Is data, science?


“I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of
true science.” –Charles Darwin

“My laboratory is my paper” –Albert Einstein

Poor Darwin. A political football of his time. While he supported his theories with data, many people insisted, as some do today, his work was not science. Yet as time passes his science has been treated as fact by more and more people. How useful is Darwinism? How did this change occur? More importantly does all science need to survive a public political fight to be treated as knowledge?

One needs look no further than Isaac Newton to find science nobody disputes today. There was controversy at the time, but it was limited to the cosmic implications. Newtonian physics is demonstrable using repeatable experiments. A series of steps could be followed to demonstrate and even separate it’s components. The formulas to predict how objects interacted with each other and gravity were demonstrably true.

The problem came with the orbital components. The same rules that predicted projectile parabolas could be adapted to predict the planets orbits (ultimately with some small errors) But there is no way to create a second identical solar system to add or remove components and test each part of the theory. There is no way to create a control. Without a control Newtonian physics was reduced to predictions. People passed the time waiting for his predictions to come true by arguing about them.

Einstein by comparison was extremely lucky. For decades the vast majority of the science community didn’t even understand his theories. His theories were impossible to demonstrate or test. No physical mechanism was available to do so. Few had the context to even argue about his theories, so they didn’t. Einsteinian physics was almost entirely predictions, but he caught no flak.

While the world slowly caught up, Einstein’s predictions have enjoyed wild success. His work is a great demonstration of the value of predictions in science. The science community didn’t refute Einstein in his time, it just largely ignored him. Room was made for his predictions to be tested at a later date.

Which brings us to Darwin. Like Einstein, many of his theories had no way to be conclusively tested at their conception. The theories matched existing data and you could tease out some components of it. It wasn’t until DNA was discovered in 1953 that the tools to reach an absolute conclusion on Darwin were known to be possible. But unlike quantum physics, people understand husbandry and paternity. Everyone had their two cents to give. Solid data with deceptive relevance justified genocides and terrible experiments. The label of ‘science’ ran amok.

With Darwin, the act of simple testing, of manipulating variables and comparing the results to controls could turn unethical. To come up with a system of learning about our own species required prediction to avoid terrible acts. A new truth became known about science, and to this day is often misunderstood. Data driven science can be both unethical and irrelevant to the targeted questions. Darwin’s value didn’t come from his data, but the predictions he could make with that data.

The ideal science is experiment driven. The experiments provide not only data, but and understanding of their context. Nobody serious disputes this. The problem is when separating a control is not possible. Either because of the economic cost, or the ethical cost. Darwin by his quality predictions has shown us not only the path of life, but a blueprint for more ethical science. The sure way to avoid public relations with murderous consequences in a lab coat. The worst part of human experimentation in the name of science?  it’s relative pointlessness compared to tested prediction?  It’s just a sad, avoidable, footnote.

Regardless if the impossible control is torturing humans, or copying planets, Darwin gave us a gift. The truth vetted in a trial by fire. The knowledge that data driven politics without prediction is an invitation to pointless suffering and disaster. Repeatable experiments are science. In it’s needed absence, quality, specific, predictions are science. Without prediction, data, even of the highest certainty and relevance, simply is not. It’s pre-science at best.  Darwin finalized prediction as the minimum requirement for the label of ‘science.’

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