The Validity of Knowledge in Science and Engineering
- W.L. Ducker (Texas Technological College)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- May 1965
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 521 - 524
- 1965. Society of Petroleum Engineers
- 2 in the last 30 days
- 150 since 2007
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The purpose of this paper is to point out an error of thought to which engineers and scientists are prone. It is the error of assuming that the present body of scientific knowledge represents absolute, unalterable truth. The processes of education help establish this frame of thought because the principles of science cannot afford to be taught as only tentative. Yet the history of science. even in the recent past, shows that some supposed "facts" have been proved wrong. Examples of these "facts" are given and a viewpoint of scientific knowledge is presented that can be used in identifying areas of uncertain knowledge that can he exploited.
To introduce the subject it is convenient to draw a comparison with a term borrowed from the profession of law-the legal loophole. A legal loophole might be defined as an obscure point of law that benefits your opponent. If it benefits you, it becomes, instead, a fundamental principle of law. By whatever name, such obscure points of law are nevertheless part of the law and are legal, and the attorney who is adept at finding and exploiting them is outstandingly successful. In a like manner there are loopholes in the laws of science, and the scientist or engineer who is adept at finding and exploiting them will, in a similar manner, have an outstanding advantage. Few engineers recognize that such loopholes in the laws of science exist although some experimental scientists do realize this and do take advantage of it. The engineer's prevailing ignorance of this important feature of science can only be charged to a failure of those who administer undergraduate engineering education. In an effort to include in the engineering curricula the maximum presentation of the scientific tools, little or no time is given to explaining the limitations of those tools. The loopholes are found in the areas of those limits. Scientific laws are concise, and on the non-critical level, consistent. The law of falling bodies, V =2gh, allows no deviation. Newton's law states that F=ma, and there can be but one interpretation-and so on throughout the list. In addition, mathematics is a monument to concise precision and consistency, and its laws cannot be fiddled with. So, where are the loopholes? To answer this we should examine the experimental method of scientific investigation-how it works and what it teaches. An attempt will be made to consider all scientific experiments collectively and in general. Operations called "experiments" in the undergraduate chemistry and physics labs are not experiments but are instead demonstrations. An experiment is a procedure carefully designed and carefully carried out to test the truth or falsity of an hypothesis, hunch or suspicion about some particular and limited-and usually minutely limited -aspect of nature. If successful it yields a unit of knowledge about the subject of the experiment. Strictly speaking, it yields knowledge only about the particular guinea pig and about the particular virus particles used in the particular experiment, at that particular time and at that particular place and at that particular barometric pressure, etc. In other words, one experiment establishes only one point on the map of science.
In this respect the body of scientific knowledge can well be likened to a topographic map of an area of terrain. In this case the terrain to be plotted is the real physical world. The map is man-made and has for its purpose the accurate description of that terrain. An actual topographic map is plotted from a finite number of rod readings taken at selected points over the area, and certain sections of the area may be worked out in greater detail than others. The map is then plotted by interpolating between the known points. When the map is finished, the rod reading points, the points which truly define the terrain, are omitted, and all areas of the map are assumed to be equally accurate. It is the same with this hypothetical map of scientific knowledge of nature. Scientific experiments establish points on the map which more or less accurately describe conditions in the region immediate to the points. Interpolation between the points of experiment then fills in the intervening unexplored spaces. On the finished map (i.e., textbooks and other repositories of scientific knowledge) the points defined by experiment are seldom shown, which results in a beautiful and completely detailed and quite misleading map. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the areas between the points of experiment-the area where the scientific knowledge is based on interpolation rather than experiment.
Nature of the Map of Science
First it must be strongly emphasized that the map and the terrain are two entirely and distinctly different things. This may sound like the merest truism here, but in working with the things of science and engineering it is all too easy to identify the law of nature with the aspect of nature that the law describes.
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