Volume 0, Issue 0

The Trouble with Science

In Discussion on 2012/08/13 at 9:42 am

R136 stellar nursery, Hubble Space Telescope, 2009We look up in the sky and see ten thousand points of light (give or take a few orders of magnitude depending on location and light pollution) and then, because knowing where the stars are in the sky helps us pinpoint where we are in the seasons despite the vagaries of the weather, we draw lines around them and connecting them and give the drawings names. And we make up stories about the drawings so that we can remember them, and remember that the positions of the stars are important, and, if we’re clever enough with the stories, why.

That’s “why the positions of the stars are important to us”, not any bigger sort of why, like “why are stars the things that are important”. Certainly not a “what”, like “what are stars”. Nor a “how”, as in “how do the positions of the stars drive the planting and harvest cycles”.

Well, that’s not true. The stories can actually address such things. It’s just that when they do, the risk of bullshit is dangerously high.

Pardon the seeming vulgarity. I’m a writer, and it’s hard for me to let go of a word that’s idiomatically perfect for the meaning I need. I didn’t squeeze it out of an actual cow to fling around for offensive purpose. But I need a handy term for something fairly easy to obtain, without much value, and worthy to be meticulously avoided unless you’re in a specialized career that has a use for the substance and whose uniform involves easy-to-clean boots.

And everyone knows what it means.

The trouble with science is that it hasn’t much changed from the days of freshly minted mythology. Here is how it works. We watch the world around us in case it might do something interesting. When it inevitably does, we, like every two-year-old ever, ask “why?” Then we make up a possible answer. Then, with the question in mind, we make new observations to see if anything contradicts our made-up story. If nothing ever does, no matter how we poke and prod, then we accept the story as true.

If we’re particularly fond of a story, and things we observe contradict it, then we make up stories for why certain things contradict it. It complicates things, but at least we get to keep the story we liked. After all, we seem to be in it for the stories as much as we’re in it for the ability to predict and control phenomena around us.

Science has been refined, as a process, quite a bit from its inception as mythology and somewhat more recent days as natural philosophy. We’ve added a bit of rigor in controlling variables, and mathematics, and impossible-to-ignore slaps and buffets for people who are inclined to hold onto their stories after they’ve started falling apart, who are not inclined to accept more simple stories that do not require a tremendous number of exceptions and qualifications. But it still starts the same way as mythology.

An observation, then a hypothesis. A story which offers an explanation. A made-up string of words that convey a significant chunk of linear narrative. Which we assume is true if it stands long enough against all comers. Which we reluctantly discard when it is proven to lack utility or lead us down wrong paths. Or when a more charming story comes along.

The Venn diagram is composed of three nested circles: Mythology is the largest one, inclusive of all of the explanatory stories we have come up with, enclosing Natural Philosophy, which installed a more rigorous logic to the process of thought and the conclusions drawn including the requirement to throw out the ones that are provably false rather than complicate them with exceptions. Natural Philosophy in turn entirely encloses Science, which added the mathematical rigor, statistical analysis, and methodology for isolating variables and measuring against unmanipulated controls.

But science still seems to need that story sometimes.

There is a subset of science for which the stories are truly minimalist and can also be expressed mathematically. There are many famous laws, some discovered hundreds of years ago, that fit that description. And then there is the rest of the batch, the worst of the lot being hugely and transparently extrapolative. You can identify the perpetrating papers by looking for quests for and conclusions of causation, a linear unfolding of a sequence of connected events in time. Big Bang theory is famously a member of the outer circle in this nested Venn configuration. Plenty of hard science has descended from exploring hypothetical states of a compressed and superheated universe, so Big Bang theory is serving well as a valuable parable at the minimum.

There is a mathematical descriptor for most facets of the Big Bang and the universe’s assumed expansion, equations that describe the assumed average radius and the separation of fundamental forces and the average temperature and density of energy and the points where the condensation of particulate matter would become possible, then likely, then prevalent, with complications added in for apparent accelerations of expansion (and there you can see the first suspect operation, even in a purified mathematical form, of someone trying to save a favored story) all with respect to a Universal Time t — the number of seconds elapsed since the hypothetical last moment of singularity.

Scientifically I have a couple of problems with the theory, and especially the storification of the theory, which abandons measured correlations in a search for causation, and the two problems I have are this. First, I thought we’d abandoned Newton’s assumption of a single universal coordinate system and a unified frame of reference, including any concept of absolute time, after Einstein spent so much effort proving it wrong. Second, nice singularities don’t explode.

There are a lot of “ifs” and conditional clauses in unpacking that second objection to show where errors might lie — both in my own thinking and in others’s. IF black holes, or even some black holes, contain singularities, and IF we have been correct in identifying the ones we think we have observed, and IF we have correctly formulated the equations for describing Hawking radiation, THEN we have to go on the possibility that, as we think smaller black holes dissipate more quickly than hugely massive ones, a singularity the mass of the entire universe wouldn’t spontaneously pop. If it did, then there is a significant difference between the postulated original singularity state and what we think black hole singularities are like. Admittedly we could make up a distinction for how they behave inside a universe and, effectively, outside of one.

My point here is that theories as elaborate as the Big Bang suite are excellent storytelling but very poor science, and perhaps need to be relegated to an official outer circle of science where we keep fables that are useful but need to be discarded as soon as we have something better. The categories of scientific theory that rely heavily on post hoc ergo proper hoc fake logic need to, as soon as we are done with them, fall by the wayside and move onto the shelf where we keep things of historical and anthropological interest, treasured memories, and records of mistakes we’d like to not repeat.

Assuming a causal relationship of any kind is a dangerous thing. Causes, stories of the form “this made that happen”, didn’t exist before the first two-year-old incessantly asking why, and once a two-year-old is given a “why” it can believe, it stops asking questions. As any parent can attest, many of those answers that we give our toddlers are attempts to shut them up so we can have peace. In my darker days, I often suspect that our distinctly human interpretation of causality came about explicitly as a mechanism for shutting up annoying toddlers.

Why? is a toddler’s request for a story. How are these phenomena related mathematically? is the request of a scientist. We need to learn how to instinctively tell the difference between those questions so that we can tell the difference between the types of answers we discover or create. One is a comforting story that seeks to end inquiry, and the other is a revelation we can use to build more intelligent questions.

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