Science: Some Basic Concepts

AuthorAlan D. Gold
Chapter 4
Science: Some Basic Concepts
   rules of admission and valuation of expert evidence need to be
based on the scientic method to save the justice system from beguili ng but worth-
less, fallacious, or misleading “expertise,” the time has come to focus on the un-
rivalled achievement called science and to understand why it is so informative.
   is simply a set of procedures— logically and de-
monstrably eective— for testing the validity of empirical claims. “Science” is
Some references I have found usef ul include Robyn M. Dawes, R ational Choice in an
Uncertain World (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ); Julian Meltzo, Cr itical
inking about Resea rch— Psychology and Rel ated Fields (Washington, DC: A merican
Psychological A ssociation, ); Jerey Katzer, Kenneth H. Cook , & Wayne W. Crouch,
Evaluating Informati on: A Guide for Users of Social Sc ience Research, d ed. (New York:
Random House, ): “Much information reporte d by scientists, published in reputable
journals, and us ed by students, practicing professional s, and the general public is mislea d-
ing. Some of it is just plai n wrong. e purpose of this b ook is to help you detect such mis-
information”; Kenneth R. Foster & Peter W. Huber, Judging Science: Scientic Knowledge
and the Federal Courts (Cambridg e, MA: MIT Press, ) at –: “e mere fact t hat
research reports are publ ished, even in the most prestigious jou rnals, is no guara ntee of
their quality.” Fred Wilson,  e Logic and Methodology of S cience and Pseudoscience (To-
ronto: Canadian Schola rs’ Press, ); Stephen S. Carey, A Beginner’s Guide to Sci entic
Method, d ed. (Belmont, CA : Wadsworth, ); and Arthur Strahler, Understandi ng
Science: An Introduction toConcepts and Issues (Bua lo, NY: Prometheus Books, ).
    
a process, not a product, that makes phenomena recognizable and predicts out-
comes. It and it alone has put planes in the air, bridged giant valleys, prolonged
life ex pectancy (and is s till doing so), and a llowed us to und erstand phenomena
from the closest point at hand to the farthest reaches of the universe. Its funda-
mental activities comprise:
observing and describing phenomena and developing general conclu-
sions about them;
integrating new data with organized observations that have been con-
formulating testable hypotheses based on the results of such integration;
testing such hypotheses under controlled, repeatable conditions;
observing the results of such testing, recording them unambiguously,
and interpreting them logically and clearly; and
seeking criticism from fellow participants in the endeavour called “science.”
In a leading work on scientic evidence, its authors state:
Science is neither mechanical nor magica l. It is a process of drawing inferences
from evidence. e evidence for those inferences is generated by rese arch which
necessarily employs a selection of research methods. A nd ing is only as good
as the methods used to nd it. ere is no one best way to study a phenomenon
of interest. Each methodological choice involves tradeos. e issue , always, is
whether the methodology of the research is appropriate for the questions posed
by the study, and whether the conclusions drawn are justiable in lig ht of the
data collected and every thing about the methods by which those data were
generated. e choices of methods require carefu l thought, both by researchers
and consumers of the research.
If the tests or experiments bear out the hypothesis, it may come to be regarded
as a theory or law of nature. If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis,
it must be rejected or modied. e physicist Richard Feynman put it so well:
science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.
David L. Faigman et al., Modern Scientic Evidence,  vols. (St. Paul, MN: West, ).
Ibid., vol. , c.  at . e entire sec tion from  to  “constitutes a primer on scientic
is reference cannot be sou rced although the quote is ubiquitous on the I nternet. It may
be a corruption of what Feynma n actually said on t he following occasion: “S cience is a
way of trying not to fool your self. e rst principle is that you must not fool you rself,
and you are the easiest pers on to fool.” From “What Is and What Should Be t he Role of
Scientic Culture in Mo dern Society,” presented at the Galileo Symposium i n Italy, .
Chapter : Science: S ome Basic Concepts
A classic example of the scientic method’s defeat of authoritative wrong-
headedness is the “childbed fever” chapter in nineteenth-century medicine. Ig-
naz Semmelweis, a young Hungarian doctor working in the obstetrical wa rd of
Vienna General Hospital in t he late s, was dismayed at the high death rate
among his patients. He had noticed that nearly  percent of the women under
his and his colleagues’ care in Divi sion I of the ward (i.e., the division attended
by physicians and male medical students) died shortly aer childbirth. is phe-
nomenon had come to be known as “childbed fever.” Alarmingly, Semmelweis
noted that this death rate was four to  ve times greater than that in Division II
of the ward (i.e., the division attended by female midwifery students).
On one particular occasion, Semmelweis and some of his colleagues were
in the autopsy room performing autopsies as they oen did between deliveries.
ey were discussing their concerns about death rates from childbed fever. One
of Semmelweis’s friends was distracted by the conversation, and he punctured
his nger with the scalpel. Days later, Semmelweis’s friend became quite sick,
showing symptoms not unlike those of childbed fever.
is obser vation, however tra gic, sug gested a li nk between t he performin g of
autopsies and the childbed fever being suered by women being seen by medical
sta immediately a er the autopsies. e next step was to “test” this hypothesis,
however vague and apparently ill formed. Semmelweis instituted a strict hand-
washing policy among his male medical students and physician colleagues in
Division I of the ward. Everyone was required to wash his hands with chlorin-
ated lime water before attending patients. Mortal ity rates immediately dropped
from . percent to . percent and, in fact, not a single woman died from child-
birth between March and August of  in Semmelweis’s division.
us, even before medical science had reached the stage where a theory or
explanation was possible, because the discovery of germs and other invisible
disease carriers still lay in the future, observation leading to hypothesis lead-
ing to systematic testing achieved remarkable results. is obvious lesson from
the childbed fever example is important; but even more important is a second
lesson that demonstrates both the importance of science and also the hurdles it
must overcome.
Despite the dramatic reduction in the mortality rate in Semmelweis’s ward,
his colleagues and the greater medical community greeted his ndings with
hostility. To the “experts” of the day, the idea that disease might be carried by
invisible entities from person to person was preposterous. Even aer presenting
Described in various sources . See, for example, Christa C olyer, “Childbed Fever: A Nine-
teenth-Century Myster y,” online: www.sciencecases. org/childbed_fever/childbed_ fever.

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