Monday, August 21, 2006

Scientific Thought vs. Unscientific Thought

(This is an article I wrote for a campus magazine. Was inspired by the book "The Fox and the Hedgehog" by Stephen Gould. The motivation is my concern that it is quite easy to become intolerant simply because one is comfortable with a certain point of view.)

A topic which has been pre-occupying me for the past few days is how logical is what we have been taught as logic? Is our approach to life strictly logical? Does anything like a strictly approach to life exits? Even if something like pure logic were to exist would it be in our interest to pursue it.

My contention is that we have been conditioned to regard certain approaches as “Scientific” and “Unscientific”. Human thought and its progress has been highly zig-zag. Reading the lives of many thinkers, I feel that there is a trend in the growth of “great ideas”. That is, the seeds of the most revolutionary ideas germinate many many decades before they see the light of the day. If the idea strikes at the hitherto accepted fundamentals of the subjects, then it does not catch the fancy immediately. Often, a charismatic intellectual is required to support and elaborate on the idea. Gradually, an acceptance emerges. In the meantime, some other development undermines/ supports this idea. If there is a development which necessitates the idea, then it explodes and the rest as they say is history. If not, it remains in the bylanes of scientific thought until another charismatic genius comes and re-interprets the idea. Often, the original context and concept of the idea may be very different from its final state. Therein lies a subtlety. Any work of thought has to be re-interpreted before making it fit for mass instruction. In the process, many “transmission losses” occur. One very subtle intellectual problem arises out of the common practice of giving examples. In my opinion, analogies are excellent tools in teaching but often create many, many misconceptions. Why does a teacher have to resort to give examples? There is clearly a communication problem somewhere. Either it is with the listener or the speaker. To get around the problem, an example is given. Therefore, we have only got around the communication problem and we have NOT solved it. Being aware of this limitation, I think students should take examples with a pich of salt, as a very restrictive illustration of a concept, borne out of the desperation for communication.

I have digressed. In the process of interpretation many inconsistencies which the original thinker did not intend creep in. Also, the original historical context is lost and the result is carried forward. Nothing wrong for this is the practical thing to do. But, the realization that knowledge is seamless is lost and in some cases this leads to needless pedantism.

Stephen Gould has written an interesting book titled “The Fox and the Hedgehog”. The title of the book is got from a Greek fable. The fox is portrayed as a cunning animal which has a number of strategies and can flexibly shift from strategy to strategy to achieve its goal. When pursued by enemies, the fox resorts to a combination of strategies to “outfox” the opponents. The Hedgehog on the other hand, curls up into a ball which has a hide of spines. The enemies come look at the ball, wait for it to uncoil. After some time they decide it would be worthier to walk away and find some other prey. The Hedgehog uncoils and walks away.

This brings to light two broad strategic approaches. One is that of the fox: Flexible, combination of many. The other is that of the hedgehog: steadfast, determined and proceeding on its path irrespective of its opponents approach.

The beauty is that we need a combination of both approaches to maximize our payoffs. Being too shallow across many fields does not pay but neither does pedantic steadfastness. There have been great minds like Von Neumann who forayed into a number of fields, setting the foundations for many while there were others like Schroedinger, Dirac who achieved great things in one field only. The contributions of both approaches are equally important.

A classic example is the debate over astrology. Astrology is dismissed immediately as a pseudoscience. What is the basis for doing so? Here we have to resort to a “definition of science”. Is repeatability the test of a science? By that argument many of the experiments we perform in the lab, never give the literature result. Does it render those experiments unscientific? Not at all. Repeatability is a feature of science not the test. Coming back to the case of astrology, what is its status with regards to science?

Now, the fundamental supposition of astrology viz. planets affect our lives, seems ridiculous. But that per se does not render astrology unscientific as commonly thought. For a theory, you can start of with any axiom, it is the results derivable from that which matter. The real problem with astrology is this: Given that a prediction is wrong there is no way to know which part of the “theory of astrology” failed. In other words, where was the conceptual flaw which rendered it to fail? The reason for this is that astrology has a number of empirical thumb rules as opposed to a well constructed theory.

But the same applies to psychology and some of the social sciences as well. Just because something does not conform to our definition of a science doesn’t render it less relevant and consequently we have many fields which are strictly not scientific but I think that indicates our inability to develop models to understand the world.

The kind of science we do is very effective when we can develop a qualitative relationship between the various variables which got making up a phenomenon. But there are many cases when that may not be possible. In such cases, one must not dismiss the problem as non-scientific but rather understand that our mathematical tools are inadequate. In such cases using heuristics and thumb rules is perfectly admissible and in fact that may be the “scientific approach”.


Chintamani Kurse said...

The so called scientific thought is based on rubbishing anything remotely concerned with religion or anything that has been believed by people over time. Its always fashionable to go around rubbishing people whose points of view are not similar to yours. For ex.: Think of this. Earlier people hated homosexuals. Now they need their space, etc. The earlier is not 'rational'. I don't see the second one being 'rational'. People have a right to be grossed out at some thought. Holding on to rational thought blindly can be termed irrational according to me. So, here I end the monologue, though want to write more

themiddler said...

Hmm... agreed. My main aim is that often intolerance masquerades as "scientific".

Chintamani Kurse said...

My aim was the same :)

Sundeep said...

nice article.

I must say that most of what you say is true, but I would like to emphasize three things which I feel make a theory scientific.

1) It must have a minimal set of axioms which are FREE of inconsistencies. if the axioms themselves are not consistent, you can end up proving all kinds of nonsense. Further, the axioms should be easily verifiable by observation or experience (i.e something really obvious).

2) It should predict results which can easily be verified by unbiased, repeatable experiments. Actually there is a slightly stronger view by the philosopher Karl Popper. He says that a true scientific theory is one that can be falsified, meaning that there is every chance that it can be disproved by experiment. The more the experiments confirm the theory, the better the theory is, but one single counterexample means that there is something wrong with the theory and it must be rectified.

3) Occam's Razor should be used. This is to ensure that people don't come up with conspiracy theories or supernatural explanations for phenomena which can easily be explained in a simple and rational manner. Of course, occam's razor must be used judiciously, because oversimplification can kill a theory even if it follows the first two principles i've outlined above.

In the case of astrology, it doesn't satisfy the second and third criteria I've listed above (I don't know if it has consistent axioms).

themiddler said...

Wow! Thanks for the note. Good one.

I have actually tried to explain Popper's falsifiability in the article.

Btw, do you read all this in your courses or on your own?