Does science really need maths?

Given my recent tyraid about numerology I felt it was prudent to cover the counter crackpot.  Also, for those of you who care, you can follow me on twitter to find some interesting science tweets and when I post a new blog post.

These are people who believe maths is not required for modern science and that they have over turned some well known and understood theory with their own idea.  This is normally conducted without any knowledge of the theory or supporting evidence for the theory they are claiming to have overturned past why you might identify by reading science articles in the Daily Mail newspaper…

These people often suffer from delusions of grandeur or believe that science is a big conspiracy.  Here I shall ignore this and concentrate more on why it is flawed to think that way about any subject.  Again though, I’m a physicist, so this will be coming from a physics perspective…

I often feel quite sad reading these comments by people as it is a sad indictment of education.  They are surprisingly often retired, very rarely kids and have therefore both had an education and life experience.  Despite this they have no knowledge of the scientific method.  I do not profess to know everything about everything, but things interest me, pretty much everything. It’s a great disadvantage when how light forms different shadows depending on how you play with a bit of paper can distract you for several minuets, it’s not complicated but it is interesting.  At least to me it’s interesting.

It therefore comes as somewhat of a surprise that these people have managed to live in the modern world for 50+ years without happening across the scientific method.  OK, so that’s not too surprising, but these people are claiming to be interested by science and have sought out scientists to which to tell their ideas.  Do some research guys PLEASE do some research.

I do not profess to know everything is a very good point, I don’t no scientist I know does.  We’re all happy to step back and say “I don’t know”.  It’s in my opinion a trait of a good scientist.  If you don’t know and you realise that, then that gives you something to learn, to test, to find out.  The revolutionary crackpots that are the subject of this post do not feel like this.  They feel they know and have understood enough to realise that what is known by scientists is wrong and the ideas occupying their heads are the only thing worth knowing.  This is not smart.

There are a few reasons why this is not smart.  Normally these people have limited formal education in science, that I do not feel in itself is bad, I’m keen for people to learn more, to find out more to question things.  And it’s key in science to be able to tell others about your work, if you can do that to a layperson so much the better. The problem is that they do not realise how limited their education has been.  Reading a couple of popscience books and having an a-level from 30 years ago in engineering is not going to provide you with the same level of understanding that a three or four year degree course will.

I’ve spent around 8 years working full time learning and understanding physics.  That is a significant amount of time, and not something that people can catch up on overnight.  No matter how bright you are.  The sources are also not going to be to a high level.  Pop science has its place.  Encouraging the general population to learn more science and be more science literate is a very worthwhile endeavour, but you cannot go from that to knowing everything in a single field overnight.  It doesn’t work like that.

I have recently read a comment from someone who completely manifests this point.  He was asking about how a black hole could have kinetic energy (KE), and in a more general sense how electric force “generates” KE. This is fine, he’s asking questions.  The answers carefully explained how KE was a property of moving things.  And how it wasn’t generated by an interaction (although can be changed by interactions) but was due to the velocity.  But he would not let go of the idea that the EM force was what generated KE.  It was very strange and showed a complete missunderstanding about energy, alas he wouldn’t listen and just insisted that he was correct.  And that’s when it turns bad, from the being inquisitive to the insistence of being correct.   I have never paved a pavement, I do not feel qualified to walk up to a group of workmen and tell them that they’re doing it wrong and that there’s a much better way of doing it and that they need to lay them all on top of each other.  I am not qualified to do that, I would be wrong and do not know what they have tried previously.  It just confuses me as to why people feel they can do this with science.

Moving along, these same people often comment that they don’t know the maths to create numerical predictions from their theory but it’s better than the current theory.  This leads very simply to how do they know it’s better?  If they don’t know the maths, then sorry but they can’t understand the current theory, if they don’t know the maths they cannot compare the two theories quantitatively so cannot say which is better.  This normally leads off into them thinking that their theory is better because they can understand it whereas the current theory they cannot based on the pop science articles they’ve read.

Sorry, but the universe works how it works.  It does not care whether it is understandable by a group of apes who evolved to find patterns on a wet small planet.

This really leads me onto the scientific method.  This is how we as professional scientists decide which is the best theory.  Now it’s a process, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.  Simply put, you make a prediction and then you test that prediction.  If the prediction is true then good your theory is yet to be proved wrong, if it is not true your theory is wrong and can be thrown away.

Now, having said that it’s a little more complicated, most modern scientific theories have limits, they only work within certain bounds, these either stem from break downs or the original assumptions made.  If you base a theory that relies on gravity and you assume before doing anything else that you have earth surface gravity then your theory will not work on the moon.

OK, well that seems nice and simple, I can easily make a prediction.  When I lift up a ball and drop it it will fall and hit the ground.   That’s ok, it’s a falsifiable prediction.  So why do we need numbers?  What’s the point it quantifying things?

Well it’s really rather simple.  If Dave comes along and says, I lift up a ball and drop it it will fall at a rate of 9.81m/s/s and hit the ground.  That’s better than my first theory, because then we can make predictions about how much time it’ll take to fall.  And allow us to make predictions along to lines of it I throw a ball 5m into the sky saying how long it’ll take to hit the ground.  Now if one was to extrapolate that idea of something falling with a given acceleration and working from that assumption and calculating forces you could then predict orbits.  These could then be tested and you would know how accuarate your theory was and make even greater predictions.  Maybe at some point you’ll notice some difference between your theory and what the measurments say, then you could look around and maybe some clever bloke has had a thought on dynamics of moving bodies and with some basic assumtions formulated some other numerical predictions.

Now you’ve two theories, one of them you have tested very thoroughly, you know it works for lots of orbits etc… so a very simple test to do is to check that the new theory agrees with the old theory in this domain.  The old theory agrees with the experiments so if the new theory doesn’t agree with the old theory it also doesn’t agree with the experiments.  It it does agree great, you can move on, if it doesn’t it gets thrown out of the window.

So, it works with the old theory where the old theory works, now you can make predictions in the regime where the old theory didn’t work and compare numerically how good the new theory is, and easily say whether it’s better or worse than the old theory.  If it’s better that’s great, people will start using it where it’s needed, and produce even harder test for it until it stops working.  It it is less accurate than the old theory though, it won’t get picked up because the old one is better.  And the only way you can test accuracy is with numbers.  If it is equal in ability then we’ve a bit of a tough one, lots of people will want to stay with the old one because it’s what they know, but normally Occam’s razor is applied, whereby you pick the simplest, normally this finds in favour of the old one, as people try simple things before they try complicated ones…

This leads us to quite a simple conclusion, if you have an idea that is simpler than the currently accepted theory, someone else would have already thought of it, thousands of very clever people work on breaking these theories every day.  If it’s not been picked up it’s wrong.  Therefore you should always approach these things with “I’ve got this idea, I assume someone else have thought of it and I want to know why it doesn’t work.”  That way you will get help, people will explain things to you, and most importantly of all you will learn!

To answer the opening question, yes, without it we are telling each other pretty stories with no basis.

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