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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

A little doubt is a wonderful thing

I have just solved a problem that needed to be finished this week to ensure I am ready to analyse the first p-p collision data from the LHC in a few weeks. The schedule is pretty tight now and everyone is busy! Throughout my PhD the most common and satisfying activity is working through a complicated problem, trying to come to an understanding, something correct. This week, during shifts and working through my analysis, I realised something about myself. My problem-solving, analytical ability (one of my biggest strengths) is aided greatly by my tendency to doubt. The solution to today’s problem appeared simple on the surface, but I thought of many ways in which it may not still work. In the end, the simple method survived, and I am much more confident about it.

It occurred to me then that people do not speak highly enough of doubt. Belief in something is seen as admirable, and scepticism has fairly negative connotations. Having been brought up a Catholic, I am familiar with the idea that being a “doubting Thomas” is a bad thing (“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”, and so on). In a non-religious context, being a “skeptic” conjours up the image of a kind of undesirable personality flaw. However, I completely disagree with that picture.  If you decide to question every belief you have, those ideas that survive are worth so much more for it.

As a side note,  I came across, and was utterly disgusted by, a “Debate” article on the Daily Mail’s Mail Online recently, titled “Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth” . I advise anyone with a brain not to read it, and I do not believe the author speaks on behalf of anybody sensible. However, it did highlight a perception that I think some people do have of scientists – certain. Arrogant. Correct. The ones with all the knowledge, the facts.

This is interesting because the philosophy of science is to converge theories towards what is true. This makes scientists look arrogant because what they believe is as close to the truth as they can possibly get.  However, scientists would not have come this close to the truth without chipping away at current understanding with observation – without the incredible power of scepticism. Being willing to throw out what you have no matter how nicely it fitted before you started questioning it. Historically, entire ways of thinking about the world were turned on their head because of this. This is one of many things that makes me proud to be human.

I was a very intelligent child (things go downhill as you age, don’t they?), in part because I was a sponge for knowledge, but also because I kept asking questions until I got an answer that was satisfactory (I still do this. I am ruthlessly demanding in that respect. Very annoying, as you might imagine!) However, I owe everything I am today (including my lack of arrogance) to the times when, as a know-all, smart-Alec child, I was proven wrong. The more I experienced in life, the more I realised that just because an answer is satisfactory now doesn’t mean it is true, and at some point experience may cause me to think differently. Now, when I look at a problem, I don’t just think of a possible solution. I also try to think of all the ways I might be able to prove it wrong. What’s left is gold. That’s what science is all about. 🙂

I hope one day in the future to teach physics to kids, not with the intention of turning them all into future research scientists neccessarily, but giving them strong problem solving skills and critical minds to arm them against a world of scams, confusion and misinformation. Question the world, kids. Keep your childlike curiosity and wonder, examine and unravel the mysteries of the world’s magic. Keep searching for an answer that can’t be thrown away. Be a “doubting Thomas”. 😀

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3 responses to “A little doubt is a wonderful thing”

  1. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    One of my regular readers has made a very good point to me – the results that come out of the LHC will be interpreted by scientists and it will be for the public to simply trust what we tell them. I want to raise the point that even scientists should be questioned – I think it is smart to ask for a proper explanation rather than take their qualifications as proof that they are right.

  2. Joshua C. Randall says:

    Zoe,

    I have thought about this a lot recently, and agree pretty much completely, though it’s nice to see it presented as a personal anecdote.

    I have to think that a world full of thoughtful questioners ought to be a better place to live than a world of convinced believers accepting whatever their chosen authority tells them to believe, and I think there are a few key ways in which we could work to make the world an easier place to grow up to be a doubter.

    (1) Stop lying to the children
    “Lying” might be a strong term, and perhaps it varies from place to place, but in my own experience, much of schooling was about learning “facts” about the world, even in the case of subjects like science, where there is no such thing as fact. Others may disagree, but I think what science really is, or at least what it should be, is about fitting probability distributions to our knowledge. We experiment, we observe, we come up with models to explain our observations, we update the likelihood that each model we have considered is the “right” one, and we begin again. We become somewhat confident in some models’ ability to explain many (or even all observed) things, but we can never know what we have not tested. It’s not that we don’t “know” anything — science is all about knowing more and more — but no matter how much we know or how well a particular model fits the data, we can never be certain that it is true. And, there is always infinite room left in the tails of the distribution to support the possibility that any of the arbitrarily many other possible models (such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster) could be true. Belief has no place in science not because any particular belief is wrong, but belief itself is wrong and dangerous.
    The consequence of the years of being lied to in school, being taught all of these scientific “facts” as if they were absolutely true, is that at some point, one of those “true” facts turns out to be incorrect (or rather, it is no longer the most likely explanation), and the vast majority of people who haven’t actually become scientists in the interim lose their “faith” in science, because it has lied to them and been caught doing so. More or less the same experience probably happens to most of the scientists, but for whatever reason rather than causing them to lose their faith, it finally frees them to embrace their doubt.
    In any case, if we just told the truth in the first place, everyone would probably be better off.

    (2) Teach how to reason with uncertainty
    Of course, it’s much easier to teach facts than some complex of uncertain models that work together to form theories of how various parts of the universe work. Much of that difficulty may stem from a general lack of education in reasoning with uncertainty. In a world in which uncertainty plays more and more of a role in day-to-day life, we do embarrassingly little to prepare students to deal with this uncertain information. And to make things worse, the innate human reasoning skills do particularly poorly when attempting to handle many kinds of uncertain data. Our intuition about reasoning with uncertainty is often wrong, and it causes innocent people to be convicted of murder, babies to die unnecessarily because their parents don’t get them vaccinated out of fear, and newspapers to continuously misrepresent the results of pretty much every scientific study that is published in the interest of making it accessible to the readers. (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/peter_donnelly_shows_how_stats_fool_juries.html)
    We’d be much better off swapping probability and statistics into the core math curricula in place of calculus. Not that there’s anything wrong with calculus — it’s great fun, but it doesn’t actually come up a lot in the lives of anyone but mathematicians. Even most scientists and engineers don’t really have a need to actually be able to integrate or differentiate something — most real data is dealt with numerically. In the age of computers, teaching the mechanics of calculus to the masses makes little sense. Statistics is much more useful in day-to-day life, and just imagine if the Times science page could publish the actual statistics that resulted from a study and have the readers understand them without having to resort to more lies, supported by quotes from scientific “authorities.” (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html, http://www.badscience.net/)

    (3) Stop indoctrinating children into belief systems
    This one is likely to be the most difficult, because most people associate their beliefs with religion, and culturally we seem to put freedom of religion forward as a human right as well as something that one has the right to pass on to ones children. However, religion and belief systems are not the same thing and there are many good arguments to be made that belief is just as bad for religion as it is for science (Carse, James P. The religious case against belief. Penguin Press, 2008.). In my view, it is fairly easy to see how belief has been the cause of most of the conflict and suffering over the past 6000 years, but more than any other time in the past couple centuries. Carse makes the interesting point that beliefs don’t really exist unless they are opposed (for what would be the point in expressing a belief in something that everyone else shares, or that no one else cares about?), so holding beliefs cannot occur without conflict at some level. The other interesting, and rather more obvious point he also makes is that beliefs require a degree willful ignorance, in which the believer is no longer open to reasonable interpretation of new knowledge that comes their way. I think he would call what you and I are talking about a form of “learned ignorance” — in that we have learned that reality is a complexity we can never truly know, and he points out the the fundamental basis of actual religion is usually along similar lines — we “can never know God.”
    In any case, the problem we have here is that people who currently believe want to be free to believe what they want. I don’t want to live in a society that tries to force people how to think or what to believe (even if what to believe was nothing). However, I think we could potentially make (very slow) progress in this area by treating belief as something that children can be protected from. Children who become indoctrinated into belief systems at an early age never really have a choice not to believe, and go through the formative part of their life with much of their brain turned off to new knowledge through willful ignorance. We protect the innocence of our children from the dangers of alcohol, smoking, and sex through laws that require them to be at a certain age (intended to be an age at which they can understand the dangers and make a reasoned decision for themseleves). Could we not do the same for belief?

  3. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    Thanks for your comment…it took a while to read! I would like to say that I don’t agree with the following: “Children who become indoctrinated into belief systems at an early age never really have a choice not to believe, and go through the formative part of their life with much of their brain turned off to new knowledge through willful ignorance.”
    Despite being atheist now, I don’t think my Catholic upbringing stopped me from questioning the world – the fact that I questioned it did lead me to stop believing but there are many religious scientists who do not find their beliefs threatened by questioning. Being atheist is just as much a belief as any other that sits outside the realm of the measureable world, and I certainly wouldn’t want to imply I wanted the world to believe the same thing as me. For sure, there are some dangerous belief systems out there that evidence does refute, some of which are scams that manipulate naive people. The way to protect children from this is to teach them to be critical – not to destroy belief but to test it. Everything scientists have is belief – but it is belief that is entirely backed-up by the surrounding world – heavily tested belief that we would readily drop if given reason to.