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Science, unwrapped - Regular Voltaire

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December 2nd, 2010

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10:04 pm - Science, unwrapped
The reason why the theory is insufficiently correct is because not enough empirical evidence has been collected to make it precise. And the reason why the available evidence is not sufficient is because the theory is not firm enough to guide researchers to find it.

There, a tautology. Well, actually, it is a fundamental problem in science studies. How does theory arise? How does new theory inform future empirical research? And how does the future observation reinforce - or dampen - the fledgling theory? If you are to accept that paradigms do exist, that there is such a thing as a set of rules, widely accepted by all, known as normal science, then this concept is important. For here is the very inflection point, at which the new theory either sinks or swims.

A good example of this problem is the famous case of Einstein's theory of General Relativity being confirmed by an observation of an eclipse of the sun. Sir Arthur Eddington made an expedition to the island of Principe in the Atlantic and photographed the solar eclipse of 29 May, 1919. The images proved that the sun's gravity field bent the rays of the stars as they passed by. The eclipse facilitated this observation since, normally, the sun's bright rays would have outshone the starlight and hence made them invisible to the observer on Earth. Furthermore, the gravity of a body as large as the sun was sufficient to bend the rays - something else smaller would not have had the same effect.

Without Einstein's theory, Eddington's photos would have taken on a different meaning altogether. Without the theory of General Relativity, no one would have thought to look at it to measure the distortion in the positions of the stars that was captured in the photographs. They would have been interesting and remarkable scientific documents or artifacts. But they would not have 'proven' a very important scientific theory, if that theory had not beforehand been deduced by Einstein.

But it was not a one way street as far as assistance for reputation building was concerned. For the photos provided concrete evidence that Einstein's earth-shattering theories were real. With those photos in hand, the theory became a great deal more valid and relevant. Going back to the Kuhnian model of paradigm-formation, here was a pivotal milestone in the process of validating Einstein's theory, making it acceptable to the wider scientific community, and in this case to the lay world as well. With this proof in hand, Einstein himself gained credibility and other scientists would be convinced that they too should study those 'gaps' which had opened up as a result of the change in direction in Physics.

Ultimately, science does not happen the way Popper said it does. Real science is messy and chancy. Scientists tweak their work constantly, often with little care to the rules and suddenly, someone else out there may produce the evidence that you so desperately need to prove that your science is for real. Eddington was that somebody for Einstein. So, that is why you need to look beyond the tight confines of your particular discipline. It applies even when you are not an academic. You need ideas to boost sales, or improve productivity. You need a quick and dirty way to fix a mechanical problem, cheaply and quickly. In other words, you need to think outside of the box to get a broader set of solution options. And when you do that, maybe you would find your own Eddington. Or (from Eddington's POV) your own Einstein.

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