The reach of science cont…

Posted on January 19, 2011

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Jenny: “I’m still a bit confused about where science ends and religion starts… or where evidence stops and believing starts?”

Peter: ” Yeah, scientists and the Pope both agree about certain observations, for example that people die – seeing (and smelling) is believing. But scientists and the Pope differ on how much of a person dies – science says ‘every bit of us dies’ and the Pope says only part of us dies and the rest goes to heaven or hell.’

Professor Wiggly: “Well put Peter. Let’s rephrase the question: when do trusted observations stop and trusted beliefs start?  Humans rely heavily on trusted observations – or information provided by  their senses. Across time and across cultures humans have stubbed their toes and seen and smelled death – universally trusted observational expeiences regardless of date, country or religion. Scientists have extended our observational reach.  With the aid of instruments they increase our sensory reach. With the aid of  telescopes we reach the stars and gradually change our view of the universe. With the aid of microscopes we extend our sensory reach to the very small, and radically revise our beliefs about disease.  But it takes time to change trusted beliefs or habits even when repeated observations  challenge them. We don’t give up a pet theories or beliefs  or habits – it’s like child giving up a blankie. For instance even though doctors have known for over a hundred years about all the tiny bugs (germs) on their hands, they still forget to wash them off before examining  their patients and some patients die.”

Jenny: “So we rely on both trusted observations and trusted beliefs to make sense of our world. And since our observational or sensory reach is limited we must rely heavily on trusted beliefs and theories to fill in the gaps and large empty spaces – particularly the biggest empty space of all – the future?”

Peter: “So scientists fill in the empty spaces with theories and mathematical bridges, religious people fill in the empty spaces with gods and  commandments, politicians fill them with promises, bankers with promissory notes and mortgages,  construction companies fill them with contracts. gamblers fill them with bets, mothers with hope, men with lottery tickets and insurance policies, and I fill my empty spaces with booze – don’t mind if I do.”

Professor Wiggly: ”  So we make sense of our world – locate  and create trusted spaces or safe places – with the help of  trusted observations plus trusted theories and beliefs. We think that science fills empty spaces with trusted observations. That’s their goal but the questions they ask – the spaces they want to explore – are usually so large that the best they can do is establish relatively view observational check points or empirical stepping-stones. For instance they want to test the effects of a new flu vaccine for the whole population, for millions of people, but they can only afford to test it on a relatively small sample – maybe a few hundred. So they only have a few hundred observational check points or empirical stepping-stones to map a massive space – so the resulting map is very crude, consisting mainly of unmapped territory, consisting mainly of ignorance. Let’s say that only  35% of those inoculated with the new vaccine get the flu compared with 50% of the general population. That’s looks good. It does until another researcher repeats the study and finds that 60% of his sample get the flu. So a sample of observations is only that – a sample is a rough or crude estimate of what’s happening in a given space at a given time. Any estimate is surrounded by a region of uncertainty – what’s the ‘real’ number – is it 35%, 60% or what would a third sample show? Furthermore we have no estimate of what possible negative effects the vaccine inoculation have  over an extended time. Not until a researcher does a follow-up study. When a researcher tracked his sample of  people for ten years he finds that 8% develop severe complications. Again this is one estimate. How accurate is it? We never have enough trusted observational check points to map a large space over a long time so scientists must fill in the large gaps and empty spaces (the future) with trusted theories or beliefs – with faith-based reasoning. Nevertheless science remains are most trusted news service. It’s unfortunate when a few arrogant scientists forget that science must rely on small samples of observations to map large unknown areas of ignorance, failing to recognize that they must rely mainly on their theories – their faith-based reasoning – to build their models of reality, when they fail to realize they must rely on what Hawkings calls ‘model dependant realism’.”

Jenny: ” So whether science is trying to map any large unexplored space, a  medical space, or economic space, or political space, or  solar space, or a personal space it can only sprinkle it with relatively few trusted observational check points – it must fill in the large gaps and future empty space with trusted theories or beliefs or biases or guestimates. So Scientific knowledge is mainly theoretical supported by relatively few observational check points supporting a large theoretical structure. That’s why Einstein said that if a particular observation didn’t agree with his theory he’d still believe his theory – A theory is a trusted map, an observation is only an estimate surrounded by uncertainty. He can afford to discard an  observtion, he can’t afford to discard his beloved theory, his truste belief system.”

Jenny: ” It sounds like science is like a love affair – once it’s developed a pet theory there it takes a lot of negative observations to turn it off.  I never thought of love as a trusted theory about another person. When you stop to think about it a loved one is a relatively unexplored space stretching into the future.”

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Posted in: Sciencing