Astronomy (PHSX 1030)
Adam Johnston

Assignment #1
The Question of Umbrellaology



Adam Johnston's "solution":

First, realize that there is no "right answer" to this.  Scientists, philosophers of science, and science education specialists like to use this example in order to debate what makes something "science".  Here are a list of points that I would bring up, as well as some things that I would argue against.

bulletThe author is certainly using a "scientific method".  He is collecting data/evidence and he is trying to use this data to back up any of his claims.  This is one of the most important aspects of science: While mother nature does not tell us the answers to everything, she does provide us with evidence that we must use in order to call a particular study a science.  Still, someone could be using a scientific method and not be doing science.  For example, I can use the scientific method to diagnose what's wrong with my computer or my car, but this is more troubleshooting than it is coming up with explanation. The author is creating explanations and/or predictions based on the data.  The data doesn't make the explanations -- the scientists do this. 
bulletUmbrellaology may very well be completely useless.  Still, the purpose of science is not to be "useful", it is to come up with explanations.  Astronomy, one of our very favorite sciences, is for the most part completely useless, and it probably always will be.  We do science because we like to.  It is part of being human.  We seek meaning via science, and we seek meaning (different kinds of meaning) via art, religion, Dorito eating, music, writing, etc.  Certainly, some scientific knowledge becomes useful, but this is just a nice extra bonus.  The more that science tries to fill a certain utility, the less meaningful it becomes to us, because it would have limited scope and limited numbers/kinds of questions to ask.
bulletUmbrellaology may not be a study of umbrellas.  It may be a specific study of sociology or psychology.  These are not "natural science," but they could be sciences nonetheless.  Doing a "social" science is in many ways much more difficult than doing a "natural" science, because the research subjects have many more variables that are harder to control for.  This necessitates very focused questions (e.g., how do people interact with umbrellas) and generally the use of statistics.  Incidentally, the use of statistics doesn't make something non-scientific -- there is such a thing as "statistical physics," in fact -- it looks at the natural tendencies of large numbers of particles, and it comes up with very good predictions.
bulletFor me, personally, there is one major potential weakness with umbrellaology:  It does not have a set of fundamental theories/explanations.  Yes, it makes predictions, but it doesn't have reasons for these predictions.  You could argue that this is because it is a youthful science, or it hasn't gotten that far yet.  Physics has very basic fundamental explanations/theories that explain everything and survive tests over and over again.  These include "conservation of energy" and the "theory of special relativity" -- basic descriptions of how nature works, from which lots of predictions can be made.  The purpose of science should be to explain how things happen, so umbrellaologists (if they existed) should be working to come up with "how the world works" kinds of explanations that give a reason for the things that they observe and predict.

You don't have to come up with these points; and you could be state some inaccuracies in your essay.  I'm looking for a thorough, justified explanation for full credit.  Hopefully you will continue to think about how our standards for science are promoted by astronomy and physics, and hopefully you will be able to see when other claims are not scientifically based, as is the case with astrology.