Saturday, June 18, 2011

Science, Engineering and the search for facts

Chris Mooney, the science writer, appeared this weekend on Need to Know. The program noted that not only did a number of people believe a self proclaimed prophet that the world would end on May 21, 2011, but they still had faith in him after that time. Mooney suggests that while we think we are evaluating evidence rationally, we tend often to use arguments much as a lawyer might to defend an already established belief. He also points out that as we deal with policy issues it would be better to start from facts or at least strongly supported postulates rather than from superstitious and erroneous beliefs.

I have often discussed the scientific approach to beliefs. Essentially, scientists should always be willing to reject a current belief and accept another when there is sufficient evidence that the new concept is more meritorious than the past.

Of course, the basis of science is observation, including the development of instruments to improve observations (e.g. telescopes, microscopes), the willingness to share honest reports of those observations, and the replication of observations. Scientists if they do not believe that "seeing is believing" certainly believe that "that which can not be observed should be taken with a large grain of salt."

I think the basis for science is taxonomy. The prototype of scientific taxonomy is the taxonomy of species which now seeks to group species according to genetic similarity. The more recent the descent of two species from a common ancestor species, the more closely they are grouped. Note that the criteria for judgement changes over time, as DNA evidence has come to be used to measure genetic distance, replacing measures of apparent similarity of species appearances, of the growth and development of individuals, or of anatomical features.

Note that grouping otherwise unlike phenomenon into a single class has been a rich vein in science. Think of Newton realizing that the orbits of planets, the fall of an apple, the trajectory of a cannon ball or the path and period of a pendulum were all examples of the effect of gravity on the motion of large objects. That recognition allowed the same mathematics to be used to describe all of those instances and perhaps marked the beginning of modern science.

Also a critical part of the scientific approach is the development of testable hypotheses from a postulate, and the use of controlled experiments, and the replication of those tests by other people in other facilities. The tests must be such that the hypothesis may prove false.

Finally, science demands peer review of publications, including of the interpretation of observations and community acceptance of the integrated body of knowledge within a specific field.

The highest achievement in science is to challenge a long and widely held belief successfully, showing an alternative belief is superior. That is what Einstein did in showing that relativity theory was better than Newtonian physics. There is little room in science for those who will not believe in evidence or who deny observed reality.

Engineering is increasingly grounded in science, but engineers are different than scientists. The key criterion in engineering is "does it work". Does the bridge an engineer designed span the distance it is supposed to span, does it carry the load it needs to carry, and does it stand up in all kinds of weather and conditions. Does the airplane that an engineering team designed fly safely, does it carry the load it was intended to carry, and does it meet standards set for the design. These are really gold standards for an engineering belief.

Of course, engineers also put their designs to the test of the market. Is the design for the bridge accepted in the competition, and is the work on the bridge finished within the time and budget allocated. Does the plane succeed in the market place, selling enough individual planes to pay off for the company.

Of course engineers build better bridges now than they did a century ago, and new plane designs keep replacing the old ones as the state of engineering arts improves.

Still there is little place in engineering denial of a bridge actually falling down or a plane crashing. The analysis done after such failures is based on a serious intent to prevent such failures from occurring in future projects. Again, there is little room in engineering for those who would deny failed projects failed, or who fail to learn from experience.

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