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When Testing Became Scientific

As I’ve been teaching the history of science and religion recently, some interesting ideas have formed in my head around how to present certain topics as they relate to testing. This is crucial since testing is the basis of effective experimentation. So here I’ll talk very briefly about how testing truly became testing.

I’m reinforced in what I say here by author David Lindley who, in his book The Dream Universe, had the following to say:

Reading and writing about history has taught me something that barely crossed my mind when I was practicing science — namely, that the idea of what a good scientific theory ought to look like is not set in stone, like some kind of ancient commandment. It is, instead, a matter that exists in the scientific atmosphere of its time; it is the common sense of its age, the unspoken ideal that scientists take for granted but think little about. And yet it changes profoundly from one era to the next.

This is very true and it’s worth considering that what the “scientific method” means has changed. And thus that has changed what we mean by “scientific investigation.”

This should give any one pause when they see similar arguments about what “testing” means. Testing is, in large part, predicated upon the scientific method. But if the latter has shifted meaning, so — by dint of close association — has the former.

There is a moment of which, and even a person of whom, we can associate with the idea of scientific thinking as we currently understand the term. And it was this moment where testing — something humans had been doing for a long time as a process way of thinking — became linked to thinking that we would later come to call “scientific.”

The Platonic Ideal

In my experience, most people have been introduced to Plato at some point in their education or just their reading. What were the basic Platonic ideas? It’s actually pretty simple.

  • Assume the universe is perfect and eternal.
    • It must be since it was created by a deity that is both.
  • A mathematical truth is intrinsically and eternally true.
    • Such a truth does not depend on the haphazard and chaotic phenomena of the world.

What path did that lead to?

  • As a divine creation, the universe must be perfect.
  • Mathematics, with its irrefutable proofs, is a perfect form of knowledge.
  • Thus mathematics is the key to understanding how the universe works.

So what this says is that only mathematics is fit to describe pretty much everything. Only in mathematics, it was asserted, can we find the truths that will let us figure out how it all works. It even went a little beyond that, however, with one extra caveat.

  • The perfection of the universe requires that it use only the most perfect elements of mathematics.

By this it was meant that only with circles and Platonic solids (cube, octahedron, tetrahedron, icosahedron, dodecahedron) can we determine the architecture of the universe. So the Platonic ideal was that the celestial architecture must display an ideal mathematical form by using only ideal mathematical constructs. Not only that, but while algebra was known for centuries, it was deemed a lower form of mathematics and thus very imperfect. The only perfect mathematics was deemed to be geometry. Thus everything should be capable of being determined and described by geometry alone.

And thus the stage was set: whatever we observe must fit within that context. And if we observe something that seems to contradict that context, well, then clearly observations are simply imperfect.

It took awhile to get to another point of view.

Another Point of View

That other point of view is that we can understand the physical world by combining experimental and observational data with a judicious use of mathematics that was applicable to the particular situation being studied.

In other words, it was not the intrinsic power of math itself that would guide an investigator to the correct answers.

This isn’t to say we throw away that focus on math. Certainly if we want to describe the universe in a scientific way, we do need to describe it in a way that is quantitative, precise and logical. And that meant using the language of mathematics as the basis for that description. But — crucially — we are able to observe and those observations must be the foundation for any mathematical description. Thus our observations cannot simply be assumed as incorrect simply because they don’t conform to the math.

The difference in approach here can be subtle but also profound.

  • Rather than thinking about the universe and deducing its true mathematical form, …
  • …instead we need to observe the universe and infer our way to the most appropriate mathematical description.

In short: empirical information was the starting point for any true scientific investigation.

Now the history here gets interesting because it would take us to Aristotle. And a lot of people conflate the Aristotelian with the Platonic. But, in fact, there was a bit of both as testing, as a discipline, came about. There was a Platonic focus on mathematics as a way to express truth but there was the Aristotelian idea of observation and forming hypotheses. However, two points are crucial for each context:

  • Plato felt no need to provide crucial tests.
  • Aristotle lacked the means to provide crucial tests.

Galileo Galilei is one of the first people to combine the ideas of Plato and Aristotle along with the idea of tests. And it is with Galileo that we can mark a very defined historical start of experimentation, and thus testing, as a way of coming to understand; as a basis for forming a theory of knowledge as well as a category of error.

While our discipline of testing existed long before Galileo, we can certainly mark the time frame of Galileo when the idea of empirical testing was added to the idea of observation and investigation.

In my next post in this series, I’ll take this history a little bit further and see what the ramifications were.


This article was written by Jeff Nyman

Anything I put here is an approximation of the truth. You're getting a particular view of myself ... and it's the view I'm choosing to present to you. If you've never met me before in person, please realize I'm not the same in person as I am in writing. That's because I can only put part of myself down into words. If you have met me before in person then I'd ask you to consider that the view you've formed that way and the view you come to by reading what I say here may, in fact, both be true. I'd advise that you not automatically discard either viewpoint when they conflict or accept either as truth when they agree.

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