Monday, March 08, 2010

A Multiplicity of Hypotheses

One of the things that keeps coming back to me from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Robert Pirsig’s comment that one of the things he found peculiar about science was that he could always come up with any number of hypotheses to explain an observation.

When I first read that, I thought it couldn’t be right. I think I was taking the whole scientific enterprise too rigidly to be able to understand Pirsig’s comment. I still could be wrong, in another direction, but I think he was not necessarily restricting himself the way science does: that a hypothesis needs to be consistent with related hypotheses, that it needs to be verifiable, that it needs to be consistent with observation.

Although he might have meant that within those strictures, it’s frequently possible to find several hypotheses to explain an observation. It’s part of a scientist’s job to figure out what those hypotheses might be and whittle them down to the one that fits.

If you allow any explanation, including divine intervention, then any number of hypotheses are possible. They should be qualified with clauses like “if there is a God who intervenes,” or “if the laws of physics were different,” or “if this is a special instance.”

So it could be that the sun consistently rises in the east because the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, which is 93 million miles away, or it could be that a rigid sky, not too far off, rotates around the earth, bringing the sun with it, or it could be that every day a deity makes a new sun appear over the eastern horizon because he dislikes widdershins. Within the narrower category of scientific hypotheses, we at one time had a competition between a circular orbit for the earth, with the earth making a sub-orbit around a point on that orbit, versus an elliptical orbit. The elliptical orbit won out.

The anti-science crowd, whether it is the creationists, the climate deniers, or the flat-earthers, use Pirsig’s idea of multiple hypotheses, but they don’t mean it. Joe Romm has a good column today on their tactics.

The multiplicity of hypotheses overwhelmed Pirsig. Not the anti-scientists. They have what they believe is the One Right Answer: God created the Earth and all that is in it in seven days, or we can keep doing what we are doing now and it won’t hurt the Earth. But they don’t subject their beliefs to scientific testing, because that’s been done, and the beliefs don’t stand up. So they choose to muddy the waters with a multiplicity of hypotheses, in the hope that they can ignore that ugly scientific proof business and convince people that any belief is as valid as any other, that there is nothing special about science.

And a multiplicity of hypotheses can always be found.

Because the media don’t understand (or choose not to understand?) the requirements of a scientific hypothesis, they are willing to put what both sides say on equal levels. It sells papers.

As Romm notes, the anti-science tactic can always win in a debate. Just keep spouting nonsense. It takes much longer to refute the nonsense than it does to generate it.

As a scientist, I believe that facts still matter. They do, actually, when you are trying to make something happen in the real world, like generate electricity from wind or nuclear fission. I find it disturbing that so much of our public dialog seems to be pressing toward “Whatever you like.” A representative of the Bush administration admonished a reporter that they would make their own reality. Thus the conservatives, who hate postmodernism in its university setting, become its greatest popularizers.

There’s a reality of words – a political reality, perhaps – that has been manipulated since humans started using words by those who want to gain power by convincing people of something that is not true, that does not correspond to a deeper reality. It’s that deeper reality that scientists keep running into. It’s that reality that you run into when the balance in your checkbook is less than what you owe or when your car stops running twenty miles from town.

That’s the reality we need to deal with on unemployment, petroleum usage, maintaining roads and bridges, wiring our cities for internet, and some very elegant things like knowing the creatures who came before us. It should be up to the anti-scientists to show us how well their methods have worked to solve our problems.


J. said...

Science is the poetry of reality, which is why Republicans and tea-baggers hate science so much.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Nice thought, J. I've been thinking that we've got to get out there and show why we love learning how things really work.