Audacity of Science
© 15 Aug 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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The Functional is not necessarily the Actual.


Ten weeks ago I included in a post “‍Perhaps later I’ll discuss other not-suggested ways to understand the universe….‍” This post is inspired by that thought, criticizing not science per se but the golden calf that has been build up in science’s name.

What is Science?

Despite the simplicity of the scientific method as portrayed to students repeatedly and promptly forgotten by most, there is a serious disagreement about what science actually is. Popperians claim it is all about falsifiable theories not yet falsified, but probabilistic induction is more common in many fields. I’m going to try to sidestep this debate and paint a few generally-agreed-upon elements of modern science in broad strokes, but I will inevitably make a few statements some people in the know don’t like.

The core goal of most scientific inquiry is to see if a description of the real world is consistent with observations of that real world. While physicists use a version of science that typically says “‍so far, so good‍” and pharmacists’ science leans more toward “‍we expect that most of our descriptions are accurate,‍” the end result is really quite similar. The scientist must It is commonly stated that you need to make the theory before you conduct the experiment. There are tools in statistics that allow this to be done in reverse order, provided you do it the right way and that you have the right philosophy of science. Being no expert on this point, I’ll say no more about it here.

  1. Invent, out of whole cloth, a description you think will work, called a theory. These might be as specific and complicated as Schrödinger’s equation or as simple as guessing that “‍lithium might mitigate bipolar disorder.‍”

  2. Come up with some activity, called an experiment, that has the potential to be either consistent or inconsistent with your description.

  3. Perform that activity and see what happens.

The result is either evidence against your theory or increased confidence it is a good description of the part of the world it discusses.

There is another powerful force at work in science: people like the simplest theory that seems to work. Given Newton’s and Einstein’s theories of gravity, we’d rather use Newton’s because it is simpler. Of course, we can’t always do that because we’ve found that Newton’s is a bad description in some cases, but we’ll always prefer the simplest one that we can find. William of Ockham wrote about this idea in the 14th century and it has since been canonized as “‍Occam’s Razor.‍”

The Golden Calf

Provided you buy into the underlying philosophy of a particular field, all science is functional. Gravity works, lithium works, electron tunneling works. Even the big bang “‍works‍” in the sense that I’m not going to find anything lying around in my lawn that will violate the claims of the big bang.

That is not to say any of these theories is “‍real.‍” Sometimes I’ll hear someone say “‍actually, electrons aren’t really in orbit, they’re clouds of probability.‍” I’m sorry, but there’s no “‍actually‍” about it. Clouds do describe more phenomena than do orbits, but periodically-collapsing standing waves describe even more, and I fully expect better explanations will arise in the future. If you want to believe that the universe as actually being composed of myriad radiating auras of complex numbers you are welcome to do so, but all quantum physics tells us is that that model describes a lot of what we see.

It is relatively easy, when looking at physics, to convince people not to see functional theories as actual existence. Every nice theory we’ve ever seen has been shot down, including the present best theories (hence the fervor to define new grand unified theories such as string theory). It gets a lot harder when you switch to more descriptive theories, such as the big bang, species evolution, and the like.

Let us assume that all the machinery of evolution functions exactly the way the most recent theories propose. Even with that assumption, statements like “‍birds evolved from dinosaurs‍” is just a theory. Maybe all of the world’s paleontologists conspired to lie to us and there actually never were any dinosaur fossils at all. Maybe birds actually evolved really really rapidly from nematodes. Maybe non-terrestrial sentients used Earth as their pet graveyard. None of these are as simple as “‍birds evolved from dinosaurs.‍” We’d be wiser to use the simpler “‍birds evolved from dinosaurs‍” to make decisions. But it remains a theory, and the potential that a simpler theory will come along remains.

And here we find the “‍golden calf‍” that is raised to science’s name. It appears to be in our nature to know not just what works, but also what was and is. Although scientific inquiry can only say “‍that’s reasonable‍” not “‍that’s true‍”, we still assign to it the power of settling matters of fact. Just as the Israelites wanted to see and handle their god, we want to assign the remaining source of knowledge in a society that has moved toward an atheistic branch of agnosticism with an actuality it does not itself profess.

Now, I’m not saying that the description posed by theory X is not actually true. Maybe we’ve guessed completely correctly on some point and the reason that we haven’t discarded the theory yet is because, being true, it cannot be discredited. What I am saying is that science makes no such claims of truth. As soon as you make statements of what actually is, instead of what appears to be functional, you have left science behind and entered the realm of philosophy and religion.

Aside: “‍Crack‍” Theories

There are many people who, in some particular topic, prefer an alternate theory to that accepted by the mainstream. These alternative ideas run a wide range of social connotation from the relatively innocuous belief that Mars has canals through less plausible ideas such as the continued life of Elvis to the socially disruptive notion that one race is superior to all others.

There are people who believe these less-common ideas who will change to the more general belief if present appropriate evidences. If you propose the right experiment, science will disprove their theory. But many will instead continue to assert their chosen ideas, often revealing more and more off-the-beaten-path ideas that back it up. What they are revealing is neither ignorance nor irrationality Some of them do display irrationality, of course, though that is hard to refute logically as well… perhaps I’ll expound in a later post. but rather a different razor than that utilized by other people. When their theory is perfectly sound, though bizarre and hard to swallow, it is not science that tells us it is a bad theory; it is our innate taste for our personal definition of simplicity that tells us we prefer to use our own theory instead.

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