The case for myopia in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Atlas Obscura recently reposted a video by The Atlantic entitled We’re probably imagining aliens wrong. I’ve included a link to it at the end of this post for reference. It’s a fairly terrible arrangement of bytes which is an unusual thing for Atlas Obscura to promote.

The video makes the valid point that when we search for alien life we’re looking for life like ours. Life like we understand it. Life that needs atmosphere. Life that needs water. It then goes on to point out the painfully juvenile point that if we only look for life like us, we’ll miss the life that’s not like us.

Continue reading “The case for myopia in the search for extraterrestrial life.”

How does logic work?

Today I ran across what is likely the most elemental example of logic ever devised. Aristotle is credited with its earliest forms and I am therefore sure that it is taught to every first year philosophy student on the planet; but that does not take away its simplistic beauty.

It is a syllogism.

Much like the best scientific theories are simple, the best examples of logic are simple. So here we go.

Continue reading “How does logic work?”

Emergence and Reductionism

Reductionism is a philosophy that provides some interesting thought exercises. When applied to science, the basic theory is that all science can be revealed as some subset of some other part of science, therefore reducing the subset into the other discipline. In short, systems are no more than the sum of their parts. Followed to its logical conclusion, we would eventually discover that there is, in fact, only a single branch of science that could explain everything.

By way of a small example (that doesn’t work fully), we can take Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Kepler explained how planets move. A few years later, Newton came up with his laws of dynamics which explain how everything moves. Newton’s laws explained how the planets moved as well as everything else, therefore Kepler’s work was “reduced” to become part of the general understanding of how things move.

Continue reading “Emergence and Reductionism”

Why complicated science is not good science

As part of my undergrad studies we need to gain an understanding of what science is, what it is not, and – if it is science – how to determine if it is good science. Not all scientific theories are created equal and there are ways to evaluate how good a theory is. Some of the ways involve hard criteria such as leveraging probability and statistical analysis, and some are softer. It’s the softer ones that interest me today.

In biological science, the mother of all theories is Darwin’s theory on the origin of the species through natural selection (usually referred to as ‘evolution’). I’m going to use this theory as a framework to provide examples of what makes a good theory. The theory of evolution through natural selection is a good theory, and here’s why. Continue reading “Why complicated science is not good science”

Correlation != Causation

One of the things I love most about science is hearing other people call science a “thing”. “Science says the planets are round”. “Science says vaccines reduce the spread of herd diseases”. While these conclusions are true, the way in which they are spoken belies some level of ignorance as to what science is.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.- Carl Sagan

Science is a way of thinking. It is a process that has been developed over generations to support the human endeavour to figure out how things work. The scientific process is not perfect and it certainly has led to some incorrect conclusions from time to time. But a big strength of the scientific process is that it is self-correcting. If you’ve ever spent any time in the open source community, you know how it works. The same organized scepticism and peer review that keep open source projects churning out good code are the same facets of the scientific process that keep good ideas flowing.

Continue reading “Correlation != Causation”