Do You Feel Lucky?

(and feel free to comment! My older posts are certainly no less relevant to the burning concerns of the day.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2015










Don't let them lie to you: physics works great in a black hole. It's only our description of physics that breaks down. Or as they may say, physics "as we know it" - yet even this is not true! Physics as we know it includes a full and hearty grasp of the facts: and especially, that a fact can overturn even the most well-supported theory, at any time. Physics as we know it does not "break down" in the face of falsification and consequent refinement. Physics builds up in these ways. Physics is not confounded by disproof. Science has no certainty in it. Certainly, it does not expect or proclaim certainty in or declare the perfection of its theories. Certainty is not a goal of scientific theory.

You may say science seeks to perfect its theories, but this is not true of science. Science lacks any absolute sense where "perfect" is a goal to be achieved. For science, perfect is a verb not an adjective. Always science strives to make its theory "more perfect," and always with a certain expectation and acceptance: that within even our best descriptions of reality, there is always the chance we may find error, finer and finer error, which error opens a way to further refinement and a better, more useful theory. All based on the emergence of a new and unruly fact!

No cause for worry. Even the boldest skeptic may feel confident: the explanatory and predictive power of our best theories and descriptions of reality proves those theories useful. Not infallible! They are proved useful. There will always be the possibility of a finer tune to come along, as we ever more finely tune up our instruments and strike up the symphony in C:

Which is: see. And then swing away folks - cause this big band can DANCE.

The symphonic themes are some or all of these: Observe, Analyze, Theorize, Predict, Test, Repeat. Observe the observable, analyze that which is observed, theorize to account for observations and analyses, predict what new observations we can expect to see if theory is true, test for these: either confirm or falsify. Repeat. Experiments should be repeatable - at least, they should be if the experimenters wish us to be compelled and convinced by this demonstration of their theory in action. In theory, it should work just as well for us.

Inside a black hole is a tough place to mount an experiment! But it's still not beyond the reach of theory. Or the conditions within the first few seconds or less of the big bang - also out of reach for our current descriptions. The pressures involved are more enormous than all we've been able to calibrate for thus far, and the actual environs are not open to inspection. We have not much material for comparison and analysis, and science needs grist to grind: it needs new data that can falsify current theory, in order to refine.

Yet again, no worries at all! Not if quantum physics is on the right track - because the point (a point) of quantum physics is that reality is symmetrical throughout all spacetime. Super-symmetrical, in fact, throughout all the universe - and we have good reason for confidence there. While we need to go finer and deeper to express the furthest extremes, still the central tenets seem to apply from anywhen to everywhere, from a few seconds after the big bang, and all the way throughout the universe - with exception of a few places we can't yet see to reach. Places where things do indeed seem to go weird.

We expect and expected them to get weird. By far the greatest chance is that we simply need additional math to describe what happens to reality where conditions become (or became) super-fun! Remember: there didn't used to be four fundamental forces. There was only one, right at the bang and for a bit beyond. But as reality spread out in its lightspeed explosion, creating room to cool and stretch out through, and calm down a bit, that primal force separated out into the apparently distinct forces that we can see (or at least, that we can test and measure).

Strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, gravity. And even there, weak nuclear and electromagnetic are of course, the same exact force! We simply perceive them as distinct, as they operate at different scales.

There's nothing peculiar or unnatural about a force operating in one way at our luxurious macro scale, and getting jiggier down at the level of quanta. Just think of all those extra curled-up dimensions down at the quantum scale, to dig into and twist and anchor around down at that tiniest possible size! A force is gonna work its way into and work its way out, and you better believe it's going to be a different dance than the one it can do up here in the macroverse. Do si do and perfectly natural.

Just so in a black hole. At the extremes, towards a limit to how dense matter can be compressed, it only stands to reason there could be differences in the way ordinary forces interact - which is to say, in the way that reality behaves - compared to how they behave under more ordinary conditions. It stands to reason such behavior would only come out at or near the extreme limit. Whether we're talking size, speed, density - there are some stiff limits out there, and the surface they create is fun to play with and to dance upon!

We should never expect reality not to play.

Yet we should always keep our sense of proportion, and remember the great good cause we have for our confidence in science. For our confidence in the way it comes up with its descriptions of how reality does play: the process of theory and falsification. We have good cause for confidence that even the rules in operation at these extreme limits can be teased out by pushing the limits we can reach - say, with some superaccelerator action! We can push the limits creatively outside big bangs and black holes, to test aspects of the math we propose might govern the most extreme ways of physics. And too, as years go by we do find cleverer and cleverer ways to observe or infer the secret behavior inside black holes. There will come ways to test that we haven't even teased the edges of yet, and testing will falsify theory to its improvement. Or, verify it, I suppose - less good news, that. Nothing new learned there.

I for one am confident. Firstly, I suspect the descriptions we uncover approaching the limits of physics will prove to be an extension and a refinement of what we know. It would be strange indeed if they proved to be a contradiction!

But secondly, I'm confident because science is not scared of that, either. Not a bit. Contradiction by pesky and unforeseen fact? Physics as we know it is built on that.

Science proceeds by leaps and bounds by this means: the falsification of today's theory. Today's step-proved-false leaps us into a further and more useful grasp of tomorrow's path-laid-out. Today's theory - which, prior to falsification, was very valid! In the sense of very useful, fruitful and productive: the best theory available, the best tool to hand! - damn right we've used it, and well, for as long as it held.

But we rejoice to find now where it is wrong. It can then be refined - or discarded, in favor of some new and better one! This calls for a party! And not a single scientist in the gathering is liable to be shamed.

We are a shameless bunch, we who know science for what it actually does. We who know science not by its results, but in its method. Science does not call us to fear being wrong, but to shout: "Eureka!" when we see it! Our error laid bare is the yellow brick road - and lady, beast, gentleman and scarecrow?

We are off to be the wizard.


Mel said...

So, I only just heard about the concept of the half life of facts and knowledge last night and I'm only now just able to delve deeper into it and IT'S FASCINATING.

Basically the gist is, the half-life of knowledge is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue. So in a way, if I understand it correctly, there's really no such thing as a fact as such.

"Due to the fact that scientific knowledge is growing by a factor of ten every 50 years, this means that half of what scientists may have known about a particular subject will be wrong or obsolete in 45 years"

Possibly ironic that the word "fact" was used in that quote, but isn't it brilliant! And terrifying! - I mean, it goes beyond that whole hackneyed "oh ho! people used to think the earth was flat, now we know better!" line. It's about our continual strive for FACTS which we can never actually satisfy. Because science! Although this is all probably old news to you!

Kinda reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend and I was saying I couldn't understand the desire to keep pushing the limits of humankind's knowledge in certain areas - such as space exploration, which to me just seems unnecessary, but he said he was fascinated to see just how further we could increase our knowledge, just exactly what we are capable of. I guess I can get on board with that.

dogimo said...

There's a directly-related concept that's just as cool! The Law of Diminishing Returns, as it Pertains to the Improvement of Scientific Fact and Theory.

Scientific fact is not a thing, it is a rigorous definition of a thing (for the purpose of where it fits into a theory). Our theories are not "how reality works." Our theories attempt descriptions of reality. Let's say in Newton's time, facts about gravity and motion are established. Facts so usefully true that they can get rockets to military targets with bang-on precision, and even land a manned mission on the moon.

Yet wait! Before that can happen, Netwton's facts are overruled! Superseded by Einstein's in the 1920s! Newton's theories were shown to be off in small but fundamental ways, pesky teensy details. Einstein improved our description of reality.

But whose theories did NASA use to get us to the moon? Newton's. His calculations were and remain dead-on.

A fact can be usefully true that is not "absolutely" true. A theory can be accurate without being perfect. And the better our grasp gets, the less there will be left to improve upon.

Diminishing returns. When your "fact" is far off from truth, a very little effort will close you right in on it. Your grasp improves, leaving the old grasp far behind - and leaving you with a fantastically more useful theory than the old barely-examined conception.

Pretty easy to get from a 02% grasp to a 95% grasp of something, really. But reality leaves you very little clear ground to sprint over, and once you close that distance, any further you want to get you have to crawl. Getting from 98.9% to 99.2% from there will be extraordinarily difficult, expensive - and worse, probably not worth it. Because for all you know, your 98.9% is in fact 100% of all there is to know! You can't tell the difference between a theory that works perfectly and a theory that is perfect.

All of which bears directly (or whatever, inversely) upon the "half-life of knowledge." The half-life of knowledge concept looks very impressive if you look at say, 1800-1900, or 1900-2000, where most of the easy work was done. I don't mean all our theories have become perfect! I just means from here, it becomes harder to almost impossible for us to tell. Theories become so usefully close to truth that any miniscule flaws left - if there are any - can't be teased out. And suppose a new fix is made - that fix was insignificant! It's not like the old fact was wrong. Newton understood gravity just fine. His theory did and does work, perfectly. Or one may say: close enough for government work.

Which is the rub. Science loves to prove some older theory wrong and then HEADLINES! NEW ADVANCE! FAMOUS THEORY PROVED WRONG! Previous Scientists once again shown to be SUCKERS!!

Government and business are less impressed by this sort of "progress." They know the old fact was a hard, and useful, true fact. If it gets you to the moon, it's true.

And as the "half-life" of fact grows longer and longer for any facts that have been at all looked into, the less far and less fast you can push your truth for all the effort you invest. A limit is reached. Oh, you will be willing to spend the rest of eternity trying to puzzle out some phantasmal thing you suspect you may have missed...! And even leave that important quest on to the next generation of scientists, but some shrewd bean-counter's going to pull the plug. Quit funding the dry well of that particular question. We don't fund the search for perfection. We fund the search for useful truths.

Useful truths are what engineering deals in. Applicable facts. Science seems to want to hang its star on absolutes - on finding a grasp of the cosmic that is actual, exact, perfect. Good on ya, Scientists!

The world needs its dreamers too, after all.

Mel said...

A bunch of assholes trying to prove shit

dogimo said...

Pretty much!

It's a shame people are so afraid of proof. What's proof? Proof is just a test. To be proven, something has to be within range of what's testable.

As to belief, shit, that's just a feeling anyhow right? What kind of dipshit feels threatened by what some other person thinks of his feelings? Or hers. A feeling is a fact.

You can't believe you're in love if you're not in love.

dogimo said...

I love Karl Popper. This is one of my favorite arguments:

4.A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

Mel said...

This is delightful yet ridiculous.

People need to chill.

dogimo said...

Hmmm. Yeas.

Well. Is a call to venerate the "mystery of nature" as revealed in the human hand really much better than a call to venerate the mystery of the creator? Either way there is mystery, but here's my problem with "creation scientists." They seem committed to the idea that at some point, past some line, God has left a boundary and a sign posted: "Go No Further In Your Attempts To Understand Nature."

Such people are assholes, and they are not scientists. Science seeks to probe and understand and penetrate the limits of ignorance, not respect the limits and leave them unplumbed. Anyone who wants any such proposed line to be respected had damn well better produce the boundary and show the sign. Because God gave Rock And Roll To You, and every other piece of this mystery as well. It's ours to probe and unlock and to use and to steward - it's even ours to abuse, though we can hope our free will and reason will lead us to good uses over bad.

But the point is this gift of life is ours. Life, the universe and everything. God's not fretting behind some boundary to human knowledge that he hopes we won't cross. There isn't any reason to respect any limits humans try to place on science - only to probe and understand and try to grasp what fundamental limits there are in nature. And there are several! But they don't need a fence around them to protect them from our curiosity. As limits, their actuality is quite sufficient to preserve their integrity.

dogimo said...

Hm. Reading back I just want to say I do disagree with this quite a bit - and I danced around it but I'd love to say outright, I DISAGREE! With this:

Basically the gist is, the half-life of knowledge is the amount of time that has to elapse before half of the knowledge in a particular area is superseded or shown to be untrue. So in a way, if I understand it correctly, there's really no such thing as a fact as such.

Unso! Almost always unso! There really are such things as facts, upon which we can rely and in the use of which we can get our facts straight. In any area into which research has made deep inroads, the established body of facts is quite reliable, to a very high degree of confidence. The facts which get superseded are almost always very accurate descriptions of reality. They are working facts. They are true facts. They are not proved wrong, they are only proved inexact. Each of them is a right answer upon which much solid ground rests and much actual concrete progress is made - and then "Hey! I just noticed something tiny about this little foundational bit! It's just possible we could get this a touch more refined, and end up with a better description of reality!"

Oh, now and again some big theory gets overturned and it makes the papers, but even these are almost always refinements that leave the substance of previous work almost wholly valid and intact. As I mentioned above, the huge bru-ha when Einstein "overturned" Newton is a great example. Newton was right in everything he attempted to describe, and his physics model is still 100% valid. He was only "wrong" in that - as a tossed-off consideration - he considering gravity as something with instantaneous action across distance. Newton had no idea what caused gravity, and he didn't say he did. His speculation was no part of his actual theory or work or model. Nothing rested on it whatsoever. So what did Einstein do? He posited a mechanism for gravity's operation, and from that theoretical foundation he was able to take us further than Newton could.

But in terms of facts, what of Newton's was overturned?

I'd like someone to cite one fact of Newton's that Einstein overturned. Not saying no one could - but the example they cite would be pretty good food for thought as to the paltry scope of such "facts."

It's not true there are no facts. It's just that as people fine-tone their scopes and measurements, they find it possible to refine further and further. A Scottish two-handed claymore is a hell of a fact, but science has no use for what we can learn with one of those. Science has refined claymores to sabres to rapiers to epees to foils.

In all our refinement, very few facts are overturned. Most facts are kept, fine-tuned, adjusted, reunderstood in a more-precise, more proper framework.

It sure is exciting when a BIG HUGE fact gets demolished! Something foundational to a huge and accepted theory, and the whole thing keels over and bites the dust. But really: think back over the history of science as far as you can - when was the last time that really happened?

What you typically get is the old theoretical model is not overturned. It's just recognized as less capable of pushing forward. The half-life of facts isn't a half-life of decay but a half-life of refinement. A new and sudden understanding opens up a promising way - of course all the eager researchers dive in! Virgin turf, theory-wise - very attractive. But plenty of bikers still ride proven and valid Harleys, even as new-jacks flock to their Zeros. As science seeks greater and greater refinement, science moves from sabre to epee.

You know what? For most purposes of life, I'll take the sabre. It's as valid and factual as an epee, and you can do many of the same things with it. It may not be as capable of refined touch - but fine touch is for researchers, not for the builders and makers and fighters in life and love.

Gotta go. An apple just fell on my head!

Mel said...

I see what you mean here. However, when I say there’s really no such thing as a fact, what I mean is that no one can ever say with one hundred percent certainty that what they have proclaimed to be a fact will not one day be disproved. And to me it felt that the conclusion to that concept was that there therefore could never be any way of assuredly saying “this is a fact”, because there is no way of predicting for any fact which one(s) may one day be either refined (as you say), revised or outright refuted. Also, to me, a refinement really is just another way of saying the original fact was not quite right, and therefore I would claim, was not a fact. Thinking on this it kinda seems like a “well no duh” thing to say. That happens to me a fair bit. What I’ll be “oh wow!” about everyone else is all “so what!?” and vice versa. I probably need to work on that.

Having said that, I think you’re being generous in saying that most facts, with time and further knowledge, remain proven to be facts, or just a touch refined. In my observation medical science, at least, seems to be a history of the following:

Medical Science: “Here is a fact! Do this! It is great for you!”

*some time passes*

Medical Science: “Hey, you know that thing we said was great for you? yeah, don’t do that, it’s really, really bad actually”.

But that’s probably just my highly-tuned sensitivity and health anxiety skewing the facts. I probably need to work on that too. Or, rather, let it go.

dogimo said...

Ah well yeah, yes definitely. The dietary and lifestyle recommendations of medical - shall we say, science - it's not what I'd call a science. Advice is not what I'd call a science. Even when a doctor examines and tests and pronounces for just one case in front of him, and it's you - what he gives is advice. There's too much going on in any human being's body, plus two much coming in along any human being's path, to give anything more specific than general advice.

Having said that, a couple glasses of wine a day, plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, reasonably limited intake of fatty foods and refined sugars - this advice seems to have held pretty true for as long as I've been listening? But people argue the relative sin or merit of things like - well, eggs, for instance.

It's idiotic to me to think anyone ever believed eggs were bad for you. To me, be an omnivore and consume a wide and random range of balanced meals and you can't go wrong. A lot of the fad advice amounts to subsisting on only a small restricted range of prescribed things to eat. I suspect those kinds of advice will always be debunked.

In terms of 100% certainty that a give fact is perfect and will never be improved upon, though - what use would such certainty be? Seems depressing.

I like my facts to work 100% for today's need - beyond my ability to spot an improvement, even! Perfect to the purpose. And yet I retain hope that even these may be improved upon, as we take on.

Mel said...

Eggs are a great example. The way it went from being eggs are bad because cholesterol to yay good fats, everybody! See, I wouldn’t say that was couched as advice. It was stated as fact that eggs were bad. It was stated that scientific research found eggs were bad. Then time passes and it’s said to be not the case. It wasn’t so much that people believed eggs were bad, it’s that they found evidence that showed for what they said was a fact that eggs were bad.

But yeah, what came to mind when I was thinking of medical scientific facts that have turned 180 degrees, I was thinking more like leeches and lobotomies, just off the top of my head.

dogimo said...

Medicine is probably the best area to make your case! But it seems to me we just know so little about it, too though.

Doesn't it seem to you though that in disciplines like chemistry, physics, even more general biology - don't you see a fairly high survival rate among facts? Even the ones that change generally just mutate a bit. The evolved version is the same fact, with its neck stretched a bit. Gotta reach those further theoretical leaves.

Mel said...

Yes, you are right, my mind does seem to favour recalling occurrences where medical science screwed up. I have little knowledge of chemistry or physics, and all I recall from high school biology is something something meniscus something something chlorophyll something something DOUBLE HELIX! But I reckon you're right, physics certainly seems to be a continual progression of discovery built on discovery.

I also finally got around to reading last night that Popper's Account you posted further up the comments here! I printed it out at work a couple of days ago to take home and read in the bath (I'm pretty much Archimedes when it comes to my approach to scientific research). It was alright! I particularly liked this part: "Every ‘good’ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is. That I can dig.

This, however, I can't understand but I don't think I'm down with it at all.

"Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice."

HA! And I've just scrolled up and seen that's the very part you specifically selected as being your favourite in your hyperlink. That is fantastic.

I was thinking more of the egg example too yesterday and it occurred to me there's probably something far more sinister going on. Like, I'm thinking the Egg Board, or Big Egg I guess they are, are actually responsible for all this "eggs are fully rad now" data because it's trying to turn things around from the "eggs are bad mmmkay" era. Wasn't it discovered that the food pyramid was actually devised as some sort of wheat industry propaganda. Hmmmm.

dogimo said...

>>This, however, I can't understand but I don't think I'm down with it at all.

"Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice."

I think this strikes right at the heart of what most people seem to think science is supposed to be about. They think science is supposed to be about certain knowledge. But it isn't. Science is about rejecting certainty in order to push knowledge as fast and as far as we can go! It's about probing the limits of our best theory, by testing its predictions in a sincere attempt to prove where it is false.

Popper's point about "the more a theory forbids, the better it is" - he's saying a good theory gives us plenty of things to test. A valuable theory lays out exactly how to disprove it. You can look at what the theory forbids and see if you can overturn those predictions by making what it forbids happen. "Okay. This theory makes sense - and let's reason from there. If it's true, then we can expect to see this, this, and this as a result. And if it's true, we will NEVER see this, this or this." We see the predictions, and make a sincere attempt to falsify them. That's why a theory that stakes no claim anywhere in reality where you can conceivably disprove it - is unscientific. A scientific theory stakes a claim that's at least potentially testable. Scientific theory lays it out: "Here's what it would take to refute me. If I'm true, than THIS can never happen." A balls move.

A scientific theory is a double-dog dare. One single proved-false prediction means the theory is wrong. And scientists want to win the dare. They want to prove theory wrong wherever they can. That's their job. Because as far as science goes, where you test and the predictions are confirmed - you've learned nothing, really.

We only move forward where we can falsify the best theory we knew. A tiny gap in a solid wall of fact. But the wall doesn't crumble - the gap was already there, the wall's as solid as it ever was. But we spot the gap and use the gap to slip our way through, and we build a more comprehensively-solid monument on the other side. Typically, nothing's been thrown down. Almost always, the new theory is just a refinement of the previously "proved wrong" theory. The part proved wrong provides the clue to move forward, and the new theory is just that tiny bit better, more accurate, which provides an even better platform for new predictions to test, test, test, prove, - FALSIFY! - advance.

Science rejects certainty. Certain knowledge is not only unscientific, it's useless. Because there probably isn't any, and even if there was you'd never know which piece was certain, and which piece was unbeknownstedly capable of refinement. Yet KNOWLEDGE is useful. We have an enormous body of knowledge proved useful, proved reliable, proved predictive, proved powerful. The fact we have none proved certain isn't anything that would bother a scientist! What good is certainty to us?

Certainty is a delusion one assumes in order to excuse one's self from science.

Mel said...

Thank you for this, it was clarifying and very much appreciated. I just need to now reconcile that "science rejects certainty" can comfortably coincide with science saying "this is most certainly a fact".

dogimo said...

Who are you quoting, though? I'm not aware of science saying "this is most certainly a fact." I suppose like anyone, a given scientist might get carried away with hyperbole or arrogance, but science's rejection of certainty is foundational to the scientific method.

Our ol' buddy Wikipedia puts it pretty well, in fact*! In its article on the scientific method, under the heading Properties of scientific inquiry:

Scientific knowledge is closely tied to empirical findings, and can remain subject to falsification if new experimental observation incompatible with it is found. That is, no theory can ever be considered final, since new problematic evidence might be discovered. If such evidence is found, a new theory may be proposed, or (more commonly) it is found that modifications to the previous theory are sufficient to explain the new evidence.

*as all facts on Wikipedia are subject to editing, so are all theories in science subject to revision. Science is essentially a humble exercise, always leaving the possibility open that some new evidence can be discovered that refutes a theory. And we see that it happens - but the corrections get smaller and smaller and smaller, and the theories tend to be resilient, capable of absorbing what necessary refinements arise. The closer you get to an accurate description of any of reality's real fundamentals, like the properties of elements or fundamental forces, the less and less likely there's room for reality to up and refute you. Reality doesn't change its nature - not once have we ever caught it doing that! Reality abides, and we get closer and closer to an accurate description of it - and the corrections to our theories become tinier and tinier.

But science leaves room for any new fact that comes in. Possibility's always open. Certainty is not scientific!

But confidence can be. We can have a lot of confidence in our facts, because of the degree to which they've been proven to work powerfully and predictively to advance knowledge - and especially because of the degree to which our theories and facts have proven resilient, with continuing utility through whatever necessary revisions arise.

Mel said...

Who are you quoting, though? I'm not aware of science saying "this is most certainly a fact."

I guess I was quoting you, when you said in earlier comments: “There really are such things as facts.” and "We can have a lot of confidence in our facts". Aren’t they basically the same sentiment; “This is most certainly a fact”, ”There really are such things as facts” and "We can have a lot of confidence in our facts"?

I feel comfortable in saying that quite frequently a scientific breakthrough or research is premised with “we now know …”. Isn’t that just another way of presenting the information as being most certainly a fact?

Speaking of scientific breakthrough, this story is great.

Get ready to bow to your robot overlords

I particularly liked this part…

“Elon Musk — along with Stephen Hawking and neuroscientist Sam Harris — has been one of the most outspoken figures to warn of the potential dangers of AI. Last year the Space X and Tesla CEO pledged $US10 million to ensure AI technology is kept mankind friendly.”

Which links you to a story entitled "Elon Musk donated $10 million to ensure robots don’t eventually murder you."

Ten million dollars to ensure the survival of the human race against super intelligent machines that have to ability to exterminate us. It just brings to mind Dr. Evil biting his pinky.

dogimo said...

There are facts. It's just that science rejects any claim of permanent certainty or finality where facts (or theories) are concerned. At any time, new evidence may come up that could conclusively refute our previous best conception.

But there are facts! Mel, there can even be indisputable facts. I'd much prefer "indisputable" to "certain," if someone wants to make a claim as to a fact's strength. Indisputable just means that here and now, we have no scrap nor shred of evidence, anywhere we can find in reality, that can be used to dispute - and we've tried. "Indisputable" is a good word, an accurate word for a well-tested fact that has been taking on and trouncing all comers. Any and all new comers are dared to come forth and dispute! Naturally, we keep our eyes wise for anything new that could pop up and refute it, but in the mean time, we've thrown everything we can even think of at it, and it's remained immoveable. We have pretty good reason for confidence in that undisputed fact. It's proved itself indisputable.

So far!

Science is always about "so far," which is why so far has been so good. Today's indisputable fact, sciences leaves all the room in the universe that tomorrow may bring the means to dispute it. How could it be ruled out?

This open-minded process of hard-nosed testing, where no fact or theory no matter how venerable is ever sacred should new evidence arise to refute it, has accumulated for us a colossal body of facts on which we rely today, with good cause for confidence. Better: the nature of quite a lot of these facts is such that even if they are later found lacking, we have reason to expect the correction will be slight: that the revised version will be largely familiar, largely the same, with some minor adjustments.

There really are such things as facts! We can have a lot of confidence in our facts.

But this is not because of the facts themselves. It is because of our detachment from them. We can have confidence in our facts for three reasons: 1) we reject their certainty, 2) we actively seek the new evidence that can falsify or refute, 3) this process of falsification and refinement is exactly what's yielded all the practical fruits of scientific progress, and the accumulated body of sound, well-sounded knowledge.

Science isn't about infallibility, certainty or finality, but about seeking out where we're wrong today, in order to point the way forward. Falsification has been the engine of the scientific method since the Enlightenment. Maybe some of our modern peeps are cocky, or assholes, or given to hyperbole and scornful pronouncements! But so were some of those Enlightenment peeps. Scientists are human like any of us. But it doesn't matter to science that some "scientists" claim certainty, reject heresy, and become asshole dogmatists.

It doesn't matter, because the way forward is claimed by those who reject certainty. Those who practice the method, which is not dogmatic except in its core precepts of skeptic suspension of judgment absent compelling demonstration, demand for reproducible results, and permanent openness to refutation by new evidence.

The dogmatists of science, the claimers of certainty, they don't matter. They're not part of science - they're not part of science's way forward. They're just science fans really. They're harmless. They can't really derail us.

The way forward is always there, in every little bit of where we're not quite right yet. The way forward is claimed by scientists, never by dogmatists.

dogimo said...

Shit. I just read that article. We can't even win at Go anymore??!

Chuck Norris can beat Deep Blue at Tic-Tac-Toe.

I guess my main thing Mel is - I have no problem with science news saying "We now know," because I know science puts no limits on knowledge. It doesn't make a piece of newly acquired and tested knowledge all-powerful, or claim it can never be unseated. It always leaves open the possibility of knowing more, and of knowing better. But there are plenty of things we do know. We know the speed of light. Even if it turns out we can measure the speed of light more precisely and add some decimal points onto our description of it, that doesn't mean we didn't know it before. It just means we can know it better.

Certain knowledge is as far as I can tell useless. It's useless because it doesn't exist. Certainty is a concept in our brains which, translated accurately, ought to mean simply "overconfidence."

Scientific knowledge is far from useless. We can now know a lot of things that can be used to create and to push our knowledge further.

The difference between scientific knowledge and certain knowledge is in how each uses ignorance. Scientific knowledge comes from exposing and exploiting points of ignorance to drive knowledge forward. Certain knowledge uses ignorance to keep stasis, to claim permanence. Everywhere certain knowledge claims permanence, science finds and pokes holes in our ignorance, in what and where we don't yet know. Science relentlessly seeks the falsity in the claim, and exploits every ignorance to push knowledge forward.

Crowds of ignorant assholes then run along behind, claiming the new state of knowledge is now certain! But the thing is, these assholes probably have good reason to be confident in the new state of knowledge. Science is not certain, but it is very generally reliable. So they're not idiots, not morons. Hey they're probably not even "assholes," really, but they might be absolutists. Which I pretty much use absolutist as a synonym for asshole. They just have an incomprehensible (to me) preference for words like "certainty," words that denote useless concepts, concepts that do not express anywhere detectable in reality. Absolutists! What good are they? No absolutes in reality! None that we've ever found. Even absolute zero is finite, not absolute. Reality has limits in every direction, and knowledge is in a process of discovering as many of them as we can.

Truth is not certain in how we see it or by what we say. But truth is powerful, and in how we use it, we see its effects. Any philosopher can claim "there is no certain truth," and despair! A scientist knows there is a universe full of observable, measureable, testable, powerful truth. Truth we can use.

Certainty is not something we can use, except as an anesthetic or intoxicant. Certainty is pathetic. Certainty is a property of ignoring the possible.

Science is a property of seeking for it.