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August 23, 2000
Rule Breaker - Strategies
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Re: TMF Selena
Voice-Over: Ladies and gentlemen, the Rule Breaker Children's Afternoon Special is proud to present "MisAdventures In Science," a modern parable illustrating the dangers of applying the scientific method as a metaphor for financial strategies (based loosely on an original drama by TMFTardior).
Fade in on a bucolic field. Isaac Newton lies beneath an apple tree, while Repoonsatad lounges nearby.
An apple falls upon Newton's head.
Newton: Hey, that apple just dropped onto my head. I wonder if the earth exerts a force that draws objects toward it?
Datasnooper: You're theory mining. It's just the way things are.
Newton: But now that I have a hypothesis, I can begin running tests to see if it works. That's the scientific method: observe, hypothesize, test. If you can, prove.
Repoonsatad: Any theory you could develop about things falling would have no validity, because it could not be proved beyond all doubt. There are a thousand possible explanations. What's the point of thinking if you don't know that you will find the right answer?
Newton: But I have an explanation - the earth exerts a force that draws objects to it. I call it "gravity."
Repoonsatad: Come on, Ike. It's not like that's anything new - observers have notice that objects tend to fall towards the earth since the beginning of time. Heck, Galileo went a step further and observed that this motion accelerates over time. All you've done is label the phenomenon. "Gravity" is a catchy phrase, although I prefer "January Effect."
Newton: How about if I pronounce the "Law of Gravity"? Any shot at Westminster Abbey?
Repoonsatad: Not even a column in Dear Abby, Ike.
Newton: Well, what if I explain the motion of the planets?
Repoonsatad: Well, that would be a nice piece of work. Although Kepler's already done a pretty good job of explaining planetary motion. He ascribes the motivating force to magnetism from the sun, after Gilbert's work....
Newton: Yes, but magnetic force doesn't vary with the size of the magnet! It can't be magnetism. And Johnny K. has only described the motion of the planets - he hasn't explained what causes it! I'll go a step further, and pronounce not just the Law of Gravity - but the Law of Universal Gravitation!
Repoonsatad: So you're saying that the same forces that act upon apples on earth act among the bodies in the heavens.
Newton: Exactly! The sun exerts gravitational forces on the planets, just like the earth exerts forces on apples. Or figs. Oh, sweet figs.....
Newton's head lolls and he begins to drool
Repoonsatad: Nice try, Ike. But that's still just another theory; you're no better than Aristotle, who just chalked it up to natural affinities or some such thing. And if the same forces apply on earth and the heavens, why don't the heavenly bodies fall to earth?
Enter Simplicio, from another dialogue.
Simplicio: Probably for the same reason that gravity doesn't seem to work on coyotes, either.
Newton and Repoonsatad stare at each other for a moment.
Repoonsatad: Where were we? Oh, yes, theory-mining. You're just coming up with a fanciful story to explain what we don't understand. It might be right, it might be wrong - we have no way of knowing whether it's true. Bright minds can spin a thousand explanations on limited data. Science is figuring out which is correct.
Newton: How about if I come up with a mathematical formula? You know, the inverse square rule?
Repoonsatad: Look, Ike, you want a pithy couplet penned by Alexander Pope, or not? You have to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in a significant way, not just by applying theories to the same set of observations upon which you derived them.
Newton thinks a bit: I've got it! I'll apply my theory to a new set of data! I'll use my theory, derived from planetary motions and apples, and use it to explain the movements of the moon in its orbit! I'll use out of sample data!
Repoonsatad: Ah, I think you're beginning to see the light. It's not enough to come up with a fancy theory to describe a phenomenon - that theory has to have predictive value and to be confirmed by additional application to new data.
Newton: Exactly. It is not by observing that objects fall to the ground that I make my mark in physics. Nor it is simply by proposing that gravity is universal. Those are cute explanations, but there have been lots of cute explanations. Instead, I will write my way into scientific lore by taking the next step: using my theory to make predictions about the nature of the Moon's orbit, and confirming them through new observations. That's how we'll know my theories are correct, and not just theories! Good thing I invented calculus in the first Act!
Repoonsatad: Way to go, Ike. Turns to the audience, and says woodenly: If only everyone would learn that wildly forming hypotheses based upon observed data does not alone constitute the scientific method - predictive utility and application to new data is essential!
Newton: Whatever. I've got to go revolutionize optics!
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