Over at Telic Thoughts, Bilbo insists I am doing science. Before getting to his actual arguments in later postings, I would like to start with one of his comments in that thread. He writes:
I think the problem is that “scientific” has two meanings: “true, proven, substantiated, confirmed, etc.,” and “involving a systematic, empirical investigation.” And very often the meanings are confused. I maintain that what Mike is doing is “scientific” in the second sense of the word. Whether it is also “scientific” in the first sense is being decided.
‘Scientific’ can have more than two meanings, but let’s stick with the main argument.
While a scientific investigation must be systematic and empirical, just because an investigation is systematic and empirical does not mean it is scientific. In other words, Bilbo is conflating a necessary condition with a sufficient condition. Let me provide three examples (I could provide many more) of an empirical investigation, involving hypotheses and testing, that I do not consider to be science in action.
Even though evidence that merely sparks or supports a suspicion is insufficient to effect a satisfactory conclusion to a case, it is an essential starting point for any investigation. For instance, consider the mundane example of a woman who suspects her husband is cheating. She may not be able to prove he is cheating nor is she sure he is cheating. But she could probably tell you a few things that lead her to suspect he is cheating. Maybe he suddenly spends too much time at the office. Maybe someone has been calling the house and hanging up when she answers. And maybe one night he came home late and had the faint smell of perfume on his clothes. None of these reasons allow her to be certain he is cheating, and she realizes this. But her suspicions sensitize her such that she is more likely to recognize clues as clues. So she looks more closely and begins to find more, perhaps a phone number in his wallet. She calls the number and a woman answers the phone. While convinced her suspicions have been borne out, she might recognize her husband is likely to react with extreme skepticism when she confronts him. Perhaps she decides to strengthen her belief further, making it so probable that it will be difficult to deny. So she hires a private investigator to document the adultery with photographic evidence. Thus, the ambiguous data that lead to an initial suspicion ultimately results in a more rigorous attempt to confirm or dismiss those suspicions.
So here are the simple, fundamental questions. Is this woman doing science? If, through this process of investigation and testing, she finds that her husband is cheating, did she make a scientific discovery?
The second example is like the first, but uses a real world example. In the summer of 2009, the National Enquirer staked out a hotel room and obtained photographic evidence of John Edwards with his mistress and their child. The reporters at this tabloid paper had previously floated the story he was having an affair and were able to eventually confirm this hypothesis with the evidence that was published in their paper. Did the National Enquirer make a scientific discovery? When they published their story, with empirical evidence, was their story really a scientific article?
The third example comes from my personal experience. About 7-8 years ago, I contributed to an internet forum that had several people who would get banned for trouble-making, only to return a few weeks later with a new screen name/identity to circumvent the banning. On more than one occasion, I was able to successfully determine that a new member to the forum was really the sock puppet of a previously banned member. How did I go about discovering such truth? Often times, someone would give themselves away with a signature phrase/argument/posture and this would generate a suspicion and hypothesis of sock puppetry. Once the suspicion was generated, I then became more sensitized to the clues and then began to investigate using the search function of the forum to find more examples of uncanny similarities between the new member and the previously banned member. If I had uncovered enough evidence to strengthen my suspicion (moving it from the possible to the plausible), and if the sock puppet had a history of harassing/stalking me, I would gently share my findings with the whole forum. From there, the sock puppet typically denied my case and began to personally attack me (with help from allies). This would create enough commotion that the moderators would check IPs and, as it turned out again and again, the IPs confirmed my original suspicion (the plausible moved to the probable). So there I was, doing an investigation and uncovering an empirical truth about our world while reading internet postings and searching the forum archives. Was I doing science? Were my discoveries of sock puppets scientific discoveries?
All three examples are investigations that involve hypotheses, testing, and gathering of empirical evidence to uncover some truth about the world around us. Yet my position is that none of the three examples are science and neither are the discoveries scientific discoveries.
I don’t think we should water down the definition of science such that the National Enquirer has made a scientific discovery published in one of their scientific articles. Neither do I think we should water down the definition of science such that I am doing science and making scientific discoveries when determining that someone on the internet is a sock puppet. Just because in inquiry is a systematic, empirical investigation does not mean it is science.
In our polarized age, when so many political groups and movements clamor to enlist the endorsement of science to promote their brand of advocacy, I think we should all be very, very skeptical of such claims. We should expect science to adhere to very high standards and any inquiry that wants to be recognized as science should meet those high standards.
Look at is this way – if you are in fact doing science, you shouldn’t have to convince scientists around the world you are doing science.