Southern Man

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Southern Man always kicks off his gen-ed science classes with a lecture on what science is and what it isn't. He figures that his Astronomy and Physical Science courses are the last college-level science these kids will ever see (for many, it's the only college-level science they'll ever see) and so the given subject occasionally takes a back seat to what one might call Intro to Philosophy of Science with excursions into How Things Really Work and the inherent fallacy of the term "scientifically proven" and the difference between science and pseudoscience and why understanding what's really going on in the world of global warming "science" is important for them to understand.

To warm up he's been reading an interesting list of "elegant explanations" on a wide variety of subjects. It's well worth reading, but pace yourself, it'll take you several sessions. And some of the physical-science ones had wording that, well, annoys Southern Man. So he'll pick on Roger Highfield who opens his essay on Einstein's Theory of Relativity with this:
"General relativity is one example of a beautiful explanation of the way nature works."
Now try these on for size:
"Ptolemy's geocentric model of the heavens is one example of a beautiful explanation of the way nature works."
"The Five Classical Elements (earth, water, air, fire, aether) is one example of a beautiful explanation of the way nature works."
Do you begin to see Southern Man's issue? None of these are explanations; they are descriptions. And they're all good descriptions. Socrates would have no problem explaining a Space Shuttle launch in terms of the Five Elements. And of these three Ptolemy's is probably the most remarkable; a mathematical model of the heavens so accurate and so precise that stood for two millennia. And that is one thing that Southern Man pounds into his gen-ed science students over and over and over again: the role of the physical sciences is to describe what we see. Southern Man would much rather write
"General relativity is one example of a beautiful description of the way nature works."
Which it is, and it's beautiful in many ways. But it's not an explanation any more than Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation or Plato and Aristotle's understanding of Levity and Gravity were explanations; they were and are descriptions of what nature does, not explanations of how nature does it. The former we do with increasing skill; the latter may be ever beyond our understanding. And it is the role of science to provide the former but never the latter. As one of Southern Man's favorite professors used to say:
"I can use the tools and descriptions of physical science to plot the trajectory of this thrown ball to whatever accuracy and precision your budget will allow. But I cannot tell you why it moves the way it does. For an answer to that question you must go to the Department of Philosophy; they are just across the mall. Science can tell us what will happen; it cannot tell us why it happened."


At Tuesday, January 17, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to tell my students that there were only two departments on campus where one could find uncontested, absolute Truth, and those were Math and Computer Science (theory of CS, that is, in which things are proven in a mathematical sense).

Girl Programmer.


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