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# Thinking Science: Using well-defined terms.

Mon 7 Dec, 2020 10:32 am
What is a Student?

A good friend of mine works in Data Science and is tasked with tracking the progress of minority students for a well-known nursing school tasked with tracking the percentage of minority students. When the pointy haired administrator asked him for the current percentage of minority students in the school… he responds by asking “what is a student?”

There are many ways to count students at a nursing school. Some people are taking one or two classes without being enrolled (are they students?). Some people started the beginning of the semester and then dropped out. Some people are enrolled but not taking classes.

Several times now a clueless administrator comes in a panic saying “you say there are 744 students but here it says there are 904” and my friend needs to explain that they are both correct, depending on whether you are counting people who are enrolled but not taking classes.

Now imagine the problems with determining what is a “minority”.

Scientific terms

Science is based on experiment and relies on the ability to take measurements. Sco scientific terms need to be specifically defined. When I talk about the mass of an object, there is no question about what I mean to any other scientists. I know how to measure the mass and there is no ambiguity.

In a recent silly discussion on another thread we were talking about the word size. Size is not a scientific term on its own. I ask the size of a person, I might get the as 180lbs or 6’2”. If I ask for the size of a family I might get the answer 4. Even if another scientist asked me the “size” of this bag of cookies, I would have to specify what she meant before I responded in lbs, or dozens, cubic meters.

The quest for philosophical meaning

In physics we define a negative charge as something that attracts a positive charge. We define a positive charge as something that attracts a negative charge.

Why do these charges attract each other? As Richard Feynman says “we have done a whole bunch of experiments we have observed that this is how it works”. We have nothing better than that (there are more advanced ways to understand the phenomenon, but it all comes down to “because that is how Nature works”).

This really bothers some people. But science is based solely on experiment and observation. You can’t go any further than that and still call it science. We can do the experiment that shows positive charges attract negative charges. We can’t say anything more about it until there is better experiment.
However this this fact that a positive charge attracts a negative charge turns out to be extremely useful. From this fact, we build computers, understand neurochemistry, detect bombs, make cell phones… all of modern life is based on this fact in spite of the fact we can’t provide any philosophical reason for it.

The problem of misunderstanding

Scientists are very careful to define their terms and they have built up shared understanding. When I talk about the “spin” of an electron with another scientist, I am certain that my understanding is the same as hers. We have read the same papers on “spin”. We have solved the same problems on exams. With another scientist we can skip over years of discussion because of our shared understanding.

When I am talking about the “spin” of an electron with a non-scientists… there is a problem. I want to talk about a topic that encompasses linear algebra, and angular momentum. I can never be sure that the person listening has a correct understanding of the concept (and often I find they don’t).

Well defined scientific and mathematical terms often look exactly like ill-defined English words. This causes a great deal of misunderstanding between scientists and non-scientists.
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farmerman

1
Mon 7 Dec, 2020 02:33 pm
@maxdancona,
while the language of physics, (geophysics, physical chemistry, geodesy, ecosystematics) is mathematics, the languages of several of the other pure sciences (chemistry, biology, geology) dont rely exclusively on equations, equalities or equivalencies, they often rely on the "literature of intuition")

Ive always been a middler on this, My physical chemistry training is purely quantitative , while my chemistry and geology (even geochemistry) are much more descriptive.

maxdancona

1
Mon 7 Dec, 2020 03:17 pm
@farmerman,
I am not sure I understand your point, Farmerman. I am arguing that terms need to be "well-defined" and non-ambiguous. I am not arguing that they need to be mathematical.

Even in my data science example, I am saying that if you are analyzing "students" you need to define what a "student" is (and be able to differentiate between students and non-students).

Do you disagree with my main point?

I am also curious what you mean by "literature of intuition". Can you give an example?
farmerman

1
Mon 7 Dec, 2020 04:25 pm
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Do you disagree with my main point

Based on your above, Im totally unsure of your point since youve been doing a "its only experiments and math that makes science" discussions with Alb..

Never mind, Im not that eager to enroll in another multipage dissertation that usually turns into "shooting for position"
maxdancona

1
Mon 7 Dec, 2020 06:41 pm
@farmerman,
I don't know why you would jump onto a thread that you don't want to be on.

I think I made my point pretty clearly in the OP. Discussing science and the process of science is something that I have been doing for years.
maxdancona

1
Mon 7 Dec, 2020 09:04 pm
@maxdancona,
In science, terms need to be well-defined. This means they need to be measurable. They don't need to be quantifiable (or numeric or mathematical in any sense). Good scientific research explains how the terms they are using are measured... and this definition is important to understanding the research.

Many non-scientists are bothered by this fact of reality.

Take the term "Hispanic" (this is the example my data scientist friend uses). There might be many ways to define Hispanic. You could include only people who speak Spanish. You could include people who grew up in a Latin American country. It might seem reasonable to exclude people with a grandmother from Spain who never learned Spanish or anything about the culture... or you might include them.

To most scientists... it is simple. You are Hispanic if you say you are Hispanic. This is the official stance of the US Census Bureau and the Pew Research Organization (they state it explicitly). You have all seen the box. None of you has seen any description of what the word means. You have all made up your own definition of the word and then decided for yourselves whether it fit or not.

When researchers say 27% of eligible Hispanic voters participated in the election... they are really saying "27% of people who select the 'Hispanic checkbox' on forms participated in the election". This is what they measure and you can't say anything more than that.

However, whether someone checks the Hispanic checkbox on forms is exactly the type of well-defined term that researchers need.
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farmerman

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:43 am
@maxdancona,
Quote:

I think I made my point pretty clearly in the OP
Not for me, I too adore precision in wording . Every word has a primary and often,a secondary and tertiary meaning. When you string a bunch of them together an then take insulting shots at those who dont interpret your post xactly the way you wish, then you should practice more of what Dr Feynman had said'

"If you cant explain simply , and in ten cent words you probably dont fully understand it yourself."

Often you start a post in a convoluted manner and then you get yourself into what Ive seen as these "thousand page nit pick fights and insulto-fests. "

"Thinking" that you were perfectly clear doesnt make it so, and try to turn down the insult, because, you inevitably draw others into a similar mode of response.

farmerman

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:51 am
@maxdancona,
Quote:
Discussing science and the process of science is something that I have been doing for years.
no doubt. Then you should think about any paper you delivered, if it wasnt argued passionately by your audience, perhaps it wasnt worth presenting until youve covered the board so that the audience understands. "Science" is usually composed of many unrelated disciplines wherein a colleague two labs away cannot communicate with you?

Do you ever present testimony in civil court to simply and correctly present a finding to panel of non scientists??

maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 07:50 am
@farmerman,
Quote:
"If you cant explain simply , and in ten cent words you probably dont fully understand it yourself."

This is nonsense, I doubt Feynman said any such thing. In fact he said quite the opposite.

Richard Feynman actually wrote:
You'll have to accept it. It's the way nature works. If you want to know how nature works, we looked at it, carefully. Looking at it, that's the way it looks. You don't like it? Go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can't help it, okay? If I'm going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like.”
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maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 08:08 am
@farmerman,
Farmerman, I think you are bringing in baggage from other threads. You also have pages and pages of arguments with the creationists (many of the same people with whom I argue). I think you agree with me that Intelligent Design is not science. This thread is a discussion of one part of what science is.

An expert witness in a court is hired by one side or the other to make a point. They aren't there to educate, the jurors aren't going to leave with any real understanding of science. The expertness is part of a persuasive argument. I am sure most don't lie, but their purpose isn't to teach.

Teachers have a different role. On one sense, a teacher has authority over knowledge. they write the exams. The teacher knows what is the correct answer and enforces the correct answer (if students get the incorrect answer they are penalized with a grade). A good teacher teaches students how to arrive at the correct answer, and how to find mistakes in their own thinking. My professors knew the correct answer, but they were also available to show me how to show they were correct or disprove an incorrect answer.

Science is not easy to understand. There is a reason that we spend 7 or 8 long hard years to study it. Scientists can try to explain the important results to non-scientists... but often this leads to misunderstanding.

Anyone can understand Physics.... with 5 of 6 years in a university studying differential equations, linear algebra mechanics and electrodynamics...

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InfraBlue

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 04:40 pm
@maxdancona,
The term "well-defined terms" prompts the question, what does "well-defined terms" mean here, seeing as how some fundamental terms in science, e.g. "meter" and "speed of light" are circular and self-referential.
maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 04:55 pm
@InfraBlue,
InfraBlue wrote:

The term "well-defined terms" prompts the question, what does "well-defined terms" mean here, seeing as how some fundamental terms in science, e.g. "meter" and "speed of light" are circular and self-referential.

What??? No! If you know what a second is...

1) You measure the distance that light travels in a second. You can do this experimentally. We call this a light second.

2) A meter is 1/299792458 of a light second.

There is nothing circular or self-referential about these terms.

Obviously having terms that are circular and self-referential would be a big problem. There would be no way to measure them.

Interestingly enough, the definition of a meter used to be set by an actual metal "meter", the official meter, that was kept in a vault in Paris. They based that definition on the speed of light as more accuracy was required. Since the speed of light is a constant it works great.

InfraBlue

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:03 pm
@maxdancona,
Right, and a light second is measured as 299,792,458 meters, however. So, to get the definition of a meter one has to refer to the definition of the light second, whose definition is based on the meter.
maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:06 pm
@InfraBlue,
Quote:
Right, and a light second is measured as 299,792,458 meter

Ah! here is where you are wrong. The only thing circular here is your reasoning.

I do not need to know what a meter is to measure a light second. A light second is measure as the distance that light travels in a second. I can measure a light second out just fine as long as I can count a second.

Even if meters had never been invented, you could measure a light second in feet and get the equivalent answer. Light travels the same distance no matter what units you measure it in.

The meter is defined by the distance light travels in a second. Not the other way around.

InfraBlue

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:18 pm
@maxdancona,
The speed of light is defined by the distance in meters it travels in one second. Conversions to other measuring systems are done after the—fact.
maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:18 pm
@InfraBlue,
Quote:
The speed of light is defined by the distance in meters it travels in one second

You keep repeating this. It is clearly wrong.

You can't have circular definitions in science. How would you measure it?
maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:20 pm
@InfraBlue,
What you are saying is ridiculous. Think of it this way...

If the speed that light travels is based on the definition of the meter,
if I make a meter shorter, will light go slower?

I don't think light even knows what a meter is.
InfraBlue

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:22 pm
@maxdancona,
Look up the definition.

The circular definition is accepted in science by the consensus of scientists involved in the matter.
InfraBlue

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:23 pm
@maxdancona,
And ornithology is as important to birds.
0 Replies

maxdancona

1
Tue 8 Dec, 2020 05:26 pm
@InfraBlue,
InfraBlue wrote:

Look up the definition.

The circular definition is accepted in science by the consensus of scientists involved in the matter.

You are wrong. I am trying to teach you why you are wrong. I wish you take the the time to think this through.

- We measure the speed of light and then we base the definition of "meter" on this measurement.

- What you are claiming is that we "measure" the length of a meter and then set the speed of light based on it.

I can tell you how we measure the speed of light. That is the experimental measure. Then we base the length of the meter on this measure.

There is no circular definition here. Think it through...

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