What Is Science?

Following on from last night’s post, I’ve been wondering today how to distinguish science from non-science. Or maybe how I distinguish science from non-science.

I suppose that one way that I tend to crudely distinguish between the two is by whether a text uses words or numbers. If I open a book and flip through it, and it’s all words, then it’s going to be painting word-pictures, and it may well be a work of fiction. But if it has some numbers in it, and some mathematics, and some graphs, then it’s quite likely to be science. Or something that is having a shot at being science.

For as far as I’m concerned, science begins with measuring things, and measurements always produce numbers – metres, kilograms, seconds, etc -, and when you start manipulating numbers – adding them up, etc – you’re doing mathematics.

And when you’ve produced these measurements – say of gas pressure and volume and temperature – you might find that the numbers have some constant relation to each other, and that Pressure times Volume = Some constant times Temperature ( P.V = R.T, which is one of the Gas Laws). And this is how empirical science is done. You measure things, and you look for regularities in your data. That’s how it was found that the planets go round the sun in constant periods of time, and that their paths are elliptical.

But then, when you’ve got these experimentally-produced laws, you might start wondering why gases and planets behave that way, and you start trying to build models of gases and planets. At which point you’ve started doing theoretical science (or theoretical physics). In the case of planets, Isaac Newton found that if there was a force exerted between two planetary bodies which varied with their mass, and inversely with the square of their distance, they’d go round each other in elliptical paths, just like real planets do. And in the case of gases, someone called Ludwig Boltzmann imagined that gases were made up of atoms all flying around in different directions, and showed that if this was the case, then the pressure they exerted on the walls corresponded to the empirically derived gas laws. And both Newton and Boltzmann used some pretty advanced mathematics to prove these things.

And then, once you’ve built some theoretical model of whatever it is you’re studying in the real world, and your model behaves like the real world does, you can start to use your model to predict how the real world is going to behave – where the planets will be next year, and what the gas pressure will be if you heat it, and so on. I’ve actually built my own (rather clunky) simulation model of the planets in the solar system, and the earth actually did go round the sun in about 365 days.

So, for me, science is about building models, and these models are usually mathematical models. And if you open a physics textbook on any page, you’ll find these models being described in mathematical terms. There are models of light (either as something that travels in straight lines, or which acts like ripples in a pond), and electricity and heat and so on. When Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, they did it by building models of its double helix. Chemists are forever building models of molecules with theoretical atoms held together by theoretical bonds, and their models work just like the real world.

But then, if this is how science is done – measuring things, manipulating numbers, and building models – then, to my mind, whenever someone isn’t doing this, they’re not doing science. They’re painting pictures. Although very pretty pictures sometimes.

So when I read something about, say, Freudian or Jungian psychology, and it’s all words the whole way through, and nothing is measured, and there is no model, then I’m inclined to think: this isn’t science. It may be very interesting, but it’s not science.

And I feel the same about pretty much the same about all the ‘life sciences’.

Take economics, for example. Economists measure all sorts of things – prices, sales, receipts, taxes, interest rates, and so on. So they’re doing the measurement bit. And they’ve even got a few empirically-derived laws. But when it comes to building models of economies, they’ve got lots and lots of different ones. There are Keynesian models, and there are monetarist models, and Marxist models. And they all predict different things, and none of them ever seems to predict them right. The economists all disagree with each other. So it seems to me that none of them have got any really good, working models of economies. And accordingly it seems to me that economics as a discipline isn’t quite a science yet. They’re still guessing. And this is why it’ll be no surprise to me if the whole economy goes belly-up, and everyone starves, because the economists don’t really understand how economies work, and can’t predict what’s going to happen, and thus prevent it from happening.

But even when what ‘scientists’ are doing looks like the best theoretical physics, it still may not be science. Take climate science. That’s theoretical physics on a planetary scale. I’ll bet they use the gas law I mentioned earlier in their computer simulation models. I bet they also use Newton’s gravitational equation too. And lots of other ones. And using these models, they’ve predicted that the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere will result in the atmosphere’s temperature rising. That’s what their models predict. But for the past 15 years or so, the planet actually seems to have been cooling slightly. So it looks like their model isn’t a very good one. And this might be because there are all sorts of processes – like cloud formation – that aren’t very well understood. And this means that the bits of the model that are modelling stuff that isn’t well understood are quite likely to be producing wrong answers which are being added to lots of right answers to produce the wrong answer. And it’s really because all these climate models are at the leading edge of theoretical physics, and if you’re at the leading edge, you’re probably getting things wrong more than you get them right. So climate science is another not-quite-science. They’re nearly there. But not quite yet.

And what about antismoking ‘science’. Well, in my view, it’s nowhere near science at all. Because, in the first place, nothing is measured at all accurately. They don’t really know how many cigarettes anyone has smoked or for how long, or what killed them, or anything. And when they produce their dodgy numbers, and try to derive empirical laws from them, they draw the wrong conclusions. For example, in the very first UK study – the Doll and Hill London Hospitals study – it was found that 99% of the lung cancer patients were smokers, and so they concluded that smoking caused lung cancer. But what they didn’t mention was that 96% of the patients who didn’t have lung cancer were also smokers, and that pretty much everybody in London hospitals back in 1950 was a smoker. It’s quite likely that pretty much everybody was also a Londoner.  And even if smoking didn’t cause lung cancer at all, you’d still expect to have found that about 98% of lung cancer patients would have been smokers. And Londoners. But it’s even worse than that. It’s that they only have one model of cancer causation – that smoking causes lung cancer -, and they never try any other model. They refuse to consider anything else. So it’s no wonder that cancer research seems to have got more or less exactly nowhere over the past 6o or 70 years. And it’s a scandal.

Moving on, somebody wrote in the comments today:

Just as your respect for good judgement has been lost by Sir David Attenborough with his misguided hot air over global warming, our respect for your good judgment is lost with your out dated sophistry on 9/11. Tower 7 is a text book demolition. 6 seconds of video is all you need to absorb and compare to any other controlled demolition.

And I thought about this. It’s not just that people say that Tower 7 is a textbook demolition: they also say the same about the twin towers. But just seeing a video of something falling down doesn’t prove anything either way.

The real question with the twin towers (or Tower 7) is: how would you expect them to fall down? Because clearly this commenter thinks they would have fallen down that way. Maybe he thought they would have fallen down like trees or lamp posts (like the lamp post I knocked down once). Or maybe he thought they shouldn’t have fallen down at all.

And the way that you’d expect them to fall depends on your model (maybe just a mental model) of how they’d fall down. And it might be the wrong model.

So today I started thinking of building a mathematical model of the twin towers, using Newton’s gravitational equations, and the strength and density of concrete and steel, and then flying a plane into one side (which would knock out quite a few columns) and starting a fire (that would weaken many of the rest of them), and watch what happened.

I’ve actually already got some simulation models that do most of the physics. What I haven’t got is code that can model the collisions between objects that fall on top of each other. But that may not be too hard to figure out.

So maybe I’ll do that one day. Because that seems to me to be the right way to go about it. Build a model. Build a model as near you can to the real thing. And see how it behaves. And see if it behaves completely differently to the way the real building behaved. And then do a simulation of a textbook demolition, and see how that behaves.  And, in the end, maybe my commenter will be proved right.

But until I’ve actually built a model, I’m just guessing how the twin towers should have fallen down. And just guessing isn’t science either.

About Frank Davis

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25 Responses to What Is Science?

  1. Steve Kelly says:

    Most Americans believe there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. There wasn’t. There is no good evidence whatsoever to suggest there was. Everything subject to reason suggests that Lee H. Oswald, who killed JFK with a with a couple of easy rifle shots from a high window, in the same crazy mood as Arthur Bremmer (who took a shot at US politician George Wallace), Sirhan Sirhan (who killed JFK’s brother Robert F. Kennedy), James E. Ray (who did in Martin Luther King), Mark D. Chapman (who killed John Lennon in New York), and both Squeaky Fromme (a Charles Manson “Helter Skelter” devotee) and some other nut who shot at President Gerald Ford, as well as that other lone nut John Hinckley who shot at Ronald Reagan (in hopes, the loon said, of thereby impressing actress Jodie Foster), acted on their very own personal but typically American nut impulses. An absolutely essential read, regarding JFK’s not-so-unusual killing, is “Case Closed” by Gerald Posner. There was no conspiracy. There was a nut. But nuts follow nuts. Plain crazy, world-leading, gun-toting America gave birth to the 100% psychotic Tobacco Control movement, and in its sheepish adoration of this good old American lunacy, most of the world has now become as goddamned crazy as is the USA. You follow us. You have chosen to become as nauseatingly crazy as we and our effed-up Surgeon General are. What does “science” have to do with it? Nothing! Check up on “slavery”, “segregation”, and “eugenics”, and note also “lynchings” and the Ku Klux Klan. How very scientific! Believe in all those pieces of crap, as America did, and you’ll surely believe that “ETS kills”, just the same as you’ll believe that the CIA, Castro, Don Corleone, Superman, and Martians, all conspired to kill JFK. Ugh.

  2. Walt says:

    OT. San Francisco proposes ban on outdoor smoking of tobacco (but not marijuana).

    What “science” is behind this cockamamie thought? Its proponent quotes the “no safe level of secondhand smoke” but perhaps there’s a different physics for the smoke of Mexican weed and different laws of combustion, and he presumably has the scientific proof in his briefcase or, wait, maybe he left it in the pants of his other suit.

    I’m not sure, btw, that all science is math based. Or else why did we pith those frogs?

    • Tom says:

      They already ban outdoor smoking using overlapping outdoor smoke bans from different agencies the way it is (health code, transit code, park and recreation code, city code, county code, state code, etc.) – so why they need another one, not quite sure.

      The advertisements for dispensaries selling medical marijuana for doctors willing to hand out prescriptions, listing headache as one such reason worthy of a prescription, fill page upon page of local SF weekend newspaper ads BTW.

      So already, Big Marijuana is becoming a major player there. And in some counties, like Santa Cruz some 60 miles south of SF, smoking is banned indoors and out, possession of tobacco is banned in city parks, smoking just about everywhere is taboo – but the largest yielding agricultural crop in all of Santa Cruz County is – marijuana. And the growers have the money to afford the political campaigns to take it one step further than the current sham known as “medical marijuana” (but for which anyone can get a prescription, it’s just a legal technicality).

      Fine, too. Nothing wrong if they want to legalize marijuana, it would benefit their farmers who are already growing it anyhow and become a new source of tax, which is how Tom Ammiano explains his support for it – but at the same breath, he and other progressives like him are the same ones who have done everything possible to make smoking indoors, outdoors, possession of tobacco and tobacco retailing defacto illegal.

      Live and let live – but if they won’t let tobacco smokers alone, then why should tobacco smokers support their marijuana initiatives. If they want to support both though, then it would be less hypocritical.

      They certainly do not “need” another outdoor smoking ban in SF though. This is just more political play acting and is beyond ridiculous at this point.

    • Frank Davis says:

      So when this ban goes into effect, it will mean that anyone who is seen smoking on the street can only be smoking marijuana?

      That’s like saying, “Hey everybody, I’m smoking pot!”

      I think that if I still smoked it, I’d be a bit paranoid about that.

  3. Frank, for me the WTC conspiracy problem has two roots that make it not worth my time to even think seriously about: (1) The act would have been far too out of proportion for any results likely achieved: the only “reasonable” motivational argument I’ve seen involves some far-out Jewish Conspiracy to try to cement America’s dislike of the Islamists … and I’m sorry, but that simply is NOT “reasonable.” and (2) The degree of massive coordination on many different levels that would have been involved both in bringing it off successfully AND then covering it up successfully just stretches beyond the bounds of imagination.

    Our own “Antismoking Conspiracy” on the other hand has neither of those problems. The motivation is quite clear and comes from a number of different bases as outlined in Brains. There’s no need for an organized conspiracy: it’s a “perfect storm” situation where a good number of people and organizations acting in the same general direction out of a good number of different motivations brought about the present day situation and keeps the movement going. Their big break came when they managed to tap into government funding with targeted tax initiatives and then the MSA in the US. In the UK and Canada I believe more generalized government money gave them their power.

    Today there ARE some real elements of the “international conspiracy” type thing going on in the antismoking movement: you have the Big Pharma money and motivation, the organized takeover of groups like the American ventilation coordinators, ASHRAE (as witnessed by Richard Daynard’s declaration of their ban-approval being the “culmination of a 13 year effort” to remove smoking-allowed-ventilation guidelines) and even the destructive domination of the World Health Organization as untold millions of babies and children have been allowed to die of disentery, cholera, malaria and plain old starvation trying to terrify Third World people about the deadliness of secondhand and thirdhand smoke. You have the GlobaLink mailing list where the TC honchos can coordinate and plan international focus on things like plain packs, smoke free movies, flavored cigarettes, standardized taxing, and probably even the beefing up of national military-police efforts against smuggling. And finally you have the dozens of regional/national/world conferences where the planners can come together to evaluate the overall war and share strategies for future campaigns.

    The Free Choice movement is in the position that the Antismokers were in before they got their money: largely small groups and motivated individuals working out of their own pockets and portrayed as “nuts” by an opposition that’s actually quite afraid of them. And part of that attempt at portrayal is the attempt to link us, in the public mind, to every wacky splinter-group conspiracy theory that exists. Why? Because they know that 90%+ of the population thinks most of those conspiracy groups are nuts — so if they can make people think of us as being “just the same” as them, then they’ve gone a long way toward successfully silencing our voices.

    – MJM

    • harleyrider1978 says:

      Spot on Michael………..How many times have you been labeled a tobacco shill!

      I get it at least 3 times a day! They tend to run or post advocacy statements as their so called proof and its gotton to where most just run and hide refusing to even fight back anymore.

      The point here is when you know your right,push the sword all the way thru and twist it when you yank it out……….

  4. beobrigitte says:

    The real question with the twin towers (or Tower 7) is: how would you expect them to fall down? Because clearly this commenter thinks they would have fallen down that way. Maybe he thought they would have fallen down like trees or lamp posts (like the lamp post I knocked down once). Or maybe he thought they shouldn’t have fallen down at all.

    I remember watching the “conspiracy theory” video (as I call it) – I agree with
    (1) The act would have been far too out of proportion for any results likely achieved: the only “reasonable” motivational argument I’ve seen involves some far-out Jewish Conspiracy to try to cement America’s dislike of the Islamists … and I’m sorry, but that simply is NOT “reasonable.” and (2) The degree of massive coordination on many different levels that would have been involved both in bringing it off successfully AND then covering it up successfully just stretches beyond the bounds of imagination.

    Wouldn’t the first step be to look at the structure of the base of the buildings? There are numerous reasons for either structural damage over time or even cost cutting at the time of building. (Apparently cost cutting was listed as a reason for the Titanic to sink; the builders had used “cheaper” steel)
    Sadly, it does not change the outcome.

    Science unfortunately is not what it used to be; these days it is what is being paid for and when the results obtained do not fit, they are being made to fit.
    It comes at the highest price, though. The credibility of science.

  5. mikef317 says:

    Nice article on the “science” of prescription drugs. Nothing to do with smoking but it reminds me of the ballyhooed benefits of “tobacco cessation” products vs their actual performance. It has much to say about how drugs are marketed and regulated in the U.S.


  6. Rose says:

    “But even when what ‘scientists’ are doing looks like the best theoretical physics, it still may not be science. Take climate science. That’s theoretical physics on a planetary scale.”

    Trustworthy science has to be replicable otherwise it’s still hypothesis in my book.

    The Warmists denied the power of the Sun and proclaimed that man’s actions drove the weather.

    Game on.

    London Olympics Weather – Weather Action Forecasts

    • Margo says:

      Did they deny the power of the sun?! Surely not. Even I know that the sun is powerful and I’m not a scientist. From the small amount I know about climatology, I understand that a whole range of things play a part in determining climate (including the sun and, no doubt, our ever-expanding population and its needs, and its use and abuse of resources – if there were only a few of us we could do what we liked and have next-to-no effect). There isn’t just one single thing. How much part each thing plays seems not to be clearly known as yet. There’s a lot of theory and there’s some fact.
      I think that proper scientists distinguish between theory and fact. Psudo-scientists confuse them – either deliberately from political or ideological motivation – or by sloppiness. And that’s the difference.

      • Junican says:


        Not very long ago, it was calculated that the whole human population could be stood, side by side, on the Isle of Wight.The point being that, despite the fact that we humans have big houses and farms and roads, etc, the reality is that our VOLUME is insignificant. The effect on the world climate of the human race is akin to a person farting in Wembley Stadium.

        • Frank Davis says:

          Yes, but there’s no safe level of farts in Wembley Stadium.

        • Margo says:

          No limit then? I don’t want to be stood side by side on the Isle of Wight. And where, when the Isle of Wight is full up? Definitely no safe level of farts, Frank, when you’re side by side!

  7. Steve Kelly says:

    Conspiracy theories about the “9/11” attacks are plain crazy. The reason buildings fell down that day was that religious zealots flew big planes into the buildings. That’s that.

    • churchmouse says:

      Thank you! 110% agreed.

    • Fredrik Eich says:

      I am not sure that “religious zealots” describes them well.
      I would say, rather arrogantly, that they were “righteous and self oppressed idiots”. At least a buttton pusher on the command end of a drone attack does not end his life in order to cause terror in the enemy and will probably only cause a high percentage of collateral death instead of 100% collateral death.

  8. harleyrider1978 says:

    O/T but check out the comments in San Francisco. Lastnite I was fighting with a couple of Nazis and there were only 17 comments,then this morning theres 265! The nazis are getting beat over the head about the fraud of second hand smoke by literally everyone in the bastion of smoking ban heaven!!!


    San Francisco Considers Strict Outdoor Smoking Ban – Except For Medical Pot

    Direct from the land of fruits and nuts!

    SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – Smoking anything other than medically-prescribed marijuana at San Francisco street fairs, festivals and other outdoor events held on city property would be banned under new legislation before the Board of Supervisors.

    Supervisor Eric Mar said he introduced the proposal because of the health impacts of secondhand smoke when people light up in public.

    “It’s widely known that secondhand smoke is responsible for as many as 73,000 deaths among non-smokers each year in the United States, and there is no safe level of exposure,” he said.

    Like Alameda and several other Bay Area cities, San Francisco already restricts smoking in outdoor seating areas of cafes and restaurants, as well as near building entrances and vents. San Jose has similar smoking restrictions.

    Mar’s bill would prohibit smoking at outdoor events on city property that require permits or permission from city agencies, except in some limited cases.

    “It’s carefully crafted also to exclude smaller neighborhood organized events such as block parties. And also, importantly, it does not prohibit the use of medical cannabis,” Mar said.

    Event sponsors would be required to post “No Smoking” signs and make “No Smoking” announcements, but Mar said he does not foresee the city being able to actively enforcement this tobacco ban if it becomes law.

    73,000 deaths to shs/ets these people are absolute certifiable crazies!

    • Tom says:

      Smoking is already banned at all outdoor street fairs. They passed a ban like that not just a year ago at most and a ban on outdoor drinking at street fairs too. They don’t “need” another one. They already have dozens and they all overlap so that if one is ever done away with, there are a dozen others that still hold outdoor bans in effect.

  9. harleyrider1978 says:

    Huge protests against austerity cuts erupt in Spain…
    Police fire rubber bullets after huge Madrid protest

    • churchmouse says:

      I would be wary of these Spanish protests. They appear to be part of an ‘international’ movement (i.e. ‘agitators’).

      They’re probably anti-smokers, too.

      I say that because the far-Left groups in France are vehemently opposed to smoking and drinking. Pot’s okay, though. They’re pushing for legalisation.

      If you search leftist blogs and fora in France, you could collect a dollar for all the Spanish names on there. Fomenting is apace by certain parts of the nation. Leftwards, comrade. ;)

  10. harleyrider1978 says:

    Nonprofit Installs Pregnancy Test Dispensers In Mankato Bar
    July 19, 2012 11:46 PM

    • beobrigitte says:

      “How many times have you heard people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize I was pregnant,’ and they weren’t trying to conceive,” says Jody Allen Crowe of Healthy Brains for Children.

      His nonprofit is committed to preventing Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

      “That early brain development is so critical,” said Crowe, who wrote a book titled “The Fatal Link.”

      The book looks at the connection between prenatal exposure to alcohol and school shooters.


      Sorry, would I have taken a pregnancy test in a bar? Most certainly not!!! Worse even, I would have grabbed the seat next to it with a pint and laughed!!!!

      Whatever the health brigade world-wide is on; can I have half of it?

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