Science & Humility

Stray thought:

In his classic Caltech 1974 commencement address often referred to here, Richard Feynman states the following:

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly.  It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

This is beautiful. Such scientific honesty is also rare in the wild. I think it would be near extinct except for another feature of science, one Feynman does not here discuss but did in fact practice: everybody is entitled, and even honor-bound, to do their best to shoot down a theory. This probing and testing of theories to see if they can be overthrown is perhaps the only example of Nietzsche’s quip being true: that which fails to kill a theory makes it stronger.

This is not to say that proponents of theories like having others, often young punks, try to destroy their scientific babies. Far from it, which is how we get another famous quip, that science advances one funeral at a time. Often, only death is strong enough to loosen a partisan’s grip on a theory under attack. This observation may be generalized beyond science.

In one of the accounts he gives of the discoveries that lead to his Nobel Prize, Feynman mentions that he spotted an error in previous work, where a no doubt respected physicist had proved his point by extrapolating beyond what the data could actually support. Feynman had to disprove and discard the conclusion of this prior physicist in order to establish the model that got him the Nobel.

It would be nice to hear how this other physicist took the news. Was he a good sport about it? In physics, this is a t least possible, what with grad students and other young guns pouring over every theory and calculation that came before, just looking for that spot where they can make a name for themselves. I assume, perhaps naively, that this sort of thing happens with enough regularity that physicists might not get too bent out of shape over it.

The history of science if full of cases where the fathers of displaced theories didn’t take it very well. In general, scientists are people: Galileo was a out of control and petty egomaniac; Newton was an insufferable snob. Boys will be boys. It is part of the glory of science that it makes progress even with the participants acting like primadonnas and toddlers. It must be something special, if it can work under those constraints.

The point here is that at least in the hard sciences, the honesty of which Feynman speaks is enforced by the competitive nature of elite scientists. On the one hand, they want their theories tested and challenged, because that means they are important and validated. On the other, they know they’ll likely get caught if they fudge, since that same army of ambitious grad students and young guns can make their own name by finding flaws.

The point I think Feynman is making is that everything goes smoother if the scientists keep all this in mind as they do their research. Don’t publish your pet theory until you’ve thought through and responded to every challenge you can come up with, and included all the steps needed for anybody else to validate you methods. Cut to the chase. Keep it clean.

What Feynman does not mention here in this speech nor anywhere else I can recall is humility. I’ve never heard, and find it hard to imagine, Feynman being accused of being humble.

Humility is what it takes. The proud are also the blind. The beginnings of modern science can be found is the medieval Questions method, best known from St. Thomas’s writings. A proposition was tossed out for discussion, and refined to its purest possible expression. The seminar, as we might call it today, batted it around, argued for and against, probably spun off other questions to be addressed. When done, their work was summarized in the usual form: It would seem that X, for reasons A, B & C. Arguments A, B, & C must be stated in a form that their champions agree is accurate. Then: On the contrary, it would seem not-X, for reasons D, E, & F. And objections A, B, & C can be answered as follows. Therefore, not-X is conditionally true, subject to further information and argument.

You see the superstructure of science right there: you must clearly state your proposition, what it is you think supports your argument (which includes these days, observations made with the aid of gadgets and math). You must address all objections, which must be stated as strongly as possible and truly reflect the views of your opponents (or they will let you know about it). You must show your work. Everybody understands that tomorrow’s new observation might overturn the whole thing.

I propose that the problems in science, especially Science! as revealed in the so called ‘replication crisis’, is in fact a failure of humility. The pride present in all of us is exacerbated by the softness of the science. A science is soft to the extent that peer-skepticism and adversarial review are not accepted and encouraged. Such skepticism and review keep science honest. Lacking them frees pride from all restraint.

I don’t imagine the students and masters practicing the Questions Method in 1250 were any more intrinsically humble and honest than we are today. But at least they would have understood that humility is both a prerequisite and a subset of honesty: you must be humble enough to accept you could be wrong; if you’re being honest, you will be humble. In the same way replication and criticism keep modern science however honest it may be, recognizing their own pride and need for humility helped keep the scholastics honest.

This recognition of the need to be humble is unknown among the leading lights of the soft sciences. Freud can respond to challenges to his teachings by asserting his critics are repressed, both applying the theory in question as if it has been established as correct and avoiding any response to the substance of the criticisms. There will never be any recognition that these ad hominem attacks are petty diversions among practitioners of the soft sciences. Just review the name calling that often constituted the entire response of those challenged by the current ‘replication crisis’.

Hegel gave the illusion of a patina of intellectual validity to the notion that reason is nothing, only revelation (“enlightenment”; “wokeness”) matters, so that the only response to critics is to point out how unenlightened they are. This thinking became the thinking of academy. This is hardly surprising, as  the key point of Harvard, et al., the belief that drove their founding and continues intact to this day, is that the right people need to be in charge. Only the little people, as Hegel pointed out, get all tangled up in logic and reason. True philosophers can be identified, functionally, as those who agree with Hegel.

Real scientists are like those adopted kids who don’t know who their parents are, but know they are orphans of a sort. Insofar as you are a true scientists as described above by Feynman, you will not find colleges in general to be your family. But their true parents – the scholastics and Aristotle – have been painted with such a black brush they would be horrified to recognize them as mom and dad.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

One thought on “Science & Humility”

  1. A hypothesis or theory is clear, decisive, and positive,
    but it is believed by no one but the person who created it.
    Experimental findings, on the other hand, are messy, inexact
    things, which are believed by everyone except the person
    who did that work.
    Harlow Shapley

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