Following the brilliant success of my attempt to explain peer review I thought I'd have a go at explaining Science next. Why restrict myself to a small canvas? Lacking confidence in such a large project, I started this post then abandoned it, but have now picked it up again, encouraged in part by ATTP's light-hearted look and also VV on peer review. And by my own unconquerable belief in the value of my opinions.

Explaining Science is difficult, to people that don't do it, because its, like, totally multi-faceted, maaan. And I suspect that explaining it to people that do it would be difficult too; its the shared sea that people swim in, not something they think about much.

Once upon a time - many years ago, when I was fairly new to wiki - I attempted to edit the "scientific method" page, I think, to add some stuff that seemed bleedin' obvious to me. But I ran foul of the Philosophers - or Schoolmen as Hobbes would put it - which I mention because as well as actual Science there's a whole pile of philosophy of science. Some of it is useful - Popper on falsifiability is valuable - if not pushed too hard. But don't confuse meta-science with science.

Science in practice

Lets start with science in practice: its what is done by scientists - or at least, what they do when they aren't doing admin, drinking coffee or filling in grant forms (or is filling in grant forms part of science nowadays? Who knows, and I don't care). And who is a scientist - ha ha, its someone who does science. Which is of course circular, but that's one of the ways it is.

Another view, which fits neatly into the peer-review framework, is that science is the corpus of knowledge transmitted forwards - the scientific literature, as interpreted and added to by scientists (the difference is perhaps analogous to the alternate views of living organisms as things coded for by their genes, or alternatively merely being mechanisms for propagating genes forwards). That means not all the peer-reviewed and other literature, but only the bits of it that get read, referenced, and built on.

Science nowadays is professionalised. I'd guess that 99% of the peer-reviewed literature is produced by people working in "scientific institutes" paid to do "science" (I might have to back off on that depending on how much is produced by industry, in ways that you might not consider formally-science. Opinions? [See Eli]) The days of gentleman scientists doing a bit of science in their home laboratory before wandering off to their gentleman's club to chat with their peers is long gone. Some of that is good, some bad: science can be "just another career" if you want, and you can go into it if you're somewhat lacklustre, and still you can survive producing mediocre forgettable stuff. But since its not desperately well paid there isn't much incentive to go into science unless you like it (as ever, the rules of economics apply: the total compensation for any work remains roughly the same except for exceptions, factoring all things in: since people enjoy doing science, the wages are less: what did you expect?).

Actually thinking about stuff hard and coming up with New Science is difficult. So most people don't do that most of the time. This is where I slightly hijack a quote from VV:

Given that an important function of peer review is to give the article credibility, it is also logical that reviewers pay extra attention if an article makes strong claims, that is claims that clearly deviate from our current understanding. In an ideal world, without any time pressures, peer review would be perfect every instance. However, a run of the mill article by a well-known author is much less likely to contain problems.

Because lots of science is, if we're honest, run-of-the-mill. Quite often RotM and worthy-but-dull, sometimes RotM and desperately trying to pretend to novelty. And then rarely, flashes of brilliance that are worth many many ordinary papers (and it would be nice to think that such brilliant papers sail through peer review, but actually they'll probably have more trouble than the RotM ones [Update: evidence]).

I don't really know how people Do Science. I know what I used to do: I just Did Stuff that I thought was interesting, and then tried to string it into a paper when I had enough. Its not a great way to write lots of papers though. The way to succeed at that is to plan carefully and be determined and follow through. Well, I did end up leaving. Some people are part of Vast Research Projects (small example: there were people at BAS working on the EPICA ice cores, which was probably a decade of planning, expeditioning, coring, analysing, thinking, writing up and tidying up; large example, the folk at CERN) and 95% of the people on such are going to be cogs in a mighty machine.

Building on the work of Giants

Good scientists are familiar with the literature. You can't start from scratch (unless you're Einstein, which you aren't, and anyway he didn't start from scratch either) so you have to know the literature. Naturally, before pressing "submit" on this blog post I googled "explaining science" and looked at a couple of results, but they didn't amount to much. So I got bored with that very soon. The internet is for writing, not reading.

If I have seen further than others, it is by treading on the toes of giants

James Annan's fine motto, of course. And a useful reminder that while conformity makes for an easy life, it only advances Science slowly, ditto your own reputation. Reputations are made by bold acts, and nothing is bolder than treading on the toes of your mighty forebears. I mention this just in case anyone should take my previous paragraphs about professionalised science as advice to just-fit-in; and as the standard reproof to the "skeptics".

Hard line science

One possible riposte to the above is to say that professionalised and institutionalised science isn't really science; that science depends on its fruits only which must be judged on their merits. Which is true, of course. But the people who push that line tend to have a rather odd set of judgements in my experience. And their views are often indistinguishable from "I don't like what your science tells me, I'm just going to believe my own judgement".

This brings us back to peer review: after the ship of fools nonsense you'd hear the "skeptics" saying, again, "but we don't need their peer review! We judge our science on its merits".Saying that, on hard-line theory, peer review isn't a necessary part of Science is sort-of true, but not really in practice.

You can also try to push the hard line philosophy of science stuff: you could insist, with Popper, that science must be in principle falsifiable. Whereupon you're a bit stuck thinking about things like astronomical observations. Or meteorological observations. Are those science? Theories build on them are clearly falsifiable, in theory. But the observations themselves aren't. So they aren't science. Its an attitude, and you could adopt it if you like, but you'd end up declaring large swathes of stuff that everyone thinks is science as not.


It would be easy to fill many pages with examples of antiscience taken from "skeptic" blogs. A convenient one comes to hand today from Scottish Skeptic. The topic of the post is his idea for a "journal of citizen science", which is doomed, but in the comments we wandered off, as so often happens, to wikipedia, with SS opining that any academic who wants “original research” in wikipedia just writes a paper, sends it to their chums at their journal, publishes it then there’s damn near nothing anyone can do about it. So I (and another) said "where's your evidence for that"? To which the reply was it was obvious what was going on. You can see where this is going, can't you? Yes indeed, I said "do you actually have any examples?" to which SS replied Why would I want to waste my time finding examples? and I replied with the obvious "You’d want to *spend* your time finding an example because you made an assertion, and you’ve been challenged, so you need to back up your words with facts." To which SS replied if you want me to waste my time being your errand boy then you will have to pay me. There's a bit more there, but really it comes down to the same thing: SS makes assertions, and doesn't even seem to understand the idea that assertions, when challenged, need to be backed up. This is such a basic tenet of science that, well, I just can't understand his attitude.

A tiny science example

Science can sometimes just be new ways of looking at things. The picture I inlined at the top is an example. I drew it, from ECMWF re-analyses, and its included on the Atmospheric Circulation page at wiki (this isn't a new way of looking at things for climatologists of course, its standard. I'm just expecting it will be new to some of you reader types). Contrast it with the pic here, also from the same page. Mine shows vertical velocity at mid-height, which is a nice proxy for circulation. What my pic shows is that the polar and mid-latitude cells are entirely negligible, in terms of overturning circulation, in comparison to the Hadley cell. Which itself varies strongly zonally (the stuff over Antarctica is the katabatic winds, which are strong in winter).

Other, better, examples would be the primacy of the Equivalence principle or the realisation that you need to define simultaneity.

In closing

Predictably enough I've failed to do justice to a subject as wide as Science and have been reduced to anecdote. But perhaps I'll spur someone else into doing better.

Grounded by experiment

[Updated to add:] G asks: Can you say Science is grounded by experiment? This divides out maths and philosophy. And I agree, you can. You could argue it divides out string theory, too :-). Its probably rather telling that I forgot this in my first version: I didn't do real-world experiments.

This point can be elaborated, perhaps endlessly. For example, special relativity is grounded in experiment in a way that Newton's stuff isn't, in the insistence on operational definitions of objects in the theory - like simultaneity. Which also illustrates the way this kind of experimental grounded can be easily mistaken for pure theory, when the grounding is to abstract a key idea.

But - particularly relevant to the naive criticisms of climate science - experiment doesn't have to be "real world" experiments. Numerical experiments on computers are fine, as long as they are grounded, say by being tested against observations.

A quote

Thanks TP, though this version is from

The layman's conception of the scientist as a critic, a skeptic, a man intolerant or contemptuous of conventional beliefs, is obviously incomplete. The exposure and castigation of error does not propel science forward, though it may clear a number of obstacles from its path. To prove that pigs cannot fly is not to devise a machine that does so.

Unfortunately, a scientist's account of his own intellectual procedures is often untrustworthy. Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare. If taunted he would probably mumble something about "Induction" and "Establishing the Laws of Nature", but if anyone working in a laboratory professed to be trying to establish the Laws of Nature by induction, we should think he was overdue for leave. (From "Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought" in Pluto's Republic, 1984, OUP)


* Watt about falsifiability?- ATTP
* Falsifiable and falsification in science - VV


More like this

"I ran foul of the Philosophers" This reminds me of a quote from a scientist, I don't remember who, said that philosophers are terribly clever, but have nothing important to say.

By Joseph O'Sullivan (not verified) on 30 Jan 2014 #permalink

Can you say Science is grounded by experiment? This divides out maths and philosophy.

I'd want to add in something about quantitative judgments with error bars, but then I'm a physicist. Who spent most of his scientific career doing engineering as a cog in a big machine.

Some opine about philosophy without, obviously, having studied any.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 30 Jan 2014 #permalink

Time to stop using "skeptic", which leaves room for doubt.
Try using the unambiguous pseudoskeptic.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 30 Jan 2014 #permalink

"Reputations are made by bold acts, and nothing is bolder than treading on the toes of your mighty forebears."

And when you do so, you can typically not copy the methods and article structure or previous work and slightly modify it, you often will do something with is very different from what exists. In that case knowing a bit a of philosophy of science is very helpful in my view, it helps you navigate in the dark.

Popper did not set out to define science, but only asked himself what is a scientific hypothesis. His thesis was that you can distinguish between a scientific statement and a non-scientific one by asking oneself if the statement can be falsified. It only needed to possible to falsify in principle, I would argue. It does not matter whether falsification is hard or easy for the question whether it is science. In my view the main value of the criterion is that it forces you to write up very clearly, very precisely what you are thinking. Even erroneous, already falsified hypothesis are still scientific hypothesis.

Scientists may have a preference for theories that are easy to falsify, like they may have a preference for beautiful theories. Theories that are very specific and easy to falsify are more likely right if they are not yet falsified. But those are all difference matters, must as the question whether math, philosophy or making observations is science.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Victor Venema says
"Popper did not set out to define science, but only asked himself what is a scientific hypothesis. His thesis was that you can distinguish between a scientific statement and a non-scientific one by asking oneself if the statement can be falsified. It only needed to possible to falsify in principle, I would argue.”
Fair enough!
I have asked several CO2 driven climate enthusiasts the following question;
If for the next 100 years atmospheric CO2 continues to increase and yet the near surface air temperature fails to increase would this falsify IPCC science?
The answer they give is…….no!
Their faith in the ‘theory’ would not be undermined.
I would suggest that this is an example of pseudoscience.

[Really? I'll be happy to answer your question *if* you give a clear link to you asking that question elsewhere, and getting the answer you've told us. Over to you -W]

Bryan, it appears you do not understand falsifiability. You have posed a question of the form "would [X] falsify [Y]" rather than "what are the criteria by which [Y] would be falsified."

Your specific question, as posed, also is not meaningful because you have made the common error of equating CO2-induced warming and "IPCC science." To the extent that the phrase "IPCC science" is even meaningful at all, it includes much more such as paleoclimate, the influences of solar variability or volcanoes, natural modes of climate variability and so on.

By Don Brooks (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Bryan, you failed to add appropriate boundary conditions in your question. A 'flatline' in the global surface temperatures for 100 years despite an increase in CO2 is indeed insufficient to falsify the 'IPCC' science. You ignored other factors that are embedded in the complex interplay between forcings and internal variability that ultimately have an impact on surface temperature. For example, a drop in solar output of a few percent is sufficient to counteract the greenhouse forcing of a doubling in greenhouse gases. At best it would 'falsify' the scenarios, which assume solar output will not decrease significantly.

Solar output is of course only one of the other relevant forcings. A significant and repeated number of large volcanic eruptions would also counteract increasing greenhouse gas forcing, and so would a large increase in aerosols. Not that any of these three are very likely to occur (well, maybe the aerosols bit for a while), but the theoretical situation you created simply ignored to add the proper caveats. Therefore, the people you asked answered correctly: as such the situation you described does not falsify 'IPCC' science.

Bryan, I am sorry to say, you could not have misunderstood me much more.

The criterion that a hypothesis is falsifiable is exactly there to force people to make clear statements that someone else could refute. "IPCC science" is not a crisp and clear hypothesis.

Then you start talking about falsification. That is a process about which Karl Popper did not think much. He does use many examples in his books as illustration, but it is not his main topic.

If you want to know about falsification, Thomas Kuhn and his book The structure of scientific revolutions is more interesting. He had some good thoughts about that and also about how subjective falsification can be, especially during transition periods when the evidence does not yet clearly favor one position over the other. He talks about this in the realm of some large revolutions in science, I would argue that the same phenomenon also happens at the smallest scales, down to single articles that make an interesting contribution, a little above "run-of-the-mill".

If there is an unexplained clear drop in the ocean heat content the theory that more greenhouse gases lead to an accumulation of energy in the climate system would be falsified in a few years. These years would be spend on trying to find out whether there is a measurement error somewhere.

If the temperature drops one degree, back to values before 1900 and stays there for a decade without there being other reasons for the temperature decrease (e.g. sun, volcanoes, aerosols) the theory that more greenhouse gases increase the global mean temperature would be falsified.

Because it is only necessary that a theory in "falsifiable" in principle, I could have chosen much more extreme examples. A 10 degree temperature drop, e.g.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink


One place where I raised the question was
However as you can see the posts here (following my own) gave typical responses, so more examples hardly seem necessary.
From what we can gather IPCC consensus science say with 95% confidence that near surface temperatures will increase in range 2K => 6K in the next century if atmospheric CO2 continues to increase at recent rates.
If instead temperatures flatline or fall all respondents with the exception of Victor Venema still imply they could find reasons to support the IPCC conjecture.
If endless support like ‘hidden heat’ in deep oceans is used then they render the IPCC conjecture unfalsifiable and by Popper criterion unscientific.

[Thanks. If you're referring to… then you ask a slightly different question there. To keep things in order, here you asked

* If for the next 100 years atmospheric CO2 continues to increase and yet the near surface air temperature fails to increase would this falsify IPCC science?

and there

* what would falsify the significant man made global warming conjecture

I don't understand your assertion that you received no reply, because the very next comment does indeed directly reply to the question you asked there, though not to the question you asked here.

Your question, as others has noted, is somewhat imprecise. If I modify it to "If for the next 100 years atmospheric CO2 continues to increase [at BAU-type rates, ie ~1% / year] and yet the near surface air temperature fails to increase [and no other truely exceptional events, like massive volcanic eruptions occur] would this falsify IPCC science?" then the answer is Yes. I hope that's clear enough -W]

Victor Venema

Yes I have read Kuhn.

Kuhn would say that The IPCC conjecture would simply be increasingly ignored if it failed to correspond to reality.

There would be no dramatic theoretical 'shoot out'.

The world and science would move on to more fruitful explanations of the climate.

Hmm, to cast this in a different area (albeit with odd parallels), medical researchers have this "conjecture" that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer and heart disease. Their best estimates of resulting 21st-century deaths are ~1B, mostly in developing countries. But if smoking-related deaths disappear, then their "conjecture" will be falsified. Since the best medical researchers in the world do not understand the exact biochemistry of every chemical, in smoke, and even less in the Wild West of the additives in e-cigs. No research has yet been done, for example on bubblegum or gummy bear vaping.
So, given all this uncertainty, clearly nothing is known, so wait and see what happens.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

"If endless support like ‘hidden heat’ in deep oceans is used then they render the IPCC conjecture unfalsifiable and by Popper criterion unscientific."

How is ocean heat content 'hidden'? We already measure it. So OHC could just as easily be used to falsify the theory.

I do not see any pseudoskeptics attempting to do so.

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Since Eli is in the midst of writing proposals (tho mercifully short ones) allow him to disagree on two points. He has been on too many damn panels where we had to plot to uprate the "boring" stuff because everyone needed it for their ground breaking work. Data set building is the rock on which Science and Nature are built. Science really needs pluggers.

Second, there are sciences which have essentially re-amateurized, such as botanizing, bird watching spotting new comets and more.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

> given all this uncertainty ...
> the exact biochemistry of every chemical ... and ... additives

Interaction effects; pick any two.

How about, oh, melamine in food, and chloramine in water -- who knew they made insoluble crystals in kidneys, eh? )

Muddying the water and delaying action makes time to shift investment money elsewhere.

Tribune watchdog: Playing with fire -- Chicago Tribune

Flame Retardant Companies Fire Front Group, Run to American Chemistry Council, Chicago Tribune August 31, 2012

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Hank: combinations are even worse, but:
see this, take a look at the candy-flavored e-cigs at SRITA.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

" ... e-cigarette flavors for teens. One can see a sample of marketing creativity not obviously aimed to wean existing smokers off cigarettes. Customers can often select the level of nicotine, as for gummy bear vaping. "

And they're running these ads in the EU, where the precautionary principle isn't identified as Satanic Socialism?

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Marketeers are quick, EU governments are trying to catch up. As usuual in US, big cites are faster than states or Federal.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

Oops, recall that this thread is about science.
Marketers and thinktankers make strong statements about:safety, health, help on nicotine reduction, but there just hasn't been time to do much science yet. The early results tend to contradict the marketeers, mostly.

There was some ec-cig discussion among the talks this AM in this symposium, if you actually want to hear what serious researchers say.

Anyway, there are a lot of parallels with climate science.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 31 Jan 2014 #permalink

I always worked on the basis that Science is the investigation of (mostly physical) phenomena, ie, those which can be observed, measured, characterised or classified, and the analysis and interpretation of these by the use of logic or reasoning, sometimes through the positing of testable hypotheses. What's wrong with this?

[Where would you put Einstein's development of SR into this scheme? SR is grounded in reality, but the elements that are "interpreted" are tiny in comparison to the theoretical structure. You're not allowed to use MM, because Einstein said he didn't. GR, too -W]

When AGW denial attempts to challenge the supposed 'hypothesis' (which I would argue is more like a synthesis, since several hypotheses and their antitheses have already been tested), it generally fails, because either it does not recognise (or understand) the investigation or the derived data, or the attempt to challenge is founded on false reasoning, or the challenge itself is falsified.
Am I missing something here?

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink

Fergus Brown wrote "Science is the investigation of mostly physical phenomena ....."

I was thinking of inverting the scientific method to arrive at something similar, maybe

Science is grounded in repeatable experimentation. It includes gathering data, positing testable hypotheses, and impartially: designing experiments to determine validity of hypotheses, carrying out such experiments, measuring results, drawing conclusions and improving hypotheses and other incidental activities.

This may give the impression of giving information about what science is (or at least being a start with lots of additional clarifying clauses being necessary).

re "astronomical observations or meteorological observations....But the observations themselves aren’t [falsifiable]" I don't see a problem, you could repeat the observation find it has moved and conclude it is a comet not a star. While after enough observations have been carried out this might not be realistically possible, after just the first observation it is falsifiable. Besides which I would regard this as a gathering data stage and it is hypotheses that have to be falsifiable.

However I concluded it was actually rather poor as a definition of science.

By way of example consider an accounts clerk working for a 'for profit' company. Some work may clearly be designed to ensure customers pay all amounts due and suppliers and employees are not overpaid a for profit motive. However a substantial part of the work could be described as gathering information to prepare accounts to test the hypothesis that the company is profitable. Clearly the whole job has a for profit motive.

Therefore, describing what science is in this way does not seem to work very well. It appears better to distinguish science by its main purpose of attempting to add new knowledge to the existing knowledge in the scientific literature (or data?).

With this we can say stargazing for the sake of stargazing or for day dreaming about aliens is not science. However an amateur that makes observations which are added to a database that an astrophysicist might use is science.

For another example, working on the design of magnets for CERN is science, right? But what if the person works for a company selling advanced magnets and the purpose of that job is for profit?

I am sure lots of clarifying clauses are still needed. e.g. what if our magnet designer is on a free secondment to CERN? The purpose isn't for profit at the time but to keep up to date with developments which may help make profits later. There are bound to be awkward judgements and the more you add clarifying clauses the more awkward situations are going to become apparent.

[rather poor as a definition of science... I thought you were going to stop there and you'd be doing well. Defining science isn't really possible, though you can describe it. You might be better off defining anti-science; compare Plato and Hobbes's attempts to define Justice -W]

"Science is grounded in repeatable experimentation"

Explain the universe. Give two examples.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink

Eli, yes, science has nothing to say about whether god created the universe because we cannot re-perform the experiment of creating the universe.

But if you don't like it, delete the repeatable or the whole sentence. My post was saying I didn't like that way of defining science.

and your point was .... ?

Your still a bit confused about that peer review thing.

It is peripheral to science and unecessary. Largely, these days, a construct of academia, arising from it's symbiosis with The Literature. Some scientists do it, but it isn't germaine to science (I somehow suddenly have an ugly visual, but nevermind).

Writing is a more interesting topic. Via this we can archive an amount of information greater than can be remembered. Writing is perhaps the vehicle in which science travels? Without it science is reduced to the experinces of a single life, plus those few nursery rhymes we don't forget? That would have been a more interesting post.

You might also have pondered how the cataloging of things differs in nature from the understanding of things. And even more nuanced wold be some consideration fo how the understanding of things relates to the predicting of things.

But the internet is a big place and you have time.

For evidence of science without peer review, scan the room for those things brought to you through science by capitalists who, save for a 17 year monopoly, have no interest in sharing.

[Your [sic] confusing science and engineering. Speaking as a (software) engineer and former scientist, I can tell you they are rather different -W]

>" Defining science isn't really possible ... You might be better off defining anti-science

You may well be right - who am I to argue?

FWIW it had crossed my mind to add an example of emails being hacked and made available could be considered to be an experiment to consider the hypotheses that climate scientists are carrying out a fraud with GW being a hoax. The main reason you might regard what happened as anti-science is if you believe what was highlighted was cheery picked rather than an impartial examination of the evidence coming from the experiment.

So the question of whether it is science or anti-science seems to me to depend on the purpose for which the exercise was carried out. Thus this example seems to back up my point that it is purpose that is a more important determinant of whether something is science.

The requirement for impartiality which I put in my description of what science is seems to imply that in this case it is easier to define science than anti- science but there could well be more cases where it is easier to define anti-science. So you might be better off defining anti-science or maybe not.

Oh my. That was priceless. Thank you.

William; in brief:
SR could be argued to be a hypothesis derived from observation and subsequent formulation, later verified by Gravitational lenses, etc., but OTOH, things do get a bit tricky with the really small stuff, when a lot of the work is mathematical. But in this case, it is bound by the rules/laws which are, by and large, logical...
Any good?

By Fergus Brown (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink

Sadly, we cannot isolate from CO2 a portion of the world statistically similarly to the rest. The drawing of parallels between smoking and climate science is revealing, but not in the way most likely imagined.

Crandles might want to have a talk with John Mather.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink


Your still a bit confused about that peer review thing.

It is peripheral to science and unecessary. Largely, these days, a construct of academia, arising from it’s symbiosis with The Literature. Some scientists do it, but it isn’t germaine to science (I somehow suddenly have an ugly visual, but nevermind).

You couldn't be more wrong. Peer review is as fundamental to Science as empiricism, because "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

Your peers are the other researchers who've spent time on your subject, and are most familiar with the data and the appropriate techniques for analyzing it. Brainstorming an idea for a paper with your officemate, being pointed toward references you've overlooked, getting critical comments on your paper's early drafts, having your conclusions attacked in the literature post-publication: they're all essential to the process.

Your peers are also the ones who can best find the errors in your experimental method and the logical flaws in your analysis. The expectation that the paper you submit for publication witll be peer-reviewed forces you to be as rigorous and as self-critical as possible, for fear of losing their respect. And most important, if you can't persuade them that you're correct, then you're most likely fooling yourself, and you're contributing nothing to the world's store of knowledge.

Without peer review, it isn't Science. Anyone who doesn't understand that is just a Google Gallileo.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 01 Feb 2014 #permalink

[Nah, you're trolling -W]

Ok Eli, 'what caused the big bang' and 'what happened immediately after the big bang' are completely different things and 'explain the universe' is a possibly a bit ambiguous.

I did try to make clear that I thought lots of additional explanatory clauses were likely to be necessary whichever approach to attempting to define science was taken.

If John Mather's work is the start of precision cosmology, that sounds like a data gathering stage therefore it is science in reality, according to my brief attempt at what science is and according to its purpose of increasing scientific knowledge.

Maybe almost always grounded in repeatable experimentation?

Maybe I just need you to be a bit more verbose to understand what you are saying?

BTW did I arrive at the equivalent of art definition:

It is art if it was intended to be art.

It is science if it is intended to add to scientific knowledge.

Trolling? No, just wanted to better understand the nature of the insult. But, it's your blog...

I'd like to see your post contrasting engineering with science. Some things I'd like to hear: Is thermodynamics science or engineering? What about catalysis? Does engineering count as science if the work is peer reviewed and published? Is math a science or engineering discipline or just philosophy? Was Bernoulli a scientist?

kdk33 Thermodynamics is science, although obviously engineering applies understanding of thermodynamics to engineering problems. We could expand our reasons why this is the case (thermodynamics is science) if it isn't obvious to you.

Likewise "catalysis" (your implicit statement "is catalysis science or engineering" is somewhat meaningless so I'll assume you mean - "is our understanding and application of chemical and enzymatic catalysis science or engineering?").

Same answer. We can use chemical and enzymatic catalysts because scientists have investigated the principles of their actions and mechanisms, providing a scientific framework for using these in applied fashion. Modern examples of bioengineering (e.g. building on scientific understanding of enzymes and the structural basis for their interaction with substrates to develop novel enzymes having designed features such as increased thermostability or extended substrate specificity) is based on scientific knowledge and understanding.

Your other questions are a little "philosophical". If something is published in the peer-reviewed literature then pretty much by definition it constitutes a systematic and evidence-based exploration of outcomes according to variation of some parameters (you're being vague, so I'm rather forced to be a little vague too). So that's science, since we expect the publication has increased our understanding of the nature of causality in the phenomenon investigated, and perhaps uncovered some general principles.

Isn't "science" something like:

"Using systematic and controlled experimentation, observations and analysis to devise good-faith, evidence-based explanations of the nature of causality with respect to phenomena in the natural world (and our interactions with this), that are generally consistent with the wider body of empirical and theoretical knowledge."

(One might want to state that the progression of scientific knowledge involves webs of individuals and groups doing the above.)

And there is something rather innate about this practice amongst the enquiring, enthusiastic and honest members of humankind. I occasionally have a school student working in the lab during a summer spell, and once you tell them the point of the project and show them how to do stuff, they generally get on with doing science without a second thought.

Chris. Thank you.

You seem to want to define engineering as applied science.

This is common, but recursive - furthering our understanding requries applying the knowledge that came before and the prior knowledge arises from the application of what came even earlier.

Catalysis is interesting because both sides - engineers and scientists - would claim it. And it is, by and large, pursued identically by both.

You're on to something with these: "systematic" and "exploration", but parameterization is off course. The linkage with peer review is a non-sequitor - it is clearly not required nor can it guarentee the outcome you describe.

In the vernacular, engineer and scientist are job descriptions. Separating the one from the other in a more general sense is a mistake.

I like the first paragraph of the wikipedia article:

"Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. In an older and closely related meaning, "science" also refers to a body of knowledge itself, of the type that can be rationally explained and reliably applied. A practitioner of science is known as a scientist."

Chris - in passing, I recall several comments from anthropologists working in various places who said things like "these hunters I'm working with are as observant as any scientist and use both deduction and induction to understand the world and feed their families".

Testable explanations and predictions.


Is computer science science?

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Fields differ greatly in their interactions between science and engineering (and policy) and luimping them all together guarantees confusion.,

1) Pharma companies do science, in order to engineer drugs.

2) Some medical research is pure science, but some leads to explorations of disease cures, and some generates biomediical device engineering informed by the science.

2) Bell Labs did a great deal of fundamental science (and math and statistics) in order to support huge engineering efforts, along the way sometimes accidentally making science discoveries with little engineering application. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson got a Nobel for one like that.

3) Many computer scientists are more like engineers, but some of the time some of us do science, although usually on artificial constructs.

4) Since we cannot build stars or galaxies, most of astrophysics doesn't lead to engineering, but of course, there is a great deal of engineering that goes on to build instruments. Particle physics is mostly like that, with fabulous engineering.

5) Some geophysicsts study basic processes to understand them, but the results inform applications like reservoir modeling in oil companies.

6) People do plant science, some of which informs plant engineering.

7) Some science has no obvious engineering applications, which means little direct industry support, but which may be relevant to business and public policy.

Climate is one of the more complex cases, since:
a) There is science, with few direct engineering applications.

b) There is engineering, not of climate per se, but of reworking the world's energy infrastructure, i,e,, that's engineering (which necessarily includes engineering economics). That's tricky, in that the engineering is motivated by science in one field, but unlike (say study of the semiconductor physics) does not lead to engineering in that field, but in others. Of course, this is why some schools do everything they can to integrate climate+energy work.

c) then there is policy, which one would like to be informed by real science, be based on plausible engineering technology and its trajectories, political realities and their trajectories, but not only by narrow, short-term economic interests.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Ahh, I didn't Eli's question, but I think I answered it partially anyway. Computer science is:
a) Sometimes math and statistics

b) Sometimes natural science methods applied to human reactions, i.e., when it overlaps into sensations and perception and cognitive science, with things like studies of visual displays. For instance, anti-aliasing.

c) Sometimes looks like natural science applied to analysis of complex systems that happen to be artificial, such as performance behaviors of networks or computers, in which one gathers data, forms hypotheses about them, does statistical analysis to see what's real.

d) But, much of the time it is engineering of hardware (although such tends to get called computer engineering or EE) or software (in which case it may be called software engineering or live in a school of I.T. or Information Science)l, or one may have a combined EE/CS department that includes everything. Of course, some CMPSC programs grew out of business, and I know of at least one that started as library science. A famous computer scientist and President of major unviersity once said, not entirely facetiously: if a field has "science" in its name, it probably isn't.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Mal Adapted, you make some good points, but the final conclusion is too strong. Science can also function without peer review, before WWII there was not much peer review. The scale was much smaller, people knew each other and could build up a reputation for good work. That used to be sufficient.

Nowadays, peer review is much more important because there are more scientists and you no longer know everyone. Thus nowadays it would be difficult for an outsider to convince the main stream to take him seriously, if it were not for peer review.

Peer review may be most important for non-scientists to as a first estimate whether an idea deserves some credibility.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Science is about understanding things.

Engineering is about building things.

To understand things you often need to build something and to build something you often need to understand things.

Thus likely every engineer is also a little bit a scientist and every scientist also a little bit an engineer. And every grade in between likely exists.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

To continue: In mathematics/computer science/statistics the operator can play god and manipulate the system. Therefore they are not science which is concerned with the universe as the bunnies find it.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Computer science is as aptly named as automotive science. It might have been better named

Algorithmical Engineering

to sit along side of other branches of engineering. [And software is slang which we are now stuck with.]

I disagree with Eli. Mathematicians are engaged is discovering (some of the) mathematical truths which exist and are therefore part of the universe. Possibly bunnies do not notice that part.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Eli - Mathematics holds a special place; math makes human science possible. The basics of math derive from observations of the real world just like the basics of any physical science.

In many scientific experiments the design is to play God as much as possible; that's why we have research laboratories - otherwise we'd all be out studying nature. The ability to play God in an experiment is a feature, not a bug.

I've always viewed Computer Science and Statistics as branches of mathematics. Their theorems are mathematical theorems and subject to mathematical proof/analysis.

Whether a field of study is a science begs the larger question: Is a physicist (or statistician, chemist, mathematician, biologist, etc) a scientist? He/she might be, but most people who work in any field are working in applications - not theory or research. They are working off of known theories to build better products or more efficient processes, not working to expand knowledge in general.

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 02 Feb 2014 #permalink

Victor #45 - I prefer to say Science is about finding out how the world works, engineering is applying that knowledge.
As you say, sometimes you have to build something to see how it works, but I consider that a more specialised definition.

Which is perhaps how some engineers get delusions of competence and we get creationist lunatics like recently popped up at Eli Rabetts.

Of course peer review is currently fundamental to science because that's how it works at the moment, but science does also work by means of testing someone elses ideas, and building upon them, and in both cases if the idea is wrong things won't work and the error will be discovered.

Victor #44: I tried to make too many points in my comment on peer review. You're right about the modern role of one's scientific peers and the formal process of peer review for publication. My intention was to equate "peer review" with "inter-subjective verification" as a foundation of Science, because (per Feynman) "The first principle [of Science] is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool".

Inter-subjective verification means that other people who are also trained not to to fool themselves must be able to verify your empirical findings. Those other trained people are your "peers". If you can't persuade them that you're right, you're most likely fooling yourself. In my experience, it can be difficult for non-Scientists to understand how easy it is to fool themselves.

By Mal Adapted (not verified) on 03 Feb 2014 #permalink

This discussion has gotten silly.
1) Eli must have been joshing us, as he surely knows better, as a definition of science as only the world as we found it would preclude from being science study of any materials not generally (or ever) found in nature, such as fluorocarbons or semiconductors, like GaN, to pick one at random.
Likewise, there is relatively little lung cancer except via tobacco smoke, so studying that disease, or in fact any of those influenced by human-caused conditions, couldn't be science.
Since humans almost certainly started altering climate ~8,000 years ago, climate science could only study the time before that.

2) Despite the fact that many early CMPSC departments spun out of math departments, it is very limited view to think CMPSC = math opposed to parts if it focused on algorithms and proofs. I've worked with some of the best CMPSC algorithmic and theory folks on the world and I rather doubt they'd say that.
(For instance, in algorithmic complexity analysis, one can sometimes only prove a worst-case bound, but in real life that doesn't help much, except for real-time systems. One has to characterize the expected input data and average run times, not subject to proofs. Analysis of computer systems and networks often looks more like science, because there are elements over which one simply has no control.)

By John Mashey (not verified) on 03 Feb 2014 #permalink


By David B. Benson (not verified) on 03 Feb 2014 #permalink

CMPSC = most common abbreviation in academe for Computer Science. For example, long ago and far away, I sued to teach CMPSC 102, 411 and 420.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 03 Feb 2014 #permalink

at the risk of going seriously off topic I'm curious where Mashey and others stand on vaping. speaking from experience here; haven't smoked in months and IMO vaping is far more pleasurable in addition to being healthier (more variety; like going from a selection of 3 beers to 3000).

of course not smoking at all is best, but then so is vegetarianism and daily exercise. is the objective to make people better or make better people? i would think that on the basis of our current understanding of toxicology that it's a no brainer. so wtf? why aren't people dancing in the streets about this development. billions of lives saved in all 'likelyhood'.

balance of evidence and risk assessment. kind of reminds me of climate policy.

By Marlowe Johnson (not verified) on 03 Feb 2014 #permalink

Eli never jokes. Science studies the world as it is. AFAEK, there are limits to synthesis.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink

Marlowe: try Familiar Think Tanks Fight For E-cigarettes.

Follow link to the symposium on e-cigs.

I think I can summarize (what experts say) as:
a) For existing nicotine addicts, e-cigs are almost certainly less bad than regular cigarettes. Millions of lives would likely be saved if they switched, keeping the same level of nicotine, with the caveat that e0cigs vary like crazy and have a lot of chemicals that have been little studied. Of course, most still have nicotine, which is one of the agents in causing the heart disease problems, whereas the tars are more relevant to the other half (lung cancer, pulmonary).

2) Of course, it would be better to cut down or stop, but if someone is really addicted, that is almost impossible, Although marketeers claim e-cigs are an aid to cessation, so far there is zero credible evidence for that, and the earliest studies seem to go against it. In particular, people who can vape in circumstances when they couldn't smoke seem to add the vaping to the smoking, not replace it. Still, very early, but it raises the worry that vaping may be good if it replaces smokinjg, but not so good it if augments it.

3) Of course, the real worry is that in developed countries, there has been a slow downward trend in teenage nicotine use, and e-cigs have reversed that. See the advertisiing examples I gave, or the full SRITA site.

One can order e-cigs with different levels of nicotine, down to 0, presumably to let people taper off. That must be why Gummy Bear vaping fluid comes that way, to help those long-addicted 12-year-old smokers cut back.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink

a little more on science (so it's not really off-topic):
About a week ago was 50th Anniversary of US Surgeon General Report on smoking. p.13 of the Executive Summary says:
'More than 20 million Americans have died as a result of smoking since the first Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health was released in 1964 (Table 1) (Chapter 12). Most were adults with a history of smoking, but nearly 2.5 million were nonsmokers who died from heart disease or lung cancer caused by exposure to secondhand smoke.'
Note cardovascular effects of nicotine alone. About half the deaths are actually from heart problems, about 30% from lung cancer.

All this is backed by masses of detail and the IPCC-like calibrations of what they know and don't, i.e., acareful assessment by experts.

The full report is ~!000 pages, which I've only just sampled so far.
p.7: 'The percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use electronic, or e-cigarettes, more than doubled between 2011 and 2012.' Good marketing!

p.881: 'A further and emerging consideration is the role of the new products being introduced rapidly into the marketplace that can deliver aerosolized nicotine without the harmful products of combustion in cigarette smoke. Their availability and marketing could result in asignificant fraction of smokers switching completely to them (Sumner 2003). However, there is also the potential for such products to have effects on youth initiation, to lead to a renormalization of public use of nicotine, and to result in sustained dual use of both aerosolized nicotine and cigarettes.'

'For smoking initiation by youth, the finding that nicotine is addicting raised concern that adolescents and young adults might become addicted through experimentation; by 1988, the pattern of initiation had moved to the teen years for both males and females (USDHHS 1988). The 1994 Surgeon General’s report on Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People emphasized that tobacco use and addiction almost always begins before 18 years of age and that most adolescent smokers face the same challenges as adults in quitting smoking (USDHHS 1994).'

p.153 'Human brain development continues far longer than was previously realized. In particular, areas involved in higher cognitive function such as the prefrontal cortex continue to develop throughout adolescence (the period during which individuals are most likely to begin smoking) and into adulthood (Poorthuis et al. 2009; Goriounova and Mansvelder 2012). During this extended period of maturation, substantial neural remodeling occurs,'

p.154: 'Animal studies provide evidence that nicotine exposure during adolescence has effects on the brain that differ from exposure during other periods of development. ...
Nicotine exposure during adolescence also appears to cause long-term structural and functional changes in the brain (Dwyer et al. 2009)'

(this is part of many pages of effects on cognition).

Of course, tobacco companies have long known perfectly well that nicotine was addictive, that they were not in the business of selling tobacco but in the business of selling an addictive drug, and they had to addict teenagers to keep their customer base.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink

thanks for this John.

as someone whose brain is already fubared because of choices in my youth ;) I'm sympathetic to the idea that ingesting drugs of any kind can have long-term consequences. OTOH, i come back to my original question. are we trying to make people better or make better people? FWIW I strongly support regulating ALL drugs and associated sins (e.g. gambling) related marketing activities. But as with GMOs the issue is about risks put in context.

why are we even having this debate about e-cigs? cotton candy or bubble gum flavour is irrelevant since these products are not legal for minors (nor should they be).

there's a goalpost shifting exercise here that I find disturbing. if the problem is marketing that's aimed at minors then address that. but don't lump that problem in with how to deal with people who already suffer from nicotine addiction.

baby and bath water and all that.

By Marlowe Johnson (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink

guthrie: "I prefer to say Science is about finding out how the world works, engineering is applying that knowledge."

We had engineering before science was very helpful.

I did my PhD officially in electrical engineering. Actually I was doing cloud science and they were building great radars, which enabled us to make interesting measurements.

That helps me to have a high respect for engineers. They are very smart and build things I could not build. Science and engineering are two different skill and both valuable.

The radar is highly complex and you need a very good intuition at the start when you cannot prove yet whether the components you would need are possible to build.

Sure many of the climate ostriches are engineers. That also makes sense, many of them are conservative and many are not so good in science, for instance take equations as given. I have the feeling that you see something similar with the ostriches, which often seem to think in term of absolute truths, of the kind you only find in religion, and give the impression they have problems with uncertainties of various kinds.

Mal Adapted: "My intention was to equate “peer review” with “inter-subjective verification” as a foundation of Science, because (per Feynman) “The first principle [of Science] is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool“. "

That is also a function of peer review. It might depend on the person. I would personally say, that a reviewer never found a serious problem in my work. That you have to get through review does help to make sure that you covered all bases and do not make exaggerated. claims.

"If you can’t persuade them that you’re right, you’re most likely fooling yourself. "

I agree. If I am not successful in persuading my peers, that is a reason to try to understand why. Not being able to convince a climate ostrich is unfortunately a much weaker sign.

John Mashey, I also see no reason why computer science could not be a science. It could be that in practice it is often engineering, but you can make non-trivial hypothesis about computer systems and test them. Computers are very complicated, especially nowadays with all the interactions with users, other computers and sensors via the internet. Understanding how computers work is not trivial.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 05 Feb 2014 #permalink

Victor, whilst I feel that your saying "We had engineering before science was very helpful" is rather missing the point, I agree with the rest of what you wrote.

Victor: I have never said Computer Science could not be a science. If one needs to binary, some parts of it are science, some are not. While I would not claim to be an expert, it is at least possible that I know something about this field, see Wikipedia or at Computer History Museum.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 06 Feb 2014 #permalink

I do claim to be an expert. My PhD (Caltech) is in Engineering Science and Mathematics. Stating that computer science is a subfield of engineering science is satisfactory. I still would have preferred algorithmical engineering as the name, but so be it.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 06 Feb 2014 #permalink

The scientist engineer distinction seems here largely driven by ego. The real linies are more blurry than bright, and on the frontiers largely non-existant.

Name calling is clear evidence of not-science. Unless you are refering to capitalists who are clearly evil.

John Mashey:"While I would not claim to be an expert, it is at least possible that I know something about this field..."

David B. Benson: "I do claim to be an expert."

Very odd. For one of the few times I can remember on the internet, I have no idea how to score this one :)

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 07 Feb 2014 #permalink

Kevin O'Neill --- John Mashey was engaging in false modesty.

And nobody is keeping score, so don't bother to try.

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 07 Feb 2014 #permalink

DBB - Yes, I know John's background. And yours.

My predilections are in your favor, but I respect JM's opinion enough not to argue the point based on my ignorant opinion :)

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 07 Feb 2014 #permalink

As I noted, the discussion got silly and this is not the venue for a nuanced discussion of it anyway. Sure, I've been involved with computing since 1967, lectured at hundreds of universities, been a Trustee @ Computer History Museum for over a decade and helped plan its major exhibition, and have built some software, hardware, and methods that are widely used ...

but the reason I wouldn't call myself an expert on *this* computing topic is not false modesty, but because I know people I *would* call experts, typically long-time academics (but with strong industry interactions) directly involved in the evolution of computer science, its relationship to other disciplines, which parts are science, which are engineering, and which are other things, in a changing mix.

For instance, I'd certainly call folks like John Hennessy or Dave Patterson experts.

Back to climate issues.

By John Mashey (not verified) on 09 Feb 2014 #permalink

JM - Have you any thoughts on Wolfram's A New Kind of Science?

By Kevin O'Neill (not verified) on 09 Feb 2014 #permalink

Kevin, Eli has this image of Mathematica being to calculus what calculators were to arithmetic. Might be interesting to teach physics that way.

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 09 Feb 2014 #permalink

#68, "Have you any thoughts on Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science?"

Hah, that was a work that needed to go through peer review, if ever I saw one. I only made it about halfway through the book (it's a 1000 pages, so cut me some slack), and he makes grandiose claim after claim about how this will change everything, but never really shows his work's relevance. It was pretty painful.

It reminded me quite a bit of the people who come up with a bit of data for the 'skeptical' side of climate science, or evolution, or whatever, and say that it completely debunks the leading theories. They tend to do a bad job of tying it into the existing work, and don't show that it's reproducible, and don't do a careful job of examining all the possible interpretations of the data, *all* of which are absolutely necessary for just regular science, much less groundbreaking work.. so the conclusions they draw are extremely weak.

By Windchaser (not verified) on 05 Mar 2014 #permalink

Windchaser, I agree with you on the book needing review.

Especially, because it neglects all the work that has been done before it. But I do think that the book is right in that complex systems are something special and that it would be good to have people study this more in general, next to people working with complex systems simply because their object of study is complex, like climatology.

More is different.

By Victor Venema (not verified) on 05 Mar 2014 #permalink