The Role of Experiments in Science

By Darcy Cowan 20/03/2012


In an attempt to widen my horizons I have been listening to the Philosophy Now podcast out of the UK. A recent episode concerned philosophy of science (ep 29) and the host asked an interesting question: “Why do we have to have experiments when sometimes we can get away with observations?”.

The point he was trying to make was that when we think about science in an abstract way we also have the idea that experiments are at the core of the scientific method. This clashed somewhat with the person the host was talking with at the time who was emphasising observation as the way we confirm hypotheses in science.

The implication here is that we have two things, observations on the one hand and experiments on the other.

This appears to be a fairly common view, I have seen arguments accusing cosmology (specifically the big bang theory) of not being science because you can’t perform an experiment to create a new universe. Similar arguments have been made for evolution.

I don’t know how widely held this view is in the general population (as opposed to those who are set against certain findings of science) but the question of the podcast host implies that it’s wide enough.

The problem with this view however is that there really aren’t two things here that are different in kind. Rather, one is a sub-set of the other; experiments are a special kind of observation.

The whole point of an experiment is to interrogate nature in a specific kind of way. While we can passively observe an event and gain valuable information (say, watching the development of an embryo) we can also create an experiment that constrains the conditions in a particular way in order for us to draw more conclusive conclusions about the situation of interest (perhaps we knock out a gene and watch that embryo follow a different developmental path).

By using experiments we aren’t doing anything fundamentally different, we are still observing what nature has to tell us about the world we inhabit, but we are trying to set up conditions that are meant to clarify what nature is saying. In this view experiments are nature’s interpreter.*

Experiments also allow us to get access to things that we might not normally be able to see. For example high energy physics requires elaborate experiments in order to allow us to in some way visualise particles that are mind bogglingly small. We aren’t creating the physics we observe we are simply delving into realms that would normally be hidden from us.

This was brought home to me a few years back when the attempts to listen for extraterrestrial signals by SETI were referred to as experiments. In this case we aren’t setting up the conditions by which we control whether an ET sends us a signal, we are determining the conditions by which we would receive such a signal. At it’s heart this activity is an observation, no different in it’s intent from viewing a microbe under a microscope.

So it is that the ability to do or not do a experiment does not determine science from non-science (termed the demarcation problem and certainly not definitively settled). Experiments may have come to be thought of as the defining feature of science but they are really just a special case of something we all do every day – observe the world around us.

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*If that’s too narrow for you, how about experiments as nature’s speech therapist?

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Filed under: Sciblogs, Science, skepticism Tagged: Experiment, Observation, Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Science and Society, Scientific method


0 Responses to “The Role of Experiments in Science”

  • 1. …IMO…important topic…explained well here…
    2. …i would like to add that another way to conduct experiments is with quantitative/mathematical modeling (e.g., individual- or agent-based modeling for students of behavior & sociality)…
    3. …unless i am mistaken, several fields use this approach where field experimentation is impractical (e.g., astronomy, ecosystem ecology, several areas of physics)…
    4. …as an aside, though i think that modeling/simulations are always a good idea, i do not accept the positions taken by students of “flagship” taxa (especially, the ones said to be “complex”) that invasive experiments are unethical for their species & that they have to settle for descriptive data…to more or less quote Steve Stearns: Descriptive studies might get the right data for the wrong reasons.
    5. …i understand that you know what is stated here…
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/cbjones1943

  • Thanks,
    I agree that modelling can be a useful investigative technique, especially as you say when the subject of study is not amenable to direct hands on manipulation. The modelling of solar system formation springs to mind. This of course can lead to problems if the models are based on sparse data, as in the case of solar system formation. When exo-planets started to be discovered it was found that many did not fit our models.

    This of course is the essence of science, to make predictions and measure them against the world. When the predictions come up lacking then we must alter our theories (or hypotheses) in order to better approximate the truth.

  • My question to the community is, is there any fusion being researched in New Zealand ? This is an emerging technology and if my probing is right, most of us believe it is not possible. I want to know if people are taking this seriously. Or are we going to be left behind. Here is a video on a university type set up (it says home made but it is a little more advanced than that). I would be keen to be on a team but my lack of advanced scientific knowledge would probably rule me out.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9DXecl-OX8&feature=related
    Sorry for interrupting your blog but I have no where else to be heard.

  • electrickiwi – there’s ‘fusion’, & then there’s ‘cold fusion’. I suspect we aren’t researching the development of ‘fusion’ in NZ – Marcus may be able to correct me there – not least because of our nuclear-free status, but also due to the financial & resourcing demands of setting up any such project.

    And ‘cold fusion’ – there is next to nothing in the peer-reviewed literature on this option. I’m aware that one individual (Dr Russo) claims to have invented an industrial process for cold fusion, but this doesn’t appear to have been independently assessed for its feasibility & that does tend to ring alarm bells with me.

  • Well I am talking about cold fusion, you obviously haven’t seen my other posts and ignored that last link. Am not sure where you are looking but I find it around every corner. It involves stripping hydrogen of its electrons with a high energy pulse, turning it to plasma and it then fuses into helium. Look at my posts on solutions to the energy crisis for more links.
    Seriously I seem to get denial a lot on this site and no one has said I see your point, it is happening.
    Do you know how much money is generated through oil, coal and energy resources $200 Trillion, the guy at the top of this shit heap is Rockefeller. I know the history of energy supply and control I know some of the concepts by the founding fathers of free energy. One of which also give us energy through wires which we accept but scoff at his wireless system and his other claims and his research into high voltage energy, high frequency and plasma discharges isn’t taught. As well as his concepts of resonance and scalar wave tech. I don’t want to argue these facts. I want some one to say I can see where you are coming from. Where do I go to study this stuff, well not at university because apparently it is junk science and not taught. But independent research around the world has verified a lot of this. But it is not accepted and considered fringe, well excuse me Mr Feynman and Einstein. Maybe these people who are treated as Gods to mainstream had a lot to offer, but weren’t 100% right. There are other explanations that don’t favor space being empty. For some reason electrons can circle around a nucleus and planets around a sun for ever, using some mystical energy source. Are we that naive to think that we can’t tap this ? Wake up.. &$%#@

  • electric, I find it difficult to believe that the wilds of the internet provides you no other avenue for expression. I suspect that you choose to comment here in order to achieve some sort of legitimacy, you certainly don’t seem to be interested in the science.

  • “It involves stripping hydrogen of its electrons with a high energy pulse, turning it to plasma and it then fuses into helium”

    that is not cold fusion, what you describe is being investigated at the National Ignition Foundation California.

    Actually it seems like you’ve conflated two approaches, the laser based one I mentioned that compresses the hydrogen to cause fusion, and a plasma based one like the one planned for the Iter Plant. This uses a Tokamak magnetic confinement process.

  • Ok well Rossi uses an energy pulse system as do the CECR reactions. They all use hydrogen maybe they are called different things and maybe they use different processes but my point is they all do the same thing and release EXCESS heat. I do not care what you want to call it. Am glad you know so much about the process maybe you can tell me if there is excess heat and explain how it happens.Will you verify excess heat ? Will you deny this ?
    As for science I am extremely interested in it. I study Heavyside, Dirac, Tesla, Bearden, Meyl. I am interested and looking for explanations into this phenomenon. I question and seek answers. Which is science.

  • I don’t know if Rossi’s system produces excess heat and he doesn’t seem keen for independent verification.
    The jury is out on the Iter and the NIF systems, at least insofar as they can generate a self sustaining process.

  • Will you verify excess heat ? – as Darcy said, this would be hard to do as Rossi doesn’t seem to have arranged for independent verification of his claims (as I pointed out previously).

  • oh the ignorant..
    Thats ok, whilst you deny, the rest of the world is studying this, by the time production models come out and have it in their homes and trains, maybe then you will realize skepticism on this topic was ill founded.
    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4955212n
    Maybe you wont listen to me how about the head of physics in USA

  • Derek your multitude of links got the system to flag you as spam. If you think there is a problem please use the “Contact Me” page.

  • Ok I do get a little heated about this but the best example I have found so far is the Paterson cell for cold fusion. I see that after the three month investigation from Pons and Flieschman announcement made by a panel of experts for the US department of energy (with vested interests in other tech), in which this phenomenom was denounced. The research into this field continued with positive results and has been buried from the general public, but for those with inquiring minds and who seek truth in the energy sector of science. They can find these results confirming cold fusion as real (as I have done)

  • Derek,

    Nearly 20 years ago I, and many others from the Usenet group sci.physics.fusion funded the late Tom Droege from Fermilab to visit and report on a claimed “excess energy” cold fusion device.

    His report was a lesson about one of Carl Sagan’s favourite statements ” extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof “.

    The proponents had not accurately quantified their energy balance, and didn’t have the equipment or experimental regime to do so. The lack of such precision monitoring, combined with their failure to validate and verify their experimental measurements, revealed just another example of the triumph of hope over experience that is so prevalent in many alternative energy projects.

    Jed Rothwell and other “cold fusion ” enthusiast may still hang around the group and advocate ( I haven’t visited it for a decade ), but any excess energy was explicable by the inadequate control and measurement of conventional chemical and physical effects.

    Cold fusion proponents have to show they have carefully and diligently accounted for all of those effects, as well as provide the theoretical basis and observational data for nuclear effects.

    To date, they haven’t.

  • “”Arata and Zhang demonstrated very successfully the generation of continuous excess energy [heat] from ZrO2-nano-Pd sample powders under D2 gas charging and generation of helium-4,” Takahashi told New Energy Times. “The demonstrated live data looked just like data they reported in their published papers [J. High Temp. Soc. Jpn, Feb. and March issues, 2008]. This demonstration showed that the method is highly reproducible.” Japanese university.
    “Scientists at the US Navy SPAWAR Systems Center-Pacific (SSC-Pacific), and its predecessors, have had extraordinary success in publishing LENR papers in peer-reviewed journals”
    For those of you who don’t know what LENR is Low Enrgy Nuclear Reactions aka cold fusion(excess enthalpy).
    Can find more but if you were to ask me I would say this is proof enough. Peer reviewed articles from a university and a department of defense (US) research station.

  • Sorry, I can’t accept your standard of “proof enough”. A quick Google indicated Jed Rothwell is still out there pushing cold fusion, and still anti-Popper, along with many fellow travellers.

    The absence of nuclear signals ( gamma rays ), and dubious measurements of near background He4, mean that proponents have to come up with a theoretical model that explains their measurements. They haven’t.

    According to John R. Huizenga, who co-chaired the DOE 1989 panel, if unexplained excess heat is not accompanied by a commensurate amount of nuclear products, then it must not be interpreted as nuclear in origin, but as a measuring error

    Popper’s concept of falsifiability was that a suitable single negative experimental outcome falsified a concept, regardless of the number of previous positive outcomes. Cold fusion proponents claim that the multitude of negative experiments are all due to poor techniques.

    The 2004 US DOE report noted..
    “Ordinarily, new scientific discoveries are claimed to be consistent and reproducible; as a result, if the experiments are not complicated, the discovery can usually be confirmed or disproved in a few months. The claims of cold fusion, however, are unusual in that even the strongest proponents of cold fusion assert that the experiments, for unknown reasons, are not consistent and reproducible at the present time. (…) Internal inconsistencies and lack of predictability and reproducibility remain serious concerns. (…) The Panel recommends that the cold fusion research efforts in the area of heat production focus primarily on confirming or disproving reports of excess heat.”

    Mainstream science apparently now regards cold fusion ( regardless of what proponents want to call it ) as a manifestation of Langmuir’s pathological science. That’s a long path of experiments back.

    Incidently, publication in peer-reviewed journals is not proof, as
    Retraction Watch regularly demonstrates. You are free to use your standard for proof, but mine requires requires quality measurements, experimental replication and theoretical support.

  • The absence of gamma rays is because it is a different environment than hot fusion.
    In my understanding the disassociation of water into it’s atomic state from the plasma arc because of the electrical force is an efficient method and the fusion of the atoms, back to H2 and O as well as water is where the excess heat comes from. It goes back to the argument of weather space is a void or actually full of energy. This process is an open system and not a closed loop. The environment puts in the extra energy.
    Replication has in fact been done many times from what I understand (please refer to the JNL labs work, posted above all the data is their if you are interested in the concept that this process is a valid phenomenon), which I believe to be a scientific view to take. This experiment is easily enough done with a transformer, a variac, water, KOH for electrolyte and 2 electrodes a container and power supply.
    Cheap to do ..

  • Derek,

    If the experiment was easy, why couldn’t other scientist quantitatively replicate it?.

    Most of your comment apparently relates to physical laws from another dimension that I don’t have, or want, access to, so I’ll stop here.

  • Haha yes well the world was thought of as flat and the universe supposebly span around it.
    There are explanations and it has been reproduced many times over.

  • And yet, when pressed, nobody seems to be able to provide explanations or show that the results have been reproduced. Considering the extremely basic equipment supposedly required to do so, this is a considerable failure on their part.

  • Hello Chris, there are explanations, university reports, JLN labs. I have to say the failure of the science department to look at this phenomenon is incredibly unscientific. In fact the naysayer’s have no science to back the non existence of this. Where the work by many different labs around the world has confirmed excess heat. But still the DOE ruling stands in the education system, this is non science.
    But at least the DOE is willing to admit something is happening even if they have no funding for it, no explanation and are not willing to even entertain the idea of looking into a potential energy source (being the department of energy) despite the hard science that has gone into this.
    Chris have you not looked into this properly ?

  • Hello Chris, there are explanations, university reports, JLN labs. I have to say the failure of the science department to look at this phenomenon is incredibly unscientific. In fact the naysayer’s have no science to back the non existence of this. Where the work by many different labs around the world has confirmed excess heat. But still the DOE ruling stands in the education system, this is non science.
    But at least the DOE is willing to admit something is happening even if they have no funding for it, no explanation and are not willing to even entertain the idea of looking into a potential energy source (being the department of energy) despite the hard science that has gone into this. The department of energy should be renamed the department of buy more oil.
    Chris have you not looked into this properly ?

  • Cold fusion, excess heat, commercial development.
    Not able to be replicated – false a lie for those who are too lazy to do the research.
    New Zealand science is very sheepish in this instance (maybe something to do with oil exports and tax dollars). Still the prostitution of science interferes with the truth.
    http://www.brillouinenergy.com/docs.php?doc=phase_2_data
    When are people going to wake up ?