. We’re hungry, we eat. Things fall, we’re scared of cliffs. It’s something ingrained in the human, and accepted. There’s something fundamentally similar about accepting our scientific methods. Yes, we can argue that by testing the results of our science, we can conclude that our science is “good”. Ala: “Science! It works, bitches.” (Was that on xkcd, amongst other places?) But how many scientists really sit down and choose to accept the scientific method on the grounds of empirical evidence of its success? Philosophers of science, maybe. Scientists themselves? Based on how scarily little many B.Sc students at Stellenbosch University knows about the philosophy of science, I’ve got some empirical evidence (or… maybe it’s a bit anecdotal?) that many people practising science really don’t have a scientific rigour to their acceptance of science itself.

    And that, I’d like to call “faith”. Faith in science.

    And why are people good? You can point to our genetic basis for our morality, but it still doesn’t say that we *should* stick to our morality. Which is why science is useless as a moral guide: it provides understanding, it provides the tools. But it doesn’t explain why we should use it, and the knowledge, in one way rather than another. Ultimately, there’s a “leap” (in a rigorous philosophical and rational sense) of *acceptance* that’s necessary to embrace basic morality. I call that being “faithful” to your sense of morality.

    You need not use my words yourself, I didn’t ask that you do. But when I use these words, when I communicate, on this blog in particular, this is how I use words. I have my reasons for doing so, my logical steps for coming to these definitions, my philosophical perspective on language and concepts for backing it up. It is my intention to try and sketch out more of that in the “on faith” post I mentioned above. The fact that I can’t keep it in is what spawned all these words in these two comments.

    Hopefully my verbiage here might serve as an indication for why it is useful for me to first go and sit down and write, with focus and concentration, for two hours, before I continue babbling on. So if there’s a lack of interest in continuing this discussion, it most certainly wouldn’t bother me.

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