Quote of the Day: Science

 

“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” – Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford was a physicist. (You could tell, couldn’t you?) Yet he hits on one essential truth with this quote: the more rigorous and replicable experiments in a field of science are, the more reliable the results. With physics, mathematics provides the rigor, and if an experiment is not replicable, there better be a really good reason — some reason that when factored in makes the result replicable. Stamp collecting is Rutherfords’s shorthand for ordering and collecting, which is about all you can do absent mathematics and rigorous analysis.

Rocket science is hard, but it is not hard because it is complex. It is hard because it is exact. On the other hand, soft sciences tend towards hand-waving. Results depend on the meaning of “is.” We see this most frequently in climate science where elaborate mathematical models are built to predict future results and prove about as reliable as a stopped digital clock. One which does not display time at all. When sciences get sufficiently obscure, things are fuzzy enough that you can justify a number of conclusions, sometimes contradictory. Then the results represent reality a lot less than they represent the desires of the paymasters sponsoring the research. It is truly stamp collecting.

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There are 30 comments.

  1. Aaron Miller Member

    Repeatable experiments have their own pitfalls: missing variables, confirmation bias, misapplication, etc. 

    Empirical research is beneficial. But it’s not the epitome of science. It is one of many ways of seeking and testing truth. 

    If more lab researchers studied philosophy, perhaps we would see fewer unproven assumptions and false conclusions. Data and logic are both necessary for understanding.

    • #1
    • June 22, 2019, at 7:29 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  2. Barfly Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    If more lab researchers studied philosophy, perhaps we would see fewer unproven assumptions and false conclusions. Data and logic are both necessary for understanding.

    OTOH the study of philosophy is itself only loosely tethered to objective result. Modern philosophy, poisoned by Kant and muddied by his European successors, is completely disassociated. The study of philosophy today leads students away from objective measure; it does not lead them to value truth.

    • #2
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:56 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Mark Camp Member

    Below are my opinions on it. They are only presented as opinions.

    Seawriter:

    With physics mathematics provides the rigor

    I think exactly the opposite, that the rigor provides the mathematics. True science, including

    • its mathematical and other relationships
    • its provable assertions about what can and cannot be predicted
    • its quantitative predictions and their confidence levels, in those cases where the theory says that those are possible

    are the result of the rigorous application of the universal method of science.

    Seawriter: We see this most frequently in climate science where elaborate mathematical models are built to predict future results and prove about as reliable as a stopped digital clock.

    I disagree about climate science. Here is my view. 

    It doesn’t predict future results, and is as valid as physics. A real climate scientist can give a infallible proof that the computer models created by people calling themselves climate scientists cannot possibly predict what they say they can.

    The scientific method rejects the method of the positivists, who claim that they can discover laws from raw historical data without any theory, and use repetitive predictions claiming that these could confirm the laws.

    In the mind of the public, a given failure of a climate model to predict is falsification of the theory. The public is actually accepting the claim that the supposed scientific method used is valid. In fact, the claim was nonsense before the prediction failed.

    The reason that the predictions of the positivist pseudo-scientists like fake climate scientists and fake economists are 100% unreliable is that they aren’t based on scientific method. They are 100% garbage, even going in.

    • #3
    • June 22, 2019, at 9:19 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  4. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    • #4
    • June 22, 2019, at 9:26 AM PDT
    • 8 likes
  5. Barfly Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    I never agreed with mathematicians about that. Mathematics is completely founded on the idea of a set, which implies elements with identity. Physics is based on the observed reality of elements with unique identity.

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality. Mathematicians may go on about the value of pure mathematics, and they’re right to a degree. Pure math, untethered to reality, is a thing of great value, but that is completely contingent on its being part of a whole that is founded in a true idea. If no part of math described physical reality well enough to guide our manipulations then no part of math would have any more value than the word game books you find in a grocery store checkout lane.

    Shorter: physics is not just applied math.

    • #5
    • June 22, 2019, at 10:26 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    Barfly (View Comment):
    I never agreed with mathematicians about that.

    • #6
    • June 22, 2019, at 10:53 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  7. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

     

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

     

    • #7
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:17 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  8. Aaron Miller Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    If more lab researchers studied philosophy, perhaps we would see fewer unproven assumptions and false conclusions. Data and logic are both necessary for understanding.

    OTOH the study of philosophy is itself only loosely tethered to objective result. Modern philosophy, poisoned by Kant and muddied by his European successors, is completely disassociated. The study of philosophy today leads students away from objective measure; it does not lead them to value truth.

    I miss the classical model of philsophy. As “love of truth”, philosophy was not limited to logical conjecture but instead encapsulated all approaches to truth. Under that understanding, there was less emphasis on specialization and more interaction between disciplines. 

    Physics and biology, geology and metaphysics, math and art — they require different methods but only when pieced together provide an understanding of observed reality.

    • #8
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:30 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  9. Barfly Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

    No, I meant what I said. I say, it’s only of any value to you because of its success with reality. If someone made something elaborate and compelling, precise, requiring long study and dedication to master, but of no correlation to reality, then I think you’d place no more value on it than you do Game of Thrones. [edit: whatever that value might be.]

    You might also value math’s precision and beauty in their own right, but that doesn’t mean they can stand alone.

    • #9
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:38 AM PDT
    • Like
  10. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):
    physics is not just applied math.

    To me, it seems to be pretty much just a particular application of math and logic.

    Maybe you mean something different by “applied math” than I’m thinking of.

    By applying an abstract theory to the real world, I simply mean performing operations, like measurements, that permit one to map data from experience of the real world to the abstract model, to permit logical inferences to be made about the world, and then perhaps also perform actions to satisfy a want (if one was not simply trying to understand the world but to impose one’s will on it) based on some calculation and mental development of a course of action.

    To understand why a whip cracks, e.g., I collect or recollect data from my senses about a whip and its motion that allow me to decide I can realistically map it to my theory of physics, building a particular mental model that instantiates my general mental model of a physical system comprising rigid massive bodes and linkages.

    I then do pure logical (including mathematical) manipulations on the particular model, and see if I can account for the crack of the whip without having to alter or abandon my theory of physics.

    There is no difference in principle to me from applying math to the problem of determining how many donuts are left in a box.

     

    • #10
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:39 AM PDT
    • Like
  11. Barfly Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    To me, it seems to be pretty much just a particular application of math and logic.

    You keep leaving out the first step: observation. Physics is tested by reality. That factor outweighs every other distinction. One may then apply math, which works because math is an abstraction of a basic principle of reality: things have identity.

    • #11
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:44 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  12. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

    No, I meant what I said. I say, it’s only of any value to you because of its success with reality. If someone made something elaborate and compelling, precise, requiring long study and dedication to master, but of no correlation to reality, then I think you’d place no more value on it than you do Game of Thrones. [edit: whatever that value might be.]

    You might also value math’s precision and beauty in their own right, but that doesn’t mean they can stand alone.

    My son values algebra, so much that he thought about studying and teaching it for a living. 

    Now, there is a particular algebra that is of practical use. It can be applied to the real world.

    But that algebra was of no interest to him. He only valued the algebras that don’t describe the real world.

    So your proposition that no one values math except because it describes reality is proved to be false.

    • #12
    • June 22, 2019, at 11:50 AM PDT
    • Like
  13. Barfly Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    So your proposition that no one values math except because it describes reality is proved to be false.

    That’s bad math on your part, but worse physics, I’m afraid. You’ve only observed the subject to value math, which we’ve already agreed correlates to reality. 

    • #13
    • June 22, 2019, at 12:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    To me, it seems to be pretty much just a particular application of math and logic.

    You keep leaving out the first step: observation.

    I’m leaving it in: I believe that both in developing, and in applying, a scientific theory, the first step is observation.

    • #14
    • June 22, 2019, at 1:17 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    So your proposition that no one values math except because it describes reality is proved to be false.

    That’s bad math on your part, but worse physics, I’m afraid. You’ve only observed the subject to value math, which we’ve already agreed correlates to reality.

    I think that my son values pure (not applicable to reality) math, based on his actions. Are you saying that I could be mistaken?

    • #15
    • June 22, 2019, at 1:25 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. The Reticulator Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    the method of the positivists, who claim that they can discover laws from raw historical data without any theory,

    Very interesting. I didn’t know the positivists claimed that. (I am not being sarcastic.) 

    • #16
    • June 22, 2019, at 1:48 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Mark Camp Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    the method of the positivists, who claim that they can discover laws from raw historical data without any theory,

    Very interesting. I didn’t know the positivists claimed that. (I am not being sarcastic.)

    Yeah, they didn’t teach us that in school.

    • #17
    • June 22, 2019, at 2:50 PM PDT
    • Like
  18. Barfly Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    So your proposition that no one values math except because it describes reality is proved to be false.

    That’s bad math on your part, but worse physics, I’m afraid. You’ve only observed the subject to value math, which we’ve already agreed correlates to reality.

    I think that my son values pure (not applicable to reality) math, based on his actions. Are you saying that I could be mistaken?

    I’m saying, among other things, that there is no math that is not an analog of reality. That’s why anyone likes any math. Your son has found some math that you carelessly say is “pure”, which you say means “not applicable to reality” (an absurdly poor definition in itself, you really need to fix that part.) I say that because it’s math, it is an expression of the basic truth (already stated) and that’s why he finds it attractive. That you don’t see a physical motivation for his subject area is of no significance. His math is still part of math, based in sets, which are the abstraction of fundamental reality.

    Mark, you’re careless with your accounting of sets. That’s all any math is, by the way.

    • #18
    • June 22, 2019, at 4:42 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    the method of the positivists, who claim that they can discover laws from raw historical data without any theory,

    Very interesting. I didn’t know the positivists claimed that. (I am not being sarcastic.)

    I doubt that they ever made that claim. By the 1950s and 1960s, many philosophers of science were arguing for the theory-ladenness of facts, that is, the theories held by the scientist at some deep level, account for that the researcher observes. It is something you often hear when a scientist is talking about a new discovery, other researchers had seen the phenomenon, but it didn’t register as important or worth noticing. The theories (paradigms–involuntary shudder when I use the word) they were using did not account for all of the phenomena, thus they didn’t see facts that were right in front of them. 

    When I was working in Greenland, there was a bit of a buzz over some crystalline features in the deep ice core samples taken from the borehole at DYE-3. There are air bubbles in the ice cores, but at some depth they start to disappear, but since they have no where to go, it was hypothesized that air bubbles are trapped in clathrate hydrates of air in deep ice cores. These are molecules that form a lattice that can trap other molecules within the crystals, meaning that within these structures, molecules that would otherwise take up much more space can be held in small areas. Apparently, when warmed, they breakdown somewhat violently. (My description is rough, and largely from memory, so it probably is somewhat inaccurate, but maybe close enough). Anyway, a crystallographer was studying ice crystals under magnification, and saw some small dark shapes that didn’t seem to belong in the crystals, and weren’t seen in newer ice. He poked at one with a piece of thin wire and saw bubbles pop out of the ice crystals (He described it as playing “Space Invaders”). Anyway, he knew of the hypothesis about the existence of clathrate hydrates of air, and able to correctly identify something that had not been seen before. Some of the other scientists claimed that they had been seeing those dark structures for years, but dismissed them as dust, or something similar in the ice (volcanologists seemed to be particularly susceptible to that interpretation), that is, they saw them, but didn’t see them. A crystallographer had the theory necessary to see the data, others didn’t have a place in their theory for specks in the ice.

    I guess what I’m saying is that some sort of theory, hypotheses, or method of classification has to preclude any observation.

    • #19
    • June 22, 2019, at 4:47 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  20. Barfly Member

    @Seawriter, this is one excellent topic, thank you. The basic truth of Rutherford’s statement is hard to argue, but there is a middle ground – it’s represented by things like chaos theory, network science, even some kinds of AI. 

    The world as studied by people on the Sociologist-Chemist spectrum emerges from the Physicist world according to the implications of uniqueness and identity that are the province of the Mathematician. That emergence is described by conventional Physicist mechanisms like thermodynamics in situations that involve only one scale transition (micro to macro in making a gas from atoms, for instance). In most of the interesting arrangements, however, statistics yield elements with some sort of state or memory. Those elements go on to interact in some really cool ways.

    That latter interaction is neither conventional physics nor mere stamp collecting. Once the elements gain identity, we have to treat them as a graph, not a mere cloud. 

    • #20
    • June 22, 2019, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. The Reticulator Member

    Many years ago I came to the conclusion that all sciences start out as stamp collecting before they proceed to become more experimental and theoretical. Except I didn’t use the term “stamp collecting.” I said they all started out as descriptive sciences. And maybe I jumped to that conclusion on the basis of insufficient data; it’s just a descriptive observation I made which I haven’t put to any rigorous tests. But although I’ve mentioned it to a few people here and there in the biological sciences, nobody has contradicted me yet. Maybe that’s because they were backing away, looking for a graceful way to exit the room.

    I made this observation in connection with science education. I have seen some curriculum planners try to make sciences too experimental at too early a stage in a child’s education. Child development psychologists have helped us identified the ages when children are capable of understanding and planning controlled experiments, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Instead, I’m talking about a) the importance of letting the world be interesting and wonderful, and b) the importance of broad knowledge rather than too narrow a focus on what can be learned from an experiment in a classroom setting.

    Every science started out as a descriptive science; let children start out with descriptive science, too. The idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny may not be very accurate in understanding the development of embryos, but maybe an analogous theory works in understanding how children can best learn science.

    • #21
    • June 22, 2019, at 6:10 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  22. Zafar Member

    Misthiocracy secretly (View Comment):

    Would you say that level of purity is negatively correlated with level of complexity?

    For example: the study of how all the psyches in a society interact is theoretically more intrinsically complex than the study of individual psyches. (Though the line is blurred, as it also may be with Biology and Chemistry if you get right down to it?)

    • #22
    • June 22, 2019, at 7:53 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    Math…. meh. “All models are wrong. Some models are useful.”

    Engineering is, with very few exceptions, the father of science, not the other way around. And engineering, unlike math or Physics, does not care about Truth or Reality. Engineering only cares about the useful.

    • #23
    • June 22, 2019, at 8:03 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Skyler Coolidge

    Rutherford didn’t live in a day with organic chemistry, DNA, or even modern rocket science.

    In other words, Rutherford’s view of science was pretty limited compared to modern science.

    And since most of those fields require substantial understanding of physics, it’s a silly quote that should be ignored by all, especially physicists.

    Because what is physics? Some of physics is just advanced navel gazing, or as they like to call it “thinking deeply.” Is that the part Rutherford was thinking of? Most of what he did would now be called chemistry, rather than physics.

    • #24
    • June 22, 2019, at 9:08 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  25. Saint Augustine Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

     

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

     

    But what if numbers exist?

    https://ricochet.com/400093/archives/i-think-numbers-exist/

    • #25
    • June 23, 2019, at 5:06 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. Barfly Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

     

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

     

    But what if numbers exist?

    https://ricochet.com/400093/archives/i-think-numbers-exist/

    To import the relevant context from the 2000+ comment thread: @saintaugustine, wondering whether numbers exist, runs up against the idea of defining them and speculates it might be done with set theory.

    Well, that’s an excellent speculation – it is done with set theory. Thank you Georg Cantor and John von Neumann. Every finite ordinal number (the ones we count with) is defined as the set of all the smaller ordinals, with zero being the empty set. Addition of ordinals is then the union of sets – you should work that out on a sheet of paper for 3+2 so you’ll believe it (and remember it).

    All the other numbers are defined as operations on ordinals. All the operations of arithmetic are built up from operations on those sets, which are the ordinal numbers.

    • #26
    • June 23, 2019, at 9:23 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  27. Saint Augustine Member

    Barfly (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Barfly (View Comment):

     

    Mathematics is of great value only because it describes reality.

    You need to qualify that: “of great value to me.” To others, pure math is of great value even though it doesn’t describe reality.

     

    But what if numbers exist?

    https://ricochet.com/400093/archives/i-think-numbers-exist/

    To import the relevant context from the 2000+ comment thread: @saintaugustine, wondering whether numbers exist, runs up against the idea of defining them and speculates it might be done with set theory.

    Well, that’s an excellent speculation – it is done with set theory. Thank you Georg Cantor and John von Neumann. Every finite ordinal number (the ones we count with) is defined as the set of all the smaller ordinals, with zero being the empty set. Addition of ordinals is then the union of sets – you should work that out on a sheet of paper for 3+2 so you’ll believe it (and remember it).

    All the other numbers are defined as operations on ordinals. All the operations of arithmetic are built up from operations on those sets, which are the ordinal numbers.

    I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing. I may even have used the term “set theory” incorrectly.

    Nor do I recall any interest in defining numbers. I was talking about whether they exist, and whether the objective truths of mathematics can be explained in materialistic terms.

    I was wondering whether, if numbers don’t exist, the truth of “2 + 2 = 4” could be explained by the physical facts about, e.g., a set of two crayons and a set of two crayons being combined.

    • #27
    • June 23, 2019, at 10:55 AM PDT
    • Like
  28. Mark Camp Member

    Barfly (View Comment):
    You might also value math’s precision and beauty in their own right, but that doesn’t mean they can stand alone.

    In my progressively more humble opinion:

    Some people value math’s precision and beauty in their own right, meaning that they value them even when a particular theory “stands alone. 

    That is, even when a particular theory’s categories, attributes, axioms, operations, and theorems are not

    • known to
    • intended to, nor
    • particularly supposed to

    correspond anything in the physical world at all.

    The only truths in such areas of logic (math) are apodictic truths: that two parallel lines never meet, in a certain theory, is true because, and only because, the person inventing the theory declared that to be true. No observation of the real world can offer any confirmatory or falsifying evidence for that truth.

    They meet, in another theory, because and only because the person who invented that theory declared that to be true.

    In any theory, it is apodictically false that two lines meet and don’t meet. All theories, whether pure or applicable to the real world, must be logically consistent.

     

    • #28
    • June 24, 2019, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  29. Mark Camp Member

    iWe (View Comment):
    Engineering is, with very few exceptions, the father of science, not the other way around. And engineering, unlike math or Physics, does not care about Truth or Reality. Engineering only cares about the useful.

    There is no doubt that as a matter of historical development, the development of natural philosophy followed the practical arts.

    In that sense, the practical arts are “the father” of natural philosophy. But then the love of unchanging truth and beauty must be the mother of natural philosophy. 

    One can develop scientific theories for practical reasons (engineering), or for philosophical reasons (pure science). One often needs the results of engineering to assist one in doing pure science.

    So the two are both valuable, and they are intimately interdependent.

    I sometimes sense that people, rather than recognizing this happy relationship, feel the need or the right to disparage natural philosophy, or pure science, because it isn’t intended to satisfy physical wants.

    That’s sad, to me.

    • #29
    • June 24, 2019, at 9:00 AM PDT
    • Like
  30. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    I sometimes sense that people, rather than recognizing this happy relationship, feel the need or the right to disparage natural philosophy, or pure science, because it isn’t intended to satisfy physical wants.

    I disparage Scientists because they are a self-appointed Priestly Class. It is inherently elitist, exclusionary, and claim to have a higher calling than others. Studying Nature is not, to me, a higher calling than Creating New Things.

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    …the love of unchanging truth and beauty must be the mother of natural philosophy. 

    One can develop scientific theories for practical reasons (engineering), or for philosophical reasons (pure science).

    Ah, here’s the rub: I know no scientists at all who actually have even studied the philosophy of science, let alone ntural philosophy. They conduct their affairs without self-awareness. Indeed, I’d wager that the vast majority of scientists cannot identify what constitutes a pseudoscience, for example (falsifiability would be high on that list).

     

     

    • #30
    • June 24, 2019, at 12:16 PM PDT
    • 1 like