Two views of science cont…

Posted on March 12, 2011

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Fig 1: Two Views

Jenny: ” When is a fact not a fact?”

Peter: ” When it’s a factoid… when it’s a truthy.”

Jenny: ” What the heck is a factoid? What on earth is a truthy?”

Peter: ” A fact0id is a fuzzy pretending to be a fact. Just like a truthy is a fuzzy pretending to be a truth.”

Jenny: “Now you’re talking nonsense! Professor, he’s talking nonsense isn’t he.

Professor Wiggly: ” Not really. In fact…sorry… in factoid what he’s saying is quite profound. There are two different views of science.The traditional, and still popular view, is that science is in the business of  discovering facts or neat packages of truth. Most of the public and a lot of laboratory scientists subscribe to this view. In contrast scientists – like Einstein – who create scientific theories, and scholars who study the history of science, admit that so-called scientific facts and truths are fuzzies. Fuzzies are observations or claims surrounded by a region of uncertainty. That’s why Einstein said that anyone who sets themselves up as a judge about truth is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods. If you stop and think you already know that most observations and statements are surrounded by a region of uncertainty. You know that most observations have to be taken with a grain, or a bucket, of salt. It all depends! For example whether you accept something as a fact or a truth depends on which of  your friends or acquaintances said it, on when they said it ( were they angry, tired or a bit drunk) was it a first hand observation (were they there)  or merely a rumour, are they a Republican or a Democrat – in other words what’s their theory about how the world works?  Because  we rely heavily on our theories, beliefs and biases to reduce the inevitable fuzz or uncertainty surrounding any observation or statement.”

Jenny: ” So you’re saying that every fact or statement is surrounded by a region of uncertainty because it depends on who produce it – and when, and what their source of information was (eyes. ears, someone else’s eyes  or ears, this or that microscope, operated by a scientist who believes theory Y,  or one who believes theory X. Just as a microscope can enlarge a tiny observation, so can a theory, a belief or a bias. So people with different detectors and theories can ‘see’ different things, selective observations and theories, beliefs and biases can reduce the uncertainty surrounding any ‘fact’ or ‘truth’. In this sense, science is like politics, what you believe affects what you ‘see’ and what you conclude.”

Jenny: ” But no matter whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, no matter whether you’re a scientists who believes theory Y or theory X, you all yelp when you stub your bare toe on a rock! There’s no region of uncertainty surrounding that rock. That boundary of that rock is a fact, not a factoid. ”

Peter: ” She’s got ya there Professor.”

Professor Wiggly: ” Not so. To a sand flea that rock of filled with craters, with great places to hide. According to a scientist’s bare toe the boundary of that rock is hard – no uncertainty. But that same scientist who fires gamma rays at it concludes that the rock is a fuzzy, consists mainly of empty space. It all depends. What’s a solid wall to one is an open door to others. You can think of facts as stuff that kicks back at whatever probes we use to explore our world – our eyes, our ears, someone else’s eyes, ears, telescopes, microscopes, x-rays, gamma rays, and how we make sense of those kick-backs – our theories, beliefs, and biases. So what’s a fact or a truth according to one detector-believing system is a fuzzy to another.”

Fig 2: A truthy

Jenny: ” So in a sense science is like a political system, it’s facts and truths depend  on what boundaries their particular probes run into and on the current theories that help them make sense of that  feedback. So our current reality depends on the particular detector-belief system we bring to bear. Scientists have fancier detectors, and process the feedback through fancy math sorters. So their facts and truths still depend on the particular detectors and math models they happen to be using. That’s why Hawking talks about model dependant realism? And that’s why Simon says no conclusions without assumptions. Because it all depends on the particular detectors and theories, beliefs and biases.  ”

Peter: ” So that’s why scientists disagree so often – its scientific politics.”

Fig 1:  flickr.com/photos/dedkenny/351128526. Fig 2:.flickr.com/photos/dedkenny/3511285261

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Posted in: Sciencing