Friday, 9 May 2008

Why Is It So?

Science Fiction author China Mieville raises an idea that I have been thinking about for some time. What is it that science does? People tend to think that science answers why questions. Why do apples fall to the ground? Why do some people get sick? While science investigated these questions, I don't think it answers them.

I think science provides descriptions not explanations. This is how Mieville puts it:

"lsaac was still piqued by the ignorance surrounding watercraeft. It brought home to him, again, how much mainstream science was bunk, how much 'analysis' was just description - often bad description - hiding behind obfuscatory rubbish."
Perdido Street Station, 2000, p28

I hope we can excuse the derogatory tone (this is put into the mind of a fairly brusque scientist, so maybe we'll forgive the harshness). But it's an interesting point.

I remember the time I snuck a look at my X-ray report from the radiologist and discovered the word idiopathic, which is a word that means in layman's terms 'it's just there'. There is a word invented to put on the reports that says 'I don't really know'. I was terribly disappointed to discover that little Band-Aid of a word almost completely covers up a vast ignorance of my condition.

Before I go on, let's not underestimate the power of description. Science is a powerful tool. It is acute and accurate description that helps us understand the processes of most of the systems of our world and allows us to influence and change many of them. From scarlet fever to semiconductors science has brought great benefit.

But as I said before I don't think it answers the why questions. We ask the 'why' question, but we end up with a 'how' answer. And I think many people don't realise that, perhaps even many scientists.
An example: We ask the question, "Why does the apple fall to the ground?" And we answer, "Easy, gravity. But gravity is just a name for what happens, not an explanation of why it happens. Newton didn't discover gravity he named it. Before Newton coined the word things were falling to the ground and his label didn't make any difference.

Furthermore, Newton's equations, although powerful, and revolutionary, still do not explain why. Newton's equations with great mathematical beauty describe the manner in which bodies attract each other. And, once again, let us not forget how powerful theses equations are. These beautifully simple equations explain the complex dance of the planets in the sky. To extrapolate the falling of objects in our atmosphere to the level of the moon and planets was an astounding leap of understanding, and provided the needed foundation for the mechanics of a heliocentric universe.

But Newton still hadn't answered why. And even today, we still haven't answered why objects with mass are attracted to each other. Why is it so? We just don’t know. And diagrams and theories and descriptions of bodies of mass bending space don't take us any closer to an answer. For every question science answers, we get another question. Along the way we get a better understanding of the process, but we never seem to get closer to purpose or reason.

Let me give you a recent example of what I am talking about. This article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

THE platypus is a bizarre creature: a furry mammal that lays eggs, makes milk like a cow, produces venom like a snake, has a bill like a duck, and detects its prey using electricity.

Now scientists have discovered why.

Scientists have discovered why…

The article goes on to talk of the recent coding of the platypus genome. And the reason that the platypus is the weird creature it is is…

Jenny Graves, of the Australian National University, said the platypus had genetic features similar to those of other mammals, birds and reptiles, as well as unique ones. "We expected the genome to be weird, and it certainly is," she said.

Can you see what I mean? This is a description, not an explanation.
I have no more than a layman's understanding of DNA, but I would have expected the platypus to have both similar and different DNA to humans. This explanation does not answer why platypuses are as they are. It gives us more detail, a better understanding of what a platypus is, but no better understanding of why.

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