Wednesday, October 8, 2008


I want to take a few postings and explain what science is and what it can do for you. This may be a bit long-winded but I think it is important, so bear with me. The end result is sure to surprise you, I promise. Here we go.

Science is often misunderstood. Even its practitioners are not always clear as to what constitutes science and what doesn't. Sometimes they confuse or obfuscate things by accident, but other times, they appear to do so deliberately. So what is science you may ask? One dictionary defines science as "The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." The essential points are quite simple, and they are (almost) all there.

Science is an activity. It is not a thing or a concept like truth. A scientific discovery is a finding or a set of findings that result from such activity. It is the result of some action, meaning some disturbance, some provocation. The activity employs a method, also called the scientific method to get there. It relies on observation and experiment. The end result is a theory. That part is omitted in my dictionary for some odd reason. Let me repeat for emphasis. The end result of science is a theory or a set of hypotheses. It is not the truth. Hopefully it is close to the truth though, but that is another matter.

We need to start somewhere and observation is where we start. Careful observation is key. It is the initiator. We see something happen and we wonder, what causes it to happen? Our conjectures lead to a hypothesis. A proposed explanation without any assumption of truth. Often many hypotheses can be formulated, but we need to play favorites. The scientific method dictates that we should favor the simplest explanation. That we should use Occam's razor or the principle of parsimony. That we should not invoke things (esp. beings, spirits, deities) that we cannot observe or whose existence we cannot prove. Furthermore, if we are going to do science, we need a hypothesis that can be tested. If it cannot be tested we cannot do science. It's as simple as that. Right off the bat it should be clear that many things are not amenable to science. That is one thing practitioners often ignore.

We should really make sure our observations are repeated many times and that we observe carefully and take notes. We should also make sure the phenomena are properly isolated. So what do you do when things happened in the past and will not be repeated in our life-time? What do you do with things that happen only once every few hundred years? Strictly speaking such observations may not be amenable to further scientific activity. Note that the observations may be true or false, but the truth or falseness has nothing to do with it.

It should now also be obvious that many things relating to health, sports, and performance are not easily amenable to scientific work. It should also be clear that science relies very heavily on repetition. One needs to do things over and over again. That too is often impossible, or impractical, or too time consuming or too costly to do. These reasons ( and excuses ) are perfectly acceptable however. Sometimes things are obvious to us, and observation is good enough for what we need to accomplish. That is fine.

What is not fine though is to say something is scientifically proven, unless you were willing and able to perform all these tedious and costly and time consuming repetitions. And unless someone else, totally independently, did everything all over again just to make sure. That is really what it takes. No cutting corners allowed here!

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