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10 Commonly Misused & Misunderstood Science Terms
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Nothing ticks me off more than when I hear someone, especially a politician or business leader, mention that a tested, accepted scientific idea is “Only a Theory”. Let’s get this term out of the way first: A THEORY must be tested many multiple times, by different, competing or even separate and independent entities. Global Warming THEORY is supported by evidence from biologists, glaciologists, climatologists, limnologists, chemists, infectious disease specialists, etc. – NOT “just” meteorologists and environmental scientists (By the way, don’t confuse “Environmental Scientists” with “Environmentalists” – the former being a field of physical science, the latter being a political movement). After passing experimental muster, a theory must be accepted by scientific consensus. CONSENSUS, business managers can tell you, is very difficult to achieve. In business, consensus management means the entire group (of employees, managers, etc.) is in agreement and fully committed to a process, a goal, an idea, etc. A theory has balls. What, then is a hypothesis?
A hypothesis is a TESTABLE explanation of an event or experimental outcome. I told my students it always helps to remember “Testable rhymes with Testicle”. I never had a kid forget the definition of “hypothesis”. A hypothesis, like a theory, gives a mechanism behind what’s observed in an experiment. The key word here is TESTAB LE. If you can’t produce a controlled experiment to test your explanation, it ain’t a hypothesis – It’s a BELIEF. We can TEST the idea that objects with mass accelerate toward the earth in the absence of other forces. An experiment can be thought of as a controlled test of a hypothesis. If we want to determine how objects accelerate toward the earth in the absence of other forces, what do you think you’ll need to control (minimize or eliminate) in the experiment in order to determine to the best PRECISION the value of that acceleration?
One’s belief system should not be used when trying to explain or predict scientific outcomes. A BELIEF, unlike a hypothesis or theory, does not need to be tested. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be TESTABLE – You can even pull a statement out of your – um, butt – and call it a belief. Think Frank Castanza on Seinfeld: He and Cramer invented the holiday of Festivus, and George used its “belief system” to get out of work. A belief is simply a judgement call, it’s an opinion. There IS a time and place, believe it or not, for belief. A belief system works well where science doesn’t or can’t. I used to tell my students whenever they asked, “WHY?”: “As scientists, we seek to explain HOW. Ask your rabbi, priest or minister to explain the WHY.” We can’t TEST the idea that there’s life (or anything else for that matter) after death.
What, then, is a LAW? A LAW, like a theory, must be tested and accepted by consensus (not merely a 51/49 majority). Remember, CONSENSUS means an entire group (or almost entire group, if we’re to account for nut jobs) must accept an idea or premise. A LAW, unlike a theory or hypothesis, need only predict the outcome of an experiment – Making a predicted observation. It need not state the mechanism behind the observation. For example, Newton’s LAW of Gravity simply states that objects with mass exert an attractive force on other objects with mass (like me and men – I wish). NO explanation need be given, a LAW just makes a prediction of what’ll be observed when you change one variable. Einstein’s THEORY of Gravity states that BECAUSE mass warps the fabric of the space-time continuum, this accelerates objects toward the mass. These examples are dumbed down, of course, but you get the idea.
You can’t be conducting an experiment unless you’re making CONTROLLED observations. What’s a control? It’s a device or method that ensures you’re only testing one variable at a time. An experiment is a test of a hypothesis, theory, or law that is set up in such a manner that you can only vary one thing at a time. For example, if you’re trying to determine whether the volume of your fertilizer affects plant growth, you’d better be sure your plants all receive the same amount of water and sunlight per day. You’ll want to use the same type of plant, all in identical soil, etc. You’ll need a CONTROL GROUP, a group not subjected to any variation, to ensure something weird doesn’t interfere with your experiment (think bug or mildew infestation). Because of this, good, well-designed experiments are hard to design so they may be performed many multiple times yielding trustworthy results. Don’t forget, many different experiments are designed to test the same hypothesis, usually by competing groups. As a scientist, you want to cover your butt.
This is the runaway Greenhouse Effect we’ve all been hearing about since the 80’s. Unfortunately, politicians and corporate entities with interests conflicting with scientific consensus have distorted the word GLOBAL. Overall, the Earth’s average temperature HAS increased. The evidence abounds, and if it hasn’t been done already, I’ll write a list of available evidence here on Listverse. Just because it’s colder WEATHER, the state of the atmosphere at a SPECIFIC place and time, doesn’t mean the CLIMATE, the average weather over a large timespan, isn’t colder. While the NE U.S. was digging out of several feet of snow this winter, much of the U.S., and indeed the world, was experiencing above-average low temps. One mention about the Greenhouse Effect: Without it, we wouldn’t – COULDN’T be here. The natural warming due to the trapping of long-wave, lower-energy radiation being “trapped” by the naturally-occurring greenhouse gasses like CO2 and water vapor allow us to enjoy a relatively mild and narrow temperature range.
No, individuals do NOT evolve (at least not physically). Evolution is the SLOW change, over many generations, of a population due to the process of natural selection. Individuals and populations cannot “choose” to evolve, nor does evolution “happen” to an individual in response to sudden or even gradual changes to its environment. No matter how hard I try, I can’t grow an extra 1-2’ to reach that elusive magnolia flower on my tree – I’ve gotta use a ladder. NATURAL SELECTION, simply put, states that some organisms in a population are better suited to their environment than others. Because some are better “adapted” than others (eg: camouflage coloring making some harder to see by predators than others), they live long enough to reproduce. The others may be eaten before the big night. A great example is the moth population in 19th century industrial England. Most moths at the time were varying shades of white – The whiter the moth, the easier it is for a predator to spot on a soot-covered leave. As the lighter moths were picked off, the darker moths survived another day to reproduce with other darker moths. The result? Ever darker moths. Don’t confuse this with ARTIFICIAL SELECTION which also demonstrates evolution of a species – think dog breeding. Many dogs we see today at shows originated from the Mastiff breed. Makes you think twice about thinking your neighbor’s pug is a wussy dog.
This is another pet peeve of mine. I’m watching the local weather report, and the ^&%$ “meteorologist” says, “30% coverage of rain tomorrow.” What?!? That means that 30% of the viewing area will DEFINITELY see rain tomorrow. We can’t predict that! Sometimes I hear “We’ll have a 30% chance of rain tomorrow, and maybe that’ll be in your neighborhood.” The best of the best weather models we have can only predict the chance of precipitation over an entire area, given the current state of the weather, pressure trends, humidity, incoming air mass speed, etc. When a meteorologist says, “Tomorrow we’ll have about a 30% chance of rain,” that means the ENTIRE viewing area will have the same chance – 30% -- of rain.
Kinetic energy is energy associated with motion. Potential energy is energy associated with position*. What then, is ENERGY? I’ve heard it defined as “The ability to do WORK”, but WORK is defined as a change in Kinetic Energy. You’re doing work on something if you somehow change its energy? Seems like an endless logic loop. Then what’s ENERGY? The best high school textbooks will write it’s simply “The ability to change matter”. I’ve also seen “The ability to change or move matter”, but I figure if you’re moving it, you’re somehow changing it.
*Don’t confuse position with distance. Distance is a measure between two objects. An object can be 2” or 2’ away from another, but you don’t know EXACTLY where it is. Position is considered a vector quantity, that is, a quantity with both magnitude AND direction. The position of an object could be 2” or 2’ NORTH or SOUTH, or 45 degrees northeast of another object.
Astrology is NOT science. Astronomy IS science. Metaphysics is NOT science. Physics, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and biology ARE examples of physical and natural sciences, respectively. Science is the process of making observations, esp. controlled observations (experimentation), and research (think meta-analysis). Much as I like studying George Clooney’s pictures online, it’s not science. Studying his ANATOMY (don’t get nasty, now) would be. I’ve got to keep reminding myself of controls (experimental and otherwise). What about psychology or economics? Are these sciences? Often called “soft sciences”, because they depend on measuring human behavior. Try thinking of some controls you’d like to implement in a sociology experiment, and you’ll get a feel for how difficult that really is. Every once in a while, a student would ask me to participate in a survey for their psychology or economics class. I took great pride and joy in purposefully skewing their results. Bwahahahahaha! Ahem.