The annual AAS meeting opened up with the award of the van Biesbroeck Prize of the society to Father Dr George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory.

The van Biesbroeck Prize is for extraordinary service to astronomy, in particular his role organizing the Vatican Observatory Summer Schools, and the role he has played at the juncture of science and religion.
A topic that occasionally stirs sciencebloggers, and their readers, from torpor.

Dr Coyne gave a brief and gracious speech, but touched on what I thought was a bit of a strawman: he appealed, and I paraphrase, for people to avoid both the extremes of fundamentalist religion, and “scientism” – which he defined, and I paraphrase, as the belief that science is the only way to true and certain knowledge.

With all due deference, that really is a bit of a twist – although one is tempted to admit that some colleagues to occasionally tend to trend that way, if only in rhetoric.

Science is not generally conceived conceived as a “way to true and certain knowledge”, and certainly not as the only such way!
(I am reminded here on an old science fiction story, where a humanity overwhelmed by smarter, more powerful and hostile aliens pushes them back with a desperation blow, to gain time to gain parity, with the rationale that the aliens may be smarter, more powerful and nastier, but in the end they had no better approach to the world than the scientific method, so parity with the aliens was achievable – the humans were right…).

The essence of science is falsifiability and repeatability.
This is often a vaguely incomplete approach, certainly in astronomy of all sciences, but is still the core of science as a method.

Science does not assert true and certain knowledge, it aspires to reject false and uncertain knowledge.

This is subtly different, but in an important way. As you successively reject false knowledge, a lot of concepts remain untested, as well as some concepts that have passed multiple tests; those concepts may be inconsistent, and thus presumably some are provably false still; other concepts may be mutually consistent, different perspectives on the same essential truth (in so far as there is such).
Some are, certainly, unprovable – that was shown scientifically. Some of those we may choose to be true, or false, which is interesting.

That is science, not a naive caricature of scientism.

The question of whether there is an inherently better methodology than science to establish truth, or provide falsifiability, is interesting. The answer must, at some level, depend on the actual structure of the universe – that is, some logical structures that would provide the observable universe may, in principle, be better comprehended through some method other than science, but most plausible structures for the actual universe seem like they will be tested as well with scientific metholodogy as any other method – assuming the universe is rational and susceptible to logical analysis and consistency checks.

Which the structure of the actual universe is, is an interesting question – for now though, the pragmatic approach would suggest that the scientific method is the way to go, as it certainly has some functionality, whereas other proposed methods do not appear to be well tested or consistent.

Comments

  1. #1 Blaine Hebert
    January 5, 2010

    Could one assume that most astronomical science is deductive (uses deductive reasoning) whereas most pure lab science is inductive?

  2. #2 Craig Heinke
    January 5, 2010

    I like to think I use inductive reasoning in my astrophysics research–not always, but from time to time. X-ray binary X does Y, also X2 does Y, also X3 does Y, maybe all X do Y….

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