Wires Crossed and Intellectually Lost: Are You Really Science Based? (Part 3)

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By Ciaran O’Regan
[NOTE: Whilst this piece can be read in isolation, you might consider reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to get a full insight into these thoughts/concepts.]

Albert Einstein presented his field equations that form the basis for General Relativity in 1915. This was done after 8 years of work to reconcile acceleration with his earlier 1905 Theory of Special Relativity. Four years later, in 1919, the first major supporting piece of evidence for the accuracy of the field equations was provided when Sir Arthur Eddington led expeditions to Latin America and the West Coast of Africa. The photographs taken demonstrated the bending of light predicted by Einstein’s work.

Image credit: ESO/Landessternwarte Heidelberg-Königstuhl/F. W. Dyson, A. S. Eddington, & C. Davidson

Prior to the 1919 expeditions, Einstein also demonstrated his scientific integrity and intellectual humility when he said:

“If the redshift of spectral lines due to the gravitational potential should not exist, then the general theory of relativity will be untenable.”

In other words, he was specifically stating ahead of time what evidence, if discovered, would show his many years of work to be wrong.

General Relativity describes how massive objects create a distortion in space-time, which is felt as gravity. It also predicted the existence of gravitational waves. An important implication of this work is that it implied the existence of black holes:

“Einstein predicted that gravity can warp the fabric of space-time. Based on that theory, scientists predicted what a black hole — which has immense gravitational pull — should do to the light around it, and what that should look like.”

Kristin Houser, Futurism.com

Fast forward to April 2019 (104 years after Einstein first presented his field equations to the Prussian Academy of Science) and we get absolutely astounding confirmation of Einstein’s scientific competence: an actual photo of a black hole was published, thereby supporting Einstein’s theoretical work with glaringly powerful evidence.

On a side note, one notices that there were two great coincidences in the timing of some recent observations. First, gravitational waves were detected for the first time in 2015; exactly a century after Einstein’s 1915 initial presentation in Prussia. And then, in 2019 a black hole was photographed another century after the aforementioned 1919 eclipse observations by Eddington and his team. Poetic.

Image Credit: EHT Collaboration

Let’s return to the black hole photograph. In my opinion, the public at large may have missed the enormity of this event in terms of how it highlights the predictive power of science.

I suspect most people did not realize that prior to April 2019, any black hole picture they had EVER seen was just an artistic representation of what scientists EXPECTED a black hole to look like, based on Einstein’s 1915 equations. So the image from April 2019 was the first ever actual photograph; and it looked just like the equations predicted it would.

Let that sink in for a moment.

To say the publication of this photo was “a huge day for science” would be a dramatic understatement. But when you hear me say “science” what does science mean to you?

I think wires often get crossed with the understandings of the word, which in turn contributes to the general public’s poor scientific literacy and their denial of its utility and accuracy.

Defining Science is Contextual

What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word “science”? What is the first association projected forward into your conscious awareness? There are many ways in which someone may consider what science is. I see four primary categories of definition that we can classify these under:

1) Science as the study of nature

In this context, a person might simply say “I love science.”

2) Science as a human endeavor of studying nature

In this context, a person who works as a researcher in academia or private industry might say “I work in science” or put the word “scientist” on their tax form. But we need to separate out “science as a pure field of study” from the human endeavour of “doing science”; simply because the universe is complex and infinite, whereas a human being is limited and finite. Not only is the human ape limited and finite, it is also fallible, irrational, and highly flawed. Do not despair, however, because all humans have these traits; not just scientists. What makes science so powerful though, is that the scientific method is the most potent way we know of to combat these traits in the perpetually uphill search for objective truth.

3) Science as the method of investigation used by humans to study nature (i.e. the scientific method)

This context involves the systematic attempted refutation of our lowest variability conjectures to use Karl Popper’s language. A conjecture is basically an opinion formed with incomplete information. And, as a result of the The Axiom of the Infinite Unknown (discussed in Part 2 of this series), we will always have incomplete information. In everyday language, however, to attempt to refute a conjecture basically means to try and use skeptical interrogation – often experimentation – to take a sledge hammer to our inherently flawed ideas about nature in order to find out where our ideas are incorrect and NOT where they are correct. It is the attempted refutation/falsification/disconfirmation of our ideas that provides us with the most accurate possible view of reality. As Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner put it:

“…in science, the best evidence that a hypothesis is true is often an experiment designed to prove the hypothesis is false, but fails to do so. Scientists must be able to answer the question “What would convince me I am wrong?” If they can’t, it’s a sign they have grown too attached to their beliefs.”

Page 38, Superforecasting – Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner

4) Science as the body of knowledge generated by the method of investigation used by the humans to study nature

In this context someone might say for example that “the science on this shows…” when referring to the evidence that they are aware of in the published literature about a topic. However, this knowledge is always held as “transient truth”, in the words of Danny Lennon. This is because we never can be certain that further disconfirming evidence will not emerge in the future. An example here is that of Newton’s celestial mechanics being found to be a less accurate a descriptor of the movement of objects in space than Einstein’s aforementioned General Relativity, and that scientists all over the world are currently trying to find better models than Einstein’s work.

The word science is a great example of the failings of language, because you would not have been incorrect if any of the 4 uses for the word I have listed above were what came to mind. Of the above 4 contexts in which the word “science” may be used, all happen to be closely related but still separate entities.

(Sidebar: Infinite nerd points for you if your first thought was “the word science comes from the Latin word scientia which means knowledge.”)

Of course, I realize that you would not often hear the word “science” stated in isolation in the manner that I have asked. It would likely be in a sentence that provides context to its use. However, even when the word is used in a sentence, there still seems to be a non-trivial number of people who conflate/confuse the meaning and then, unfortunately, end up denying the power of science as a result.

So when any of the four definitions of science are mistakenly conflated with one of the others, misunderstandings and incorrect conclusions form. Let’s take a look at this “crossed wires” phenomenon…

Crossed Wires

Body of Knowledge vs Method of Investigation

A mistake I see often is the conflation of ‘science as a body of knowledge’ with ‘science as a method of investigation’. This usually occurs in circumstances where certain content from the body of knowledge is in disrepute. Unfortunately this sometimes leads to people mistakenly thinking there is a problem with the scientific method itself. Quite obviously, this may only occur when one does not understand the scientific method or the body of knowledge for what they actually are.

There are many cases where we could criticize the current body of knowledge: poorly done studies, researcher bias, etc. all the way down to outright fraud. But this shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of science as a method of investigation. The scientific method is an amoral tool that is the best aid we have to describe the workings of nature.

In the aforementioned examples it is flawed humans who have incorrectly used the tool and/or incorrectly utilized the data derived by the tool, which have lead to issues with the body of knowledge. So within science as a body of knowledge, there may be problems, but that doesn’t mean science as a tool of inquiry is “broken” or “wrong” or “useless” as some people claim.

People with this conflation between knowledge and method may then hear the word “science” and may automatically associate any use of the word with research fraud and/or ethically and morally shady decisions made in the interest of profit, career furthering, or even politics and warfare. This potential within humans toward self-interest and incompetence or malevolence is obviously not unique to people who produce content for the scientific body of knowledge. Humans are all imperfect apes.

Just because there may be literature or other content produced by people who do not behave with the moral or ethical traits we would wish to see, does NOT mean that the scientific method itself is to be chucked with the bathwater. It is precisely because humans are flawed that the scientific method has been such a powerful tool for us.

Method of Investigation vs Human Endeavour

On similar lines, it can also be an issue if people think that just because a person self identifies as a “scientist” and may even work in academia or industry that they automatically employ the actual scientific method. They may not be doing so at all. The scientific method is essentially based on perpetual truth seeking through the attempted refutation of our conjectures on an iterative basis. This is basically the attempted disconfirmation of ideas. Scientific knowledge grows via negativa by people taking a sledgehammer to ideas, including their own, with rigorous skeptical interrogation. Then, whatever is left behind after the attempted refutation is taken as the most probabilistically likely view of reality FOR NOW until further evidence emerges.

An already used example here is that of Newton’s celestial mechanics being seen as the best description of the movement of objects in space until Einstein’s aforementioned General Relativity. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it:

“Knowledge is subtractive, not additive – what we subtract (reduction by what does not work, what not to do), not what we add (what to do).”

Page 110, The Bed of Procrustes – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There are, unfortunately though, people who self-identify as scientists but are in fact not exerting scientific thinking and/or acting in accordance with the endeavour of science. This is because they do not genuinely seek a truer understanding through attempted disconfirmation of their own ideas (or know how to?); instead they do the opposite of science by searching only for confirmation of preconceived positions and either ignoring conflicting evidence or selectively applying skepticism only to the information that opposes their own bias.

These people might be better called “petty factionalists” or “belief guardians” (see Part 1 of this series entitled “Uncertainty” for descriptions of Victim Thinking and Believer Thinking as they fit in the category of non Truth Seekers). A “belief guardian” operating in academia, for example, might be someone who ends up knowingly or unknowingly partaking in groupthink at the expense of acknowledging evidence that runs counter to the ideology that has possession over them (see the “As vs. Has” description from Part 1 of this series). As Taleb also said in the same book:

“Soldiers are more loyal to their comrades (and willing to die for them) than to their country. Academics are more loyal to their peers than to the truth.”

Page 84, The Bed of Procrustes – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Of course, this should be more accurately phrased as “Some academics…” as there are academics I know to be of the utmost integrity and intellectual honesty (and many more whom I will never know but are cut from the same cloth). Alas, Taleb has never been one to avoid controversy with his choice of words.

Human Endeavour vs Study of Nature

Another conflation is the mistaking of the human endeavor of studying nature with a potentially perfect study of nature by some kind of entity that did not have our inherent limitations (an entity that of course only exists in theoretical abstraction). This may sound strange, but please bear with me while I elaborate using geometry to illustrate my point.

In geometry we study perfect two dimensional shapes such as right angle triangles, squares, and circles. This is done even though these shapes do not appear anywhere in the natural world. Beyond that, they cannot even be drawn by a human; an abstract two dimensional shape obviously loses its two dimensional status due to the ink from our pen or carbon from our pencil occupying three dimensions of space. In spite of this gap between theoretical perfection in abstraction and actual manifestation in reality, it still serves us as beneficial to study geometry and employ it in the world (just ask a carpenter or an architect). An acceptable gap between theoretical perfection and practical utility also applies to science.

Just as two-dimensional geometry is perfect in abstraction yet imperfect when made manifest in reality by humans, science as the study of the workings of nature is also perfect in abstraction yet imperfect when done by humans. Similar to how there are practical limitations to the creation of perfect two-dimensional shapes in reality, humans are limited by the constraints of the current evolutionary development of both our biology and knowledge in the ability to investigate the workings of nature in a scientific sense. This is why I separate out science as the study of nature and science as a human endeavor of studying nature.

In its simplest terms, the gap between the theoretically perfect study of nature and the human study of nature, exists because (as I alluded to when describing The Axiom of the Infinite Unknown – TAIU – in Part 2 of this series) nature itself is at least metaphorically, if not literally, unlimited and infinite, whereas humans are neither. Here is my description of TAIU from Part 2:

The Axiom of the Infinite Unknown (TAIU) refers to the premise that a single human is limited and finite whereas the knowledge contained within the Universe is complex and infinite. Accepting TAIU means that one acknowledges the impossibility of knowing all knowledge there was to know, is to know, or will ever exist and therefore will strive to maintain uncertainty as ones only certainty.

Are You Really Science-Based? Part 2 – Ciaran O’ Regan

Also, another major limitation relates to the observer effect. This effect relates to the idea that we do not see an aspect of nature as it may actually be; we see it in a way that is possible for us to see it when we are intervening by trying to study it.

An example here from everyday life is that we are unable to check tire pressure in a car without letting out some of the air in the process. Another is that by putting a thermometer into something to measure the temperature, the presence of the thermometer itself influences the temperature of what we are trying to measure. In quantum mechanics an archetypal illustration of the observer effect is seen in the famous double slit experiments. In these experiments, the wave function of an electron gets collapsed in the presence of a measurement device. Simply, you can think of this as the act of measuring or observing something changing it’s reality.

A related example of our inability to capture the workings of nature in its totality is that of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the more accurately we try to determine a particle’s position, the less accurately we can know its momentum, and vice versa. A wonderfully poetic line attributed to the writer Anaïs Nin is quite apt here:

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

Anaïs Nin

When Science Deniers Get (Literally) Lost

In spite of the limitations that exist in our ability to truly study nature, and in spite of the aforementioned “crossed wires” phenomenon: science still works.

Objective reality regarding the workings of nature is what it is, whether we like it or not. And science is our best tool to uncover its mysteries. People who claim otherwise, should be left with a difficult case of cognitive dissonance. This is because they are likely living day-to-day in ways only possible because science “works”; e.g. using technology derived from scientific findings.

With this in mind, and given that this piece opened with Einstein, I will close by bringing it full circle. If you ever encounter someone who disagrees with the power of science, it might be worth suggesting that they discontinue their use of the global positioning system (GPS) navigation on their phone or device. This is because the GPS function that allows their devices location to be determined so precisely depends on the same scientific theories of relativity presented by Einstein over a century ago that also predicted the existence of black holes actually photographed just a few months ago.

Anyone who disagrees with the utility of science due to human fallibility in general or even their own misunderstanding about what it actually is, logically needs to forfeit the use of technological innovations that science has provided them.

Maybe getting physically lost some day due to their refusal to acknowledge the objective reality discovered through the use of the scientific process might help them to realize they have had wires crossed, and have been intellectually lost, in their understanding of the wonders of science all along too?

“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.”

The World As I See It – Albert Einstein

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