Jan 17

I recently read in the January 2012 edition of the Engineers Australia magazine a letter which contained the sentence “Scientific truth is not obtained democratically”.

I believe that this statement is a grave misrepresentation of the way science is conducted and the way scientific hypothesis become scientific laws.

Science, like engineering, is carried out by people and as such is intrinsically bound within a social and cultural context. Indeed, even the matters that attract research attention and funding are determined by those factors, just as the engineering projects that get built are.

My issue is not with the primacy of scientific facts; but a collection of facts is not science in the same way that a collection of dates is not history. Those facts must be combined into hypothesis that explain them and ideally suggest new emergent facts to look for.

The facts of the physical science that engineers are most familiar with are demonstrable in repeatable experiments; the facts of sciences such as geology, climatology, cosmology, sociology, anthropology and economics are not so amenable.

The current paradigm in any field of science is determined by the consensus of the scientists working in that field and is inherently democratic. This is not to say that it is unscientific; consensus has been built from a large body of evidence and it would require an equally large body of new and different evidence to change.

General relativity did not replace Newtonian mechanics overnight. There were 50 years of experimental anomalies before the failures in Newtonian physics allowed general relativity to emerge and a further 30 years before it was democratically accepted.


[Published in Engineers Australia February 2012]

Jul 29

Recently, both of my sons have become fascinated with card tricks and most evenings I get to be amazed and astounded by their prestidigitation. Given that my youngest is only 7 and has the manual dexterity and deceitfulness common to that age (i.e. virtually none) it is usually pretty easy to see how the trick is done. My other son, however, is 13 and depending on how much practice he has put in, it can be more difficult to work it out.

When a magician amazes me, I know she is doing it with knowledge and skill, not with magic. It's a trick - i.e. the magician is doing something that I can't do. For mine, this makes it more amazing than if it really were magic because this is something that the magician has studied and practiced; magic would just be ... well, magic. More...