Science as a way of knowing

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Science as a way of knowing

  1. 1. Science as a way of knowing the worldJohn S. Wilkins, Philosophy, University of Queensland
  2. 2. The scientific method• Who can summarise the scientific method?• Who is right? Answer: Probably everyone• There is no single algorithm for the scientific method. It’s not a recipe forsuccess• But there are several shared features of all acts of science• There are also several shared mistakes scientists make• Today I want to discuss some of these.
  3. 3. The scientific method is a dance• Just as there’s not much that all dances share apart from a dance floor,there’s not much that all sciences share either• But there are some common features:• Theories• Models• Data• Classifications
  4. 4. The scientific method is a dance• Just as there’s not much that all dances share apart from a dance floor,there’s not much that all sciences share either• But there are some common features:• Theories• Models• Data• Classifications
  5. 5. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  6. 6. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  7. 7. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  8. 8. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  9. 9. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  10. 10. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  11. 11. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  12. 12. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  13. 13. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  14. 14. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  15. 15. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  16. 16. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  17. 17. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  18. 18. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  19. 19. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  20. 20. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  21. 21. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  22. 22. ExperimentPassive ObservationTheory ClassificationConceptualEmpiricalThe dance floor
  23. 23. Making models• Theories are composed of models, together with linking (“bridging”) rules thatrelate them, and “interpretations”, or ways to assign empirical data to thevariables of the theory• In an example, consider the theory of global warming: There are many models(of heat sink and dissipation of oceans, of carbon dioxide absorption, etc.),which inter-relate, but all have different equations governing the model, anddifferent sets of variables• A model is basically a set of inter-related equations. They are based on priorknowledge of how things work, together with observations of the conditionsof the thing[s] under study• How do we know what prior knowledge applies in this case?
  24. 24. Theories and models• There are several kinds of theory and several kinds of model. Some theoriesapply in every case (e.g., laws of physics). Some apply only in limited cases (atheory of the origins of the Civil War in England).• What kinds of theory and models apply in ecology and conservation?• Global theories (island biogeography?)• Restricted theories (trophic relations in, say, tropical savannah biomes)• Local models (a model of what will happen in a certain system)
  25. 25. What worries me about conservation biology• I have seen a lot of discussion about the right methods to developconservation plans, from Bayesian models to decision theoretic accountsbased on expected payoffs and values• I have heard of a lot of conservation plans that deal with individual basedmodels or “agent” modelling (the idea is to model the ecosystem or areawithout a general rule, but use dynamics of individual organisms to predicthow things will develop in complex cases) – what seems to be lacking withthese is follow-up.• How successful were they?• What general problems were encountered?• How can the models be improved?• Without knowledge of rules of success, this is merely a matter of being seento do something
  26. 26. Mistakes that scientists make with theories andmodels• Suppose we have a theory (of being called in thebath); we have to test it and revise it• We need to ensure that the theory is not mistakenfor the thing (this is called reification or“thingifying”) – the map is not the territory• Often arguments between scientists overlook thisdistinction: theories are in heads. The world is not(except for the bits of the world that are heads)• So the objects of the theory can be wronglyascribed (for example, genes)
  27. 27. Mistakes that scientists make with theories andmodels• Models are simplifications – often over simplifications• So if a model predicts X, it need not be that X willfollow• If a model is not robust, slight differences in theconditions will cause great differences in outcomes• If there are things happening the model doesn’tcover, predictions can be wildly wrong• If several models are not independent (i.e., theyshare assumptions, equations, methods, data sets)then they may not be additive in their weight• Theories can force models that back up those sametheories; be careful of circularity
  28. 28. Summary• Science is like an open dance floor - fill in the empty spaces! [In more formallanguage - the aspects of the scientific process that are lacking in your fieldneed to be done]• Theories are not useful in themselves unless they are tested and refined• And neither are models, methods, protocols, procedures or practices• Don’t confuse what’s in the theory (in yours and others’ heads) with what’s inthe world• And finally: all of this is subject to practical need
  29. 29. Resources• Figures and argument at Backreaction, a blog by two physicists• Science as a Way of Knowing, by John Moore• Ecological Orbits: How Planets Move and Populations Grow, by Mark Colyvanand Lev Ginsburg• Wikipedia articles: Epistemology, Science, Scientific Method, Models ofScientific Enquiry• Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles: Epistemology, ScientificMethod, Models in science
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