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Ooh, great subject!

Personally, I like to distinguish between the true heart of science, and the scientific method used to achieve it.

Now, the scientific method is a good thing, for all of the reasons you've listed, but it's merely a well-tested and reliable way of getting to a desired goal. It's not the goal itself.

The goal is a good theory. A theory that works. But what, precisely, is a scientific theory?

A theory is a recipe (written procedure that anyone can, in principle, follow) for making predictions. Science is the search for theories that work.

Right and wrong are easy to tell apart, but they are not a dichotomy. There are would-be theories that do not fit into either category. These are things that do not make predictions.

This is where falsifiability comes in. A prediction which is not falsified by any observation is not a meaningful prediction at all. Predicting anything is predicting nothing. It's neither right nor wrong, it's simply useless.

A really good theory makes very specific predictions. "things fall down at 9.8 m/s²" is more specific, and thus more useful, than "things fall down". By virtue of being more specific, it's easier to disprove. And so if you test it and fail to disprove it, that's more significant.

The big thing I hope to get across is that prediction is the true heart of science. In particular, adjectives like "natural" or "supernatural" have absolutely no bearing on whether a theory is scientific or not. What matters is if it makes predictions, and if the predictions check out.

If you can manage that, you can make a respected science out of demonology.

This is what pisses scientists off about folks trying to present creationism as a science. You can look for flaws in evolution presicely because it's a scientific theory and thus sticks its neck out and makes predictions. You can look for evidence that contradicts those predictions.

But to demonstrate the advantage of one theory over another, you need to find a circumstance under which the two make conflicting predictions. Then you look and see which is right. Or maybe they're both wrong.

It's easiest and cheapest to start by making your theory explain past observations. If you manage this well, you can hope that you're on to something good. But an explanation, however beautiful, that fails to take the next step and predict is, in Wolfgang Pauli's words, "not even wrong". Creationism fails this basic criterion of adequacy.

Kris Shanks

That's a great summary of the scientific method. Can I point my students this way come next semester? Two comments: First, not all science is hypothesis driven, some is "discovery science". For example, the human genome project wasn't looking to test a hypothesis, but was simply (in a highly technical way) gathering some observations about our DNA. The other thing I'd like to point out is that even science not performed in the laboratory with white coats on follows these methods. Research on the environment, or evolution, doesn't always have the luxury of being able to set up an experiment, but researchers can still find situations that have created a natural experiment by comparing different environments or different organisms. The mice living on dark lava flows surrounded by pale sand in the Southwest comes to mind. Eagerly looking forward to the next installment!

Chris S

"I run into people who try to convince me that my faith in science is misplaced". The science/faith argument is a false dichotomy. It's not one or the other. The extremists who argue against science because it doesn't match their literal view of a sacred text are wrong. We live in a predictable and knowable world (which is quite a nice gift to have, and those of us who believe in God should thank him for that feature on a regular basis). At the same time, it is equally wrong for someone to say that people who are devoted to a religion are doomed to be superstitious unscientific fanatics. There are many professional scientists who are religious and their religion does not affect their objectivity.

Greta Christina

"At the same time, it is equally wrong for someone to say that people who are devoted to a religion are doomed to be superstitious unscientific fanatics."

Well, first of all: I didn't say that they were. In fact, if you'll read these two posts about science again, you'll see that I barely talked about religion at all. And when I did talk about conflicts between religion and science, I was always very careful to say things like "many," "often," "much of the time," "more likely," etc. I do think that many religious beliefs reject, contradict, or are even flat-out hostile to science -- half the people in this country believe that people were created in more or less our current form about 10,000 years ago -- but I didn't say that all of them were. I didn't say it, and I don't think it.

But I do think this.

I've read a lot of debates between non-believers and believers in religion or spirituality. Not just creationist extremists, but moderate and progressive believers who do value science and the scientific method. And what I have seen time and time again -- not every time, but an awful lot of the time -- is believers getting backed into a corner in a debate, and replying by saying things like, "I just know it's true," or "I feel it in my heart.

And that, I think, IS in direct conflict with the scientific method. At least when you're talking about objective questions about what is or is not true in the world (as opposed to subjective questions about your own experience of the world). Try to imagine, say, Stephen Jay Gould arguing for punctuated equilibrium because he just felt it to be true.

There's a really good piece about this on the Daylight Atheism blog, called "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists." It's at:

In it, he provides a list of of everything he can think of that he would accept as proof/evidence that a given religion is true. (This is exactly what I meant when I was talking about falsifiability in this post.) He invites theists to do the same -- to provide a list of what would convince them that their faith was mistaken. And he points out that the response, very often (he says "almost invariably," but I think that might be a trifle strong) is, "Nothing could convince me that my faith in God is mistaken."

That kind of faith IS in conflict with the principles of science and the scientific method. And while I don't think it's universal, I do think it's very common, even among moderate believers who generally support science. It's not the same thing as being a "superstitious fanatic" -- but it is a conflict. And I think religious believers who do have this kind of "Nothing could convince me that my faith is mistaken" faith need to acknowledge that.

Greta Christina

Eclectic and Kris -- good points. (And yes, Kris, I'd be thrilled to have you point your students to my blog!)

Eclectic, you make a good point about the ultimate purpose of science being to come up with theories that make successful predictions. (Although I think Kris also makes a good point about there being types of science that exist solely to collect information, not to test theories.)

I think my point is that the scientific method is what makes a scientific theory and its predictions different -- and more trustworthy -- from your everyday garden-variety theories (like the ones that my answer-syndrome brain come up with on an almost hourly basis).

The theory of evolution, for instance, is fundamentally different from my theory that bisexuals of both genders are more likely to get into long-term relationships with women than with men. It's different because the theory of evolution is supported by an enormous body of carefully gathered, peer-reviewed, replicable results from dozens of scientific fields... and my theory about bisexuality is based on my personal observations of my circle of friends and acquaintances.


Actually, I agree that your theory about bisexuals' relationships is fundamentally different from the theory of evolution, but NOT for the reason you give.

The amount of supporting evidence doesn't _fundamentally_ change a theory, only how much credence we give it. There are no formal graduation ceremonies where a baby conjecture becomes a hypothesis, then a theory and is finally declared a Natural Law.

The fundamental difference between the two theories is that your relationship theory depends on a great deal of social context. In your time, country, and culture it may be true, but it could be different in different circumstances. And you're not even sure what the controlling circumstances are.

Evolution, on the other hand, is universally applicable. Whether the selection pressure is natural or artificial, if you have a system with reproduction, selection pressure, and heritable variation, then evolution will happen.

That's what makes it _fundamentally_ a more powerful theory than yours. The fact that it's also better validated is a minor matter of degree in comparison.


I just found a wonderful quote that I have to share, that rather neatly explains why people who understand science have little patience with the complaint that something or other is "only a theory":

"all the great truths which have been established by the experience of all ages and nations, and which are taken for granted in all reasonings, may be said to be theories. It is a theory in the same sense in which it is a theory that day and night follow each other, that lead is heavier than water, that bread nourishes, that arsenic poisons, that alcohol intoxicates."

- Speech on Copyright extension by Thomas Macaulay to Parliament, 5 February 1841.

I snarfed this from


Hey! Seems like a great post to me, but to be honest.. Halfway through I stopped reading. Sure, it'd be interesting to read and all that, but I really, really wanted to learn more about why the kids of the parents that refused vaccination were more likely to get the disease than those whose parents agreed but who didn't get the vaccination.

Pleeaase do tell, if you got some idea! :D

(I should know the stuff about the scientific method already, student of psychology here.. 'Should', I somehow doubt my fellow students concern themselves much with the basics of science.. Eh, whatever. Nice to see someone do something like you did. =))

Greta Christina
...but I really, really wanted to learn more about why the kids of the parents that refused vaccination were more likely to get the disease than those whose parents agreed but who didn't get the vaccination.

I've been waiting for someone to ask me that. I can't believe it took over a year.

Here's what I was taught (and remember, this was over 30 years ago, and in a grade- school science class, so you might want to get confirmation):

Parents who refused to have an experimental vaccine tested on their kids tended to be generally more cautious and protective when it came to their kids. So they were also, what with the polio epidemic, more likely to keep their kids from being exposed: not letting them swim in public pools, play in public parks, etc.

But this sort of exposure often acted as a form of inoculation. So the kids with the less protective parents (the ones who let their kids get an experimental vaccine) were more likely to be exposed to small amounts of polio, and (sometimes) got resistance. Whereas the kids with more protective parents were less likely to get exposed to small amounts of polio, and less likely to get resistance... and more likely to get polio.

Thanks for asking!

Greta Christina

Oh, and P.S.: One of the reasons I think this is important is that it's kind of counter- intuitive. I, for one, would have thought that the kids with more protective parents and less exposure to polio would be less likely to get polio, not more. Which shows another reason for the importance of careful control groups -- you can never be sure which uncontrolled factors will turn out to be important, and in what direction.

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