The Hubris of Scientists

Screenshot from the public domain films Maniac...
Screenshot from the public domain films Maniac (1934) showing Horace B. Carpenter as the character “Dr. Meirschultz” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists talk about gravity,  mass and probabilities, atoms, Higgs boson, black holes and qasars. Certainly the universe seems to behave as if these concepts represent reality and so scientists are justified in the their assertions and predictions. Nevertheless the assumption that the concepts that scientists use represent reality is debatable.

The scientific method which has been a part of science since 17th century is a set of rules that scientists use to develop and test theories about the scientific view of the world. Basically, the scientist formulates a hypothesis (based on an earlier theory or as a totally new theory) and develops experiments to test the theory. The experiments produce observations which either support or do not support the theory.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...
English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the observations agree with the theory they are said to support the theory. If they do not, they are said said to disprove the theory. So far, so black and white. An experiment may be challenged on many grounds. For example the search for the Higgs boson is not done by actually isolating candidate particles and looking at it directly. Instead the expected properties of the Higgs boson, perhaps its mass or energy, the way it interacts with other particles, or other more esoteric properties,  can be used to deduce that, for example, in a particular experiment a peak at a certain point on a graph produced by a scientific instrument could only be the result of the presence in the apparatus for  at least an instant of the required Higgs boson.

One possible way the Higgs boson might be prod...
One possible way the Higgs boson might be produced at the Large Hadron Collider. Similar images at: http://atlas.web.cern.ch/Atlas/GROUPS/PHYSICS/Conferences/2003/aspen-03_dam.ppt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a similar way, we don’t detect an electric current directly. Instead we rely on electromagnetic theory which predicts that moving electrons should produce a magnetic field and that magnetic field would interact with a static magnetic field of a permanent magnet perhaps to produce a force on the permanent magnet hence moving a needle. Behold! We detect an electric current. Actually what we see is the movement of a needle and we infer the electric current from that observation.

Sometimes the chain of inference is short, as in the electric current experiment, while in others it is very much longer. I expect that the detection of the Higgs boson falls into the latter category, but I could (easily) be wrong. It is apparent that the more links that there are in the chain of inference, the higher the likelihood that one of the links might be debatable.

How to deduce various data with the observatio...
How to deduce various data with the observation results (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, faced with an experiment that supposedly tests a theory, the result does not absolutely prove or disprove the theory. If the experiment appears to show agreement with the theory, an opponent of the theory may cast doubt on the experimental method or in the theories that the theory being tested relies on. He or she would claim that the result doesn’t show what it purports to show. In addition he or she might point out that one experiment does not prove the theory as the next experiment could show the opposite. One experimental failure is enough to disprove the theory.

My cooking companions this evening- Zak dispro...
My cooking companions this evening- Zak disproved the “watched pot” theory. (Photo credit: who_da_fly)

Or is it enough to disprove it? Not really because the proponent of the theory  could claim that some currently unknown effect or other is preventing the experiment from producing the correct observations. So debate follows, more experiments follows, and in the end, a consensus is achieved. History will record that theory A was generally accepted until so-and-so’s experiment replaced it with theory B. Or that theory A was extended by theory B and confirmed by so-and-so’s experiment. Or similar. Much more black and white!

Scientists explain experimental results in terms of theories. For instance when sodium is introduced into a flame (perhaps in the form of sodium chloride – salt) and the light from the flame is passed through a prism then a bright yellow line is seen. Scientists explain this as the result of the transition of an excited electron from an elevated orbit to a lower one. This explanation depends on several, maybe many, other explanations, such as an explanation of what ‘excited’ means and what ‘electron’ means and what ‘orbit’ means. In many cases these explanations are based on mathematics, and an explanation is based on concepts each of which requires explanation.

sodium flame test
sodium flame test (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So therein lies the hubris of scientists. Their attempts at explanation of observable facts is a bottomless pit of explanation on explanation. There is no ultimate explanation. The universe is and does what it is and does.

So, am I saying that science is pointless? No, I am merely saying that we need to be careful and not treat our explanations as anything other than very clever descriptions of those bits of the universe that we are have seen.

Contents of the universe according to WPAP 5-y...
Contents of the universe according to WPAP 5-year results (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the analogy of the sheet. Suppose you have an object hidden behind a sheet. You are allowed to make pin pricks in the sheet, one at a time. The universe is the object behind the sheet and each pin prick is an observation. As you make more and more pin pricks in the sheet you see more and more of the object behind the sheet. You may discover that a line of pin pricks is showing red. You form a theory that behind the line joining the existing pin pricks, between the existing pin pricks and, with less certainty, beyond the end pin pricks in the line, everything is red. To check this theory you make a pin prick between two existing pin pricks and find that the new pin prick shows red. The theory is supported by this new observation.

Scientists have been creating these pin pricks for centuries and now have a pretty good idea of the shape of the universe (and a pretty holey sheet!). Nevertheless there are parts of the object behind the sheet, the universe, that they haven’t yet uncovered, and maybe never will.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Here, following a collision of two protons, a is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles deposit is shown in blue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example of the type of thing that I mean, consider the so-called dark matter. Scientists appear to have pretty much discovered what constitutes matter but they can’t account for some aspects of certain large scale phenomenon observed in the universe and have hypothesised a new type of matter called ‘dark matter’, which doesn’t appear to interact with normal matter except gravitationally. It’s like suddenly finding some pin pricks showing blue in a line that is otherwise red. Something unexpected that needs explanation.

I accused scientists of ‘hubris’ above. That’s not entirely fair as hubris implies arrogance and while scientists confidently create explanations for phenomena that they study, I believe that most would concede that their explanations could (with very low probabilities, I would guess) prove to be erroneous.

''I think that it's important for scientists t...
”I think that it’s important for scientists to explain their work, particularly in cosmology. This now answers many questions once asked of religion.” – Stephen Hawking (Photo credit: QuotesEverlasting)

Predicting the future

Future car!
Future car! (Photo credit: Little Black Cherry)

The farmer fed the chicken every morning at the same. The chicken realised this and ran up to the farmer every morning to be fed. One morning the chicken ran up to the farmer who grabbed it and chopped off its head. This demonstrates the dangers of inductive reasoning. The old turkey was a little more sophisticated however. When asked by a younger turkey when Thanksgiving was, he replied that it was on the fourth Friday in November. The younger turkey was incensed to find out that it was the fourth Thursday in November. The older turkey said to him “Boy, the humans celebrate it on the Thursday, but if I wake up on Friday morning, then I give thanks”.

Induction is looking at the past in a particular way to predict the future. Specifically, induction looks at a series of events in the past to predict the future. The sun has risen like clockwork every day, whether or not you can see it, for as long as anyone can remember and for as long as we can determine from reports from the past. Will it rise tomorrow morning?  I would put money on it because either it will, and I win, or it won’t and it won’t matter because we will almost certainly be dead. The argument comes down to “It has always happened in the past, so it will (or it is extremely like to) happen in the future.

Zabriskie Point at sunrise in Death Valley
Zabriskie Point at sunrise in Death Valley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The alternative method of reasoning is deductive reasoning. The deductive argument is that the rising of the sun is a consequence of the rotation of the earth. As the earth rotates, the sun appears to us on the earth’s surface to appear from beneath the horizon and travel across the sky. Actually, it is us who move, a good demonstration of relativity (but maybe I’ll go there another day). The argument goes stepwise from fact to fact and leads inevitably or logically to a conclusion.

Horus, ancient Egyptian God, the Sun God, depi...
Horus, ancient Egyptian God, the Sun God, depicted on papyrus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trouble with this approach is that, for all its logical stepwise approach it is built on two things, a theory and a set of past observations. A scientist has a theory or decides to check a theory, so he does an experiment, and the results of his experiment support or do not support the experiment. The scientist assumes that the theory is true and bases his predictions on this. Unfortunately there is an inductive element to this – if the theory is true for the experiment, there is no guarantee that it will be true for subsequent experiments, even given that ‘ceteris paribus’ (all things remain the same). Some other unconsidered cause could affect the result. The argument is deductive, proceeding in logical steps from the theory, but the practise is inductive – the data has always supported the theory in the past, so it will continue to support the theory in the future.

New Scientist
New Scientist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be fair to the inductivists, todays’ inductivists tend to specify the results of their arguments in terms of probabilities: the probability of the sun rising tomorrow is close to 100%, given that it has always risen in the morning for as far back as we can see, but there is a minute but finite possibility that it won’t for known or unknown reasons.

Let’s consider the case of the sun rising each day and suppose that the fact that the earth rotates is not known. To make the argument more deductive we can postulate causes and so long as the cause fits the facts, we can tentatively label the cause as a hypothesis. Suppose we conjecture that some deity causes the sun to rise each morning. This hypothesis certainly fits the facts and predicts with accuracy that the sun will continue to rise each morning. Such a hypothesis would not be accepted today, of course, except by some individuals.

Mathematical induction can be informally illus...
Mathematical induction can be informally illustrated by reference to the sequential effect of falling dominoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is there any great difference between the theist and the scientist? The theist says “all things happen because of God”. The scientist says “all things happen because of the laws of nature”. They both explain things on the basis of their fundamental beliefs.

It is possible that people in the future may look at our theories of the sun rising and other things and consider them naive and consider our view of everything happening according to the laws of nature to be a quaint misunderstanding, in much the same way as many people would consider the “deity hypothesis” to be today.

cubed earth theory
cubed earth theory (Photo credit: Joelstuff V4)

In mathematics the situation is different. Induction is a much more formal process and is applied on top of an axiomatic system. Proved theorems are the results of the applying the axioms repeatedly to another proved theorem or the axioms themselves. Unproven assertions can be proved and turned into theorems or disproved and discarded (or possibly modified so that they can be proved). If something is proved in an axiomatic system, it is true for all time, and cannot be disproved in that system.

Specifically an inductive proof would go something like this: firstly the theorem would be proved for a generic case (eg if statement N is true, then statement N + 1 is true) and secondly it is proved for a specific case (eg statement 1 is true). Then all applicable statements are true because, if statement 1 is true, the generic case means that statement 2 is true, and so on for all cases. Because of the rigor of the argument and the undeniable conclusion of the argument, mathematical inductive proofs are of the same order of reliability as deductive proofs, that is, they are only wrong if there is an error in the logic.

English: Mathematical induction as domino effe...
English: Mathematical induction as domino effect, with text in Esperanto Esperanto: Matematika indukto kiel domen-efiko, kun teksto en Esperanto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why the difference between scientific induction and mathematical induction? Well, I think that it is related to the fact that mathematics is axiomatic and therefore certain, whereas scientific induction is based on the laws of nature which are not and never will be, in my opinion, completely defined. If the basis of your argument is not certain, how can your conclusion be certain?

The End Of Certainty?
The End Of Certainty? (Photo credit: minifig)