Myth-conceptions of science

So I’ve been watching this YouTube video of Tim Minchin’s science rant titled “Storm“, which got me to think about some of my rants about science. I believe there are several common mistakes made by those who reference science and some pretty big misunderstandings of those who criticise science.

Firstly, let’s define science.

Science is a philosophy. It has several basic principles.

  1. The Principle of Universal Nature (PUN) – that is, what is fact here is also fact over there
  2. Induction – that is, what is fact now will be fact later
  3. Science can only ever disprove a statement, never prove it – that is, a scientific theory must be fallible. Proving the fallibility disproves the theory, but failing to do so does not prove the theory.
  4. The more the theory diverges from mainstream thought, the more impressive the “evidence” for it must be for the scientific evidence to be credible.
  5. The greater the sample size, the better the test.
  6. Scientific knowledge and theory must adapt to evidence.

There are greater levels of complexity than these, but this gives you a start. To use an example of swans is fairly popular. First we make a statement – all swans are white (in Europe, they pretty much are). The fallible aspect of the statement is that if we can find a swan that is not white, then the statement is false. This is where the statement “it is the exception that proves the rule” came in. If I can not find an exception – something about the statement which if found proves it wrong, then it is not a rule, but an all encompassing infallible statement. An example of such a thing is “God is that which there is nothing greater”. There can be no exception to this, for if you do, that thing which you found was greater then becomes “God”.

Now PUN (principle of universal nature) states that swans are swans everywhere in the universe, and the statement that all swans are white must be true everywhere. If you find one non-white swan anywhere in the universe, then the statement that all swans are white is false, therefore scientific philosophy has dis-proven the statement. 

This doesn’t stop a non-white swan being found on Jupiter in 2000 years. We didn’t think to look their, then, so we can not state that the statement is true, we can only state that in the samples we looked at, we did not find a contradiction. Until we find a contradiction, we can assume the statement is true enough, but that does not make it true.

If I only look at 5 swans, then the strength of my evidence is fairly weak. If I look at hundreds, my statement of evidence is stronger. If I look at thousands, my statement is stronger again.

A common mistake is to state that if you find something that looks like a swan in all ways but colour, then that is not a swan because it does not meet the definition. This undoes the fallible point of the statement, so does not agree with the scientific philosophy.

Here are the common mistakes people make when citing science:
  1. “I have scientific proof/evidence of the validity of my theory” – science only disproves, it never proves. Thus the statement should be, “My theory has been scientifically tested”. Again, this does not mean your theory is right, but is has greater strength because the theory has not been dis-proven yet, but has been tested. An untested theory is not necessarily wrong either, nor is it right. It is just untested.
  2. “Science tells us why”. It doesn’t. It only tests for facts, it doesn’t explain why. It can test all of the parts of an explanation of why, but that assumes a causal chain which can not be proven. The why is not part of science, only that a relationship between two events has not been discredited. For example, when I push the button by the side of the door the light turns on. Science doesn’t tell me why this happens, it just tells me that every time this has been done in this particular way (wires, electricity and a working switch and light globe – that is the induction, or repeatability of the experiment) it has worked. When it doesn’t work, we first look to see if a difference in the parameters of the experiment exist before stating that the correlation between the two events is no longer linked. The explanation for why is something that people come up with to help create fallible prediction to test the statement. A successful test for a statement to prove why does not prove the statement of why to be true, it only indicates that the statement of facts you created from your why has not been dis-proven.
  3. The nature of the universe is universal. It isn’t. First of all, Cartesian geometry points out that each point in the universe has four components, X, Y Z and time. No two can be the same, so there is no universality about it – however the idea is that the principles of the universe are consistent for all these points. No two points have exactly the same gravity and it is accepted that gravity changes space and time. Therefore no two points have the same properties as the nature of space and time are different for each Cartesian point. However the difference are so subtle that other than at very high speeds or on very small scales, the principle of universal nature is good enough.
  4. Induction is real. I can do the same test in the same way for millions of iterations. It doesn’t mean that the next time it will be the same. However it is a fair assumption given our experience of the universe to assume that this principle is true enough. After all, our experience of the universe suggests that it is pretty consistent, and if we assume that everything we know now is based on principles that may not be true for the shear sake of randomness rather than our faulty comprehension of the nature of the universe, then why are we even bothering? So while we can’t prove induction, it is a fair assumption.
  5. There is no magic and science has dis-proven it. Tim Minchin quite rightly points out that Alternative Medicine is defined as methods that have either not been proven by science to work, or methods proven by science not to work. All of the methods ‘proven’ by science to work are given a new name – medicine. (I’m misquoting, but you get the point). Magic is an ambiguous term and is sometimes defined as “how things work that are not scientific or not provable”, which means that when science figures it out it stops being magical. Personally I think this definition is faulty. I would prefer it to mean “Magic is the amazing way that things work, whether we understand it or not”. Thus when science investigates and figures out what actually does work and what doesn’t, it doesn’t stop being amazing just because it become scientific. We understand pretty well the systems in place for human reproduction. This understanding doesn’t make child birth any less miraculous and amazing. We made new life from old life. Wow. Scientifically understood (for the most part), still magic.
  6. If science has not investigated it then it is crap – Science has not investigated everything and it has not proven everything. If it has, then there would be just a huge tomb of “what is” and no scientists. Scientists keep investigating this thing we call the universe to test for new statements of fact, re-investigate evidence to find new things about the universe and keep testing old ideas to see if our new methods still agree with old statements. There is so much that we just do not know and have not tested. A lack of scientific investigation does not mean it is false. By the same token, it does not mean it is true either. It just means it is untested.
  7. A correlation that occurs without a provable scientific test is just coincidence. This is not necessarily true, since we do not know everything. By the same token, it is not necessarily false either. This mostly come back under point 6 – if the correlation (that is, the seeming link) keeps happening and we have not yet worked out if there is or is not a link, then there may or may not be one. A lack of investigation or evidence does not make a fact one way or the other.
Hopefully this clears up my position a little. Of course this is my understanding and I am quite willing to adjust to better logic.

Memories of snow

Memory is an interesting thing. We are so certain that what we remember is true, and yet often it is not. Memory is important because out decision making is based heavily in our memory. Yet memory of the past is twofold – the events we know and the story we tell. Often the events we recall are distorted and the story is faulty.
Enough of my preamble.
My earliest ‘memory’ is of snow. My father, brother and I were travelling in a car for a long time. The car seemed to go around and around in circles. Eventually we stopped and got out and there was snow on the ground. I remember that it was about 2-7 cm deep, mostly about 5 cm. It was white, cold and crunchy. Every foot fall was a rubbing crunchy feeling. There was not really enough snow to have a proper snow ball fight. I’m not even sure that I knew what that was. I knew that snow was rare, so this was important.
We were not wearing adequate clothing and my brother and I got very cold. There was no snow on the road where the cars drove, only on the edge of the road and between the tacks of cars. We all got back into the car and went home.
At home, I remember standing in the bathroom with my brother, watching the bath fill up with water. It was an old fashioned stand alone tub, which was in the centre of the room, the head up against the wall. My father had filled the bath tub in the adult fashion, that is, the hot water goes on first, the cold water gets added later.
I think we were supposed to tell Dad when the water was high enough to add cold.
I knew the water was very hot. Dangerously hot, in fact. I remember glancing at my brother and clearly thinking to myself “this will get him back for all those things he did to me” and pushing him in.
I don’t remember the next bit. What I know now is that he got burns all the way up his arm. They mostly healed but he still has a scar on his thumb.
I have tracked these memories down to 2 years of age (that is, I was 2, not the memories).
From this story the most likely thoughts you are thinking are
1) That Joshua guy is pretty cold hearted to do that to his brother – and he was 2!
2) What on earth did his brother do to him that this seemed like a good idea?
Of course, I allow or you to have tons of other thoughts. Mostly this is my fear of how people will judge me.
Let’s look at the events though. I remember driving in circles and it seemed to take a long time. For a long time I thought this memory was me leaving Melbourne and going to Perth, away from my father. It was only in the last few years that I more accurately placed it with going up the mountain to see snow, since travelling in circles to go from Melbourne to Perth is illogical. Is this where the memory really resides?
Another thing is, I have never got verification of the details of what the bathroom looked like. I have asked my brother, but he won’t talk about it (this is a quite frequent occurrence and I don’t blame him for turning his back on the past and making a new future). Thus I don’t actually know if my memories of the room are correct.
If the room isn’t correct, is my thought? The event that is known, independently, is that my brother got burnt in a bathtub, went to hospital and was very sore. My father was in charge since we were staying with him for a bit. No one ever accused me of pushing him. It was always labelled “an accident”. So, did I actually push him, or am I making that bit up to complete the story? If I am completing the story, did I really think “this will get him back”?
Another aspect is the memory itself. Do I remember the memory of when I was two, or do I remember the image that I recalled, and distorted, a few years ago, which was a recollection of an image, distorted more, from a few years before, and so on all the way back to my childhood? I am fairly confident that I no longer look at the memory raw – I only look at my adults understanding and perception of that memory.
How does this flavour my life? I have defined my earliest memory as vengeance on my brother. I could see this as I am a victim, I could see this as I am a warrior, or I could see myself as a martyr, trying to take the blame for an act that I was innocent of.
Very few of the facts are known and much of the story is uncertain. Perhaps I should make a new story to explain the facts.
When I was two, my father took my brother and I to see the snow. I remember that snow was rare in Australia. It was a cold but fun time. When we got back home, my father, who cared for us, was filling up the bath with hot water so we could get warm. Unfortunately my brother got burned by the hot water, but no real damage was done and he is fine now.
All the verifiable facts are present, and I like this story.

Doing to find the being

Often when we don’t know who we are, we flail around trying to do lots of things, hoping that one of them will feel right and define us. The problem is that most of the things we do feel wrong, so we mistakenly think that we are wrong. We forget that the flailing around is an experiment to help us discover what we are, and thus what we aren’t.The ones that feel wrong should be celebrated as yet another step towards discovering who we are.

Another tactic is to step back and ponder who we would like to be. Sometimes this can help us work out who we are, since who we are isn’t going to want to be something completely abstract from who we are. I appreciate that this idea seems a bit odd, but lets go with it a bit further. I am not suggesting that you carry out your hypothetical, but rather that you use the hypothetical to explore yourself. Someone who wants to be a mass murderer, as an extreme, can learn something about themselves from this desire. Why do you wish to create carnage and mayhem? Do you wish to murder specific people or random people? Why? What do these urges tell you about yourself? Often we seek to do violence because we feel helpless about something, and the violence is like a pressure relief valve to save ourselves or put of inevitable doom. Or there may be hatred involved, in which case who do we really hate and what can we do about it? If these people were ‘gone’, how would this change your world? What does this change tell you about you and where you are now?

Another thing we may wish to be is a benefactor of mankind. Why do we wish to be a benefactor? What does this change? What form of benefactor do you wish to be and how would you feel if you were to achieve this? Does this feeling tell you anything about how you are feeling or wanting to feel now? Are there other ways to feel this?

Perhaps a far less extreme becoming would also help. Perhaps you will identify that you would like to get a nice job. What is it about the job that you want? What does the job provide for you that you don’t currently have? How are you defining nice? What would stop the job from being nice? What change does having a job provide you compared to now? Things that you may get from having a nice job is: money, social contact, structure, an excuse to get away from home, a feeling of purpose, ontological security, completion of a definition of self as a worker, your parents of your back and so on. If we don’t look at why we want the job, how do we know what we need the job to do to feel success? Of, for example, we get a job that doesn’t pay enough and is in a field we don’t like that our parents don’t support, we may feel that we have failed in getting a nice job, which we may then transfer as a feeling of us being the failure.

Three major things to take away from this:
1) Doing things to discover who we are often lead to us discovering who we are not, and that is success
2) Pausing to consider what we want can help uncover who we are
3) Once we know what we want and why, we can begin to choose to do things because of who we are

Seeing is believing – or is it?

We all perceive things that others don’t, simply because much of what we perceive of the worlds is within our minds, not in the world itself. It matters not what we each perceive, but how what we perceive forms our assumptions about the world, which inform our actions. Consider that 3 in 100 people regularly perceive hearing voices and seeing being that 97 in 100 people do not regularly see. 1 in 3 of these people are not at all bothered by the additional perception, 1 in 3spend a lot of time in and out of health institutions and the other 1 in three suffers in silence. The point here is that 2 in 3 people who hear voices and see beings do not use the health services to continue living their lives. If seeing and hearing these beings was the problem, then 3 out of 3 would be using health services. It is those who have not found ways of working their perceptions for their own gain that have the troubles.

Many of our reactions to the world are based on how we perceive the world. Perception is the interpretation of the sensory information that we are given to create a landscape of what the world around us is. Part of that perception is pattern recognition which helps us to predict what is coming next. We have many senses, the most common of these is sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell (there are more, such as motion, temperature and so on – about 15 all up).

Despite your expectations, perceiving the world accurately, on average, is not vital to your survival. You are making many assumptions all of the time about what you think is there and these assumptions are often wrong. 

I will focus mainly on sight for this article, since it is commonly regarded that sight is the dominant sensory input and the most immutable. Sure we see the world for what it is? Consider the phrase “seeing is believing”, which is made up of the idea that to see something is to know it is real.

Take a gander at the video clip here.

In this video, you see what looks like an ordinary room. The girls are the same height, but when one goes to the right she seems to grow and as she goes left she shrinks. I appreciate that this room is artificially created to fool you, however it illustrates a point, which is that what you perceive is not necessarily what you perceive. After all, the girl does not actually change size at all, the room shrinks. Your memory of how rooms work tells you that rooms are square, thus objects in what looks like a square room must be the same size, therefore the girl must be growing and shrinking. In essence your expectations have fooled your mind.

In this perceptual illusion the dancer seems to be spinning. When you watch it, you will see that the dancer appears to spin in a particular direction. If you watch carefully, you can change the direction that the dancer spins. This is done via changing your expectations (I found staring at the shadow the dancer casts as a good way to switch directions). You haven’t changed the video image, but you have changed your interpretation of the images.

Of course vision is not the only perceptual sense that can be fooled. listen to this video clip. Play it twice to hear what I refer to. It is the same video the second time around, but you will perceive it to be a higher pitch rather than starting from where you first thought it should start. All the senses can be fooled by stimuli, or rather our perception of all of our senses can be fooled. Try sitting in the bus and sitting behind the driver. Look at the road passing in the reflection of the glass blocking you from the driver (if your bus is designed that way). After a while you will probably begin to perceive motion in reverse.

Moving back to sight, consider colour. Most of us have colour vision, yet half of the human species is partially colour blind. I can’t currently find a reference for this (sigh), but it is mostly manifest in the differentiation of blue and green. When does a colour stop being blue and start being green? Well, ask a sampling of men and women whether this colour is blue or green:

Yes, you have to pick one. Most women will call this colour green, while most men will call this blue (computer screens may cast this colour improperly and muck up this experiment, but drag someone to the fabric or paint store and see where they have a range of colour and argue about the different representations of teal and aqua). Part of this is a cultural definition but most of it is genetic. The part of the genes that corrects for colour blindness is on the second x chromosome that men don’t have. While this can influence fashion sense, it generally does not significantly affect survival. The point of this bit of the article is to point out that what you are expecting to see i the world is not actually what you probably are seeing in the world, but id isn’t harming you.

Much of what we perceive of the world is not really the world at all, it is merely expectations, what we expect to see, and thus our mind fills in the blanks. Consider the most efficient use of brain space – interpreting masses of information given to our brain from our eyes, or to assume much of the information from our memories of what is probably there. Try this exercise – pick an object and stare at it. Try really hard not to move your eyes or blink. Now notice that your peripheral vision shrinks, except for any moving object – don’t look away! If you manage to stay still enough, you may notice that your eyes are wiggling… see if you can still this too. If you succeed, and few do, you will notice that your vision fades. This is because we only see the bits that change. To see stationary objects, our eyes wiggle back and forth, helping as define different objects. Yet if we fix our attention on one thing much of the rest of our visual perception becomes simplified with only gross changes being picked up as relevant.

Hopefully we have established that much of what you perceive is not actually what you sense, it is informed by what you sense, but filled in with memory and expectation. Here is a good trick to do with babies. Put a ball on the table, place a cup on the ball. Lift the cup and the child sees the ball again. Now put the cup on the ball, move it to the side of the table and let the ball drop into your hand without shifting the height of the cup. Now lift the cup and see the look of surprise in the babies face. This illusion is called object permanence. We expect things to be where they were, whether we see them or not, and are surprised when they aren’t. This is the primary tool of the stage magician – distract you and mess with your object permanence.

We humans tend to apply the laws of motions physics to people in an attempt at something close to object permanence. That is, we assume that people continue doing whatever it is we have seen them do before, even when we don’t see them directly or at all. This can make it hard for us to see when people are not doing as they have always done as we shortcut seeing what people are actually doing and assume that they are continuing as they always have. This can be quite devastating to those of us who wish to change, by the same token, we can expect that people will and have changed, when they haven’t, creating the reverse of the perceptual illusion with equally potentially devastating results. While we can save ourselves troubles by seeing what is really there, often this is not actually easy or possible, so we need to keep an open mind about what may truly be. This takes more effort and more resources, and in times of stress we don’t always have these.