Scientific stepping stones…

Posted on March 20, 2011

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Fig 1: Trade Center

Jenny: ” Professor, you claim that we – and scientists – travel into the future on imaginary bridges,  stepping-stones over a slough of uncertainty. Help me with that idea. I think I get it, and then it slips away. I get it that the future is uncertain, we don’t have any solid observations to rely on since nobody’s been there. So we rely on past experience as a guide assuming that most things will not change, but we’re wrong a lot of the time; for instance  for the people who went to work as usual in New York on 9/11 and died, the millions who got burned and are still getting burned by the recent economic meltdown, or by  a cheating mate, the car in the next lane suddenly crashes into us, by the Japanese tsunami and nuclear explosions, etc. But most us  still get up every morning and walk into that uncertain future with blind confidence, for most of us the future seems as solid and real as the past. And yet you say we walk on flimsy imaginary bridges or stepping-stones, on beliefs, theories, biases, hopes. Simon says we travel blindly on trusted, emotionally anchored assumptions. Hawking says we rely on ‘models’ – on ‘model dependant realism’. That our models or theories provide the glue holding bits of experience together. Yet I do get up and walk or run into a trusted future – I turn the tap my shower and hot water flows, my automatic coffee maker has a steaming cup waiting, the toilet flushes, the elevator works, the cab driver smells and talks endlessly, I get to work and the boss casually and of course accidentally let’s his hand drag across my ass. This is all completely predictable – so where’s the uncertainty  for me?”

Peter: “Maybe you don’t get it cause you’ve never really had the rug pulled out from under you so quickly and hard you never forget, so  you still believe the future will unfold just

Car accident

the way you want it too. Furthermore, you didn’t happen to work at the International Trade Centre on 9/11, or happen to be going to a movie in Japan when the Tsunami struck, or  see John Lennon emerging from his apartment building the day he was murdered, or  be the women having a breast examination about to learn she had inoperable cancer, or the guy who is about to see  ‘tell all e-mails’ to  his mistress exposed on Facebook. There’s lots of uncertainty – we just can’t  mentally or emotionally afford to think about it. We construct a tolerable reality as we go along, it’s  like making cakes – the thing that hold the bits together is the recipe, is the list of ‘ifs’ : if the future is a lot like the past, and if you do this, and this, and this, and add  a bit of that then put in a container – a model or a theory or a bias – so the bits don’t leak away in all directions, then you’ve constructed some reality – a naive but trusted set of stepping stones into the future. We need the blind trust in most of our beliefs, biases, theories of models or we’d never get out of bed.”

Professor Wiggly: : Not bad Perter…not bad. Scientific ‘truths”  are constructed out of series of ifs, out of a series of instructions or recipes – if you have 20/20 vision, and paying attention you’ll probably see such and such, if you do this, and this, and that you’ll probably get this result – get this kind of cake.

Stephen Hawking

If other scientists follow the recipe and get the same results – bingo, you’ve got a truthy – a truth that depends on a specific recipe, or context, theory, model or biased viewpoint. If you think of  truths or facts as based on a blindly trusted recipes for combining  bits of experience you can appreciate what Hawking means when says that the reality you believe in is a form of ‘model dependant realism’. The reality you experience is based on the conscious and unconscious  trusted models or theories or biases you rely upon to package your selective bit of experience into a ‘truth’ or a ‘fact.’ That’s why so many of your truths are different from mine, or from a Republican’s, or a Democrat’s, or a true believer’s, or an atheist’s, or a cat’s, or a bat’s, or an electron microscope’s, or your ancestors, or your great, great, great grandchild’s. All truths consists of  bits of experience provided by our fallible senses and packaged by our current beliefs, biases, theories, hopes, or models. All ‘truths’ have a best-before date, we just don’t know what it is!”

Fig 1: flickr.com/photos/photo-tractatus/4915616758/ World Trade Center

Fig: car accident: flickr.com/photos/chodec/56914936/

Fig  flickr.com/photos/photo-tractatus/4915616758/ Hawking

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Posted in: Sciencing