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Re: [ontolog-forum] Data Models v. Ontologies (again)

To: "John F. Sowa" <sowa@xxxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Ed Barkmeyer <edbark@xxxxxxxx>
Date: Tue, 27 May 2008 19:58:41 -0400
Message-id: <483CA031.8080201@xxxxxxxx>
John F. Sowa wrote:    (01)

> I believe that you are assuming too narrow a definition
> of the word 'theory' and too sharp a distinction between
> engineers and scientists.    (02)

OK.  You define 'theory'.  I'm happy to agree that the concept I have is 
not what you think I should have meant by the word.    (03)

I started trying to address Len's position, which was that "because it 
has no 'theory', software engineering is not 'engineering'".  So you can 
define 'theory' and agree with him.  Or you can define 'theory' and 
disagree.  I thought he had a point worth discussing, but this 
definitely isn't it.    (04)

> According to the Merriam-Webster 10th Collegiate dictionary,
> the first citation for the word 'theory' in English was 1597,
> and 'theoria' was used in Latin and Greek for many centuries
> before that.     (05)

Surely you are familiar with semantic drift.  What the word meant 300 or 
3000 years ago may be a bit different.    (06)

> Your definition would exclude most of chemistry
> before the 1930s, and almost all of biology before the 1980s.    (07)

I think that may be true, and it doesn't bother me at all.    (08)

> It would also exclude empirical laws that related pressure,
> volume, and temperature of a gas, because nobody before Boltzmann
> could give any explanation for those laws.
> In fact, even Newton's theory of gravitation would be excluded
> because he had no understanding of what caused lumps of matter
> to attract one another.     (09)

Let us please distinguish having a theory that explains and predicts 
observations of one kind from having a theory that explains all aspects 
of those observations.    (010)

> And many 19th century physicists
> (Ernst Mach was the most notorious) called Boltzmann's theories
> unscientific because nobody had ever observed an atom.  Even
> Max Planck was skeptical of Boltzmann's theories until he found
> that the mathematics could be applied to radiation as well.
> According to your definition, even after the observation of
> atoms, Boltzmann's work and even Planck's wouldn't qualify
> as theories because they didn't know why atoms would bounce
> against one another or why light would occur in quanta.    (011)

I'm not buying this reductio ad absurdum, John.  I never said you had to 
be able to explain all the workings of the universe to have a useful or 
valid scientific theory.  Boltzman in fact had a theory, whether it was 
right or wrong.  And modern cosmologists have a whole collection of 
debatable theories whose objective is to explain a set of observations 
coherently.  They can't possibly all be right, but they are scientific 
theories nonetheless.    (012)

I only distinguish between 'scientific' theories that explain observed 
phenomena and 'engineering theories' whose purpose is only to guide 
design by the knowledge of the results of prior designs.  I am trying to 
distinguish between engineering that is guided by a scientific theory, 
right or wrong, that predicts the behaviors of new designs, and 
engineering that is guided primarily by analogy with previous successes. 
  Software engineering is mostly the latter, it is rarely the former, 
and I assumed that was Len's point.    (013)

I stepped up to the bar to defend software engineering as an engineering 
discipline that doesn't happen to be based on physics.  What Len said 
was that "software engineering is not based on theory, and therefore it 
isn't engineering".  If you loosen the definition of 'theory' to include 
every organized body of knowledge, Len is obviously wrong.  And if you 
tighten the definition, to limit it to explanations of observed 
phenomena, and exclude systems of observations of the results of 
designs, then I will argue that all engineering began, and much of it 
was successful, without this narrow version of 'theory'.  Now, if you 
have a definition of 'theory' for which all "accepted" branches of 
engineering have always had it, and software and knowledge engineering 
still don't, I would like to know what that definition is.    (014)

I could just have said: "What nonsense!  Of course software engineering 
and knowledge engineering are based on 'theory'."   But that would have 
missed Len's point, I think.  So I chose a notion of 'theory' for which 
his position is defensible, if you ignore enough history.  But if the 
engineers who scoffed at Eiffel were working from other useful 
"theories", then so are modern software engineers.  Thass all ahm sayin'.    (015)

-Ed    (016)

Edward J. Barkmeyer                        Email: edbark@xxxxxxxx
National Institute of Standards & Technology
Manufacturing Systems Integration Division
100 Bureau Drive, Stop 8263                Tel: +1 301-975-3528
Gaithersburg, MD 20899-8263                FAX: +1 301-975-4694    (017)

"The opinions expressed above do not reflect consensus of NIST,
  and have not been reviewed by any Government authority."    (018)

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