The reach of science #7

Posted on February 1, 2011


There was a young man from Trinity,

Who solved the square root of infinity.

While counting the digits,

He was seized by the fidgets,

Dropped science, and took up divinity.


“The expert’s [or scientist’s] representations  [knowledge] or procedures need not be valid, in a rational-empirical sense, they need only be functional in helping the constituencies manage their uncertainty, just, for example, as all kinds of ‘invalid’ past medical practice (when seen from the vantage of current medical belief) have done.” (Ford et al).

Professor Wiggly: “Stop for a minute. Read this statement again. It’s very profound.  It says that what you perceive to be true [trusted beliefs that help you manage your uncertainty)  at any given time depends upon the particular time, the place, your culture, the people you’re with, the source of information (eyes, ears, instruments, memory, someone else’s memory, eyes, ears,  instruments, etc.) So what we accept as true all depends on an awful lot of things – no wonder ‘the truth’ keeps changing!”

Jenny: ” Ok, I understand that what I believe at any given time – beliefs that help me manage my uncertainty and make important decisions – like how to vote, what stocks to buy, who to trust – depends on the timing, who I’m with, the news, my mood, my health, what I remember, etc. But I still have a hard time believing that scientists also bbelieve what helps them manage their uncertainty – whether it’s ‘true’ or not. I  still see them as immune from peer pressure, moods, forgetting, bias, unreliable information, and so on.”

Peter: “Yeah – I see what you mean. But what scientists believe to be true changes over time – medical science is all over the board: ‘take this pill…no stop taking that pill and take this one…. oops not a good idea try this one….’, And Docs  are influenced by peer pressure – treatment fads – and by drug company’s and their often biased information, and by information overload cause they can’t begin to keep up with the flood of information. Just look at the conflicting information (conflicting research reports and opinion) appearing on the internet about any given ailment. Then they’re faced with the vague information a patient brings to them, vague and uncertain symptoms, uncertain symptoms, uncertain research, time pressure (8 and  half minutes per patient) … I see where they have to go with beliefs – right or wrong – that  manage or reduce both the Docs and their patients uncertainty.”

Jenny: “OK, I can see why medical scientists have to rely on questimates  and pet theories and fads  to help them manage their own uncertainty and that of the their patients – patients are complicated, they’re all different and often respond differently to the same treatment so docs don’t know ahead of time how a given patient will react to a particular pill or treatment. But what about scientists who work on simpler stuff than people, on white rats, or iron fillings, or electrons?”

Professsor Wiggly: “Good question. The simpler and more stable the ‘stuff’ that scientists study the easier it is to come up with trusted conclusions. That’s why scientists love  iron filings and white rats. If you study one iron filling you usually learn a lot about all iron filings, if you study one white rat you can usually learn a lot about other white rats,  In such scientific fields seeing is believingBut if you study one person, you don’t necessarily learn a lot about how other people would behave under the same study conditions. So remember that white rats are more unpredictable than iron filings, but not nearly as unpredictable as people.  And also notice that the behavior of  things that you can’t see – with your eyes or a telescope or a microscope – is particularly uncertain. For example the behavior of sub-atomic particles and people’s thoughts and feelings are invisible so we have to rely on fuzzy feedback from shadows and fallible memories, and deception. To handle such high uncertainty we rely on trusted theories, hunches, and biases. In such scientific fields believing is seeing. In such h studies we must rely on trusted beliefs that help us – and our constituencies – manage uncertainty. It’s not a matter of being right – being right is usually beyond our reach – it’s a matter of  being certain and convincing others that we’re right. The scientific constituency includes journal editors, grant committees, the Nobel Prize committee, our colleagues, etc. The simplest way to handle uncertainty is to ‘buy” into the current hit parade scientific theory  – to follow the scientific crowd.”

Posted in: Sciencing