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Posts Tagged ‘scientific authority’

I recently saw this comic from Twisted Doodles, which I think poses quite a conundrum for our usual simple picture of how science is studied and brought forth into the public:

From http://www.twisteddoodles.com/post/86414780702/working-in-science – used in this post with permission

From Twisted Doodles. Used in this post with permission.

If you are a non-scientist reading this blog, your idea of what science is for, and what it’s good for, is probably something like the left column – and in fact, I hope it is! But as someone who works day-to-day on understanding LHC data, I have a lot of sympathy with the right column. So how can they be reconciled?

Science takes hard work from a lot of people, and it’s an open process. Its ultimate goal is to produce a big picture understanding of a wide range of phenomena, which is what you’re reading about when you think all the good thoughts in the left-hand column. But that big picture is made of lots of individual pieces of work. For example, my colleagues and I worked for months and months on searching for the Higgs boson decaying to bottom quarks. We saw more bottom quarks than you would expect if the Higgs boson weren’t there, but not enough that we could be sure that we had seen any extra. So if you asked me, as an analyzer of detector data, if the Higgs boson existed, all I could say would be, “Well, we have a modest excess in this decay channel.” I might also have said, while I was working on it, “Wow, I’m tired, and I have lots of bugs in my code that still need to be fixed!” That’s the right-hand column.

The gap is bridged by something that’s sometimes called the scientific consensus, in which we put together all the analyses and conclude something like, “Yes, we found a Higgs boson!” There isn’t a single paper that proves it. Whatever our results, the fact that we’re sure we found something comes from the fact that ATLAS and CMS have independently produced the same discovery. The many bits of hard work come together to build a composite picture that we all agree on; the exhausted trees step back to take a broader perspective and see the happy forest.

So which is right? Both are, but not in the same way. The very specific results of individual papers don’t change unless there’s a mistake in them. But the way they’re interpreted can change over time; where once physicists were excited and puzzled by the discovery of new mesons, now we know they’re “just” different ways of putting quarks together.

So we expect the scientific consensus to change, it’s definitely not infallible, and any part of it can be challenged by new discoveries. But you might find that scientists like me are a bit impatient with casual, uninformed challenges to that consensus — it’s based, after all, on a lot of experts thinking and talking about all the evidence available. At the same time, scientific consensus can sometimes be muddled, and newspapers often present the latest tree as a whole new forest. Whether you are a scientist, or just read about science, keep in mind the difference between the forest and the trees. Try to understand which you’re reading about. And remember, ultimately, that the process of doing science is all the things in that comic, all at once.

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In the thirteenth century, Western Europe rediscovered the teachings of ancient Greece. Two friars played a lead role in this: the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) and the Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214/1220 –1292).  Aquinas combined the teaching of Aristotle with Christianity. His teachings became the orthodoxy in both Christianity and natural philosophy until the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Aquinas took Aristotle as an authority and, in turn, was taken as an authority by those who followed him. To some extent this has continued down to the present day, at least in the Catholic Church. The scientific revolution was, to a large extent, the overturning of Aristotelian philosophy as repackaged by Aquinas.

Bacon took a different track and extracted something different from the study of Aristotle. This something different was an early version of the scientific method. He applied mathematics to describe observations and advocated using observation to test models. Bacon described a repeating cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and the need for independent verification.  Bacon was largely ignored and, unlike Aquinas, was not declared a saint. Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642), if not directly influenced by Bacon, was in many ways following his tradition, both in his use of mathematics and in stressing the importance of observations. The difference between Aquinas and Bacon is the contrast between the appeal to authority and the finding out for oneself. In this contest, the appeal to authority lost rather decisively, but it was a long tough fight. People generally prefer a given answer, even if it is wrong, to the tough process of extracting the correct answer.

In spite of all that, appeal to authority is frequently necessary. The legal system in most democracies, for example, is based on the idea of appeal to authority. The parliament may make the laws but it is the courts that decide on what they mean.  Frequently, the courts even have the authority to override laws based on the constitution. This is true in many countries but most famously in the United States of America. In these countries, what the Supreme Court says, is the law. What a law actually means is commonly a matter of interpretation as evidenced by split decisions where one judge holds one opinion and another judge the opposite. Perhaps the interpretations are even arbitrary as they sometimes change over time despite the authority given to precedence. But a decision is required and there is no objective criteria, so the majority rules.

Now, it is worth commenting that that laws of nature and laws of man are completely different beasts and it is unfortunate that they are given the same name. The so called laws of nature are descriptive. They describe regularities that have been observed in nature.  They have no prescriptive value. In contrast, the laws of man are prescriptive, not descriptive. Certainly, the laws against smoking marijuana are not descriptive in British Columbia, neither were the laws against drinking during US prohibition. The laws describe what the government thinks should happen with prescribed punishments for those who disobey. However, there is no penalty for breaking the law of gravity because, as far as we know, it can’t be done. If someone actually did it, it would cease to be a law and there would be a Nobel Prize, not a penalty.  Like the laws of man, the laws of God—for example, the Ten Commandments—are prescriptive, not descriptive, with penalties given for breaking them. You can break the law of man and the laws of God, but not the laws of physics.

In science, things are different than in the courts of law. In the latter, we are concerned with the meaning of a law that some group of people have written. This, by its very nature, has a subjective component. In science, we are trying to discover regularities in how the universe operates. In this, we have the two objective criteria: parsimony and the ability to make correct predictions for observations. As pointed out in the previous post, idolizing a person is a mistake, even if that person is Isaac Newton. Appeal to observation trumps appeal to a human authority, but in the short term, even in science, appeal to a human authority is often necessary. Life is too short and the amount to know too large to discover it all for oneself. Thus, one relies on authorities. I consult the literature rather than trying to do experiments myself. We consult other people for expertise that we do not have ourselves. We rely on the collective wisdom of the community as reflected in the published literature. When we require decisions, we must rely on the proximate authorities of peers in a process called peer review. This process is relied on to maintain the collective wisdom and will be discussed in more detail in the next post.  In the meantime, we conclude this post by paraphrasing William Lyon McKenzie King[1] (1874 –1950): Appeal to authority if necessary but not necessarily appeal to authority.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] The longest serving Canadian Prime Minister.

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Lady Hope (1842 – 1922)[1] in 1915 published a claim that Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) on his death bed had recanted his views on evolution and God. This story published thirty-three years after Darwin’s death was strongly denied by his family but has made the rounds of various creationist publications and web sites to this day. Now my question is: Why would anyone care? It may be of interest to historians but nothing Darwin wrote, said, or did has any consequences for evolution today. The theory itself and the evidence supporting it have moved far beyond Darwin. But this story does serve to highlight the different role of individuals in science as compared to religion or even philosophy.

I have always considered it strange that philosophy places such importance on reading the works of long dead people—Aristotle, Descartes, etc. In science, Newton’s ideas trumped those of both Aristotle and Descartes, yet very few scientists today read Newton’s works. His ideas have been taken, clarified, reworked, and simplified. The same thing applies to the scientific writings of other great and long dead scientists. Nothing is gained by going to the older sources. Science advances and the older writings lose their pedagogical value. This is because in science, the ultimate authority is not a person, but observation.

A given person may play an important role but there is always someone else close on his heels. Natural selection was first suggested, not by Darwin, but by Patrick Matthew (1790 – 1874) in 1831 and perhaps by others even earlier. Alfred Russell Wallace’s (1823 – 1913) and Darwin’s works were presented together to the Linnean Society in July 1858[2].  And so it goes: Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) and Hendrik Lorentz (1853 – 1928) were nipping at Einstein’s heels when he published his work on special relativity.  Someone gets priority, but it is observation that ultimately should be given the credit for new models.

When the ultimate role of observation is forgotten, science stagnates. Take, for example, British physics after Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It fell behind the progress on the continent because the British physicists were too enamoured of Newton. But the most egregious example is Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). The adoration of Aristotle delayed the development of knowledge for close to two millennia.  Galileo and his critic, Fortunio Liceti (1577 – 1657), disputed about which was the better Aristotelian, as if this was the crucial issue. Even today, post-docs all too frequently worry about what the supervisor means rather than thinking for themselves: But he is a great man, so his remark must be significant[3]. Actually he puts on his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else.

Then there is the related problem of rejecting results due to their origins, or the associated ideology. The most notorious example is the Nazi rejection of non-Aryan science; for example, relativity because Einstein was a Jew. One sees a similar thing in politics where ideas are rejected as being socialist, fascist, atheist, Islamic, Christian, or un-American thus avoiding the real issues of the validity of the idea: Darwinism[4] is atheistic hence it must be condemned. Yeah?  And your mother wears army boots.

In science, people are considered great because of the greatness of the models they develop or the experimental results they obtained. In religion, it is the other way around. Religions are considered great based on the greatness of their founder. Jesus Christ is central to Christianity: and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Islam is based on the idea: There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. Many other major religions (or philosophies of life) are founded on one person: Moses (Judaism), Buddha (Buddhism), Confucius (Confucianism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism), Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í Faith) and Joseph Smith (Mormonism).  Even at an operational level, certain people have an elevated position and are considered authorities: for example, the Pope in the Catholic Church, or the Grand Ayatollahs in Shi’ite Islam. Because of the basic difference between science and religion, an attack on a founder of a religion is an attack on its core, while an attack on a scientist is an irrelevancy. If Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844) was a fraud, then Mormonism collapses. Yet nothing in evolution depends on Darwin, nor anything in classical mechanics on Newton. But we can understand the upset of the Islamic community when Mohammad is denigrated: it is an attack on their whole religious framework which depends on Mohammad’s unique role.

The difference in the role of the individual in science and religion is due to their different epistemologies. In science, everything is public—both the observations and the models built on them. In contradistinction, the inspiration or revelation of religion is inherently private, a point noted by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). You too can check Einstein’s calculations or Eddington’s experiment; you do not have to rely on either Einstein or Eddington. Now it may take years of work and a lot of money, but in principle it can be done. But you cannot similarly check the claims of Jesus’s divinity, even with years of study, but must take it on faith or as the result of private revelation.

Unlike in science, in religion, old is better than new. If a physical manuscript of St. Paul’s writing dating from the first century were discovered, it would have a profound effect on Christianity. But a whole suitcase of newly discover works in Newton’s or Darwin’s handwriting would have no effect on the progress of science. This is because religion is based on following the teachings of the inspired leader, while science is based on observation.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] Otherwise known as Elizabeth Reid nee Cotton

[2] The president of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.

[3] I have heard that very comment.

[4] Note also the attempt to associate evolution with one person.

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