26 October 2009

How science differs from pseudoscience - Part 2

The main, and perhaps the defining, characteristic of the domain of scientific knowledge (DSK) is that the units of information (or provisional truth) within the DSK form a network. This network is possible because the units of information do not contradict each other. And the outcome of this network is that the units of information support each other.

For example, our understanding of the essential processes of biology rely on and do not contradict the principles of physics and chemistry (no, the processes of life do not violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics). Our understanding of the essential processes of evolution, on the other hand, are supported by even additional scientific disciplines, for example, geology.

This is, of course, an idealistic description of science. There are always some minor contradictions within the DSK, because our understanding of nature is incomplete. One purpose of scientific research is then to reduce the number of the existing inconsistencies and, ultimately, to eliminate them all.

We can visualize the DSK as an N-dimensional information space without a definite center and with fuzzy or diffuse boundaries. The boundaries are not definite, because at the threshold of our existing knowledge there are always uncertainties.

In contrast, pseudoscience and religion lack comparable networks of compatible and mutually supportive truths. And their domains of knowledge have extremely diffuse boundaries. You want to be religious? Then you must pick one out of the many choices you have, because all of the existing religions are mutually exclusive. And besides, they all have severe internal contradictions.

There are 2 processes that advance science: (1) piecemeal accumulation of information either inside the DSK to fill in a gap (yes, there are also gaps) or at the edge to expand the boundary slightly; (2) revolutions or “transformations of paradigms” in Thomas S. Kuhn’s words.

Although Kuhn* may have believed that science advances primarily by revolutions, I don’t see why both processes cannot operate in tandem.

An observation done by a scientist represents the 1st process and the outcome is that some new bits of information are added to either the inside or the boundary of the DSK. For our purposes here, we are interested only in the boundary additions.

The crucial question is, How far from the boundary do new additions fall? The answer is, not too far; in fact, they fall quite close to it. They must fall quite close to the boundary. Otherwise, they will threaten the integrity of the DSK.

Part 1

To be continued.

*Disclaimer: I have so far read only a dozen or so pages of Thomas S. Kuhn’s often-cited 200-page essay The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed., 1970). My opinions of his opinions may change as I continue to read and understand his arguments.

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