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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Flying Reindeer and the Nature of Science

In Honour of Bob Moore (1935-2011)

— By Byron Jennings, Theorist and Project Coordinator

A few years ago I published an article on how science works in Physics in Canada. Since I failed philosophy in university, I refuse to call it philosophy of science. The response was like the advertising slogan for Keith’s India Pale Ale (a Nova Scotian brew): “Those that like it, like it a lot”. One of the letters I received on the paper came from Bob Moore, a colleague from my McGill days. He indeed liked it a lot. However he did point out one aspect of the how science works that I had overlooked. The paper was already getting rather lengthy, and the usual comment was not that I left things out but had put too much in.

Now, Bob was a Newfoundlander or Newfie for short. Like many Newfies he had the gift to tell a good story. Thus I considered it the ultimate compliment when he said on reading parts of my paper, “I could have written that.” What I had left out, he noted, was the idea that scientists are more like gamblers or bookies than priests (the holders of eternal truths) or Gnostics (processors of secrete knowledge). Bob sent me an essay he had written on the topic which I will now summarize and mangle.

Consider the thesis that reindeer can fly. How do we test that idea? Well, take some reindeer to the top of a tall building and push them off. There goes Dasher; Splat, Dancer: Splat, … Blitzen: Splat. Ok, have we falsified the thesis that reindeer can fly? No we have only shown that those reindeer in that particular instance did not fly. Perhaps they could but choose not to. Perhaps they could not but there are others that could. We have proven nothing but only given another example of the Duhem-Quine thesis that any potential falsification can be gotten around. Bob’s point was that we were really asking the wrong question. The correct question is: How would you bet on Rudolph?

In this uncertain world, the role of science is much like that of bookies—to set the odds of what will happen, not to discover eternal truths. Will the sun rise tomorrow? Highly probable. Will the LHC discover the Higgs boson? Likely. Will Vancouver ever win the Stanley Cup? Unlikely. (Toronto? Forget it.) Can reindeer fly? Very unlikely. In a very real sense all we ever do in science to determine probability.

So why is science so successful? Because, as any professional gambler knows, playing by the odds gets you more wins than not playing by the odds. Playing by hunches and hoping you luck out will “work” occasionally, but not in the long run. And if you play against the laws of physics, the odds against lucking out can be very long. The odds that the atomic fine structure constant is between 0.00729735242 and 0.00729735271 are estimated to be about a billion to one. And the odds for the conservation of momentum in physics are so high as to be incalculable—but not infinite. Some physicists think that the law could break down in the extreme gravitational field of a neutron star orbiting a black hole.

For scientists that have to deal with things as complex as the health and attitudes of human beings, the odds can be hard to determine. Yet for our health and wellbeing it is often important to try to do so. Not doing so leads to false beliefs and superstitions, like using apricot pits to cure cancer. The most ludicrous I have heard of is a hockey player who before each game dipped his stick in a toilet bowl. Perhaps the Vancouver Canuks should have tried that. (ah, perhaps they did!).

Beliefs, such as the power of laetrile to cure cancer and the aphrodisiacal power of ground rhinoceros horn can be detrimental to our health and wellbeing, and certainly to the rhinoceroses. So when someone tells you about a study that shows evidence of flying saucers, or of mental telepathy, or that apricot seeds can cure cancer, practice a little “I come from Missouri” and ask “How much do you want to bet?”

However, in addition to death and taxes, one other thing is certain: We will miss Bob’s humour, newfie stories, and insights. Good-bye old friend, so long.

 

 

 

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