The Nature of Scientific Inquiry

August 2000

In the November-December 1999 issue of The World magazine, UUA President John Buehrens wrote eloquently about spirituality and science. His treatment of the topic fits nicely with my theme. Dr. Buehrens' conclusions are quite wide-reaching. Citing scientific philosopher Freeman Dyson, President Buehrens states: "...a God who is not self involved or fearful but creative and therefore always giving away being and power. A God who is not static but growing and changing, who is hurt or given joy by what we do or leave undone in our relations with others. Dyson speaks of a God inherent in the Universe and growing in power and knowledge as the universe unfolds." In this citation, Buehrens presents a number of concepts: 1) Creative God, 2) Generous God, 3) Growing God, 4) Unfolding of universe, 5) God is the Universe: weighty theological innovations arising from science and spirituality. How has a simple discipline of measuring triangles and dissecting frogs reached such lofty mythological levels?

We see in president Buehren's philosophy a tendency common to most humans to create abstract concepts such as justice, freedom, love, spirituality, and now, science, and animate them all, appearing as antique Gods with arrows, swords, or balances in hands. This completes the move of such concepts into the realm of mythology. This move changes how we look at science. Read the old mission statement of the Minneapolis Society and you can see the lofty position to which we have elevated science and the scientific method.

Science is in this way often tied to rational thought, giving the impression that if you are a rational being, you must use the scientific method in every possible situation. At that point, it becomes quite unclear whether science is the preferred universal tool for a rational being or whether science is just a synonym for rationality. If scientific inquiry--the operational definition of science--is just a tool, it becomes very difficult to define when it's appropriate to use it as a label. If a Swedish scientist claims to have constructed the best possible mattress, has he used our tool? Has science, as a tool, been used to produce a BMW 500 ? Is astrology a product of science as a tool? It certainly is logical in its arguments and based on observations.

On the other hand, is science not a universal tool but only another name for rationality? If we agree that this is the case, then the most primitive aborigines practice science because their behavior within their surroundings is quite. rational.

It is clear from the above reasoning that it is not useful either to consider scientific inquiry as a universal tool or science as a synonym for rationality.

Looking at the problem, maybe we could justify the use of science in a nearly mythological context by considering scientific inquiry as the golden path to truth. The role of scientific inquiry is primarily the establishment of truth, but we need only read the scientific sections in our newspapers to realize that science can be used to define as true many incompatible statements. One day red wine is good for your health. True! The next day, alcohol use may lead to liver disease. True! No wonder that some lost school board in Kansas has declared creation to be a true scientific theory. Arguing along the mythological interpretation of science in president Buehrens' article, I see no problem in declaring the story of Winnie the Pooh as a theory of small bears.

Uncertain and vague statements about science thus seem to be due to an unnecessary broadening of the definition of scientific inquiry. Let us try to examine its functioning and try to redefine the meaning of the words scientific inquiry.

We have to start from the beginning and try to find the goals for scientific inquiry and the foundational assumptions that such inquiry is based on. You can find the goals quite easily. Read a number of text books in physics ,astronomy, chemistry, biology and psychology, and it becomes immediately clear that the goal is always the same:

A precise description of the external world with us a part of it. A description in terms of observations made, using our senses.

Scientific vocabulary does not contain statements like, "good for you." Thus, stories about the usefulness of red wine or the dangers of alcohol have nothing to do with science. Nor is the mattress design by Swedes classifiable as scientific inquiry. If the goal of scientific inquiry is to paint a picture, make a model of the physical world, then the two premises that such inquiry is based on become immediately evident.

  1. There is an external world common to us all--a world existing independent of our observing it. Thus, if the human race were obliterated by an intergalactic construction company, the record players booming out Beethoven's Fifth Symphony would continue to play although there are no more humans to hear it. Observers from other planets would find ruins of lost cities and all our toys as real as they once were to us. The world exists even without us. We will call it the common reality premise.
  2. Events in the external world are related to each other by causal connections. Our observations of them are logically related. We call this the causality premise.

Science as an art of describing the world around us cannot function if any of these two premises is violated.

We can ask if these two premises are ever challenged. Of course they are. The causality premise is challenged by the Christian dogma of God's omnipotence and the possibility of his intervention in our time. The beautiful stories about the compatibility of Christianity and science are just stories. As long as it accepts miracles and response to prayers, Christian dogma cannot be compatible with science because as dogma it negates science's causality premise,

Let me illustrate with a story: I work for Jimmy the Greek in Las Vegas and my quite well- paid role is to determine the handicaps for college football teams so that the public can bet on them. I work hard on developing the odds through researching statistics, health reports, previous records, etc. All is going pretty well. We don't worry that most teams with their coaches pray before the game. Let us now assume that one day these prayers are answered and miracles happen here and there. The college games become unpredictable. Very soon, Jimmy the Creek and I decide to throw in the towel. Miracles do the same thing for scientists. Who can predict weather if in the wink of an eye the Red Sea parts on order of a local prophet?

The common reality premise has been challenged by many schools of thought, the latest being the French postmodernists and deconstructionists (Foucault;Lyotard). Anytime you hear somebody describing science as a white male power structure and touting the advantages of female science, you know the common reality premise has been violated. The structure of the world we observe as scientists is observer-neutral and common to us all. You cannot deconstruct it to different pieces depending on who you are. If you can do it, science is not possible. Dogmatic religious people at least are honest to the extent that they often bet their fate on the outcome of their prayer. Postmodern thinkers, however, negate the common reality premise only in a verbal sense in the academic and intellectual world. In their private lives, they act as if this premise were true; they do not doubt that reality for the 10,000 air traffic-controllers is precisely the same anywhere in the world, so they can collect their frequent flier miles in safety.

Let us summarize:

Provided common reality exists independent of us and the events observed show reproducible causality, we can proceed to paint a picture of the world. The process of doing it is defined as scientific inquiry. This inquiry is based solely on past or present observations.

The first development of scientific inquiry by humans started after they accepted the common reality and causality premises. Humans discovered the reproducibility and common basis of observations, maybe 10,000 years ago. We believe that they started with observations of the positions of heavenly bodies and such natural phenomena as the rise and fall of the level of the Nile.

The premises for scientific inquiry so far presented are a more abstract part of the process of inquiry. The inquiry itself is an eminently practical process that takes place in seven consecutive steps. We come now to the first three steps of inquiry, common to all branches of science. The steps follow each other both historically and logically. Thus, every new branch of science goes through these steps sequentially.

  1. Record observations (The earliest documents were astronomical charts, that is, bones with markings related to phases of the moon).
  2. Compare observations (develop some kind of quantitative measure, length, height and then develop the concept of scale--high, higher, highest). Convertobservations to measurements.
  3. Introduce common reference (a standard for weight or using sea level as a base for height measurements).
  4. At this point, words such as theory, hypothesis and law, all referring to the latter steps of the procedure, have not yet made their appearance.
  5. Do not think that these first three steps are somehow only associated with the past, namely--the beginnings of science. Some of the most modern scientific fields have not yet advanced beyond this point. Take, for example, the study of human intelligence. The measure we all are acquainted with is I.Q. We carry out a number of measurements in the form of questions and answers. We time some responses; we record and study a population; we convert the results to some combined quantitative measure, percent, number of correct answers, etc. We study a population and find an average. After that, we declare that high deviations from the average are a sign of high intelligence, and deviations towards low, of low intelligence. These conclusions have little to do with science but are a social commentary that may have some validity for some uses. If somebody rapidly solves a puzzle, one should, according to our scale, be good at making cross-word puzzles for the newspaper, which in real life may or may not be true. The big fights about the significance of such measurements as I.Q. are to be expected. The science of human intelligence measurement, if there is such a thing (definable by observations), is still in a very early stage. How does scientific inquiry proceed from observations and compilations? How do we move beyond I.Q.?
  6. This fourth step is the most difficult and arduous of all. It represents identification and separation of variables.
  7. What is a variable? Some measureable property, conforming to some reasonable scale on which its variation can be defined. Temperature, the height of things, weight, are good, clear variables. How many variables do we need to fully describe the properties of any gas such as air/oxygen? Volume pressure, temperature? All three are easy to measure.
  8. We see the problem with I.Q. We cannot yet define decent variables that can be measured by some scale. Can solving crossword puzzles be measured? Think about playing scrabble. What are the variables you can define your prowess with? Can you think of a formula converting your eyesight, memory, speed, the amount of books you have read, into a prediction of your scrabble score? Of course not! Galileo's brilliant insight was that he found decent variables for observing falling bodies: weight, time, height. Once the variables are separated and defined, we can proceed to the next step.
  9. The fifth step is the formulation of an hypothesis. Let us consider the game of billiards where the described by a change in variables. A billiard ball receives an impetus from the cue ball, thereby changing its position and speed and colliding with a second ball. A follows B follows C. The second ball moves along with some defined speed to some defined direction.
  10. I now define an hypothesis. Billiard balls after being hit by the cue ball move in a direction determined by the angle and momentum provided during the collision. I propose it to be valid for all billiard balls and cues wherever and hit by whomever.
  11. It sounds plausible but needs verification. We and others here and in Europe hit cue balls with different power at different angles and we see that using this hypothesis, we can predict the path of the second ball well. After a lot of testing, we move to step 6.
  12. Conversion of a hypothesis to a theory.
  13. It is time to declare the formula to be a theory for billiard balls. The difference between hypothesis and theory is the amount and variety of testing that has been done. The theory is still and always open to revision by new observations of the behavior of the two balls. We find that we had forgotten to account for friction on the surface. O.K., an amended theory is put forward. Then a wise guy points out that the spin of the cue ball plays a big role. We amend the theory again. When at long last, all variables are accounted for and in a very large number of trials the outcome can be predicted every time, we are ready to proceed to the final seventh step.
  14. The elevation of theory to the status of law, valid for all balls of every material and surface spin and air pressure and humidity. We, of course, find that in this case we are describing Newton's laws. The fellow with the apple has scooped us.

These are the seven practical steps that fully describe the process of scientific inquiry: a practical, simple but often arduous task. We can now recognize at which stage of development different popular problems are to be found.

We find that the study of human intelligence is in the pre-hypothesis stage where we are looking for variables. Darwin's hypothesis of 1859 has become a theory of evolution still being amended. The inheritance of genes is based on Mendel's research which has since become law (Mendel's problems were simpler than Darwin's as the number of variables for a gene is far less than for an organism).

The last question about science we are going to explore briefly is the question of the value of the product of scientific inquiry. We assume that all our theories have become laws. How well is the external world described by the laws derived by the seven-point method?

An immediate response to this question will doubtless be put forth by some erudite listeners. They will point out that I am getting dangerously close to describing a totally determined Universe which nobody believes in anymore. Furthermore, in my lecture, I am neglecting indeterminism. Many well-known scientists can be quoted as claiming there is no absolute certainty in science, that science deals only with probabilities.

Some listeners will stretch it somewhat further and claim that the Universe is characterized by the presence of randomness. They point to quantum mechanical theory as support. However, I am trying, in a very short time and quite crudely, to point out that what we call randomness and probability are factors introduced to account for the inadequacy of the human senses to deal with a wide variety of observations. There are too many variables for us to observe with necessary precision; due to the limited nature of our senses, we inevitably influence events in measuring them.

Let us now tackle the concept of probability and its role in scientific inquiry.

We are rolling dice and we keep book, recording all outcomes. It turns out that after a large number of rolls, each of the faces comes up with equal frequency, a very precise number. However, we can never predict what the outcome of an individual roll will be. Despite the best bookkeeping, you cannot find deviations from the results for the large numbers. Thousands of gamblers have learned this bitter truth. Thus, there is a very precise outcome for large numbers; we can certainly consider it to be the law for large numbers. However, there is randomness in the outcome for a single cast. Is this a mystery or a paradox?

Is randomness inherent in the design of the dice? Let us put the dice flat on the table with the face with one up and administer a push to the dice with a very precise machine--a machine that hits the dice in the middle, a little bit above the point of gravity. The dice rolls, maybe three times, with the face showing 2 turning up all the time. We can repeat this as many times as we want. If we place the dice precisely, and the force and direction of the push are constant, the distribution of the face turning up is quite different from the previous rolling where we used our hand. The face showing 2 turns up in most cases. There may be a few other faces when we were sloppy in positioning the dice. Well, there is certainly no randomness in the frequency of faces of dice turning up. (in stark contrast to the series where we used the hand). Consequently, there is no randomness in the dice (the cube itself).

The randomness is evidently in our roll. If we study the human hand casting the die, we discover it's nearly impossible to isolate all the variables that go in the throw: our muscle coordination has an inherent tremor in it. We cannot put forward a theory for the trajectory of the dice. This doesn't mean it's not possible in principle to calculate it. In principle it is the same problem as a chess playing robot. We have always said that the game is too complex with too many variables, even the best computer cannot calculate them. Well, Deep Blue is very near to being the best chess player in the world.

What does science do if the calculations are too overwhelming? It observes a number of test throws and draws a list of outcomes and determines the frequency with which any of the faces comes up. The inverse of the frequency gives you the probability of the outcome. There is, therefore, no mystery about the frequency or the apparent randomness.

The most celebrated tables of probability are those for life expectancy. I am sure that soon with completion of the human genome project, we may calculate biological life expectancy for anybody. Still, the tables will do better because they will include such variables as traffic accidents, which are not mirrored in our genes. Thus, frequencies and probabilities reflect our limitations when dealing with very complex systems. They represent a useful approximation that nonetheless has very high predictive power.

What we have done now is to compensate for the inadequacy of our senses in dealing with large numbers, using statistics, which is the science of dealing with large numbers. Again, probabilities and frequencies represent efforts to deal with the inherent limitations of our human senses.

At this point somebody will assert that what I say may be true in macrocosmos, but when we go to atoms, the quantum chemistry enshrines both randomness and the probability present in very simple units of matter.

First of all, the story is not as clear as many would like it to be. Many scientists, Einstein among them, refused to believe in inherent randomness and preferred to look at apparent randomness as a product of hidden variables. The problem of uncertainty is closely linked to the effect of measurements. We have to visualize events so our senses will allow us to make an observation. This is the major limitation of science.

Yes, scientific inquiry will lead to a true picture of the world surrounding us. The picture, however, is never' complete and has Ito be continuously amended when and if new observations are made. One can ask how can something be true if it has to be amended. The answer is that all scientific laws are approximations, and what we mean by amendment is that we have isolated new variables and can work with higher precision then before so that the picture of the world becomes clearer and shows more details. This does not mean that the previous picture was wrong, only that it was true at that level of detail and precision. One can compare science to photography that works with the same negative but with the use of increasing magnification.

Scientific inquiry leads to a neutral product. Good, bad, useful, harmful are adjectives outside the realm of scientific discourse. Human beings can look at any picture of nature and exclaim, "This is horrible; I do not like it." Such valuation of neutral facts has nothing to do with science.

To be sure, the behavior of human beings, their beliefs and motivation for their acts, is itself a field for scientific inquiry. It is, however, on the first, most primitive level. We observe human behavior and try to identify variables that seem to influence it although we have not even succeeded in finding suitable measures. Sociology, psychology, economy, etc, are sciences of a sort, but sciences at their lowest level of development. The level is not determined by dearth of hard work and brilliant insight but is simply a function of the complexity of the systems at issue.

The main point remains: we have constructed our present picture of our world entirely on knowledge gathered by use of the 7-point method of scientific inquiry. The extension of science to art, poetry, and religion has not contributed much to science or to the arena of human emotions and feelings. Finally, the verbal extension of science into the realm of spirituality, as in the Buehren's article, may contribute to literature and poetry, but not to science.

--Andreas Rosenberg

With a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Science from The University of Uppsala, Sweden, Andreas Rosenberg has been professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota since 1964. He retired in 1999 but is still consultant at the Laboratory for Diagnostic Allergy in the Department of Lab. Med, and Path. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the Humanist Institute in New York. This address was delivered last December al the Forum of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

Published in the 2000 Issue 1 of Occasional Newsletter of the Friends of Religious Humanism