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Related Words, Beliefs, Background

Worldview Theme #6: Scientific Method

alphabetical listing: A to K 

  alphabetical listing, continued: L to Z
Contrast Worldview Themes #6 and #7B --    these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!            

Contrast Worldview Themes #6 and #9A --    these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!  

Contrast Worldview Themes #6 and #15 --    these themes involve orientations, beliefs or behavior that are (more or less) diametrically opposed!            

alternative hypothesis -- in scientific problem solving, if one rejects the null hypothesis, then the alternative hypothesis must be accepted. The conclusion is that the experimental treatment had some statistically significant effect.

Big Bang Theory—the cosmological theory that the observable universe began with everything (all matter, energy, etc) in an incredibly compact, hot, dense state, after which an event (the Big Bang) occurred that began the universe's currently observed expansion.   More observational support comes from the detection and study of a primordial fireball radiation remnant left over from the early days of the universe,  and continuing confirmation of the amounts of elements --notably helium--formed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang (currently believed to be roughly fourteen billion years ago).  An important refinement of this theory occurred (in the 1980s) with the addition of an “inflationary era” to the universe’s initial moments.

causality -- the belief that events don’t just happen randomly or by accident (accidentalism), but that their occurrence can be linked to something else: some force, the prior occurrence of some other event or state, or to a set of facts or laws. Timing is important, the supposed cause (force that acts, energy release, triggering event, etc) must precede or occur simultaneously with the observed effect (phenomenon it supposedly causes). Causality is a cornerstone of the foundation of classical physics. For example, according to Newton’s second law, to change the state of motion of an object a force must act. In the subatomic world governed by quantum mechanics, with seemingly random events occurring, the discussion of causality becomes more complicated. But it certainly seems that in the quantum world, with respect to the occurrence of individual events, causality must be abandoned!

control group -- in scientific problem solving, in designing experiments, this refers to a group of subjects who do not receive the experimental treatment of interest. After treatment, results for this group will be compared with those for the experimental group, which did receive the treatment.

dark matter / dark energy--hypothetical forms of matter and energy that don't emit radiation but whose existence can be inferred by other means.  Astrophysicists believe that dark matter exists due to its gravitational effects on other matter and that 22% of the observable universe's mass / energy content is in this form. Black holes represent one form of it. Dark energy--believed to account for 74% of the observable universe's mass / energy content--can be inferred to exist from the observed acceleration in the expansion of the universe. Only 4% of the universe is believed to consist of ordinary matter that emits visible radiation. Failure to understand what 96% of the universe is should keep astrophysicists humble! 

double blind experiment -- an experimental procedure in which both subject and technical assistant interfacing between the subject and the researcher do not know the specific type of experimental treatment involved. They are spared knowledge of these details to avoid bias or prejudice that conceivably could effect the experimental results.

empiricism -- the belief that all knowledge comes from experience. As part of the foundation of science, it stresses that scientific knowledge ultimately should be based on observation and experiment.

energy--the ability to do work (done when a force acts to move something over some distance in the direction that force acts).  Energy cannot be created or destroyed--only changed from one form to another. Forms that energy takes include mechanical, gravitational, electromagnetic (including ultraviolet, light, infrared, microwave, radio, etc), electrical, nuclear, heat, sound, etc.

experiment -- an experiment is to be distinguished from an observation, in that the former involves the scientist interfering with nature and creating conditions or events that favor making a particular observation or establishing a particular hypothesis.

explicit knowledge -- knowledge that can be expressed in words or with symbols (perhaps mathematical symbols) or otherwise abstracted from an actual individual experience. If the reality experienced is like the terrain, explicit statements describing it are like a map of the terrain. As science extends its map of reality, the scientific conceptual framework is steadily refined and becomes a better guide to the underlying terrain. But one must recognize that a limitation of science is that -- as good as the map is -- it can not replace the terrain itself, the actual experience of reality.

humility and science--Twentieth century scientific advances--in quantum mechanics and chaos theory--underscore that both a fundamental doubt exists in nature and that scientists' ability to use physical laws and make accurate predictions of events is inherently limited.  Not only do all scientific measurements have an uncertainty (or built-in error) based on the instrumentation used to make them, but quantum mechanics' uncertainty principle asserts that it is meaningless to attempt to, without error, pin down the exact values of various physical quantities (such as the position and speed of an object).  Chaos, in the words of John Briggs and F. David Peat, "as a metaphor has a built-in humility that previous scientific metaphors did is as much about what we can't know as it is about certainty and fact."

hypothesis -- in scientific problem solving, an educated conjecture or statement offered as a tentative explanation of data relevant to the problem being considered.  A hypothesis can  involve a model to be tested.




  logical reasoning, use in math, science & engineering--such reasoning most notably involves use of deduction and induction. Deduction starts with axioms: unquestioned facts /assumptions / premises.  It then applies rules and through a sequential process necessarily arrives at new facts / conclusions.  It is a "top down" approach.  In contrast, induction, in "bottom up" fashion, takes many related facts and generalizes them to arrive at a rule or rules.  The former proceeds from wholes / more general to parts / more specific, whereas the latter moves in the opposite direction.  Beginning with Euclidean geometry, much of mathematics developed in deductive fashion.  In applied science and engineering, specific problems can be solved by a deductive process in which an accepted scientific theory is used to formulate a specific hypothesis to test / confirm.  This can be rather mundane.  Exciting scientific advances often result from an inductive process: from many observations, patterns are found, leading to hypotheses and ultimately, a more broadly applicable theory.

matter, building blocks of--Pure substances which can't be chemically broken down into simpler things are called elements: there are around 100 of them found in nature.  The smallest parts of an element that retain its distinctive chemical properties are called atoms--which themselves are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Atoms, which are roughly one tenth of a nanometer (nm = billionth of a meter) in diameter, chain together to form molecules. While molecules vary greatly in size, they are typically around one nanometer across.  Nucleic acids (like DNA and RNA), amino acids, and proteins are examples of biologically important molecules--which are typically synthesized inside cells. 

matter / energy equivalence--refers to physicists' assertion that all matter--specified by its mass--has (rest) energy, that energy can become matter, and that E=mc2 demonstrates their equivalence.    

model -- a human construction created to represent a pattern of relationships in data or in the human or natural world. Models can take various forms: mathematical, computer based, mechanistic, etc.

null hypothesis -- that, after accounting for the effects of uncontrollable variables and other sources of error and uncertainty, the results (based on measured values of dependent variable(s) of interest) for the group subject to the experimental treatment and the control group will be essentially identical. If the null hypothesis is accepted -- typically only after statistical analysis of the experimental data -- then one concludes that the experimental treatment had no effect.

Occam's Razor--the principle that, if two hypotheses or explanations do an equally good job fitting or explaining the data, the simpler one--with the fewest number of assumptions--is   preferred.  It has been referred to as "the law of parsimony".

orderly universe--the belief, which can be traced back to Greeks such as Thales in the sixth century BC, that there is an order and organization to the universe due to its functioning in accordance with a small number of natural laws--laws which can conceivably be uncovered and understood by humans. Such a notion is diametrically opposed by the belief that the universe is unorganized, transient chaos whose workings can never be comprehended.  Harvard historian of science Gerald Holton's term for the origin of belief in an orderly universe is "The Ionian Enchantment."

physics -- the science concerned with understanding the physical world, that uses physical concepts, most notably matter, energy, and forces, to make sense out of it.

probability / random events--the likelihood of a particular outcome occurring. In certain cases, this can be computed by dividing the number of ways the event can occur by the number of total outcomes possible.. Example: in the roll of a die (singular of dice!) the probability of rolling the number three is 1 divided by 6 = 16.7 % or .167. A probability of 100 % or 1.00 means it is absolutely certain that a particular outcome will occur. The concept of probability is intimately connected to that of events that happen at random--meaning with no predictable pattern (at least with respect to knowing for sure what will happen next).

pseudoscience -- something that seemingly has a scientific basis, but, upon closer investigation, does not. Examples of pseudoscience include beliefs in 1) horoscopes, astrology and that human personalities are shaped by stars in the zodiac, etc. 2) magical powers of crystals, 3) an ancient technically advanced civilization of Atlantis, and 4) extra-terrestrial beings in flying saucers are visiting Earth. Each of these -- and many other similar beliefs -- have been investigated using scientific methods and thoroughly debunked as lacking in truth, in useful application or both. Many pseudoscientific beliefs persist because 1) people uncritically believe in them without doing their own analysis of the merits; 2) many promoting such beliefs profit from doing so.

pseudoscience and conspiracism--in explaining why their hypotheses, theories, inventions or supporting data behind them are not accepted by the scientific community, pseudoscientists have been known to allege that others (scientists, corporate or government officials, etc)  have engaged in conspiracies to suppress them   

quantum mechanics -- a branch of physics, developed in the first half of the 20th century, dealing with motion and interactions of matter on very small scales (typically atomic or subatomic). Unlike the visible, large scale realm of classical physics -- where predicted future behavior of individual particles involves deterministic certainties -- predicting the behavior of discrete particles in the quantum realm involves probabilities not certainties.

quantum quackery--scientific skeptics have used this term  in dismissing New Age enthusiasts ongoing attempts to connect the microscopic subatomic realm of quantum physics with human consciousness and thought. Caltech Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell Mann's term was "quantum flapdoodle"--an apparent reference to what he saw as the futile hand waving and doodling of New Agers (including a few reputable scientists who he felt should know better!) in their attempts to make connections where no evidence or possible mechanisms exist for making them.  Critics less gifted in finding clever words have simply charged promoters of what they consider to be pseudoscientific nonsense as urging others to believe in magic.  

radiation--refers to energy transmitted as waves or moving particles, and is most fundamentally distinguished by whether it is ionizing or non-ionizing.  Ionizing radiation can be dangerous to living tissue in that it can cause genetic mutations and kill cells. Sources of it are high energy electromagnetic radiation (like x rays and gamma rays) and radioactive (unstable) material often associated with nuclear energy related technologies.  Lower energy electromagnetic radiation--like visible light, microwaves, or radio waves--is non-ionizing. 

rationalism -- a philosophical orientation that links finding ultimate truth to employing reasoning.

reductionism -- the philosophical belief that understanding a complex phenomenon, system, structure, organism, etc. (or solving a complicated problem) is best done by breaking it into smaller, more manageable parts (problems), and studying those parts (or first solving those smaller problems). Often accompanying a reductionistic approach to understanding is the belief that the whole is nothing more than the sum of the parts. Reductionism is the opposite of wholism (holism).

relativism and science--Relativism is the philosophical belief that truth can vary with culture and circumstances and that there are no truly objective standards or criteria for judging it. Some relativists have pointed out that scientists are people who, like others, are captives of society's constructs and prevailing beliefs (which can change). Many go on to question both science's objectivity and its progress toward uncovering fundamental truths. In response, Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg replies, "It is simply a logical fallacy to go from the observation that science is a social process to the conclusion that the final product, our scientific theories, is what it is because of the social and historical forces acting..." He goes on to make an analogy with those arguing about the best path up a mountain peak, and concludes that they ultimately either "find a good path to the peak or they do not, and when they get there they know it."

relativity theory--asserts that it only makes sense to describe motion in relative terms: there is no, absolute, fixed, stationary frame of reference.  Relative motion between two reference frames that move at a constant velocity with respect to each other is treated by special relativity.  This postulates that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  General relativity handles accelerated motion--and is linked to gravitation (see space-time continuum).  While relativity theory, worked out by Einstein between 1905--1915, revolutionized physics, it is not needed unless objects / particles move at very high speeds / possess high energy, or where gravitational forces are incredibly strong.  Relativity has been confirmed by nearly a century of physicists' experimental testing to a high degree of precision.

reproducible results -- results obtained by careful adherence to, and documentation of, experimental or other procedures so that others can repeat the work and verify them. Obtaining such results is an important goal of scientific investigation.

science, definitions of -- one of those difficult to define terms. Here are three definitions: 1) the study of matter, energy, nature and natural phenomena focused on finding order and universal laws; 2) a body of knowledge ultimately based on observation obtained by application of the scientific method; 3) a methodical effort to provide a map or conceptual framework for understanding reality

science and democracy--the origins of both can be traced to ancient Greece, and both require social environments valuing honesty, reason, skeptical evaluation of new ideas, debate, and free inquiry.  One science writer (Watson Davis) way went so as far as proclaiming "the scientific way is the democratic way!"  Of course in deciding whether some scientific hypothesis is to be embraced, decisions are based not on polls where all votes count equally but rather on the verdict of those best qualified to judge how well the hypothesis fits the data!

science vs. technology, distinguishing between them -- whereas science involves understanding nature, technology involves controlling it. Whereas technology initially developed in trial and error fashion, by the 20th century most significant technological advances were founded on scientific understanding (applied science).      

scientific literacy--according to the National Academy of Sciences, this is "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities."

space-time continuum--a concept that was introduced by Einstein with his relativity theory. In the simplest mathematical models, the three dimensions of space are linked with a fourth one: time.  This space-time structure (think of it as flat in a two dimensional, analogy sense) is distorted--warped or curved--by matter. The greater the concentration of matter, the greater space-time is distorted: something that general relativistic physics connects with the force of gravity.  

systematic problem solving approaches -- while the scientific method represents the ultimate such approach, there are simpler ones, focused on particular types of problems.  For example, here's one that students can use in solving word problems involving math... 1) read the problem carefully, establish what you want, and assign a symbol (variable) to this unknown  2) similarly establish and represent what information you have, 3) find or construct an equation that has "what you want" on its left hand side, and "what you have" on its right hand side, and 4) Plug the specific values for what you have into this equation and thus figure out the previously unknown value for the variable representing what you want.

testability -- refers to the idea that for a statement or hypothesis to be considered scientifically acceptable it must be testable -- that is, conceivably it could be shown to be false. Here are two similar statements: 1) the entire universe is permeated with an undetectable pure substance: the quintessence;  2) all space is permeated by a substance that is at absolute rest (meaning all motion is relative to it): the ether.  The first is not a scientific statement because it is not testable. (The second statement was most notably tested in the famous Michelson-Morley Experiment of 1887).

theory -- a general principle or principles based on well tested hypotheses put forward to characterize and explain a collection of facts and observations associated with some area of investigation. Out of particularly good theories come predictions, which, if verified, lead to investigators placing greater confidence in the theory.

uncertainty principle -- practically applicable in the microscopic realm of physics, perfectly knowing both the position and the speed or momentum of a particle is impossible. This principle, first formulated in 1927 by Heisenberg and fundamental to quantum mechanics, can be explained by thought experiments in which one realizes that any attempt to pin down the exact position of a particle disturbs it and changes its position. Therefore the concept of scientists making perfect measurements is meaningless, all measurements have some associated uncertainty.



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