On Science and Method

The Galileo/Copernican and the Ptolemaic views of the solar system lay in dispute for the 150 years between Galileo and Newton (specifically between the dates of the publication of Copernicus De Revolutionibus and Newton’s Principia). In the period of time between these events, with the possible admission of Kepler’s third law) there were no facts to distinguish these theories. In fact, glancing far to the future, the negative results of the Michelson-Morley experiment demonstrating that the Earth was at rest would have been a point to the Ptolemaic not Copernican view. The scientific (heuristic) passions of the proponents of the Copernican view is what drove the outlook of astronomers to the point where at the publishing of the Principia the Copernican viewpoint was dominant. Attached to the prologue of Galileo’s thesis was a forward by Osiander expressing the point that this view was not necessarily “true” but instead was a “fruitful” way of approaching astronomy. This is a red herring. Ptolemaic astronomy was a fruitful source of inquiry for thousands of years. Astrology has been fruitful employment for 2500 years, Marixism was (and remains alas)
a fruitful mechanism for obtaining political power. Fruitful by itself is not sufficient. Theories are fruitful in that they are believed to be fruitful mechanisms for getting to the truth of reality.

In 1914 TW Richards was awarded the Nobel prize for an extremely accurate measurement of atomic weights. Fifteen years this result was completely scorned as useless, for as that measurement made no allowance for isotopic ratios those painstaking measurements were rendered useless. This was a measurement, of high accuracy, of a value that was discovered to have no correspondence to any features of nature. Accuracy qua accuracy is of no value. One misconception about science is that it is experiment that drives progress. Yet it is theory that is required before experiments to provide the basis for how experimental data is interpreted and in fact for what experimental data is deemed to have any value at all.

New visions and insights drive theoretical breakthroughs. Yet the history of science is littered with far more failures than success. This is not limited to “lesser scientists”. Einstein’s vision following Mach imagined Relativity and against Mach solved Brownian motion. Yet Einstein same said vision rejected quantum randomness. Major theoretical breakthroughs in science require a major reworking of our view of nature, a replacing of an older view with a newer one. Proponents of the new, driven by their heuristic passionate belief in the correctness of their vision, must pursuade on the basis of future intimations of fruitfulness in the search for truth of their vision. In doing so, they also must invalidate the older vision. This process of invalidation is often rancorous and ugly. This “feature” is common and perhaps not easily escapable.

This then suggests some striking things about the scientific process. Theory preceded and both validates and interprets experiment. Major theoretical breakthroughs require persuasion. The passion of scientific discovery must be transformed and moved to the passion of persuasion that the new vision of the truth has intimations that it might be fruitful for further deepening of our understanding of nature. Yet a problem remains. Is there anything left? What differentiates the project of chasing the structure of matter at CERN and Fermilab from astrology? Why was it right for the Copernican view to supplant the Ptolmaic in the period between Copernicus and Galileo and before Newton? There are good answers to these questions but that will have to wait until a later essay.

The first parts of this essay draw heavily on Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge which is an epistemological inquiry looking toward a “post-critical reality” epistemic framework. It might also be noted, this book predated Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Critical reality is the idea that our physical theories accurately represent reality. This is in contrast to the Positivist (which is not as far as I can tell the same as Logical Positivism). This view espoused for example by Stephen Hawking suggests that the question of whether the underlying matches the theory is irrelevant and that physics (or theory in general) merely is a mechanism for predicting experimental results.

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  1. Science is theory confirmed or rejected by facts.

    Religion, astrology, etc. are theory rejected by facts OR (if you’re a careful intellectual) UNTESTABLE by facts. The question in theology etc. is not “what is likely to be true?” but “what may we believe that cannot be disproven?”

  2. Actually, this cartoon sums it up well (replace “creationism” with “theology” or “astrology.”)

  3. Mark says:

    I get the impression you didn’t read what I wrote. The “facts” depend on theory. What facts are relevant and how facts, i.e., experiment, are interpreted crucially depend on theory.

    Did you read the first paragraph. There was no experimental data to separate Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy between the Copernicus/Galilean papers and Newton, yet by the time of Newton the Copernican view was predominant.

    You are confused as to what science is. Science is a practice, largely “ineffable”, which is described by experiments that are interpreted via theory.

  4. Mark,

    I did read it.

    There was no experimental data to separate Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy between the Copernicus/Galilean papers and Newton, yet by the time of Newton the Copernican view was predominant.

    Right. They were relying more on notions like Occam’s razor, which theologians/astrologists/etc. tend to discard as well. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, we were eventually able to test these things. Centuries after Copernicus, nobody believes Ptolemy was correct. THAT is the difference between science and theology/astrology/etc.

    You are confused as to what science is. Science is a practice, largely “ineffable”, which is described by experiments that are interpreted via theory.

    Theories are disproven all the time in science. Theories are virtually never disproven or discarded in theology/astrology/etc. THAT is the difference.

  5. Mark says:


    Theories are disproven all the time in science. Theories are virtually never disproven or discarded in theology/astrology/etc. THAT is the difference.

    Uhm, the latter is not the case … at least as far as theology. However, I have not read far enough yet to find what Mr Polanyi suggests is the difference, and he does in fact identify a key difference.

    I think Occam’s razor was less important than the relative aesthetics of the ideas possibly coupled with the opening of new avenues of investigation. Luminiferous aether wasn’t a “failed” theory for it explained all the known facts. It wasn’t discarded on the basis of experiment. It was discarded on the basis of aesthetics.

    Again, what “facts” are important is crucially dependent on your theory. Recall in the 19th century nobody believed meteors were real, and scientists the world over consistently ignored evidence presented by “quacks” that rocks could fall from the sky. Why did they ignore that evidence? Because it didn’t coincide with any theory that they had of stellar objects. Consider hypnosis as well.

    Look you’ve a conceptual circularity problem here which you’re not admitting. You insist that “facts” validate theory, yet facts are only interpreted in the light of theory. Whether or not you choose to admit it or not it remains a problem.

  6. Mark,

    Science is a method. Scientists are human beings. Scientists make mistakes and have biases, but the scientific method eventually fixes them. That’s the key insight of the scientific method and it’s why science has been fantastically successful.

    You can put “facts” in quotation marks all you like, but “facts” proved Einstein’s theory of special relativity right… and a generation later every scientist on Earth (more or less) believes in it. A generation after a theological “theory” comes along, there is no such resolution.

    Today we STILL have Catholics and Lutherans (and a thousand other schools of thought) but there are no (significant) Ptolemians. That’s the enormous difference.

  7. Mark says:

    Why are you bringing up religion? I’m not. I’m not comparing religion and science. I’m describing science. I made a comparison to astrology (not a religion). I’m not claiming theology is science. I’m claiming that the process of science, is different than your theory of the process of science. It is far more human and subjective an enterprise than you pretend.

    Look, you’re doing exactly the thing I’m describing. Step outside of your model for just a moment. Major theoretical breakthroughs can not be demonstrated without personal breaking with the model you currently hold. You currently hold a specific model of scientific inquiry and progress and are completely unwilling to break with your current model of scientific inquiry.

    I’m proposing another … or at least so far I’ve given good reasons (which you’re ignoring because they counter your theory of science) to be suspicious of your conceptions of what comprises science. Ultimately as I complete the process of finishing Mr Polanyi’s book I will have presented an alternative theory to explain the scientific process.

    At this juncture however, the points that theories are not accepted or rejected primarily on the basis of experiment, that the validity and interpretation of experiment depends on prior theory, and the passion of the investigator (first in demonstrating his unique new vision is viable and second to carry that passion to persuading others) is a principle driving force in the progress of science.

  8. Mark Woodworth says:


    I disagree: I think ‘fruitful’ is all there is in science. In Feynman’s Messenger lectures, he argues that the character of physical law is it’s ability to predict the outcome of experiments.

    Also, I don’t think that theory always precedes experiment, or that only in the context of theory are the experiments even intelligible. In the example of Galileo and laws of motion (if I remember correctly), he had rolled balls down ramps, and had placed bands at intervals, and then had moved the bands so that they lined up with him singing a tune (the most accurate interval timer he had). On the back of a folio there we can see his attempts at several relations between the distances before he settles on the quadratic. I agree that simple observation of the world does not necessarily lead to its intelligibility, but “theory first, experiment later” is stating it too strongly.


    Similarly, I don’t think that science is as closely aligned with truth as you think, or as far from other aspects of faith. An accurate description of the past might be true, but if it cannot be used to make predictions, it is not science. Likewise, a physical theory may make useful predictions, and thus be science, but require untestable assumptions. Take the quark model: extremely useful in reducing the zoo of subatomic particles to a handful, extremely useful in predicting the outcome of experiments, but you will never observe a bare quark. Is it real? Is it true? Science can’t tell you. Faith is the reliance on things unseen: maybe you have more faith than you think.