Monday, May 14, 2007

On Natural History

Science, in the beginning, was a branch of philosophy. Natural philosophy they called it, meaning philosophy meant to explain the things we see in nature. To me though, the phrase suggests a contrast to supernatural (faith-based) philosophy. Or artificial (arbitrary) philosophy. Or unnatural (wrong) philosophy. In my mind, natural philosophy is thinking that is not faith-based and endeavors not to be arbitrary or wrong. And all the methods of asking, knowing and doing we call science, are simply the best attempts of the decedents of the natural philosophers to avoid being faith-based, arbitrary or wrong.

Science, despite what they taught you in school, is neither a collection of knowledge, nor a single method. There is plenty of very good science that skips one or more of those eight steps you memorized then forgot. I'm a scientist and I can't remember the version of the list I was taught.

Scientists don't even necessarily agree on what defines science. The foremost example of this, as far as I know, is natural history. The term is defined a huge number of ways, so I'll give a specific hypothetical. I go out in the woods, see a fly I've never seen before, record it's behavior and the specifics of it's habitat. Then I pop it in a bottle, take it back to my house, euthanize it, make careful drawings of it, submit the specimen, data and drawings to an expert in that group of flies. He says it is a new species in a known genus, and we publish a paper in some minor fly-centric journal. We didn't have a hypothesis, a priori or otherwise. We didn't even start out with a question. We had a sample size of one. There were no statistics done, or doable. I have heard professional scientists say that for all these reasons, and others, this type of thing is not science. But I know professional scientists who do little else.

In my opinion, it is science if it is an observation based method carefully designed to lead to knowledge that is not faith-based, arbitrary or wrong. (If a method is carefully designed to lead to knowledge that is not faith-based, arbitrary or wrong, but is also not in some way observation based, it is probably math. If all the observation is left to someone else, it might be engineering. These lines blur.)

The paper we write describes science, is the outcome of science, but is not science. The fly was the subject of science, but was not science. The science is in the doing. Science should be a verb. I scienced that fly. I scienced it real good.

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