Science, Values and the World

The central aim of science is to demythologize our intuitions about the natural world, to convert the irrationality of discovery into the rationality of justification. A judicious mixture of both creative inspiration and rigorous testing is essential to the success of this massive human project. Values in science, so controversial to so many “hard scientists,” have their freest reign in the context of discovery and conjecture. When carried over into contexts of justification and refutation, values are tempered by facts but still remain in the way we interpret facts themselves. Values, while present in science, are not by virtue of their status as values immune to the scrutiny and revision that comes from the self-correcting mechanisms that characterize the scientific method. Thus, we can formulate the central aim of science to be, in the words of the late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan, the “marriage of wonder and skepticism” [1].

The foremost goal of science is to develop theories that fit observable phenomena and thereby explain them in terms of a rough approximation of reality called a model. These are theories which possess the quality of what philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen calls “empirical adequacy” [2]. I will suggest in this paper that empirical adequacy consists in a series of well-defined qualities the most important of which are simplicity, functionality and self-correction. The first quality renders the physical universe comprehensible to human experimenters, while the latter two make science useful in solving practical problems faced by individuals and society. Empirical adequacy is also a measure of how sensitive we are to our own shortcomings and proneness to error. This has application to everyday life outside the laboratory as well, although the values of empiricism are not widely used or recognized by the general public. “Much of the scientific enterprise,” writes social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, “can be construed as the use of formal procedures for determining when to throw out bad ideas, a set of procedures that we might be well advised to adopt in our everyday lives. We humans seem to be extremely good at generating ideas, theories, and explanations that have the ring of plausibility” [3]. Science is a method of critical thinking applied to sense observations rather than to pure deductive logic. Because it incrementally builds upon itself, it is an inductive method that proceeds from particulars to universals in inferential steps. As such, its aim is not to discover truth, but rather to pursue those theories that adequately explain (i.e., demythologize) observed data.

The most reliable indicators of adequacy are simplicity and functionality. The former quality is set forth in Occam’s Razor, a fundamental intellectual tool of science which states, “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” This maxim originated with William of Occam, an English Franciscan scholastic of the 12th century, whose formulation was “It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer” [4]. In other words, given two or more equally plausible explanations of a given observed phenomenon, the simplest of the explanations has a greater probability of being the correct (or more nearly correct) one. Occam’s Razor is the bane of the pseudoscientist, who “often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined. . . . Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency” [5]. Neurochemist and biophysicist Elie Shneour identified the greatest value of Occam’s Razor in writing, “The honest and simple application of this principle to paranormal claims would quickly consign most of them to oblivion. It would free their purveyors from frustrating emotional burdens and the waste of resources to accommodate more fruitful pursuits” [6]. Simplicity also demands science to be reductionist in its methods. Holism is harmful and obtrusive to the scientific enterprise.

In addition to being a model, a “theory” is a set of statements that try to explain observations. Single, isolated phenomena constitute data, not a theory. Psychologist Ray Hyman writes, “The myth of the single, crucial experiment has resulted in needless controversy and has contributed to the False Dichotomy. . . . a single, unreplicated event that allegedly attests to a miracle is simply a historical oddity that cannot be part of a scientific argument” [7]. Theories obtain in the context of constructive research programmes in which “the typical descriptive unit of great scientific achievements is not an isolated hypothesis . . . only a series of theories can be said to be scientific or unscientific: to apply the term ‘scientific’ to one single theory is a category mistake” [8].

In its capacity as an explanatory process, one of the roles of science is to craft the so-called “laws of nature,” which are inventions of human observers. Far from implying that our descriptions of the universe are arbitrary and that we “create our own reality through observation” as some New Age mystics would have us believe, this means that scientists must write down their theories and models in such a way that they fit the observed data. Moreover, scientific theories and models must be formulated to be objective. They cannot depend on the subjective point of view of any one observer.

Our understanding of the explanatory and demarcating aim of science strongly influences how we pursue scientific goals. Having a grasp of what science is for leads its practitioners to avoid vagueness as much as possible. Ironically, the philosophical position known as realism makes the avoidance of vague language difficult. Only an anti-realist or instrumentalist understanding renders science penetrable by human concerns and therefore useful to society, because realism places a metaphysical burden upon us. This is why, for example, theology is a field of study without a subject. Ontological meaning is opaque to useful scientific results. If we can make accurate and quantitative measurements and then tentatively explain those measurements with theories, it does not matter what the theory really means. The only relevant issue is whether the theory actually works. If it does, then it is “true enough,” and scientists need not lose sleep over questions of whether there is a one-to-one correspondence between theories and ultimate reality, which we cannot achieve. All we have at our disposal are “sensible forms,” such as space and time which Kant said “are to be regarded as being . . . representations only, not things in themselves, and that time and space are therefore only sensible forms of our intuition . . . [not] conditions of objects viewed as things in themselves” [9].

But instrumentalism has its disadvantages as well, mostly related to the deficiencies of human nature. This consideration leads to the third criteria of empirical adequacy, the self-correction mechanism. The history of science is a clear testament of “the tentative nature of all scientific knowledge and the need for humility about all current understanding” [10]. It is no secret that both scientists and non-scientists are prone to mental shortcutting in trying to progress from contexts of discovery to contexts of justification. This is especially the case with those in the medical profession, for whom acquiring results is a time-sensitive issue. Haste comes naturally to those accustomed to watching patients die every day from disease. Even from within the ranks of “pure science,” both the competitive factor and political pressure can easily exacerbate mental shortcuts and biased reasoning. A recent study conducted by psychologists in France highlights the ease with which intellectual laziness comes to human practitioners of puzzles and problems of all kinds, not just scientific. However, it also reveals that we are often aware of this tendency.

In a recent study conducted by Wim De Neys and colleagues of the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique in France, researchers found that not only do people have a tendency to be intellectually lazy, but we are also generally aware of our intellectual laziness when we indulge it [11]. The subjects of the experiment, 248 French university students, were given the standard “bat and ball” word problem that runs as follows: “a bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Many people who are not familiar with this problem will intuitively answer that the ball costs ten cents. But more careful thought will show that the correct answer is that the ball costs five cents. The bat is one dollar more, and $1.05 adds up to $1.10 when added to the cost of the ball. Arriving at this correct solution requires just a slight amount of effort that nevertheless evades most people. In addition, the researchers gave all subjects a simpler and easier control problem: “A magazine and a banana together cost $2.90. The magazine costs $2. How much does the banana cost?” The solution of this problem is a very simple matter of subtraction. The banana costs 90 cents.

The “bat and ball” problem is specifically designed to encourage those who work on it to substitute a simpler operation for a more complex one, which the majority of people do. They substitute simple subtraction for the slightly more difficult operation required to get the correct answer. This difference is a subtle one, but this is where the media report on the study was able to write about the results in terms of “lazy thinkers” [12]. Substituting the easier calculation, even though one knows it is not in fact the right calculation, is an indicator of intellectual laziness. The purpose of the second control problem used by the researchers is to mimic what human brains are doing when they get the first “bat and ball” problem wrong, i.e., a simple subtraction that is appropriate in the one case but erroneous in the other.

The most interesting result of the study came when the researchers asked the subjects to indicate how confident they were in giving their answers. They found that people seem to be aware of their own intellectual laziness. Most subjects said they were less confident of the standard “bat and ball” problem than they were for the simple control version. The researchers interpreted this to mean that, “Contrary to popular belief . . . biased reasoners are not completely oblivious to the substitution and sense that their answer is questionable. This calls into question the characterization of the human reasoner as a happy fool who blindly answers erroneous questions without realizing it.” It is significant that people may be possessed of more insight than may seem to be the case to a naïve and cynical assessor.

The scientific work I have used as an example highlights clear judgment and decision-making as values of high concern and priority in the shaping of research programmes and in how we frame key questions. Our conception of “the world” comes to us through our various constructions of it mediated by sense perceptions which are aided by instruments. Our social constructions are created, or imbued meaning, within the context of artificial structures and norms which make up the ingredients of a society. The role and task of science is to subject those social constructions to scrutiny to see how well, if at all, they hold up. Again, science demythologizes our intuitions about the world. The De Neys study aligns with what I envision to be one of the goals of scientific research, namely the questioning of commonly-held intuitive assumptions. This example, when viewed as a possible analogue of the judgment and decision-making dynamics involved in science, can shape our views about the world and ourselves. Realizing that we are capable of being self-aware of departures from critical thinking can help to further the goals of science, a realization especially useful in the irrational “context of discovery” stage of scientific exploration. For philosophers of science, further research on cognitive “substitution sensitivity” may disclose new insights concerning the logic by which scientists go about choosing between theories and how they might go about settling on ideas that strike a balance between the simplicity characteristic of a comprehensible cosmos and the complexity of functionality in a complicated world.

NOTES

1. Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), pp. 293-306.

2. Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 41-69.

3. Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 58.

4. Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945), p. 472.

5. Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1957), pp. 13-14.

6. Elie A. Shneour, “Occam’s Razor,” The Skeptical Inquirer 10 (Summer 1986): 311.

7. Ray Hyman, “A Critical Historical Overview of Parapsychology,” in Paul Kurtz, ed., A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 71. For a fuller argument on this point, see Antony Flew, “Parapsychology Revisited: Laws, Miracles and Repeatability,” in J. Ludwig, ed., Philosophy and Parapsychology (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1978), pp. 263-269.

8. Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1 (London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 4, 34.

9. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A 369, trans. Norma Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan & Co., 1961), p. 345.

10. Kendrick Frazier, “The ‘Whole Earth’ Review of the Fringe,” The Skeptical Inquirer 11 (Winter 1986-87): 198.

11. Wim De Neys, Sandrine Rossi, and Olivier Houdé, “Bats, Balls, and Substitution Sensitivity: Cognitive Misers Are No Happy Fools,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 20 no. 1 (February 2013). Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-013-0384-5 (accessed 12 March 2013).

12. Springer Select, “We Know When We’re Being Lazy Thinkers,” 19 February 2013, http://www.springer.com/about+springer/media/springer+select?SGWID=0-11001-6-1408044-0 (accessed 12 March 2013).

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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