I noted, in an earlier post, that most medical doctors have had little if any formal education in scientific thinking or methodology, but are treated, and often expect to be treated, as scientific experts. In this post I shall be advancing a model of science that has major implications for the ways scientists envisage what they do.
Before I continue, you should note that there would be many scientists who would disagree with my views about what science is and is not. I shall be arguing that science is not about knowledge or belief, but about how well the observations we make relevant to particular aspects of the universe match up to particular models we have of those aspects of the universe. On this view science is not about learning truths about the universe, but about deciding what is the most useful model we can create of particular aspects of the universe, in relation to a particular topic in which we are interested.
Certainly, we may find, sometimes, that our observations match one particular model, or “hypothesis,” so well that it is hard to imagine a different model that would be better fitted by observations. Nevertheless, one day, we may discover that another model may accord with not only the observations we have made so far, but with a whole lot of other observations (“data”) that would not fit with our current model. For example, for a long time, it was believed that atoms were, of their nature, indivisible. This belief made it almost impossible for people to make models (“theorize”) productively about how stars might work, among many other things.
Scientists, in general, think of scientific research as “discovering” facts; truths about aspects of the universe. They have always done so. The word “science” itself came, via Middle French, from a Latin word meaning “knowledge”. Many scientists would be astonished by my assertion that what they obtain from their research is not facts about the universe, but information about how well the data they accumulate match some particular model, or hypothesis. Scientists, on my view, should always, in the backs of their minds have a little voice that says something equivalent to “Yeah, but maybe it ain’t so.” This is what I call “scientist’s skepticism,” to distinguish it from “scientific skepticism,” a term coined by Carl Sagan to describe a particular set of rules for pursuing truth.
What we have, then, on my view, is the odd situation that people who want the truth become scientists, and engage in activities that cannot give them certainty about truth. They are, of course, human beings, as well as scientists, and are perfectly entitled to believe what they like, including that the results of their research reflect the true nature of the aspect of the universe investigated but, unless they hang on to their “scientist’s skepticism,” and accept that there is at least a minute chance that it ain’t so, by believing this they are ceasing to act as scientists.
We have noted that scientists are partly driven by a desire to know “facts” about the universe, but suggested that research cannot satisfy that desire. Another desire they usually have is to “understand” the models that research attempts to match to the available data. It is not entirely clear what “understand” means, but it is something like being able to form a consciously examinable mental construct which gives a satisfying feeling of having “made sense of” the model. Phrases like “Ah, I see,” and “That makes sense” may express the accompanying satisfaction.
Unfortunately, these days, in a number of areas of science, such as Subatomic Physics, and Cosmology, that satisfaction is hard to get. Very few people would claim that they “understand,” Quantum Mechanics, for example, in this way. Indeed, it is quite common to encounter discussions is which scientists disagree even about what phenomena a particular theory implies should occur.
Some people, including me, are unsurprised by this. J. B. S. Haldane famously said “Now my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” This type of failure of comprehension or imagination is not really surprising. Evolution has shaped us to be capable in a limited number of areas. They include maintaining our bodies, seeking reproductive mates, and protecting ourselves from a variety of dangers, so that we survive, at least until our offspring may also survive without our support, and so on. There has really been no reason for us to be given the ability to comprehend how the universe arose, and works. Anything nature gave us beyond what was necessary to survive and reproduce was a random side-effect of the evolutionary process or an unearned bonus.
It is not the role of scientists, AS scientists, to go around believing things. All collecting data can do is to tell us how well, or badly, the data, fits with our models or theory. It cannot tell us that the model is correct, or true. Research can be, and often is, described as giving our model or theory an opportunity to be disconfirmed. Often, however, the model we test is one which we believe, as people, not as scientists, likely to be true. It is little wonder that many scientists, to whom the way of thinking about research I have described does not come naturally, slip into the habit of seeing their research as attempting to PROVE their theories. If the data fit the theory particularly well they may well see the theory as having been shown to be true, and leave no room for the but-maybe-it-ain’t-so response.
There is one more issue I must raise that complicates the picture of Science that I have given still more. This is the fact that it is no longer the case that the picture that science gives us of the universe is like a straightforward, if huge, map. When new models of particular phenomena receive strong research support, this no longer means that the previous models are discarded. Earlier, I used the example of Einstein’s revolutionary notion that gravity is not a force, with waves or particles, but simply the outcome of the fact that matter distorts a four-dimensional space-time continuum. Support for this model has not resulted in the abandoning of earlier models. People are still trying to detect gravity waves, or gravitons (gravity particles). Conversely, physicists are simultaneously investigating models of the universe that involve, not four, but up to eleven dimensions. How many of these dimensions, one might wonder, does matter distort
The recognition that research cannot tell us what is “true” about the universe makes the simultaneous use of many apparently incompatible theories or models comprehensible. If all we are doing is finding out how well the data we collect match the model it is is most economical to use the simplest model that covers the phenomena in which we are interested. The fact that there may be a more powerful model that covers what the simple one does, and a lot of other phenomena as well, doesn’t matter to us. We don’t need to deal with space-time continua if we are seeking a cure for cancer, or studying weather patterns. And we certainly don’t need to believe we are discovering truths about the universe.