Science is just a bunch of models. Ah! But what’s a model? A
scientific model is a marriage of imagination and mechanism. Models
must enable one to make predictions. Models that make no predictions
are not a part of science. They are sterile constructs with no
offspring. Predictions without models are also not science. Scientific
predictions always proceed from models. When all the predictions made
by a model are repeatedly observed in nature, the model becomes more
and more accepted as a part of science. Neither models, nor science
itself is Truth. No amount of confirming evidence can prove the
“truth” of a model. However, a single contradiction can prove a model
false. The truth lies behind the observations themselves. There are
other names for the models of science. They may be called theories,
equations, or algorithms.
Each culture has its own version of science. The version I’m
explaining here is the version that started to evolve in the Middle
East several thousand years ago and moved into Europe hundreds of years
ago. Since that time, this version of science has spread into other
parts of the world, but it is by no means dominant everywhere, or
universally accepted anywhere. The modern, Western version of science
is not at all popular in the Middle East today. It is much more
popular in Japan, for example, than in the region that helped give
birth to it. Science may not be universally popular, but the
technology it enables seems to have an almost universal appeal.
Science has evolved considerably in the past few hundred years to come
to its present point. Recent evolution has been fueled by both Eastern
and Western inputs. The models of science and its recorded
observations are far too many to describe here, but something more can
indeed be said about the methods and attitudes of science. And two
truths pertain: Anyone can develop the “scientific attitude” and not
every “scientist” has actually completed this development.
The central theme of a “scientific attitude” is the belief that one
should accept neither tradition nor authority as a basis for the truth,
but accept only that which is based on observations and conclusions.
You have to keep an open mind and be skeptical at the same time. You
do not accept the truth of something simply because it is compelling or
is confirmed by anecdotes. You do, instead, reserve judgement until
sufficient evidence is collected and a model or mechanism is clearly
understood. You are careful not to seek confirming evidence any harder
than you seek disconfirming evidence. And, you understand that no
amount of confirming evidence is ever sufficient for proof, but that a
single, undeniable case of disconfirming evidence is always enough for
The scientific attitude is at the core of modern science. The first
ring around this bull’s eye is the scientific method. This is the
answer to the question, “How do scientists do science?” Their
objective is to build and refine models. Their methods always involve
new data or changes to the current model as part of the following
- Observation: Something is observed that doesn’t conform to the
current model, or a deficiency of the current model is brought to
- Deduction: A reasoning process or leap of imagination is used to
connect the data into a new pattern, model, or explanation.
- Hypothesis: A prediction is made based on the deduction; a
statement involving the new model or theory is made in terms that are
- Experiment: A carefully controlled procedure is performed to
test the hypothesis; data that could potentially confirm or disconfirm
the new model are gathered impartially.
- Conclusion: The model, the data, and the relationships are
written up and published for review by other scientists.
- Verification: Other scientists, who must be able to follow the
logic of the observation, deduction, and hypothesis, repeat the
experiment themselves and arrive at similar conclusions.
The next ring of the target and all the outer rings consist of the
sum-total and current acceptance of the scientific literature. Science
is a matter of belief and understanding. Beliefs that are more a
matter of faith are less scientific. There are four ways to describe
- The scientific believe in what is supported by the evidence, they
withhold judgement for other assertions, and label unsupported
assertions as undecided for the time being;
- The faithful pay less attention to the evidence, and believe in a body of assertions
supported primarily by tradition and authority;
- The atheist, or skeptic, tends to believe in what the preponderance of the evidence
shows and disbelieves in what the preponderance of a lack of evidence fails to show; and
- The hypocrite lives by the rule that “Believing can’t hurt, but
who knows how much harm may be done by not at least appearing to
In the past hundred years, one scientific model stands above all others
with respect to how hotly it has been debated by all of these groups.
This scientific model is one of the most hyped, least understood, and
perhaps most important scientific models of all time: The Theory of
Evolution. We give Darwin more of the credit for this model than any
other single person, but that is now a small fraction of the total.
Many evolutionists came before Darwin and much has been contributed
since. He didn’t express the model in the terms that follow, but
hopefully, he would have approved.
Evolution occurs when information is copied. This is the central theme
of the model. The exact nature of “information” is still being
formulated, but there would be little disagreement with the statement
that information is embodied in the DNA, RNA, and protein structures
that make up all living things as we know them. These structures, this
information, is copied from one generation to the next. The following
rules formulate the model of evolution.
- Every entity that participates in evolution is created in a
reproductive, or copying, process.
- Every such entity is an amalgamation of one or more ancestors
that it is copied from.
- Every such entity may enter into a copying process and produce
zero or more descendants.
- The attributes of the entities most successful at contributing to
a copying process (producing offspring) tend to become the dominant
characteristics in a population over the course of time.
- No copying process is perfect. Changes are introduced at each
generation. These affect the number of copies made from each new
entity. Over time, this leads to the transformations that take place
in a population.
A final tenet of science is that models should be compact. This issue
is often called Occam’s razor. It expresses a preference for the
simpler of two models, or the one that explains the unknown in terms of
the known. Remember, things should be made as simple as possible, but
no simpler. In this tradition, and to keep you “numinating” until next
time, I offer a compact assertion for the often asked, but seldom
answered question, “What is life?”
Answer: Life is the collection of all entities that use
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