I think the most annoyed I’ve been recently is when listening to the POTUS stand in front of America every day and lie. It’s simply so very sad to see America represented to the world at large by a lying liar. Shameless. Worse, the party of Abe Lincoln is thrust into the role of sycophantic supporter all because they cannot take a principled stand against the Tea Party nut jobs. Sucks to be us right now.
Now, in all that, I find myself deeply disturbed by the lack of basic scientific thinking here in the United States. Oh sure, we’re slamming our kids through STEM classes. We’ve got kids in high school today following rituals that seem scientific enough. Plotting data, trying to make predictions off of simple models, and the like. Yet, I can’t help but feel as though our machinations are little more than a belief system in which our citizen adherents practice superstitious rituals, hoping to magically benefit from outcomes supplied by a more technologically advanced society.
We’re in a brave new world. One where the POTUS is handing out advice about hydroxychloroquine sulfate at official briefings that have no basis in science. Worse, we have to wonder, given this man’s specific what’s-in-it-for-me world view, has a member of the Trump organization cornered the market on hydroxychloroquine sulfate?
What do you have to lose? And a lot of people are saying that, and are taking it. If you’re a doctor or a nurse, a first responder, a medical person going into hospitals, they say taking it before the fact is good.President Trump | April 5, 2020 | White House Daily Coronavirus Taskforce Briefing
Aside from the fact that people following Trumps advice have become very sick or even died, Trump’s reliance of emotion “what do you have to lose” is part of the problem. A contributing factor is our very obvious, and very human, flaw of seeing patterns where there are none (often we see patterns in random noise). It’s not exactly a great combination this emotion(fear) + pseudoscience. Here in America it can manifest itself in the form of things like Eugenics. Or our obsession with avoiding dietary fat.
Let’s have a quick chat today about how we know things. Or, rather, how we are willing to accept something as not yet proven false. Or, science as opposed to Scientism.
And, yes, I am using Scientism as a pejorative here. The term scientism was popularized by F.A. Hayek, who defined it as the “slavish imitation of the method and language of Science.” I also like Karl Popper’s definition scientism as “the aping of what is widely mistaken for the method of science”. In other words, we have a lot of people pretending to do science out there today, and we need to be careful. We should take the time to understand the scientific method to ensure that when we look at someone’s result we can do so with the critical eye of a skeptic.
The scientific method is understood to be an iterative, cyclical process through which information is continually revised. It is widely recognized to develop advances in human knowledge through the following aspects of it’s implementation:
- Characterizations (observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry)
- Hypotheses (theoretical, hypothetical explanations of observations and measurements of the subject)
- Predictions (inductive and deductive reasoning from the hypothesis or theory)
- Experiments (tests of all of the above)
If we were to draw out the four points above into a workflow, it would look like this:
- Define a question
- Gather information and resources (observe)
- Form an explanatory hypothesis
- Test the hypothesis by developing a null hypothesis (H0) and performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner
- Analyze the data
- Interpret the data (accept or reject H0) and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for a new hypothesis
- Publish results
- Retest (frequently done by other scientists)
The iterative cycle inherent in this workflow goes from step 3 to step 6 and then back to step 3 again.
I wonder what Richard Feynman would say today. Years ago (1974) at a Cal Tech commencement, Feynman spoke about how the world was picking righteousness and sensationalism over integrity, even in the sciences. Today, as the fear of being wrong has swelled into an epidemic, and media sensationalism continues to peddle pseudoscience to the average American who is either ill-equipped or unwilling to apply the necessary critical thinking to understand how they are being bamboozled. Society has become largely a system premised on certitude at all costs and not on the very admission of ignorance that fuels science.
This long history of learning how not to fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.Richard P. Feynman, Some remarks on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself. Caltech’s 1974 commencement address
If we are not patient, if we are not willing to accept we cannot know anything for sure, then we are not engaged in the pursuit of knowledge leveraging the scientific method. Which is fine. It is not clear that the only source of knowledge should be empirical falsification; but, on the other hand, that is the branch of knowledge that has lifted us out of the dark ages. Indeed, it’s modern rejection by the people who “have really good feelings” about their intuitions seem to be driving us backward.
Emperical falsification. This is it. It means we are not accepting the thing we think to be true about the world around us, it means that we are rejecting the other explanations we could think of. So, for now, we are accepting H1. This of course implies a maddening strange loop around knowlege. True knowledge is that we do not know for certain anything. We simply do not have an experiment/data which can provide another explanation for the phenomenon we are observing.
In turn, the major problem with the H0 is that many researchers and reviewers see accepting the null as a failure of the experiment. This is very poor science, as accepting or rejecting any hypothesis is always a positive result. You see, even if the null is not refuted, the world of science has learned something new. Strictly speaking, the term ‘failure’, should only apply to errors in the experimental design, or incorrect initial assumptions.
Now, I get it. People love to know things. It makes them feel more confident. But until we get our heads around this idea that the best we can offer is a state where something has not yet been proven false, then the world, driven by the mad pundits of the media, will continue to be hoodwinked by those who would tell them: “see, those scientists don’t know what they are talking about. They are always changing their minds. First, this was good for us, then it wasn’t. These academics have no clue.”
The really sad part? When scientists engage in bad science (as many do today) they are just undermining the very underpinnings that have brought humanity out of the dark ages and into the light.
We can and must do better.