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30 Oct 2014

Science’s Subjective Birth

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Practicing Safe Science

Irrationality of Science

The origin and development of the idea of modern science have many problem-solving lessons for us.

Understanding the birth and development of modern science helps us become better problem solvers. It was just an idea over 355 years ago. Today, it’s an industry.

Ideas that old often take on the status of immutable truths. Dissecting the idea of modern science discloses the arbitrary assumptions and processes that make up all ideas, not just science. Identifying these are critical to “thinking outside the box.”

According to “The Establishment of Science”(The Economist, January 9, 2010 edition), a dozen men birthed modern science in 1660. They called their group the Royal Society. Other scientific societies propagated but none challenged it. Their standards became science’s standards. Today, programs accredit those desiring to practice research in accordance with the scientific method.

Science’s subjective origins help us answer two questions. First, who or what creates experts? Science shows experts beget experts. Second, how were first experts conceived? Science shows they were conceived by virgin birth. No programs, processes or organizations seeded them. Only the divine declarations and pledges of a dozen men did.

Science also symbolizes the growth, development and maturation of ideas. Science shows that complex webs of programs and processes form to promote ideas as immutable truths. Declarations that science or experts proved something often deter us from gazing outside the box.

Emotionally, immutable truths satisfy our security needs. Thus, we are motivated to overlook that behind processes supporting ideas are people. These people are no less influenced by fame, money, respect and fun than the rest of us are, consciously or unconsciously. That’s why emotional intelligence is more important to success than intelligence quotient even with ideas. Relational politics matter. Science demonstrates that.

In short, science’s birth shows that at the root of virtually every concrete idea is arbitrariness. Science also shows that complex processes develop around the ideas we want to promote as immutable truths. Finally, science shows that despite the myth around such processes, humans still run them.

Science’s origins and development remind us that truths don’t create ideas but rather ideas create truths. Finding the subjective, variable nature inherent in ideas, opens tremendous problem-solving opportunities to create newer and better truths.



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5 Responses

  1. As I began reading this latest post, I felt compelled to check the calendar. Despite the hints from this post (to me at least), it’s not remotely close to April Fools Day – thought the strange things that happen around Halloween (tomorrow if you’ve not selected your costume as yet…) might also provide some explanation.

    Experts begat experts … Really??? To me experts gain that trust by being helpful to those in need. First experts conceived by virgin birth … Ooh, wee, ooh!!!! Root of virtually every concrete idea is arbitrariness … Wow!!!

    PERSONALLY, I believe the only notion of the scientific method is in K-12 science courses and textbooks. Inquiry starts from a burning question, continues with Considerations (http://johncbennettjr.com ) of related topics, and then follows through with steps closest to the scientific method: consciously seeking an improved vision (ok, hypothesis if you want – but it’s a considered one, thought to be true, a small step forward in understanding) by designing, implementing, analyzing, evaluating, and reflecting on experiments. These steps continue until the vision is tested and thought able to contribute to the answering of the burning question. False steps will happen in proposed advance and/or experiment; they will be documented including any lessons learned. But further steps will continue.

    My recall of my education relative to the scientific method is about one hypothesis – either proved or disproved. Scientists (and of course ENGINEERS) really seek the BEST vision that will allow addressing the burning question as best possible. Absolutes – proven or disproven – don’t exist and thus don’t occupy researchers…

    1. Mike Lehr

      John, I only wish more people had your perspective of science and experts. I could have used your support in more discussions such as these. Unfortunately, it seems only many of those in academia seem to know that science does not seek absolutes. I wish more of your views on this would be widespread. Most believe that if science proves it, it’s true. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.

      1. Sounds like another good topic for my Considerations (http://johncbennettjr.com ) blog. But few people read it… How can we (putting myself in a group with you and others – wow!!!) get a widespread discussion of effective learning –> effective problem solving –> honest advancement in knowledge quality of life (all with the certainty of uncertainity keeping us honest)???

        1. Mike Lehr

          Here’s a very frequent example for you, John. I just received a call from a colleague whose firm is investigating use of personality tests. As she was doing her due diligence regarding accuracy and success, the representative finally said, “Well, this is scientifically proven. So, it works.” The rep was taken aback when my colleague continued as most people are simply satisfied with that answer. (I referred her to your comment by the way.)

          I’ve also personally experienced reps telling me that their tools produce consistent results for candidates 99.5% of the time even if it has been years since the candidate took the test. Now, we both know it all depends upon how you define the parameters and the confidence interval. We’re not even yet addressing how the experiments were run. Heck, allow we to tweak the definitions of what constitutes a base hit, and I could almost guarantee I could get every player’s average over .900. Yet, these are presented in such a way as to imply that the tool is rock solid and absolute in their results. Moreover, when I ask how various terms and parameters were defined to arrive at these statistics, the reps did not know. Unfortunately, this is very, very common.

          Your views are extremely valid, John. The problem is that once science moves from academia to the general public or marketing and sales, it begins to take on an absolutism that it was never meant to have. Emotionally, people crave certainty in an uncertain world. They often look to science to deliver that certainty. Moreover, when you combine the fact that many in academia are not experts in statistics (or in putting together spreadsheets), their unintentional misuse increases.

          We need to be better consumers of science and statistics. Demystifying the first is the purpose of this series.

          1. I’m reminded of the experiment with a pendulum. If the goal is to check the equation validity by measuring and calculating the pendulum frequency or period, science / experiment “proof” go great! But if the goal is to check equation by measuring and calculating the acceleration due to gravity, science / experiment “proof” doesn’t do nearly as well.

            I’m convinced that the experiments used in science classes (and those done by my and others’ chemistry professors in lecture, …) are aligned with measuring frequency, sadly. We need to expose students to “honest” and real experiments where the impact of uncertainty can’t be minimized.

            The acceleration due to gravity is one of our CONSTANTS – even if we adjust for location. Students struggling to replicate a “constant” is such a great lesson. Any teachers reading this: have you tried this – with or without your students present???

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