April 10, 2021

Interdisciplinary Discourse

Forum for KU Academics

Science and Pseudoscience

– Pushpa Raj Adhikary
Natural philosophy in early days was the study to find unanswered questions about nature. The equivalent of natural philosophy now is science. As the answers about the nature were found, these gradually became part of what is now called science. We, now, know that science is divided into various branches of study, namely, the study of living beings known as biology, botany, zoology, genetics, molecular biology, and physical science known as physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology and astronomy.
Biology is more complex than physics and chemistry because it involves not only matters but living matters.  But in some schools biology is taught before physics and chemistry because biology consists  mainly of classifying plants and animals. Scientifically, biology is much more complicated than physics and chemistry . But almost all the high school students consider biology far easier than the most fundamental of all sciences, the physics.
Where does mathematics fit into this picture of science? Is mathematics a branch of science? Of course, mathematics is a branch of science with its well established foundations and very powerful methods of studying mathematical objects. Mathematics can also be regarded as art because creativity of highest order can be displayed in mathematics. Mathematics is also a language of science. We want to express scientific ideas as precisely as possible and in unambiguous language. Ordinary language will not help scientists to express their ideas correctly. For example, consider the following expression,
2 / [3 + ( 5 / 3 ) x 6 – 2 + 3 ( 6 + 8 ) / 3 { 5 – 9 / 3 + 2 } x 5 ]
If you try to write down the instructions as how to simplify this expression in plain language, it will create more confusion than clarity. But for those who understand the meanings of symbols involved in the expression, it is quite clear how to simplify it. Mathematical language is very clear and offers an unambiguous way of expressing scientific ideas mainly in physics. So, sound knowledge of mathematics is required to study science.
As in ordinary language, scientific language also uses the term ‘facts’, ‘hypothesis’, ‘law’, ‘theory’, ‘concept’ and ‘prediction’. These terms often mean different in science. A fact means something absolute in ordinary language but in science facts evolve. People do understand that the meaning of hypothesis is speculation. But for a scientist, it is an educated guess about nature or model of nature that seems to explain its laws. Hypothesis and theory may  seem to mean the same in ordinary language but in science a theory is an accumulation of ideas and equations of well -tested hypothesis and laws.
A law in science describes how nature behaves. A law of nature is a statement expressing what has been seen always to happen in certain conditions. A law is a scientific principle. The principle which governs how a stone falls to the ground from the height is the law of falling bodies. Newton’s law of motion  explains the motion of bodies on earth and also the movement of celestial bodies.
A scientific theory is a reasonable or scientifically acceptable explanation for a fact or event, which may not have been proved to be true. A scientific theory consists of rules or principles, theorems, etc. belonging to the subject. For example, set theory deals with the behavior of groups of mathematical elements known as sets. A useful theory in science is able to predict how nature behaves in connection with some unknown phenomenon, or how things or events may turn out in some specific conditions.
The explanation for a fact or event made by a scientific theory is tested for its validity by experiment(s). A hypothesis explained by a scientific theory and confirmed by an experiment becomes a scientific principle or law.
Often, we speak of scientific method of learning. Scientists make discoveries by this method. The work of Galileo in the sixteenth century established the scientific method of gaining, organizing, and applying new knowledge. A scientific problem generally recognizes a problem, thereby making an educated guess or hypothesis for the cause of the problem. Then we predict the consequences of the hypothesis and perform experiments to test the validity of our predictions. Based on hypothesis, prediction, and outcomes of the experiment, we formulate a principle or a rule. But great discoveries made by scientists not always follow these rules. Often these discoveries were made by trial and error or accidental cases.
A hypothesis in science must be testable. The chance that a hypothesis can be proved wrong is also as likely as it can be proved right. A scientist accepts the wrongness of a hypothesis as easily as he/she accepts its correctness. Actually instead of asking “Am I right?” scientists want to know “Why am I not wrong?” The emphasis on finding the wrongness in all cases distinguishes science from non-science. If there isn’t a test to determine whether a hypothesis is wrong or not, it cannot be a scientific hypothesis.
Consider, for example, that the planets affect our destiny. Neither we can prove that it does,  nor  have we proof that it does not. Till we can prove or disprove it, it cannot be a scientific hypothesis. In the same way, whether there is the existence of god or whether god created this world cannot be proved or disproved. Thus, such subjects are not within the realm of science and there are no scientific answers to such questions.
Theories of science are not fixed. They undergo change. When our understanding of our surroundings or nature increases, accordingly the theories of science also become more and more perfect.  Newton’s law of gravitation helped us to understand the motion of planets, and based on this law, humankind could land on moon, but it cannot explain the formation of black holes. So, we need more perfect theory of gravitation to explain what happens in a black hole than that of Newton’s. The more we understand about nature,  the more perfect theory of science will be.
Science does not subjugate nature, but goes along with natural laws. But we know of some acts that try to subjugate or force nature to act in some strange ways, by some kind of magic or so-called supernatural powers. Even with the advancement of 21st century science, we are still unable to dispel the so-called magic which persists in societies, beginning from the primitive to modern day societies. Such ‘magic’ which does not stand to be tested for right or wrong is pseudoscience. We talk of mysticism but quite a few may even believe it  to be nothing but pseudoscience. Likewise, astrology, which is considered science by its practitioners, is also a pseudoscience. The practitioners of pseudoscience are misguiding the society. Occasionally such practitioners do get success and are able to fool people but their success is nothing but mere coincidence. We have come a long way in comprehending nature and liberating ourselves from ignorance but, still, it is not sufficient to free ourselves from performing some mystic experiments for more wealth and power, to believe in astrology and occult phenomenon. Daily newspapers hardly report on the progress of science and new discoveries, but never forget to publish a column of horoscope. So, more human effort is required to fight against this inclination for pseudoscience.
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