30 March 2007

How Science Works: Hypotheses, Theories, and Laws

As you all may or may not recall, I argued last week that observation alone does not constitute science, and that discerning patterns in the natural world is essential to both formulating and testing a hypothesis. It's a point that I would hope be obvious to anyone with any kind of education in science, but I was shocked to learn how vehemently some of the students in my ecology class disagreed with it. Today I want to touch on another controversy that arose from that class: the difference (if any) between theories and laws.
First, I ought to define my terms. When I use the word 'theory,' I am using it in the true sense of the word; that is to say, I am not using it synonymously with 'hypothesis.' A hypothesis is effectively a guess (ideally an educated guess, as per Part One of this post) that has yet to be proved. A theory is a scientific fact; in a sense, it is a hypothesis that has been tested enough times and with sufficient rigor to have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, I would hope that this would be common knowledge, but the two words have become increasingly conflated (thanks in part to the active efforts of the Discovery Institute and other supporters of "intelligent" design) to the point where most scientists I know use the phrases "in theory" and "hypothetically" interchangeably. However, this point has been made several times by people far more eloquent than me, so I won't belabor it any further here.
The real purpose of this post is to address what I consider to be a particularly irritating conceit of the physical sciences. It often seems to be assumed that the fundamental theories of physics and chemistry are somehow more valid than those of natural sciences, such as evolution or plate tectonics, and as such are often considered to be laws rather than "just" theories. However, this gulf between "hard" and "soft" sciences is merely one of degree, and does not reflect any fundamental differences. I won't for a moment deny that physical theories have much more predictive power than biological or geological ones, but this is in part because biologists and geologists deal with staggeringly complex systems, whereas physicists and chemists often consider the processes they study to be occurring in a vacuum. Of course, this is not generally the case, and as such even predictions made based on physical "laws" are often inaccurate (Think, for example, about when you took classes in chemistry: were you ever able to exactly predict the relative proportions of the products of a reaction?). My point here is more philosophical and semantic than scientific: the word 'law' implies an immutability that does not exist in science. If you were able to say beyond a shadow of a doubt that a formula could predict the outcome of a process 100% of the time, then it would be perfectly appropriate to consider that formula a law. However, how can you prove such unerringly accuracy? Even if every experiment you perform confirms the precise predictive power of your formula (which in itself would be unlikely), to assert that this predictive power was universal would, by definition, require a knowledge of the entire universe. What's more, it would require knowledge of the universe not just as it is now, but as it has been and will be. Clearly, no human has ever possessed such knowledge. As such, claiming that any scientific "law" is universally applicable is a leap of faith, and blind faith is the antithesis of science. Rather, a "law" is nothing more than a theory: a hypothesis proved beyond a reasonable doubt, but that cannot be applied universally within the framework of science. This fundamental indecisiveness may seem to cheapen science, but it in fact reflects its greatest strength: accepting nothing as dogma and always leaving room for skepticism.
Once again, I've probably well overstepped the bounds of my own knowledge in writing this post; after all, I'm only a simple paleontologist. As with my last post of this nature, I'd be very curious to know what you all think; I realize I might just be ranting here, and I'd be really curious to know where other people stand.

28 March 2007

South by Southwest

As any of you out there that know me can attest, I am pretty well convinced that the Pacific Northwest is the best part of the world (those of you that don't know me all that well could probably figure that out from the title of this blog). The last few days, I've been on a brief road trip that's given me cause to say that many of the best parts of the best part of the world are in Southern Oregon. Here's what we saw that led me to that conclusion:

  • Ashland - Besides being a lovely town in a gorgeous setting, Ashland has always been one of my favorite places because it's where I saw my first Shakespeare play, performed by one of the world's preeminent presenters of The Bard's works, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That was years ago, but I've returned several times since to see many excellent plays; this time, though, we saw one that tops them all. It was a production of As You Like It set in 1930s America. I was skeptical at first, but I was convinced before the first scene had ended: setting the the play in the Depression both complemented its fast-pace humor and underscored its more serious moments (particularly the "All the world's a stage" soliloquy). If you find yourself anywhere near Ashland this year, by all means go out of your way to catch this one. I can't sing its praises highly enough.
  • Wineries - Not only does Oregon produce excellent Shakespeare, it produces excellent wine as well (Why even bother traveling to Europe?). We stopped at several wineries on the road between Ashland and the coast, and we tasted wine ranging from good to outstanding (and that's not just me being positive; we really didn't taste anything that was bad). The biggest surprise of all was a dry Riesling we found in a winery just outside of Eugene, something that I didn't know existed outside of Germany.
  • Redwoods - Technically speaking, Redwood National Park isn't in Oregon, but we did pass through the northern corner of it en route to the coast. I mention it here because it's one of those places that everyone should see once in their lives. I'm willing to go out on a limb to say there's nothing quite like it anywhere: it's the Forest to End All Forests. There's something otherworldly about the groves of staggeringly enormous trees shrouded in fog and blanketed in a thick green carpet of ferns. I'm not the only one who thinks so: the redwoods served as a backdrop for both Endor in Star Wars and the Jurassic in Walking With Dinosaurs, and if both George Lucas and the BBC give the forest their seal of approval, then it must be a great place...
  • The Coast - I've sung the praises of the Oregon Coast so many times on this blog that there really is no sense in me belaboring the point here. Suffice it to say that the southern coast is, if you can imagine, even better than its northern counterpart, and is certainly far less built-up. It also turns out you can get a great bowl of clam chowder at no less than three restaurants in Florence (we went with Mo's, which also has the best view in town).
So there you go, four great reasons to visit Southern Oregon (and Northern California). If you're still not sold on it, check out my photos from the trip, which on the whole actually turned out pretty well.

23 March 2007

How Science Works: Patterns & Predictions

Good news, everyone! Now that my ridiculous Finals Week is over, I can start posting random ramblings again! I know that's what you're all here for, after all. At any rate, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I recently took part in an impromptu debate on the philosophy of science. It was in my Community Ecology class, and began as a discussion of whether or not ecology had any general laws (more on that in the second installment of this post). I'm not usually a big participant in class discussions, but one of the other students said something that I just couldn't let go unchallenged. He said something to the effect of "Who cares about general laws, anyway? I mean, it's science, who cares if you're finding patterns or not?" Effectively, his argument was that science is all about exploring the unknown, and that simply going out and describing things (in this case, ecological structures) was sufficient. With all due respect to this student, I would consider this view to be not just mistaken, but dangerously so. Science is, at its core, all about finding patterns. Reduced to it's barest essentials, science is a two-step process: first you make a prediction, then you see if it holds true in the real world or laboratory (that's the Scientific Method, after all: formulating and testing hypotheses). Observation of patterns is essential to both these components. First, how can any prediction be made without some pattern to base it on? To cite an example near and dear to my own heart, a cladogram is a hypothesis of how organisms are related. While it is based on observational data, it is the patterns formed by these data that are of real importance: they allow an evolutionary biologist (by way of PAUP) to predict which organisms are most similar ("Species A and B share features 1 and 2, while Species C does not; therefore, A and B are more closely related."). Second, once your prediction is made, it is tested by observing whether the patterns it predicts are in fact manifested. In keeping with the example cited above, a cladogram might be tested in several ways, most often bootstrapping or jackknifing, which reshape or prune the tree to see of the patterns predicted by the original cladogram still hold. Of course, the student in my class was right that description and data collection are essential to both processes, but they alone are not sufficient. Finding patterns in these data and to use those patterns to construct or test a hypothesis is also necessary.
I probably ruffled a few feathers by saying the student who made the claim that patterns were unnecessary for science was "dangerously" wrong. I'll explain what I mean now, and maybe that will also explain why I take this sort of thing so seriously (it's not just that I'm old before my time and hate people disagreeing with me). I may sound like a conspiracy theorist now, but to me it comes down to that menace that's constantly looming in the shadows, "intelligent" design. The powers that be at the Discovery Institute and throughout the ID world are very, very good at making people think that what they do is science (it's clearly not, but I'll save my lengthy explanations of why for another time). A key component of their campaign is confusing people about what actually constitutes science. At the risk of sounding jaded, I'm never too surprised when they're able to pull wool over the eyes of much of the American public, but
to hear a student at a major university - supposedly one of our educated elite - profess such a profound misunderstanding of the scientific method is extremely worrying. Of course, this has more to do with the generally abysmal state of education in this country than with the agenda of the Discovery Institute per se, but it was still enough to shake me to the point where this has been on my mind literally every day for the last week and a half.
Having said all this and knowing that my audience is, of course, a highly scientifically literate bunch, I'm curious to know what you all think. I realize it's possible that my opinions on the nature of science are divergent from those that you have, and I'd be curious to know if you're with me 100%, agree with some things, or think I'm just a nut job with too much free time on my hands. After all, skepticism, even regarding your own thoughts, is another important facet of science.

17 March 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Given my curmudgeonly nature, I'm sure you're all expecting some rant about how turning St. Patrick's Day into purely a drinking holiday is a trivialization of Irish culture. It's true that I do have opinions along those lines; reducing the nation that brought us James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and Jonathan Swift to an excuse to wear green and drink Guiness could be construed as offensive. On the other hand, I know that any one of the people I just mentioned would much prefer having a pint or two (or several...) to getting wrapped up in self-pity and victimhood. No, the reason I felt the need to post today was because I wanted to share one of my favorite Irish toasts:
May those who love us, love us.
And for those who don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if he cannot turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we may know them by their limping.
At the end of the day, I really can't claim to know more about Ireland than any other Irish-American (which is to say about 90% of the country), but I do know that I've always liked that toast, hokey as it may be. I could drone on about how things like that remind me not to take myself too seriously, but doing so would be taking myself too seriously, so in the spirit of the day I'll avoid that catch-22. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

16 March 2007

What a Week it's Been

It's the last week of the quarter, which always makes for a busy time. On top of that, the whole city of Eugene has had a buzz about it this week, because Oregon just won the Pac-10 and is poised to go deep into the NCAA tourney. Even for someone such as yours truly who doesn't really care for basketball it's an exciting time to be a Duck. Combine that with the idyllic weather we've been having, and it's been a week that's been anything but conducive to working. Of course, I've not had any time for idling. Here's a few of the things that have been keeping me busy:

-Continuing my jihad against the ants. The talcum powder trick worked to break up the trail that kept forming across my kitchen, but to actually reduce numbers I've had to resort to chemical weapons in the form of ant traps full of arsenic. They're pretty insidious devices that fool the ants into bringing back the poison to feed the rest of the colony. They seem to be working spectacularly well, and I feel almost bad for the poor things, but I'm not about to cut and run.

-Getting things in order for the summer. In the past week I've applied for a summer grant from the university (though I'm not holding out much hope for it) and for a class in analytical paleobiology down in Santa Barbara this summer. I should hear about both sometime next month.

-Vetting candidates for the department's next professor of paleontology. I seem to have timed my arrival here well, since in the next few months we'll have hired a new paleontologist (probably of the vertebrate variety). Given that we're still in the interview process, it's probably best that I don't elaborate on things too much, but the powers that be in the department actually seem to be interested in my opinions on the candidates, which is nice.

-Having an argument on the philosophy of science with some of the students in my Community Ecology class. More on this later, since I think this particular topic deserves a little more detail than I'm willing to go into now.

-Setting up my brand new replacement cell phone. It's got a camera in it and everything (not that I care that much about whether my phone has a camera or not, but I enjoy the novelty of it all). Give me a call so you can see how nice and clear the reception is!

-Reading up on the future of paleontology. Apparently it's robots.

-Finishing up class work. Nothing particularly exciting about this, but it's what I've devoted the bulk of this previous week to, so this list really wouldn't be complete without it. Next week being Finals Week, it's not going to be getting any less hectic, either...

06 March 2007

Ants Aren't Gentlemen

Spring has sprung! The weather has been warm, flowers have been blooming, trees have been leafing, and baseball is back on the radio. All in all, it's a great time of year to be alive. Unfortunately, I'm not the only one who thinks so. The local any colony has responded to the change of season as animals always do: by reproducing like crazy and stuffing themselves full of food. Of course, my 1940s-vintage house is chock-a-block full of holes that make perfect entrances for ants, so I probably shouldn't have been surprised when I wandered into my kitchen the other day to find a long line of the little buggers stretching from the exterior wall to my pantry. As you all know, I love animals, even some that many people would find unsavory (case in point, I would never willingly kill a spider). Here's my dirty little secret, though: I really don't like ants. There are some pretty large ants in the world, some of which can deliver a correspondingly nasty bite, but even harmless little ones like those that have invaded my house give me the creeps. Maybe it's the whole hive mentality thing that bugs me (though bees don't bother me to speak of), maybe it's because they're so damn tenacious (you just can't keep them away from food once they've found it), or maybe it's just that they're very nearly impossible to get rid of. The good news is that they do have their weaknesses, some of which really make no sense at all. It turns out, for instance, that they won't cross a line of talcum powder (no idea why this should be, but it does seem to work), but of course it's only a matter of time before the persistent little gluttons find a new route to the pantry. So, if any of you out there have had this problem before, any advice on getting ants out of one's house would be greatly appreciated.
On an unrelated subject, I've posted my photos from my trip to England on my Picasa page if anyone's interested in seeing them.