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Member Since 22 Dec 2004
Offline Last Active Nov 24 2013 03:53 AM

Topics I've Started

The Demarcation Problem for Illiterates

15 November 2013 - 03:40 AM

I"m enrolled in a science writing class this semester. One of the assignments was to write 1000 words about science. I decided to take the directions literally and write about science: I chose the demarcation problem.

The target audience for these short papers is expected to be completely naive, so I kept it very high level and necessarily simplistic. I finished off at 982 words and submitted the first draft (to be critiqued by the class) Monday night. The Heretic has already read it for me and suggested that I put it up here.


What is Science?

Science surrounds us and infiltrates all aspects of our lives, yet is surprisingly difficult to define in a sufficiently inclusive manner. The Scientific Method is largely considered to be the pinnacle of human achievement: a robust method of exploring, uncovering and understanding the secrets of the natural world. But how do we define science?

A simplistic definition might be to consider science the pursuit of knowledge. But this definition is excessively broad, as it would permit the paranormal and supernatural to don the mantle of science. A more robust definition in common use is to view science as a systematic and repeatable series of methodologies that seek to learn about the natural world via experimentation and rely upon testable hypotheses. This definition too has flaws: counterintuitively, it is worded such that cooking would be considered science and that String Theory would not.

These two quick examples demonstrate the difficulty in defining our boundary conditions, or what are more commonly referred to as our demarcation criteria.

What is the Demarcation Problem?
Quite simply, the demarcation problem is an argument in the philosophy of science that seeks to distinguish the boundary criteria between science and nonscience. Others may refine the argument slightly to define it as the boundary between science and pseudoscience. Any distinctions to be made between nonscience and pseudoscience are not germane to this paper and both terms herein will be considered synonymous.

What Relevance is the Demarcation Problem?
The demarcation problem is not exclusively an academic concern. There are real world consequences at stake. Prevalent in the news in recent years has been the ongoing saga in the United States where evangelical groups continue to try to force creationism to be taught in schools. The rulings in both the 1925 Scopes Trial and the 2004 Dover Trial found that creationism and its pseudoscientific analogue, Intelligent Design are not scientific.

Proposed Demarcation Criteria
Over the years, many demarcation criteria have been proposed to define the fuzzy boundary between science and nonscience. While hardly exhaustive, the following list of criteria provide a high-level summary of the scholarship in this filed of philosophy over the last century.

Verification / Confirmation
Verification and its modern cousin confirmation posit that the truth of a theory can be determined by axiomatic logical relationships. Put another way, a theory that can be arranged in an axiomatic fashion in syllogistic form can be verified (or confirmed). This fails as a demarcation criterion, as nearly any nonsensical statement can be written into a syllogism and thus “confirms” a theory even when it bears no relationship to the theory at all.

Introduced by Sir Karl Popper in 1934, falsification proposes to define as scientific any endeavor that makes a testable claim. Non-testable claims thus are by definition, non-scientific. Although roundly endorsed by many practicing scientists and popularizers of science as being the pinnacle of demarcation criteria, it does not attain as a criterion. As proposed, falsification only determines whether a theory is testable and says nothing whatsoever about whether the theory is meaningful. Thus, the question “Am I wearing socks?” is scientific, but String Theory is not (with our present level of technology). Furthermore, pseudosciences like phrenology and astrology would become scientific by dint of being testable and falsifiable; that they are thoroughly refuted and discredited are immaterial.

Kuhnian Paradigm Shifts
In 1962’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn divorces the scientific process into “normal science” and “revolutionary science.” He describes “normal science” (aka “puzzle-solving”) as the series of regular activities, rarely challenged through Popperian “conjectures and refutations” whereby science grows through the slow accretion accepted facts and theories. Conversely, Kuhn defined “revolutionary science” as a “non-cumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced ...by an incompatible new one.” In this view, adherence to the old paradigm during the ascendance of a new paradigm may delve into pseudoscience. Criticism of Kuhn suggests that his dichotomization of science does not attain as a demarcation criterion; many pseudoscientific endeavors could be viewed as “puzzle-solving.”

Lakatos’ Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes
In response to both Popper and Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, in 1978’s The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, defines a research programme as a core of assumptions or ideas that cannot be altered or abandoned without eschewing the programme.  Lakatos was focused on explanatory power. Any evidence that challenged the core of a programme was termed an auxiliary hypothesis and a programme was further described as either “progressive” or “degenerative” according to whether or not the auxiliary hypotheses increased or decreased the explanatory power of the programme.

Feyerabend’s Epistemological Anarchism
In his 1975 book Against Method, Paul Feyerabend sidestepped the demarcation problem by declaring it irrelevant. According to Feyerabend, science is an anarchistic process guided by no single unifying methodology.  For him, attempting to provide a rigid definition for science prevents science from growing or advancing in any non-prescribed fashion. Taking a series of examples from the history of science, Feyerabend demonstrated that science progressed in leaps and bounds in ways not dictated by any strict methodological adherence. In light of this narrative, a rationalist is forced to conclude that, in science, anything goes.

The philosophy of science has discussed the Demarcation Problem at great length for over a century. The examples presented above are merely a highlight reel through the major arguments put forth in that time. The consensus in the field is that the Demarcation Problem is insoluble.

In practical terms, however, we are still often required to make a precise demarcation between science and nonscience. How you choose to draw that line (if at all, à la Feyerabend) will likely depend on a series of ad-hoc rationalizations that may or may not incorporate some of the arguments presented above. If anything I’ve presented piques your interest at all, I would encourage you to seek out the primary literature written by these fine minds.

NHL 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 2

02 May 2012 - 03:49 AM

The second round of the playoffs has gotten ahead of me much in the same way as the first round did!

To recap:

in the East:
Ottawa put a scare into the Rangers and forced game 7 only to fall short. The Caps pulled off a huge upset of the Bruins (this is probably the first time in NHL history where the previous two Finalists lost in the first round). Philly embarrassed the Pens and the Devils snuck past the Panthers.

in the West:
L.A. pulled off a massive upset of the Canucks while the Preds pulled off a lesser upset of the Red Wings. Mike Smith stonewalled the Coyotes past the Blackhawks and the Blues made short order of the Sharks. This is a small mercy for Sharks fans as they can now get on with the rest of their lives rather than waiting another month for the inevitable collapse.

Going forward into Round 2:
(Despite each series already being two games in, I'm still going to call as I saw it before the series started)

Eastern Division
Rangers vs. Capitals  - Rangers are the stronger team, although the Caps may be playing better as the underdog. Rangers in 6.

Flyers vs. Devils  - The Flyers laid a pretty serious beat down on the Pens in Round 1, they may not have as easy a time of it against a more seasoned goalie in Brodeur but I think they are the stronger team.

Western Division
Blues vs. Kings  - On paper I would give it to the Blues. Unfortunately, with a number of injuries piling up, they're pretty thin on the ice. The Kings are looking very solid out there and and Quick is playing hot. I expect them to ride him into the Conference Final, but my call would have been for the Blues in 5. Down 2-0, I think the Kings may sweep it.

Coyotes vs. Predators  - The Predators are a strong team and have done well this season while the Coyotes limped into the playoffs, only clinching the third seed due to the retarded NHL ranking system. The Coyotes play a very disciplined, defensive brand of hockey and Mike Smith has been unstoppable. Shots on goal show that Phoenix have been outshot in every single game by a double-digit margin in some cases. In teh long run this trend will bite them in the ass hard, but not this round. I would have thought the Preds would take it in 7, but I suspect that the Coyotes will do it in 5.

NHL 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1

21 April 2012 - 12:39 AM

Better late than never, eh? :lol:

davidm and I have been talking hockey in chat since the playoffs started and we both discussed who we thought would advance. As surprising as how a few of the series have been played thus far, the biggest surprise has been how intense most of the games have been. Things tend to ramp up the closer you get to the Finals, but at this rate they'll all be sucking wind by the third round!

Rather than go into any sort of lengthy discussion explaining my picks this round, I'm just going to state them, warts and all.

Eastern Division

Rangers vs. Senators
Bruins vs. Capitals
Panthers vs. Devils
Penguins vs. Flyers (yeah, right)

Western Division
Canucks vs. Kings
Blues vs. Sharks
Coyotes vs. Blackhawks (:sadcheer:)
Predators vs. Red Wings (sorry Dave!)

Although I don't have a clear favorite to carry the Cup, I expect it will be Nashville or St. Louis out of the West and New York or New Jersey out of the East.

Anybody else have any predictions?

NHL 2010 Playoffs

14 April 2010 - 12:21 PM

Aside from the Olympic tournament, the best hockey of the year kicks off tonight with the opening of the 2010 playoffs. While we won't find out which team gets to lift Lord Stanley's Cup until June, there's still plenty of time to speculate.

The degree of parity in the league this year was amazing! Sure there's 2-3 teams that were head and shoulders above the rest during the regular season but all that changes in the post-season. For the first time in the 3-point era, seven of the eight playoff matchups weren't decided until the final game of the season.

Here are my picks for Round 1:

Eastern Conference
Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens
The Caps won the President's Trophy for being the top ranked team in the regular season. Montreal clinched a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season in an shootout loss to Toronto of all teams. Unless they ride a hot goalie, the Habs won't be able to withstand the offensive juggernaut that is the Capitals.
Caps in 5.

New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers
The Devils finished a strong campaign in second place in the conference. Philly squeaked into the playoffs on the last day with a win over the Rangers. Philly has underperformed in all aspects of the game in what has been a disappointing season. The Devils have been a defence-first hockey team for as long as most can remember, but they added a serious scoring threat at the trade deadline in Kovalchuk. No contest.
Devils in 5.

Buffalo Sabres vs. Boston Bruins
The Bruins fell off from the league-leading pace they set last year and the Sabres surprised everybody in winning their division through the emergence of Ryan Miller. Miller will win the Vezina this year and will see the Sabres through to the next round at least.
Sabres in 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Ottawa Senators
The Pens are the defending champs. The Sens have a history of choking in the playoffs. Easy choice.
Pens in 5.

Western Conference
San Jose Sharks vs. Colorado Avalanche
The Sharks are a perennial regular season powerhouse that won first place in the West when Chicago lost their final game. Colorado is a very young team that is playing so far above pre-season expectations. That they are even in the playoffs is a huge success. The Sharks have a long history of choking in the playoffs and a shaky record in the post-Olympic period shows they aren't invulnerable. While I don't think they'll go very far into the playoffs, I think their depth of experience will push them past Colorado easily.
Sharks in 5.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Nashville Predators
I'm a heavily biased Hawks fan. No contest here.
Hawks in 4. :D

Vancouver Canucks vs. Los Angeles Kings
The Canucks have won their division something like three out of four years in a row. The Kings are much like the Avalanche in that simply making the playoffs is a huge success for their season. I thnk the Kings are outmatched in both skill and experience, but it should be a good series.
Canucks in 6.

Phoenix Coyotes vs. Detroit Red Wings
Despite the offseason shenanigans surrounding their bankruptcy and attempted sale, the Coyotes have put together a stellar season largely on the shoulders of Bryzgalov. Coming off two consecutive Finals appearances (with 1 Championship), the Wings had a lot of injuries early on keeping them far below where they were expected to be in the standings. A late season surge saw them vault well into the thick of things. The outcome of this series will hinge on goaltending. If Bryzgalov plays average, the Wings will walk all over him. If he's superhuman, the higher-ranked Coyotes will take the upset.
Wings in 6.

How To Do Research

03 December 2009 - 05:22 AM

All research begins with an idea. Whether the idea arose as a result  from previous research, from a suggestion/direction provided by  someone else or a eureka-like intuitive leap is ultimately   irrelevant: the idea is the starting point for any endeavor. Since  ideas that begin their life sufficiently robust to commence research  are rare enough to be nonexistent, the next logical step is to  further refine the idea. In some cases, the initial idea may be too  narrow and will require fleshing out. In others, it will be necessary  to pare away some of the extraneous details to reveal the kernel  hidden within.

The first step towards undertaking your research or refining your question/idea begins with a search of the available literature. Whether your ultimate goal is publishing in an academic journal, writing a paper for school or even simply increasing your personal knowledge, you really should take the time to seek out the extant body of literature on your pet subject to find out what's already been done. After all, if somebody else had the same idea as you and has already gone to the trouble of writing up their findings, there may be very little need for you to do the same. When such a scenario arises, your task is far from finished. You can read that work  and see whether your idea was explored to your satisfaction.If it was and you disagree with the conclusions drawn or consider the work done to be sloppy, you can refocus your idea as a response to that other work. Perhaps the results of that research suitably explored your idea but raise further questions that you feel need to be addressed. This new direction becomes the focus for your investigations. Once again, you would see what the extant literature has to say (if anything) on your refined topic, ad nauseum until you have a very focused and attainable thesis. Yes, this process can very quite laborious and is frequently tedious but I feel that due diligence at an early stage results in less strife later on and also reduces the likelihood of you looking like an idiot for not knowing the topic material sufficiently well.

The next step is to consolidate your sources of information that you will use as evidence/support in your research.Some of these will have been identified in the earlier process of refining your topic, but chances are you will be looking further afield for more data. To be effective, it will help if you create a search strategy to both keep you on track as well as provide an audit trail of where you've gone. This way, not only can you b sure not to duplicate your previous steps, but you can methodically show to others how you arrived at your end point (if need be). Keyword searches are the most obvious starting point. However, where you employ your searches will often be determined by the topic, target audience and quality of information you seek. University libraries have access to a great many print and electronic journals, not to mention a plethora of books geared for an academic audience. Public civic libraries also have excellent access to books and some journals and magazines that aren't geared for an academic audience.Simple web searches can yield many results, the calibre of which is sometimes dubious. When using sources that cite their references, sometime sit can help to follow those up directly. Not only will you get a better feel for what the original actually said, it too can point you down other search avenues.

Working in an academic setting, I admit bias in my preferences for sources but that largely applies to work-related activities. If all you are hoping to generate is a working knowledge of a topic to discuss with your peers, there's nothing wrong with using Wikipedia, a magazine/newspaper article and a blog post or three. If you're hoping for a more exhaustive delve into a topic, you'll probably be best served by even a brief look at the academic literature.
In contrast to how I've worked in the past, this year I have been introduced to using an evidence table as a tool to assist in the consolidation of all the material I've read for a given project. Rather than having to rely on memory to recall the pertinent details of a given source, the evidence table allows me to record publication details, keywords, main findings and my own comments in a spreadsheet which I can retrieve at my own convenience.

So far, we started by identifying a topic of interest.and then refined the topic through a series of progressions. Based on our topic, target audience and desired depth of discussion, we then identified areas where we should commence our literature search. Then, with the appropriate sources identified and obtained, we set to the task of reading our source material and consolidating our notes into an evidence table.

So what should be the next obvious step? Writing? No.

I strongly recommend a period of reflection to think about what you've read thus far and to attempt to assimilate and internalise the knowledge thus gained. Even then, you should take some time to consider the structure of the paper you intend to write. What do you intend to say? What tone should you use? Given all that you've read and the tentative conclusions you have reached thus far, what points do you need to make and in what order do you need to make them? Once the general structure of your paper has taken shape in your mind, only then should you move on to putting your thoughts to paper.
How you choose to write is best determined through trial and error. Maybe you prefer writing free-form (much like how I've written this) only to have to go back later to edit and insert headings etc. Maybe you prefer starting out with a more rigid framework to assist you in hitting all the points you wish to make. Both are perfectly valid techniques and both can be used to good effect in the appropriate setting. All you can do is play around and find out what works best for you. Any need you may have for further revisions of your paper will be determined by the purpose of your writing.