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View Diary: Pique the Geek 20110605: Misconceptions about Science (112 comments)

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  •  I think of a law as being more like a fact (3+ / 0-)
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    Translator, palantir, WiseFerret

    that is, a truth claim, and I agree with Stephen Jay Gould, who said that ". . . facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. . . "

    "Energy is always conserved."  That's a truth claim.  There is no why involved, no propositonal logic.

    This is an interesting diary, but it's time to turn off the blue light and turn in.

    Light is seen through a small hole.

    by houyhnhnm on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 07:35:31 PM PDT

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    •  Thanks for contributing! (2+ / 0-)
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      palantir, WiseFerret

      We shall talk again soon.

      Warmest regards,

      Doc

      Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, then either I really love you blindly or I am a Republican.

      by Translator on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 07:46:27 PM PDT

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    •  One of Gould's many naive remarks. nt (1+ / 0-)
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      Translator

      Michael Weissman UID 197542

      by docmidwest on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 07:54:29 PM PDT

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    •  There is Law and there is Theory (2+ / 0-)
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      Mathazar, Translator

      Laws of science state observable fact. In this, you a correct.
      We have the Law of Gravity because we observe things fall. It's been refined- small things (apple) fall towards large things (Earth). But is all an observation, albeit a very consistent one. We haven't explained why it is. (and as far as Gravity goes, we haven't come up with a good why.)

      Theories, on the other hand, present the best explanation (the why) according to observation and testing. Evolution is "just" a Theory for this reason. It's the best explanation we've come up with to explain how living systems change. We can even set up test that show evolution occurring (genetic research, vaccine developments).

      Both Laws and Theories are critical parts and goals of scientific work. It drives me crazy when people fail to understand these concepts. It really isn't that hard to understand.

      I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

      by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:21:07 PM PDT

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      •  Ummmm, I may not have said that last bit well (2+ / 0-)
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        Translator, houyhnhnm

        Not to imply you are failing to understand. I just thought it might help to expand on your good point!

        I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

        by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:23:42 PM PDT

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      •  I do not disagree. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        WiseFerret

        Do you think that I was close to the mark?

        Warmest regards,

        Doc

        Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, then either I really love you blindly or I am a Republican.

        by Translator on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:24:40 PM PDT

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        •  I find in teaching HS science (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Translator, Mathazar

          that it takes presenting the idea in several different ways in order to have a snowball's chance in heck to penetrate young minds.

          I'd say we are both on mark, just in different words.

          The 'Law = observed fact and Theory = explanation' seems to have been the most successful way for me to help people understand the terms from a science view. Since I'm rather passionate about science education, I have a hard time not pitching in a bit more when the opportunity arises.

          I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

          by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:37:27 PM PDT

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          •  I respect you for what you do. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            WiseFerret

            You are always welcome to use my posts for class.  All that I ask is that you attribute me, and give the students a link.

            Warmest regards,

            Doc

            Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, then either I really love you blindly or I am a Republican.

            by Translator on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:44:18 PM PDT

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            •  Well. . . at the moment. . . Need job (1+ / 0-)
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              Translator

              Sigh. Budget cuts.

              My most consistent teaching so far was my student teaching.

              But, hopefully, I will have an excuse to use your work, attributed to you, of course!!

              Thank you.

              I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

              by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:49:32 PM PDT

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              •  Join the club! (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                WiseFerret

                Out of work here, too.

                I hope that you find some before next week's installment.

                Warmest regards,

                Doc

                Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, then either I really love you blindly or I am a Republican.

                by Translator on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 10:01:31 PM PDT

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          •  I don't really get the distinction. (2+ / 0-)
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            Translator, WiseFerret

            Was Newton's gravity a law until it became an incorrect theory? Was it an "observed fact" or an "explanation" of the behavior of the apparent positions of things, in a particular coordinate system? Don't all these categories sort of fuzz into each other? When people use terms, why do we have to think there must be some real well-defined meaning to them?

            Michael Weissman UID 197542

            by docmidwest on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 09:50:40 PM PDT

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            •  Newtons Laws are still laws (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              WiseFerret

              but are only precise in his macroscopic universe.  In the microscopic, they break down, and in the huge universe, they do also.  In the microscopic, quantum mechanics are a better model, and for the huge, general relativity is a better fit.  Neither of the three models are all inclusive.

              This just means that we do not know everything, YET!

              Warmest regards,

              Doc

              Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me over and over, then either I really love you blindly or I am a Republican.

              by Translator on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 10:07:55 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  sure, but (2+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Translator, WiseFerret

                I still don't get the distinction. Say somebody hands you a bunch of alleged coordinates of planets. You say "aha, if we have these rules...(include gravity)... that's the sort of pattern we'd get." So then you'd say that gravity was a theory, an explanation of a bunch of appearances. Or maybe the concept of force has become very concrete in your mind and you really can't imagine any other type of coordinates so you say gravity is a law.

                Who cares what the name is? What matters is whether it's right or how close it gets when. My point is that all these scholastic arguments about names get nowhere. As Galileo said, "I could call it polenta..."

                This comes up all the time on our Q&A site. People want to know "Is light matter?" etc. We could always make up some definitions and then answer them, but why get tangled up in a bunch of pointless words? It's more important to sort out which questions have meaning. Same goes for "law", "theory",...

                Michael Weissman UID 197542

                by docmidwest on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 10:22:01 PM PDT

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            •  They are distinct in that they describe differnt (1+ / 0-)
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              Translator

              things.

              Basically, they are specific terminology used in science. Outside of science, the words have various meanings which can be very confusing if one tries to apply the conventional sense to the science. Conventionally, theory means an idea, untested, with or without observation. In science, Theory means an explanation of observed data based on testing.

              Newton observed a Law- a fact people already knew. The unique thing he did was use it as a basis to explain why other things can be observed from that. Things Always fall at 9.8m/s^2 (on Earth), so it is possible to calculate trajectories and the force of landing. To create a coordinate system. He used the Law to create Theories, none of which was explaining the Law itself.

              A bit more long winded:

              A scientific Law is some thing observed that happens on a consistent and predictable basis. We drop things and they fall to the floor, not the ceiling. We don't necessarily know why, as Newton did not know why, he just observed that things fell. And it could be measured and calculated. Predicted. Without knowing why. Thus- it is a Law. Sort of nature's slap upside the head to us with "Because I said so!" Once a Law is established in science, it is very unlikely to have great changes to it, although it may have modifiers.

              Theory, on the other hand, is the outcome of testing the observed things in an attempt to explain why this happens. There's a lot of ideas on why gravity happens, but we don't actually have a workable Theory that explains the Law.

              Hence, evolution is a little easier to use to explain Theory. People know it is controversial, but often misunderstand why. We've observed species changing. And come up with a lot of ideas why (Lamark comes to mind). But these ideas of why keep getting changed as tests are done and further observations. Thus Darwin's idea of speciation has been refined as our ability to measure and test the idea have improved. But it all boils down to explaining why we see these changes.
              And it can be applied to things we can't directly observe and measure- such as the fossil record. Using the explanation of why evolution occurs helps explain extremely well the fossils we find and the order in which they occurred.
              But. All that can be swept away if a better explanation comes along. Looking at the phlogiston theory, it held up fairly well, for a while, until some one came up with a better explanation- oxygenation occurs. That fit much better.
              Theory can get entrenched, even in scientific circles. It took far longer than necessary to get the theory of Teutonic plate movement accepted in geologic circles. This is a key difference- Theories can be debated, fought over and struggled with. Laws, since they are observable fact, do not leave room for argument.

              I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

              by WiseFerret on Sun Jun 05, 2011 at 10:34:08 PM PDT

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              •  What we usually mean by Newton's (2+ / 0-)
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                Translator, WiseFerret

                law of gravity is the GmM/r^2 business. It's an explanation of a bunch of observations, mostly astronomical. So that makes it a theory. Or is it a law? In some sense it's about right but as an overall description of the universe it's more or less infinitely wrong. Does either side of that evaluation change depending on the name I call it?

                I see the effort that goes into distinguishing between a law and a good theory as a journey down a blind alley into scholastic verbalisms. I see students trying to learn these sorts of sterile distinctions all the time. It takes away from the real adventure.

                Michael Weissman UID 197542

                by docmidwest on Mon Jun 06, 2011 at 10:02:04 PM PDT

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                •  Law, because it descibes what is (1+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  Translator

                  and it can be measured. In GmM/r^2 you aren't saying WHY, your saying "this Happens" and "this is how I measure it".

                  The key part is "This Happens". It happens the same way, everytime and no one has seen an exception to it. We aren't asking why, just observing a fact.

                  If an exception did come up- then the law would need to be re-examined, but that is not typical.

                  I am much too liberal to be a Democrat.

                  by WiseFerret on Tue Jun 07, 2011 at 10:37:18 PM PDT

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                  •  You're assuming (0+ / 0-)

                    that "r" is "observable" which is sort of true, but only given a set of conventions. It turns out that the implicit (Euclidean, Galilean relativistic) conventions contradict how the world actual behaves. In other words, they're false. So in retrospect that formula is not a bare observation but a particular way of structuring observations, i.e. what I think you're calling a theory. You can take the same observations and repack them (more successfully) in a different framework. In the new framework it doesn't make sense even to talk about the gravitational force. The acceleration ceases to be an invariant. The new framework will almost certainly break down on a small scale, but at least it works for a GPS system.

                    There's a reason why serious books about the philosophy of science don't typically get hung up on naming conventions. They sort of waste time before we get to the real issues.

                    But now rereading I think perhaps you're making a different point. What distinguishes a law is not so much that it lacks hidden assumptions etc but that it makes no claim to be explained in terms of deeper principles. This would be an unusual use of the term, since, e.g., the so-called zeroth law of thermodynamics and also the third) have explanations.

                    Michael Weissman UID 197542

                    by docmidwest on Wed Jun 08, 2011 at 07:22:09 AM PDT

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                  •  Feynman put it better. (0+ / 0-)

                    Michael Weissman UID 197542

                    by docmidwest on Wed Jun 08, 2011 at 07:39:41 AM PDT

                    [ Parent ]

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