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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

Scientists: Groping in the Dark?

The blind men and the elephant is a common tale in India with many variants. Below is the one from Saxe:

The Blind Men and the Elephant
John Godfery Saxe
(1816 — 1887)
I.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

IV.
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
VII.
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
II.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!-but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
V.
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

VIII.
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
III.
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!-what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me’t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
VI.
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
MORAL.
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

In many ways this poem is an excellent metaphor for science and demonstrates how science works. The blind men want to learn about the elephant so they make observations. Good so far—in science, observations rule. They then make models to describe what they have seen, or in this case, felt. Again, good scientific methodology: the tusk is indeed well modeled as a spear. Since each has chanced upon a different part of the elephant, the models differ. This not a problem. In science we always model different parts of reality differently; we do not use the standard model of particle physics to describe planetary orbits or cell division.

But the blind men then make the classic error and assume theirs is the global model that describes the entire elephant. The scientific method would have required them to make predictions based on their models and test them against additional observations. This would have revealed the problem—and the elephant. Instead, they argued. This, of course, bears no resemblance to real scientists who never argue heatedly on the basis of partial data. Nope, never, has not happened.  (OK, stop thinking of your colleague.)

The moral is also interesting (not just for theologic war but also scientific ones): Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean. This seems like a foreshadowing of Kuhn’s incommensurability of paradigms. Their ideas and frames of reference are so different they cannot understand each other.

And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen! Here we come to the nub. To a large extent science is precisely this; prating about an elephant we have not seen. We can learn a lot about the elephant we have not seen by making repeated observations of the beast and learning how the various models fit together and interlock with each other.  We may never, by feel or even by sight, be able to construct the ultimate model of the elephant but we can obtain a lot of useful information and construct quite accurate models of at least some aspects of the elephant. The trick is not to make the mistake of assuming one’s partial model is the whole truth. This mistake has been made repeatedly: Newton’s laws of motion, Maxwell’s equation, the fixed continents, … . There is now a talk of a theory of everything (TOE); the same mistake being made again.

The blind men’s error has been common in the philosophy of science as well. Different models for the scientific method capture different aspects of the problem: induction, hypothesis, logical positivism (verification), paradigms, falsification, and even no method. The philosophers do indeed resemble the blind men disputing loud and long. The real task is to see how the various models fit together to give a coherent whole. Like the models of the elephant, the different approaches to the scientific method are not so much wrong as incomplete. The approach I advocate of models competing against each other in making successful predictions is an attempt at a more unified approach; one can see how the various precursor models are aspects of it. But as always, this will probably be just one aspect of a more complete approach that can never be completely known and will always be debated.  But for most practical purposes, the scientific method can be, and probably is known well enough. Blind men, even those with a philosophical bent, can learn a lot about an elephant by groping in the dark.

 

 


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