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I’ve seen lately a number of discussions about science: what’s good science, is economics science, and so on.  My concern with these debates is they seem to implicitly define science as a body of absolutely true knowledge.  This is not my view.  I see scientific models as maps with which to view the world, rather than definitions of the world.  So rather than dismiss an idea as non-scientific or pseudo-scientific, I tend to focus on whether the idea is based on good science or bad science.  The right question is whether a particular theory offers a reliable and useful explanation of phenomena, not whether that theory is scientific or not.

In my earlier post, reader Joe writes in the comments:

Many scientific discoveries have not occurred because scientists were looking for the results that they found. They were accidental discoveries, not imagined by the scientist who was going after them.

This doesn’t negate my point that scientific models are constrained by the limits of human imagination.  Clearly, in order for accidental discoveries to be recognized as discoveries, someone needs to recognize their significance, which requires imagining a model that explains the unexpected results of the study.  A classic example of this is Einstein, who didn’t actually conduct experiments.  He took existing observed data and imagined a new model that better explained the observed phenomena.  Prior to Einstein, the limit of human imagination was Newtonian mechanics, and after Einstein, it grew to include relativity.

Joe also writes:

The history of scientific discovery has included lots of stories of humanity thinking they’d never be able to do something, and then they did it.

This actually supports my claim that the physical universe is not bound by the same limits that bind science.  The fact that humans cannot imagine something does not imply that the universe forbids that thing from happening.  In any disagreement between humans and the universe, the universe wins.

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  1. […] has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which […]

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