First off, let me list my bona fides. I have a B.S. in Physics and an M.S. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University. I have worked in engineering for almost 16 years now, and most importantly, I never miss an issue of Science News. Now that I have established my ability to write on this subject with authority, we can get to it.
The other morning, as I tooled down I-270 at high speed, it struck me that Science is just reverse engineering the cosmos. Simply put, the universe already exists, and Science seeks to understand how (and I stress how) it works. Pure Science is not concerned with what we (humans) can make that is new, or how knowledge is put to use. Engineering, pure Engineering, is knowledge's forward application to the new. I may step on some toes here, but what the heck, I've already pitched my tent with the engineers, so I say that there is only Engineering, and Science is its backward application to the existing. A way to gain more knowledge to be a better engineer. Frankly, science will cease when we have completly reverse engineered the cosmos and built a fully functioning exact reproduction. A theoretical dead end. Engineering, however, will continue on -- a mathmatically unbounded future.
The scientific method is built on sound reverse engineering methods. When you want to reverse engineer something, ideally you get people who have no exposure to the existing product, and have them test, test, test, so they can tell you how it works. Not how it should work, or how the people who made it think it works, or how it would work if they made it, or if it was intended to be a washing machine how it would work. How it actually works, period. Nothing is assumed, and only what can be conclusively demonstrated by experiment is accepted as fact. That, in a nutshell, is science.
I find that the scientific method tells us more about human nature than about science. First, look at the facts. I used to start out my problems in physics with a section entitled "What do we know?" which listed all of the data given in the problem. Then comes make a hypothesis that fits all the known facts. Of course, science as yet can't tell us where hypotheses come from, but it can tell us how to pare them down. And finally, comes conduct experiments to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Only hypotheses that are conclusively proven by repeatable experiment are to be accepted into the realm of science fact. Human nature is illuminated by what the method tells you to do and what it glosses over. It forces you to look at the facts, make your theory fit the facts -- not just make any old theory, which is what people do without any prodding -- and test to ensure you have the correct theory. Don't just pick a theory you think sounds good or seems plausible. I know plenty of people, even in engineering, who don't like anything to come between them and their pet theory. Instead of "if it feels good, do it" people follow "if it sounds good, believe it". The scientific method is about how not to be a person, a participant in life, but instead a detached observer, a cosmic accountant.
There is nothing worse than a good idea. I didn't think that up on my own, I was exposed to it during a creative problem solving class, and it has stuck with me ever since. And brother, I see it's application all the time. There is nothing wrong with a bad idea as long as you don't implement it. Sometimes you can even pull a great idea out of a bad one, either by taking it further or by suggestion by analogy. A good idea stops you in your tracks and chokes off problem solving, so you never find a great idea. You have the answer, why waste time trying to find a better idea? I've dealt with more technology where we've been stuck with the first workable thing that popped into someone's head, and not something great. I don't know what this has to do with science, but I thought I would sneak it in anyway.
Pleny of people want to equate (or, more accurately, oppose) science and religion. This is a false comparison, as science is concerned with how, and religion with why. Religion is your strategy, and science is your tactic. Now, there are those who make science their religion (they simply do anything they can do), and those who make religion their science (their religion sweeps right down to telling them not only why, but how). They don't understand how life works, which I am now going to explain to you. Listen up, as you won't hear this too many other places. Life works as follows: from "why am I here?" (religion) comes "what should I do?", which then leads to "how do I do it?" (science, or properly, engineering). Now, we all have an operating religion, which may differ from our professed religion, which basically is how we make decisions about what to do. We may say that we should love others and turn the other cheek, but never lift a finger to help another and get even for every slight and perceived injury. Even atheist and angnostics have an operating religion, they may just ignore the why part and move right to what.
Sometimes people become confused about science and religion because they lose sight of what each one is. Science, as we discussed above, must eliminate intent. It cannot ask "why is the universe the way it is?" It can only ask "how does the universe work?" Because science cannot ask the why question, there are those who feel that it cannot be asked at all. But let's face it, we all have to have at least a working answer to "why?", even if its "why not?". And to examine the cosmos, in its parts and in its whole, and to ask why, or what's beyond/behind it, you cannot use the scientific method, because there are no experiments we can make. There is only one experiment, and we are living (in) it.
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This page last updated 28 April 1998.
Contents copywrite Kevin Murphy 1998. All rights reserved.