Module 1: Foundations of Scientific Thinking

The Development of Modern Science

Inquiry Question: How have philosophical arguments influenced the development of modern scientific research?

  • Epistemology is the study of nature, origin, and the limits of human knowledge
  • Historically, epistemology has included both philosophy and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), as well as ethics, logic, and metaphysics
  • Essentially, the field aims to answer the fundamental questions of humans: why are we here, why are things the way they are, does anything matter, and so on.
  • Natural sciences aim to answer the second of these questions, using a system that science students will be familiar with: the scientific method.
  • Module 1 is a study into the origins of the scientific method.
  • Instead of just accepting it from a Skills textbook or a teacher’s slides, this module attempts to explain the rationale behind why we use the scientific method, as well as the alternative methods it replaced, and how it was developed.

History of the Scientific Method

  • Thales of Miletus is widely considered to be the “founder of philosophy”.
  • While people have been thinking about stuff for a long time, Thales is considered by many to be the first to consolidate a method of reason.
  • In other words, Thales determined that in order to reason an idea, there must be a method which everyone can use, and which produces an objective decision from a set of fundamentally true statements, known as “Axioms”.
  • This idea is known as “axiomatic reasoning” or “Milesian reasoning”, and is a fundamental component of the modern scientific method.
    • In the modern method, we start off with an observation, for example, “objects fall to the ground”. This initial observation is our idea which we are trying to explain.
    • We can take an the fact that “the Earth is larger than the things we dropped” as an axiom, since we can observe that this is objectively true.
    • We don’t need to know WHY the axiom is true, it just needs to be true.
    • From this axiom and our initial observation, we can say that “smaller objects fall towards larger objects”.
    • Adding more axioms, we can further refine our statement, making it closer to the truth with each pass.
  • Pythagoras is probably the most famous user of Milesian reasoning in ancient times
    • He took the Milesian system and applied it to mathematics, using it to prove the Pythagoras theorem: $a^2+b^2=c^2\text{ Where }\angle ab=90^{\circ}.$
    • He also introduced the base 10 system, originally used by the Hindu and Arabian mathematicians, to Europe.
  • After Pythagoras and Thales, Greek epistemology started applying Milesian reasoning to the human mind and the nature of reality, arguing concepts such as free will and ethics.
    • Heraclitus was a strong advocate of free will, while Parmenides believed in the idea of a pre-determined universe.
  • Meanwhile in the world of science, Empedocles developed the system of 4 fundamental elements: earth, fire, water, and air (later, luminiferous aether (light), caloric (heat), and other “elements” were added). He believed that all things were, fundamentally, some combination of the fundamental elements.
  • A shift occured with Democritus, who developed the precursor to modern atomic theory. He believed that all things could be divided down into “atomos” (literally “indivisibles”), but he stuck with Empedocles’ elements, plus aether and a few others.

Socratic Philosophy

I know this is extension science, not extension philosophy. This will all make sense later.

  • Socrates built on Axiomatic reasoning to develop the Socratic method, from which the modern scientific method was derived.
  • The discourses and debates stemming from philosophers using this method led to the Socratic Dialogues, as well as the works of Plato and Aristotle, founders of modern ethics and scientific fundamentals.

Also both pro-slavery and anti-suffrage. Take from that what you will.

Fundamentals of the Scientific Method

  • Epistemology follows the principles of empiricism, induction, falsifiability, and parsimony.
  • Empiricism is the idea that a theory cannot be accepted until evidence for it being true is observed.
    • In other words, it must be tested before it is accepted.
    • For example, rocks fall to the ground when thrown.
  • Induction is the principle that if a trend can be proven empirically, it can also be extrapolated or extended to theoretical cases
    • For example, the General Relativity has been tested on the scale of stars, planets, and other large objects, and is empirically successful. Induction allows us to use this theory on untested objects, such as black holes or neutron stars.
  • Parsimony is the principle that given 2 explanations, the simpler, more likely one should be accepted.
    • For example, “I feel sick.” Between the options of Bubonic Plague and a cold, parsimony says that it’s more likely to be a cold.
  • Falsifiability is the idea that researchers should attempt to prove a hypothesis false, not true.

Bias and the Theory-Dependence of Observation

  • Bias is the influence of a researcher’s personal beliefs or experiences on scienfic observations
  • Theory-Dependence of observation is the idea that scientific evidence (i.e. the results of an experiment) must be directly related to the theoretical explanation for the initial observation.
    • In other words, your experiment should be testing your hypothesis, not something else.
  • Both bias and TDO can have significant impacts on a scientific inquiry, and can make an entire research project invalid if not accounted for. The syllabus expects you to be able to identify some of them, so here’s a list to get started:

Positives of Bias

  • Individual biases such as interest in a field can drive scientific inquiry (people are likely to research things they’re interested in).
  • Positive opinions an encourage exploration into more niche areas of fields.
  • Investigations recieve more external scrutiny, so invalid research is discovered early.

Negatives of Bias

  • Results can be discarded because they don’t fit the beliefs/expectations of the researcher (“oh it was just a fluke this time”)
  • For sponsored research, if the results don’t match the purpose of the funder, they will likely never be published
  • More likely for correlation to be equated with causation
  • Can lead to unnecessary risks, costs, and damages

Positives of TDO

  • Allows observations to be supported by theories
  • The principle of induction relies on TDO (can’t extrapolate if the data isn’t relevant)
  • Observations and theories can build on each other through experimentation
  • If an existing theory requires further evidence, investigations can be targeted to suit that theory and find supporting evidence.

Negatives of TDO

  • Researchers will discard results based on personal agendas
  • Observations may not be able to stand should the theory be replaced.

Historical Examples of Scientific Inquiry

  • Historical cultures had different views on the natural world when compared with each other.

  • In addition, many oral traditions are being lost as the number of speakers of native languages continues to decline.

  • Cultures such as Aboriginal Australians and Iroquois Americans have spent thousands of years refining methods of maintaining the land, but much of this knowledge is being lost as a result.

    The loss of oral traditions and native contexts is reducing the amount of empirical knowledge and experience available to policy makers and environmental caretakers.

Aboriginal Calendars

  • Aboriginal Australians used calendars based on the movement of stars
  • These contained significantly more detail than European calendars, allowing groups to coordinate movements and events across Australia, enabling the nomadic lifestyle of many Aboriginal groups
  • However, as Aboriginal records were oral, colonization has produced a rapid loss of these calendars.
  • With over 60,000 years of climate records and knowledge, these records are extremely valuable for maintaining the flora and fauna of Australia, as well as Aboriginal traditions.

Paradigm Shifts

  • A paradigm shift is an important change which occurs when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new/different method.
  • Examples include revelations about the Tooth Fairy, or in the scientific world, the development of the theory of elements.
  • One of the most iconic paradigm shifts in science was Lavoisier’s discovery of Oxygen.
    • As mentioned in History of thr Scientific Method, the historical theory was that fire (phlogiston) was a fundamental element, and a component of every flammable substance.
    • The theory was that mass lost when burning a substance was the conversion of phlogiston into caloric (a substance responsible for heat), which was absorbed by anything it came into contact with (hence the sensation of heat).
    • Lavoisier isolated a substance known as Oxygène (acid generator) from air. He then burned a candle in this gas, producing water and soot.
    • Mass calculations afterwards proved that no mass was lost, and therefore the phlogiston could not have left the material. It was known that Oxygène was a component of air, so the new theory was that it was the fundamental element, not phlogiston, which drove combustion reactions.
    • The name Oxygène, when brought to England, became Oxygen, the 8th element.

Influences of Scientific Thinking

  • Scientific thinking is affected by the needs of a society, including social, political, and economic issues.
  • To maintain ethical standing, researchers need to prioritise the ideals of a society above results.
  • For example, research on embryonic tissue has been highly controversial, as religious groups have frequently objected to the use of fetal tissue for research.
  • However, the research which has occurred has led to the development of the HIV treatment, rabies vaccine, and many cancer treatments.
Seeing as this post is being written in COVID era, every week brings a new set of global controversy. By the time this post is read by you, the stuff happening while I write will be old news. If you want answers for this syllabus section, just watch the news.

Influences of Bioethics

There’s more bioethics stuff in the SOR course.

  • Ethical systems allow researchers to maintain public trust and integrity, increasing the support for their research.
  • Ethical Frameworks promote accountability, avoidance of error, and betterment of society
  • The trust from ethical frameworks is highly significant to scientific inquiry, allowing for collaboration and development of research. these frameworks mean that researchers don’t need to go and test every investigation used to reinforce their standpoint.

Read the ethical framework for human test subject research in Australia here.

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