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Philosophy of science [was Re: "No Bolides!"]

In a message dated 17 Apr 1996, McReese@aol.com said:

>Thanks!  I guess I simply disagrree with you!  Truth is part of
>Religion!  I know my church is true!  If science is not the persuit
>of truth then why is everyone one in an uproar about psuedo-science?
>How can there be psuedo science it science has nothhing to do with

Perhaps this is better illustrated by an example. Gravitation is kind of 
the standard - you've probably heard bits of this already.

The ancient Greeks (Aristotle, I think) explained gravity by proposing 
that objects had a "natural position." Thus a rock lifted above the 
Earth's surface had been pulled away from its natural position and would 
attempt to move back to it, thus falling to the ground.

Newton concluded that gravity was a force of attraction between masses. 
Anything that had mass would inexorably be drawn toward anything else 
with mass, according to a certain formula.

Einstein's theory of relativity (the general theory, if I remember 
correctly) described gravity as the curvature of space. Massive objects 
caused a distortion in the space around them - as though they pushed 
space down into a sort of pit - and thus other objects tend to "slide 
down the slopes" of this depression.

Which of these is "the truth"? Aristotle's model will work just fine if 
you want to figure out what will happen when you drop a rock. And 
Newton's theory is accurate enough to calculate space-probe flight plans. 
But when one gets out into the realm of stars and galaxies, one must 
employ Einstein's more complex equations.

Relativity seems to be an accurate description of the way things work. 
But can we call it "the truth"? How do we know observations with some 
Super-Space-Telescope next century won't require a better explanation? 
Maybe Einstein's brilliant insight will be some future generation's 
historical oddity. How can we know?

The same phenomenon is visible in every branch of science. Half a century 
ago it was given that all dinosaurs were cold-blooded and sluggish. This 
was obvious - "the truth about dinosaurs." But in that half century new 
evidence has greatly shaken that certainty. What is "the truth" now?

Science is not the pursuit of "truth" - it is the pursuit of more 
knowledge, better accuracy, clearer and simpler explanations. Think of an 
asymptote: the farther we look, the closer we get, the better a picture 
we have of what's going on; but we never actually get to that final point 
of absolute certainty (which is what "truth" is supposed to be).

So where does pseudo-science fit into this? In the normal scientific 
process there are peer-reviewed journals, conferences, etc where the 
community as a whole can make sure new ideas don't jump to unwarranted 
conclusions. However some groups (creation-science, ESP, etc) have 
"broken away" and operate on their own. This deadly combination of 
isolation plus wishful thinking produces all kinds of inflated claims 
which we call pseudo-science.

Religion is too big to tackle here - I've already used up enough lines on 
a subject only tangentially related to the list. Suffice it to say that a 
claim of absolute accuracy must be backed up by an infinite amount of 
data, and that's one heck of a lot...

marssaxman@aol.com, msaxman@cris.com