Tag Archives: science

what is science?

i was rooting around in my computer the other day trying to find something i had written about the german philosopher max scheler (see my comment about knowledge in my last post about ann mortifee’s new book).  in this sojourn i stumbled across a philosophy journal i was writing on and off and which contained a nice little assortment of quotes on the question of “what is science?”.   maybe you’ll enjoy it.

antony flew, a dictionary of philosophy:
(no entry under “science” – the following is taken from the entry of”philosophy of science”)
organized empirical science provides the most impressive result of human rationality and is one of the best accredited candidates for knowledge …science does not consist merely in making timid generalizations from wide collections of data, for the scientist’s selection of data is dictated by some theoretical interest, and his results are not simply inductive extrapolations, but rather explanations, models, and theories … another part [of science],emphasized by popper, is the creation of bold, predictive theory … the cumulative character of scientific theory … is characteristic of successful sciences …

georgi schischkoff (philosophical dictionary, in german – quick translation):

science (gr. episteme, lat. scientia) – a cultural endeavour which has not been and is not now practised by all cultures and at all times … science is the epitomy of human knowledge; the body of knowledge and insight, ordered by principles (kant); the ordered cohesion of true judgments, hypotheses and possible questions about the body of reality or certain parts of it … as opposed to unordered empirical knowledge, science not only deals with descriptions but also with reasons … scientific progress consists in evermore systematic penetration into the depth and breadth of reality, into the elements of existence and of events and the connections between them – into the intercoherence of that reality which we call “the world” … science at its loftiest is universal science [as opposed to ‘particular sciences’ such as physics, mathematics, etc.]

microsoft encarta

science (latin scientia, from scire, “to know”), term used in its broadest meaning to denote systematized knowledge in any field, but applied usually to the organization of objectively verifiable sense experience. the pursuit of knowledge in this context is known as pure science, to distinguish it from applied science, which is the search for practical uses of scientific knowledge, and from technology, through which applications are realized.

… and a few quotes:

science is organized knowledge. (herbert spencer)

science is the systematic classification of experience. (george henry lewes)

science is simply common sense at its best, that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. (thomas henry huxley)

science is nothing but trained and organized common sense differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club. (thomas henry huxley)

science is nothing but developed perception, interpreted intent, common sense rounded out and minutely articulated. (george santayana)

science is the desire to know causes. (william hazlitt)

in essence, science is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in. (c. b. van neil)

i venture to define science as a series of interconnected concepts and conceptual schemes arising from experiment and observation and fruitful of further experiments and observations. the test of a scientific theory is, i suggest, its fruitfulness. (james bryant conant)

the aim of science is to seek the simplest explanation of complex facts. we are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. the guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be “seek simplicity and distrust it.” (alfred north whitehead)

affirmations and research

a little while ago, a paper was published that suggests that positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

positive self-statements are widely believed to boost mood and self-esteem, yet their effectiveness has not been demonstrated. we examined the contrary prediction that positive self-statements can be ineffective or even harmful. a survey study confirmed that people often use positive self-statements and believe them to be effective.

two experiments showed that among participants with low self-esteem, those who repeated a positive self-statement (”i’m a lovable person”) or who focused on how that statement was true felt worse than those who did not repeat the statement or who focused on how it was both true and not true.

among participants with high self-esteem, those who repeated the statement or focused on how it was true felt better than those who did not, but to a limited degree. repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ”need” them the most.

ray at the affirmation spot has an interesting discussion of this. let me add a few more thoughts.

as ray points out, it looks like the researchers didn’t quite know how affirmations are best used (and i think that ray’s suggestion of how the research might be conducted next time are fabulous). unfortunately, this happens more than occasionally in social science research. from what i can tell, that can come from a) truly not having a good understanding of the research subject and b) some of the traditional methodologies in social science research.

as for a), my husband, an avid poker player, often complains about that. he is very interested in psychology and enjoys participating in poker-related research. almost all of the time, however, he finds that psychologists who research poker have little understanding of the game, not appreciating, for example, that many serious poker players don’t approach it as a game of chance (like roulette, for example) but as a game of skill. consequently, the researchers ask questions that are irrelevant to these serious poker players and therefore end up with irrelevant results. i wonder whether that was similar in the research ray talks about.

regarding methodologies used, we need to keep in mind that experimental research as it traditionally carried out needs to be tightly controlled, which means that the more variables are introduced into an experiment, the less control there is possible – which in turn means that researchers like to have as few variables as possible (i.e. they just use one question). there are some good uses of experimental research – the famous pavlovian dog, for instance, has spawned some truly remarkable work – but experimental research also has its limits. perhaps using this methodology was not the best one for the topic of affirmations. that, of course, poses a problem – experimental research is often seen as the only methodology that will give reliable results.

on the other hand, i think it’s important that these topics are taken under the microscope of research and science. i would not be sitting here on this laptop that is a hundred times faster than the first million-dollar computer i ever worked with if it was not for science, and you wouldn’t be reading it on your iPhone or on facebook. science is a great treasure. the argument “affirmations have worked for me, so this research is bogus” is not – not, not, not – valid. qualitative experimental research is about statistics and probabilities and the question is not, “did/do/will affirmations work for joe?” but, “for how many of these 100 people did affirmations work, and does this give us reason to believe that they will work for an equal percentage of a given population in the future?”

in the end, we need to figure out how we would like to use this research. if affirmations have worked for you and perhaps also your clients, great. you can just look at this research and say, “hm, interesting, doesn’t seem to apply to me.” on the other hand, if you have found that affirmations haven’t always delivered what you had hoped, perhaps this research has a clue to what’s going on. note the “perhaps”. that’s what research and other sources of knowledge (and maybe even wisdom) are – little pieces of a puzzle that sometimes but not always show us the way to a bit more understanding.

digging for a voice: reflections

a few reflections on the essay on women philosophers in the last post.

one of the things i got from that course in women’s studies is a bit of a background in and also support for the concept of writing in and from the first voice, in writing from and about the particular: “what i do and think is really all i can know.” today i would add to that: “and what i feel.” i had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with feelings back then …

the idea that everything is autobiographical, as freud said, and that hence everything that is not autobiograpical is plagiarism (as almodovar said) is something that has become stronger with me over the years. i am, for example, continuously astonished how the novel i am slowly working on, which ostensibly plays in 18th and 19th century louisiana and west africa as well as present-day louisiana, keeps experiencing eruptions of my history, often in completely unconscious detail, even though those times and places are not ones that i inhabit.

i hadn’t made the connection until now but i think that this essay directly influenced two later papers, the psychotherapist in context: how the therapist’s personal life, roles and social context influence therapy, and research at the edge of awareness: the person of the researcher and nonrational aspects of qualitative research. both spring from the feminist point of view that we disregard the personal aspects of our work at our own peril.

a big challenge is how to take this autobiographical stance and not turn it into a self-obsessed, navel-gazing activity. humility seems to be fence that – hopefully – keeps me from falling into the abyss of narcissism. it’s not “i can only speak for myself so that’s all i’m interested in” but “i am the only person of whom i have true authority to speak.”

searching for my voice, investigating other women’s voices, has been, in part, a very private enterprise. in other ways, however, i also hope that my words can be companions to those of [others] … even though it seems that there are similarities between me and other people … i cannot presume to speak for them. i can only speak for myself, speak to them and sometimes maybe even with them. i can only say: this is my experience; and if yours is similar, let’s have them stand side by side and reinforce each other.

this really struck me. because this is so much about blogging. (again i’m wondering, was this essay the seed from which sprang my presentation at mental health camp, blogging yourself home?)

i cannot presume to speak for others. for example, colleen, tre tre and anastasia can speak for themselves quite well, as you can see.

but i as a blogger, i can speak TO them and comment – at nancy’s and her friends’ blog, for example, or marcella’s, or zee’s.

and sometimes we can speak and work together, like with catatonic kid , jeremy and john.

there’s more material in that essay – i’d really like to explore some more the significance of letting our voice out – but i’ll leave that for another post.

neurons and chocolate

the text under this beautiful image – which you can watch in animation – goes like this

a complete understanding of neurovascular coupling is crucial for interpreting functional imaging data and normal brain function. neurons have an intimate relationship with astrocytes, smooth muscle, endothelial cells, pericytes, and erythrocytes. neuronal chemoelectrical activity is speculated to be linked to several metabolic cascades, collectively known as neurovascular coupling. neurovascular coupling includes the followed events: glucose is metabolized to lactate in astrocytes, the lactate is then shuttled to neurons and metabolized with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and atp. arteries deliver oxyhemoglobin to neurons, and oxygen is then released in the presence of carbon dioxide, thus converting oxyhemoglobin into deoxyhemoglobin. nitric oxide or neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine released by active neurons cause relaxation of smooth muscle in arterioles, thus increasing blood flow and volume. functional brain imaging techniques such as EEG, PET, FMRI, or OIS detect the changes during one or more of these events during neurovascular coupling.


i think this is about how blood vessels in the brain, neurons and their helper cells interact with each other. there seems to be some sort of relay going on (the “metabolic cascade”), much like in a restaurant kitchen. one cook brings the milk, the next one adds the chocolate, a third one pours the mixture into flour, etc. and eventually we end up with chocolate cake. (i know, i just can’t get my mind out of the chocolate gutter these days. it’s all director tom’s fault.) the end result is the “increased blood flow and volume”.

anyway, go see the animation. it’s really quite beautiful and helps make some sense of the text.  it’s not a bad idea to have a bit of a clue of what’s going on in our brains.

and if anyone wants to enlighten us further as to what this is about, please go ahead!

the interpretation of dreams

108 years ago today, sigmund freud’s most significant work, the interpretation of dreams, was first published (it was later forward-dated to 1900). dreams, freud thought, were “the royal road to the unconscious”. chapter one of this book starts with these words:

in the following pages, i shall demonstrate that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state.

further, i shall endeavour to elucidate the processes which underlie the strangeness and obscurity of dreams, and to deduce from these processes the nature of the psychic forces whose conflict or co-operation is responsible for our dreams.

like so many other scientists and psychiatrists, he was a little overenthusiastic in what exactly a new technique or discovery could do. i know of no psychologist worth her or his salt who is convinced that every dream will reveal itself as freud described, or that it can always be “assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state”.

nevertheless, freud’s contribution to our understanding of psychology today are immeasurable and got us all moving in a dramatically new direction (to what degree it was only freud who devised these ideas is a matter of debate. often ideas are “in the air”. you may want to read here for some thoughts on how and whether freud was influenced by nietzsche, for example).

by “us all” i literally mean pretty much every even semi-educated person anywhere in the world today. everything from arts to education to marketing strategies to politics is embued with findings that originated as a direct result of freud’s writings.

and this book is where it all began. it is the book that first talks about the ego, and introduces the idea of the oedipus complex.

you can read the book online, and more about freud all over the internet, on my bookshelf or in a library near you – or you can go here.