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I am looking for a simple way to describe the occurrence when someone comes up with an idea based on observations (the world is flat and the middle of the universe), and then refines it over time and ultimately to a more accurate scientific truth (it is round, and part of a bigger universe)

My inline example above is just an example... I'm more interested in a word that either describes the process of refining such an idea, or a person who pursues such an endeavor.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

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I think the appropriate phrase is, ‘Stand back, I'm about to do science!’ –  Nicholas Wilson May 24 '11 at 0:00
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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Based on your example, the process you're referring to is the scientific method. From the Wikipedia entry:

Four essential elements of a scientific method are iterations, recursions, interleavings, or orderings of the following:

  • Characterizations (observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry)
  • Hypotheses (theoretical, hypothetical explanations of observations and measurements of the subject)
  • Predictions (reasoning including logical deduction from the hypothesis or theory)
  • Experiments (tests of all of the above)

I think the specific aspect you're asking about is the series of refinements that gradually lead from question to educated guess to workable theory. I suppose you could just call it iterative refinement, since that does accurately describe the process. Again from Wikipedia (emphasis mine):

A linearized, pragmatic scheme of the four points above is sometimes offered as a guideline for proceeding:

  1. Define the question
  2. Gather information and resources (observe)
  3. Form hypothesis
  4. Perform experiment and collect data
  5. Analyze data
  6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  7. Publish results
  8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The iterative cycle inherent in this step-by-step methodology goes from point 3 to 6 back to 3 again.

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I guess that means the answer to OP's other question is a scientist. –  FumbleFingers May 23 '11 at 21:43
@FumbleFingers In his specific example, yes. Looking for a more general term, the best I could come up with was iterative refinement which is admittedly redundant or awkward. As for a person who practices that in the general sense, I don't mean to be cheeky but the optimistic answer is humans. :) –  ajk May 23 '11 at 21:48
+1 for iterative refinement. I'm an iterative refiner myself. I eschew science in favor of iteratively refining ideas. –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 1:02
@Kit @AJ01 Yes, Id rather not use the word "science" for the crowd I'm targeting. –  makerofthings7 May 24 '11 at 1:56
Is "recursivist" a word? That would be a nice substitute for "scientist." –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 2:00
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To me, "refinement" already suggests a gradual process, so I think "refinement of knowledge over time" is a bit redundant; I would simply say "refinement of knowledge." But I can't think of a perfect one-word synonym for that.

A word that I think comes close is "enlightenment"; but although "enlightenment" can suggest a gradual process, it doesn't necessarily suggest a gradual process.

"Gradual enlightenment," perhaps?

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The theory would be said to "evolve". The process would be the "evolutionary development of the theory".

Not to be confused with the Theory of Evolution.

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Ha! I think you should add an asterisk to reference your disclaimer and a TM following the Evolution bit. –  KitFox May 24 '11 at 1:03
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This is not a word but an excellent aphorism/saying/metaphor (what describes it best?) often used for this process:

“Standing on the shoulders of giants”

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What immediately came to mind (and may or may not work for you) was a paradigm shift. It comes from the work of Thomas Kuhn in the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).

*Note: I will probably not do his argument justice in a few lines.

The basic idea is that scientific theories encounter anomalies that cannot be explained by the rules that are part of the scientific system. For instance, Newtonian physics was thought to be the be-all-end-all scientific paradigm for years until Einstein challenged Newtonian physics with his theory of special relativity. The dominant theory is thrown into chaos, attacked from all sides, its weaknesses exploited, until another stronger paradigm emerges.

Another example, related to your own example about how people changed their view of the universe, is the shift from a geocentric model of the universe to a heliocentric model. For years people believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe. It wasn't until the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler emerged to challenge this model that the gradual change to a new paradigm (the heliocentric model of the universe) began.

This seems to be a description for what you are looking for -- a gradual refinement of knowledge over time.

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A paradigm shift is a [relatively] sudden and extensive change in our collective understanding, such as Newtonian to Einsteinian to Quantum Mechanical, Creationism to Darwinism, or OP's own example of Ptolemaic to Copernican. But OP is actually asking for a word to describe the ongoing refinement of a new idea, after a paradigm shift. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 16:38
I see your point. A paradigm shift is not the refinement of ideas over time; It is in a sense the end of the refinement process until another shift happens. I jumped on the OP's example, which is an example of a paradigm shift (as you know). –  gbutters Oct 27 '11 at 23:27
Up to you, my man. I'd delete the answer to avoid getting hammered by downvotes, but it's been there a while now, so Hey!. And of course everything you say is quite true if you take the long view. –  FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 0:56
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