Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Science and Knowledge, Part I

I have often mentioned the subtle danger inherent in toleration of moderate religion. In short, the most insidious aspect of moderate religion is that it not only permits, but encourages, belief in things which are not supported by evidence. At first, this may not seem like such a bad thing. Many cultural traditions involve harmless (and even fun) promotion of things that are not “scientific.” There are probably hundreds of thousands of people who look back at their childhood years with fondness, remembering the excitement they felt at the thought of a midnight visit from Santa Claus. Millions of people worldwide check their daily horoscope, and they live perfectly functional lives. Despite cases like this, I believe it's crucially necessary to draw a cultural divide between that which is credible, and that which is mythical.

Before making my case, it is important for me to mention that I am not advocating a world without imagination, nor am I suggesting that we all live in a cold, calculating world of probability and detached analysis. In fact, what I'm proposing is the exact opposite in many ways. Even so, my critics will surely play the standard card, accusing me of attempting to rob their lives of any meaning or joy. Of course, the final judgment is to be made by you, the reader, but it is important to me that you understand my intentions at the beginning so that perhaps, if you are prone to making such accusations, you will suspend sentence until you have absorbed my entire argument.

What is Science?

The first step in dismantling the power of religion is to establish the power of science. There are many misconceptions, particularly in America, about not only what science is, but what it can do, and why it is certainly reliable. There is a perceived battle between science and religion, and much to the chagrin of the religious, the whole thing is a sham. The war has long since been won, and much like the stereotypical southern Good Ol' Boy with a confederate flag on the back window of his pick-up truck, many a religious man persists in believing that there is still something to fight over.

Science, very simply, is a process. It is a method, like math or logic. More precisely, it is the method for learning about our universe. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the sole milieu of trained academics and stodgy old men with glasses. Science is practiced by everyone on the planet on a daily basis. In fact – and this is a crucial point – it is impossible to avoid using science.

A simple way to learn the scientific method is to perform a series of thought experiments. Let's start at the very beginning. Imagine that you are walking along a road, and you spot an object on the sidewalk. It is metallic, roughly circular, and covered with a sticky black substance. Now suppose you decide that you want to know what it is. The first thing you are likely to do is pick it up. Imagine that when you do, you discover that it is very hot – so hot, in fact, that you are unable to hold it for very long. Out of sheer reflex, you drop it again.

At this point, we have quite a bit of data to work with. First, we have a physical description of the thing, and we have verified, as well as possible, that our eyes reported approximately accurate information to our brain. From picking the object up, we've learned that the object feels like it looks. It does indeed feel metallic. It has a heft that we would expect from metal. In short, we now have corroborating evidence – feel and touch – to help us decide what it might be.

If you will forgive the pedantic nature of this next observation, I promise it will be worthwhile. Picking the object up is a very important step in our little science experiment. We have all learned that our eyes are often not reliable sources of information. Not only are they often fooled, but many substances look very much like other substances, even though they are quite different. We might very well have discovered that the object, which gave every appearance of being metallic, was actually styrofoam covered with metallic paint. The simple act of verifying our initial observation with a second kind of observation is crucial to science.

Now, after you have dropped the very hot object, you make a third observation. When you put your fingers near your face, you notice a distinct smell that you recognize as that of burning motor oil. This new data puts an idea into your head. Perhaps this object is part of a car, and has recently been expelled from a running engine, landing on the sidewalk only a few moments earlier. In support of this idea, we have the following set of data:

  • Metallic object

  • Much hotter than expected from the current weather

  • Appears to be mechanically crafted

  • Appears to be covered with oil

  • Found very near a road

By itself, any one of these pieces of data might not be enough to reasonably conclude that the object is a car part, or that it was recently in a running car. However, when you put all of the information together, it seems a reasonable conclusion. Now, suppose that as you look up, you see a disabled car about fifty feet ahead, and a man working under the hood. At this point, you will probably feel confident enough to take the object to the man, certain that you have found something he needs. If, having done so, you watch him place the object back into his engine, in a space that appears specifically designed for it, you can leave satisfied of the facts.

Removing the details, what can we say has happened here in terms of general principles? First, you encountered something unknown. Second, you made multiple observations. Third, you tested the observations against one another for consistency. Fourth, you made a guess, based on your observations, about a likely explanation for the unknown object. Finally, you devised a test to determine if your guess was correct.

This, in a nutshell, is the scientific method. There's nothing magical about it, and certainly nothing requiring years of education. In fact, without consciously thinking about it, you performed the steps in exactly the correct order! The reason for this is that the correct order is the order that works and you intuitively knew it.

For comparison, let's try thinking of ways in which you could have deviated from the scientific method and reasonably hoped to get the correct answer. Is there any way that you could have looked at the object without recording the observation as data in your brain? Unlikely, to be sure. Could you pick it up without noticing the texture, temperature, or weight? Again, no. In short, there's no way to avoid recording empirical data about the world. Simply by interacting with the world, we are collecting evidence.

Likewise, if a pattern emerges from your observations, it is entirely unreasonable to suggest that our brain will not try to subconsciously make sense of it. That's what brains do. The process of forming guesses about patterns is ingrained in our consciousness, and cannot be avoided. It is the way we think. Literally. 

Very simply, the scientific method is just the expression of what we as humans unavoidably do. We make observations and predictions based on patterns of information. Now, let us do another thought experiment about the same situation. Suppose that after having gathered all your data about the mystery object, you decided that the object was likely a piece of debris from an alien spacecraft. Would that guess be a good one? There are obviously several problems with it. First, nobody on earth has ever produced an alien spacecraft for observation, so it's hard to test the idea. Second, unless alien spacecraft are invisible, there would be considerable evidence against the notion. Local radar, observations of other people, and satellite imagery could all demonstrate rather conclusively that no alien spacecraft were in the vicinity in the recent past. In short, there is a mountain of evidence against the guess.

Furthermore, there are clearly better guesses. Anyone noticing the broken down car could hazard a guess that makes more sense to the circumstances. In fact, a simple test will tell us whether this guess is accurate or not. If the man didn't actually need the part, and it didn't fit anywhere in his car, we would have to perhaps refine our guess. Perhaps it was from another car, which didn't suffer badly enough to stop running when the part was ejected. Perhaps it's from a riding lawnmower. (If there was a John Deere store in the vicinity, this guess would gain more credibility.)

Suppose now that after guessing that the part was from the broken down car, you tested your hypothesis by asking the man working on it, and it turned out that the part was not from that car. Has science failed us? Of course not! We have simply ruled out one possibility. The part might still be from a car. We could easily take it to an auto parts store and compare it with their inventory. If we found an identical part, we could be sure of it's identity. If, having tried several auto mechanics and auto stores, we were unable to find anyone with knowledge of cars who recognized the object, we would be forced to conclude that, barring any new information, the object was not from a car.

At this point, we could try various machine shops and manufacturing plants, repeating the same set of tests, until eventually, we correctly identified the object. This, again, is precisely what the scientific method prescribes. When we rule out one possibility, we keep looking for as long as it takes to find enough evidence to say what something is, or how it works. Here, we may ask a very pointed question. Supposing that we exhaust all of the known avenues for identifying the object, and we have still not determined its true nature. What is the correct answer to the question: “What is it?”

The answer, of course, is “I don't know.” This seems patently obvious, but it's astonishing how many times people forget this simple bit of logic. Suppose that, having exhausted our resources, we still had no evidence for what the object was. Would it be correct to say that since there was no evidence for its nature, that it must surely be part of an interstellar space station from the Andromeda Galaxy? Of course it wouldn't! In fact, it would be preposterously wrong to suggest such a thing, since the very result of our search demonstrated that there was no evidence for what the thing was!

It should be obvious at this point that whenever we don't have evidence for something, there's no way to form a reliable guess about its nature. However, just to drive the point home conclusively, let's do one more thought experiment. I have, on my desk at this moment, a picture of something. What is it?

Clearly, you have no idea. Perhaps, through random chance, you will guess the subject of the picture correctly, but it's highly unlikely. The only thing you know is that the subject can be rendered in picture form. You don't even know for certain that it exists on earth. Perhaps it is a photo of a far away galaxy, or of the upper atmosphere on Mars. (You don't even know if it's a photograph. Perhaps it's a drawing of something imaginary!) The point is that with no evidence, there is absolutely no way to make any kind of guess about what a thing is.

Suppose I ask you to now make a bet with me. If you guess correctly, you get ten thousand dollars, but if you guess wrong, you owe me ten thousand dollars, immediately. Unless you are a complete fool, you wouldn't dream of taking the bet, and for good reason. You have virtually no chance of winning. Now, suppose I gave you more information. Suppose I told you that it is a photograph of a baseball helmet. Would you be comfortable making the bet now? Probably not. If I added more information, and told you that it was a helmet from a Major League team, you would still only have a slim chance of guessing it – Far less than fifty-fifty, at any rate. However, if I told you that it was either a Chicago Cubs helmet or an Atlanta Braves helmet, you might feel sufficiently brave to take the bet.

Now, imagine that I told you that it's a photo of a Chicago Cubs helmet, and then asked you to make the bet with me. You'd be a fool not to take it, right? Or, would you? If you examined the evidence carefully, you'd realize that all you had to go on was my word. In fact, I would have a very strong motivation to tell you something inaccurate, so the weight of my testimony is almost nil. However, if I invited you over to my house and showed you the photo, allowing you to examine it to your heart's content, you would then have enough evidence to confidently take my bet.

This, again, is a step by step explanation for how (and why) science works. Some evidence is more reliable than others, and certainty can be measured in degrees. Imagine that I invite three people to make the same bet with me, and give each one a different set of evidence. To the first person, I say only that I have a picture of something. To the second, I say that I have a photo of a Major League baseball helmet. To the third, I provide the photograph itself. Each one of these three people, if forced to make a bet, has a certain likelihood of getting it right. The first person's chance is virtually zero. In fact, we could probably let him take thousands of guesses with confidence that he would not get it right. The second person, on the other hand, would certainly guess it within thirty tries, since that is the number of teams in Major League Baseball. The third person, unless he was monumentally stupid, would guess right on the first try. Though we cannot be 100% certain of his guess, it's fair to say that for all practical purposes, he will win ten thousand dollars in the next few seconds.

All of this, I hope, seems really straightforward and simple. Perhaps it is even insultingly so. However, it is apparently something that needs to be drilled into a lot of heads. The number of times I have had to defend the scientific method against other “sources of truth” is staggering. In fact, I have no doubt that there are many people who, upon reading this, will still cling to the idea that science isn't the only way to get knowledge.

Stay Tuned for Part II, in which I will spend more time on the notion of "alternatives" to science, the nature of religious claims, and the "Cult of Credulity."


SirMoogie said...

Science might not be the only way, but I don't know of any other methods that have the same properties that science does, such as:

- Objectivity
- Consistent results
- Parsimonious results
- Useful results
- Reliability
- Demonstrable results

Whenever I'm told there might be other ways of knowing, I usually say I'm open to them, but you'll have to demonstrate they exist, and that they have or exceed science in what it provides us.

Hambydammit said...

Well, actually, the point I'm trying to make here (and it should become more apparent to you after you read Part II) is that science has to be the only way because by it's very definition it is the only way. It would be self-contradictory to assert anything unscientific as a means to gain knowledge. I won't elaborate here because I've already done so in the article... just check in tomorrow or the next day when I post the conclusion.


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