The Daily Nash-on

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Scientific Arrogance and the Methodology of Science : Part I

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Recent experience has suggested to me, that often , the application of logic and a clear statement of views from a person who is known to be scientifically inclined, is immediately perceived as “arrogance” by the philistines. Over a few such discussions, I have come to think that this is probably because of the general ignorance of the scientific method and the actual problems in doing science that shape the thought process of a scientist (and scientifically inclined persons).

I will try to bring some of the pet points that lead to the notion of the scientist as an “arrogant thick-headed narrow minded person who just wont listen to anything else someone is saying.”

1. All scientists do is : do an experiment, get the data and write the results.

That is definitively the most inaccurate and grand understatement of the century. If it was that easy , scientists would be a happy lot, churning out inventions b the hour and the universe would probably be understood by now.

The real way science is done is as follows :

I want to study something, how can I define my problem precisely ?
Eg : I want to know what happens to things when they fall down. That is an idea. But it is completely vague (although I have heard arguments that the vagueness is “acceptable” for the purposes of furthering the explanation) and not conducive to analysis. So it will have to be rephrased as : I will study how an averaged sized watermelon falls from a table of a certain height onto the floor. Precision.

So I let a watermelon roll off, it falls, I see what happens. I roll a few more off, does the same thing happen ? If yes, I am good. If not, this is a hopeless experiment.

If the same thing does happen, what could be influencing it ? The kind of watermelon ? The kind of floor ? My presence ? Temperature ? Humidity ? The way I roll it off ? The height ? Perhaps all, perhaps none. I must now bear in mind distinctly that although it may not be apparent to me, there is a distinct possibility of these factor influencing my experiment. For any further statements, I must define the conditions I performed the experiment in.

I will now vary the experimental conditions and note the influence of these various factors. And then and only then, I will start collecting data. Do the experiment a hundred thousand times. And note my parameter : time of dropping , or smashability or these watermelons, for example. Of course, it is important again to define what each parameter specifically means. Smashability = crack in skin ? Or falling apart ? Or both ?

Now I will study the data, and immediately ask myself the question, is the data good ? Or are there any obvious contradictions and anomalies ? If I think there are anomalies , or contradictions, I will extract the same of kind of data multiple times and confirm if the anomalies are reproducible , or not. Reproducibility is good because then, in those set of conditions, at least, it is a feature of the system and not an artifact.

Finally, construct a model, based on my data , and make predictions as to what will happen if I change the conditions drastically, for example, if I use an apple instead of a watermelon. Then repeat the whole experiment, along with all the questions I set earlier. Did things happen the way I predicted them ? If yes, the model I made SEEMS to work, but I am aware at this point that it may not work under all conditions. If no, go back and think about improving the model, assuming that the way I generated data is good.

I hope that by now, it is understood by the philistines that the scientific process is one of continues questioning and self-skepticism. It is extremely important, for the purpose of discovering the truth, that one remains aware of one’s own inadequacies. Another way to look at the stringency is to see it as a set of “confidence building measures (CBMs)”. Indeed, there are instances where experimentation is done for a known fact solely to build confidence and verify again, perhaps through some other route, that what is stated is true. And even then, we say it is “true” as far as we know it.

For some, it may seem like splitting hairs, but that level of precision that is expected at least at the ideological level, because at the experimental level, surely inaccuracies have begun to creep in. Which is what brings us to “statistical significance”. To account for experimental inaccuracies the experimental data has to be shown to significant or valid under statistical tests. This really examines the questions such as : Apple’s fall differently as compared to watermelons. But how different is different ?

And now, that you are familiar with the dirty-work of science, imagine doing this for a few experiments, in situations where one may not be able to define each of the above as accurately, and where problems and systems are many times more complex that melons falling on the floor.

After all of that fuss, whether one can draw tangible inferences from experimentation and discovers any truths about the bigger picture, is still uncertain. And that is why, scientific research is infinitely difficult, yet it can be done.

2. Scientists are arrogant

I can see that when a person steadfastly holds on to what he / she is saying and especially with an air of knowing more but not being able to explain in comprehensible terms , it may come across as arrogant. However, it is the result of the abovementioned CBMs, the process of making sure, which makes the person have a large confidence in his statements. Clearly, to refute all of the above effort and thought, and convince him otherwise, would require a very very cogent argument. A cogent argument, is often not made available by the philistines.

Therefore, the scientific arrogance is simply a lot of confidence.

3. Science violates/ refuses to accept the role of nature.

I changed my mind. THIS is the understatement of the year. Science is in fact, the study of nature and the tenet in science is that “what happens in nature is absolute.” If a scientific theory does not agree with what happens in nature, the theory is wrong, or deficient in the least. In fact, one of the reasons of the constant skepticism in the scientific method is because the eternal question that hovers on a scientists mind : “its happening here…Does it happen in nature ?”
One of the most strong feelings a scientifically inclined mind will eventually have is at the sheer glory of nature.

4. Scientifically inclined people are narrow minded / have a single track mind

On the contrary, scientifically inclined people are required, as a requirement of the scientific thought process , to be open minded, and try and fathom a concepts in the milieu of other interwoven concepts. Perhaps a recent development, but these days, everyone seems to agree that really anything is possible (and from experience, even more so in biology). It is important to be AWARE, to understand what is happening.
And thus as an example :
The old question of “is the glass half-empty or half-full ?” is of the type “is the zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes ?”. The answer to this is that it is BOTH! Obvious, isn’t it ? What if I ask you a question “Are you human or are you alive ? Give me only one answer”
I am strongly inclined to believe that the person who asked me such a question and expected me to chose any one of the answers had no concept of mutual exclusivity. One can ask questions such as yes/no, true/false, this/that only if the two events are mutually exclusive.

In fact, when events are not mutually exclusive , it is again necessary to be aware that such is the case. Once one is aware of it, there can be no sensible way to chose one answer.

5. Scientists are thick-headed

A scientist is forever willing to question himself. The history of science has shown that it progresses, because of constant questioning. However, many of the philistines and their fables and traditions are beyond questioning. And then, to top it off, logical statements are termed inane. I’ll let you decide what is thick-headed.

In summary, what science is, is structured curiosity and exploration of the truth. There is wisdom elsewhere too, of course, but much of it is not in a form which can stand up to a sort of “quality control”, that science has put on truth. By no means is the quality control perfect, but it is better than fables and tales that one is simply expected to accept as true. A prudent analogy to illustrate this , there is Roman army, with a systematic study of warfare, divisions, a chain of command…facing a mob of disorganized barbarians. True, it is possible that the barbarians may win despite their apparent shortcomings. But the question is, who is more likely to win ? Which side inspires greater confidence ?


Written by Nash

October 2, 2005 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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