Samir’s Selection 11/30/2015 (p.m.)

  • tags: science logic evidence observation rationality perception AdamGopnik physics quantummechanics entanglement uncertainty indeterminacy KarlPopper falsifiability open openness experiment alchemy knowledge epistemology groupthink

    • The proliferation of hominids—all those near-men and proto-men and half-apes found in the fossil record, exactly as Darwin predicted—rests on the interpretation of a few blackened Serengeti mandibles that it would take a lifetime’s training to really evaluate. (And those who have put in the time end up squabbling anyway.)
    • as a social activity, science is vulnerable to all the comedy inherent in any social activity: group thinking, self-pleasing, and running down the competition in order to get the customer’s (or, in this case, the government’s) cash. Books about the history of science should therefore be about both science and scientists, about the things they found and the way they found them. A good science writer has to show us the fallible men and women who made the theory, and then show us why, after the human foibles are boiled off, the theory remains reliable.
    • reductio ad absurdum
    • Einstein’s point was that such a phenomenon could only mean that the particles were somehow communicating with each other instantaneously, at a speed faster than light, violating the laws of nature. This was what he condemned as “spooky action at a distance.”
    • What started out as a reductio ad absurdum became proof that the cosmos is in certain ways absurd. What began as a bug became a feature and is now a fact.
    • The certainty that spooky action at a distance takes place, Musser says, challenges the very notion of “locality,” our intuitive sense that some stuff happens only here, and some stuff over there. What’s happening isn’t really spooky action at a distance; it’s spooky distance, revealed through an action.
    • The “indeterminacy” of the atom was, for younger European physicists, “a lesson of modernity, an antidote to a misplaced Enlightenment trust in reason, which German intellectuals in the 1920’s widely held responsible for their country’s defeat in the First World War.” The tonal and temperamental difference between the scientists was as great as the evidence they called on.
    • “Bohr punted on Einstein’s central concern about links between distant locations in space,” preferring to focus on the disputes about probability and randomness in nature. As Musser says, the “indeterminacy” questions of whether what you measured was actually indefinite or just unknowable until you measured it was an important point, but not this important point.
    • There was never a decisive debate, never a hallowed crucial experiment, never even a winning argument to settle the case, with one physicist admitting, “Most physicists (including me) accept that Bohr won the debate, although like most physicists I am hard pressed to put into words just how it was done.”
    • Where once logical criteria between science and non-science (or pseudo-science) were sought and taken seriously—Karl Popper’s criterion of “falsifiability” was perhaps the most famous, insisting that a sound theory could, in principle, be proved wrong by one test or another—many historians and philosophers of science have come to think that this is a naïve view of how the scientific enterprise actually works. They see a muddle of coercion, old magical ideas, occasional experiment, hushed-up failures—all coming together in a social practice that gets results but rarely follows a definable logic.
    • David Wootton, in his new, encyclopedic history, “The Invention of Science” (Harper), recognizes the blurred lines between magic and science but insists that the revolution lay in the public nature of the new approach. “What killed alchemy was not experimentation,” he writes. He goes on:

      What killed alchemy was the insistence that experiments must be openly reported in publications which presented a clear account of what had happened, and they must then be replicated, preferably before independent witnesses. The alchemists had pursued a secret learning, convinced that only a few were fit to have knowledge of divine secrets and that the social order would collapse if gold ceased to be in short supply. . . . Esoteric knowledge was replaced by a new form of knowledge, which depended both on publication and on public or semi-public performance. A closed society was replaced by an open one.

    • Wootton also insists, against the grain of contemporary academia, that single observed facts, what he calls “killer facts,” really did polish off antique authorities. Facts are not themselves obvious: the fact of the fact had to be invented, litigated, and re-litigated. But, once we agree that the facts are facts, they can do amazing work. Traditional Ptolemaic astronomy, in place for more than a millennium, was destroyed by what Galileo discovered about the phases of Venus. That killer fact “serves as a single, solid, and strong argument to establish its revolution around the Sun, such that no room whatsoever remains for doubt,” Galileo wrote, and Wootton adds, “No one was so foolish as to dispute these claims.” Observation was theory-soaked—Wootton shows a delightful drawing of a crater on the moon that does not actually exist, drawn by a dutiful English astronomer who had just been reading Galileo—and facts were, as always, tempered by our desires. But there they were, all the same, smiling fiendishly, like cartoon barracudas, as they ate up old orbits.
    • everal things flow from Wootton’s view. One is that “group think” in the sciences is often true think. Science has always been made in a cloud of social networks. But this power of assent is valuable only if there’s a willingness to look a killer fact in the eye.
    • There has been much talk in the pop-sci world of “memes”—ideas that somehow manage to replicate themselves in our heads. But perhaps the real memes are not ideas or tunes or artifacts but ways of making them—habits of mind rather than products of mind. Science isn’t a slot machine, where you drop in facts and get out truths. But it is a special kind of social activity, one where lots of different human traits—obstinacy, curiosity, resentment of authority, sheer cussedness, and a grudging readiness to submit pet notions to popular scrutiny—end by producing reliable knowledge.
    • One way or another, science really happens. The claim that basic research is valuable because it leads to applied technology may be true but perhaps is not at the heart of the social use of the enterprise. The way scientists do think makes us aware of how we can think. Samuel Johnson said that a performer riding on three horses may not accomplish anything, but he increases our respect for the faculties of man. The scientists who show that nature rides three horses at once—or even two horses, on opposite sides of the universe—also widen our respect for what we are capable of imagining, and it is this action, at its own spooky distance, that really entangles our minds.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

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