13 Jan 2009
What is science?

Matt Springer poses that question and suggests a concise answer:

Science is the testing of ideas.

This is subject to ever-increasing refinement (or contention), as you can see from his post and its comments. You might consider the “scientific method” as the first-level refinement:

  • observe
  • hypothesize
  • predict
  • test

That’s basically the inner loop of the scientific method. You define a question based on your curiosity or a problem to be solved, then organize what you already know about it to bootstrap the loop. You form a hypothesis that predicts a testable result. You perform experiments or make observations that generate data which you analyze and interpret to determine the accuracy of your hypothesis. You refine your hypothesis or generate a new one. Rinse. Repeat. Meanwhile, you publish your results, and other scientists try to repeat your experiments

It’s important to keep a couple key concepts in mind. First, the prediction should be falsifiable; that is, you must make a prediction that can be tested for failure. If hypothesis H implies prediction P, you can’t “prove” H by observing that P is true — P could be true for entirely independent reasons (like the old “keeping the elephants away” joke). However, if H implies P, and testing P “fails”, then you know that H is incorrect. As Einstein said (paraphrased), “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Second, your experiments should be repeatable, so that they can be independently verified. That is, there must be evidence that your results weren’t just a fluke, a result of an error in procedure or analysis, wishful thinking, or deliberate deception. Can you say “cold fusion“?

This methodology is also useful beyond scientific research — the observe-hypothesize-predict-test loop is the best approach to both trouble-shooting and tuning systems. Of course it doesn’t take into account the malevolent stochastic uncertainty of certain operating systems *cough*Windows*cough* that makes you throw up your hands in desperation and reboot … or wipe the disk and start over from scratch.

Category: Sci-Tech
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