What smart people don’t understand about science — it isn’t about the “truth” [Frameworks]
I often find myself getting frustrated in arguments with self-proclaimed free thinkers.
As someone who likes to think of himself as part of the same tribe, my frustration stems from the conclusions some of my tribesmen arrive at.
In the past year itself (2020), I’ve met multiple people, who believe in non-traditional theories with a confidence that seems bordering on arrogance. Some of the more confusing narratives:
- believing that global warming and climate change is a hoax
- convinced that COVID is completely fabricated
- “big pharma” and allopathic medicine are worse than alternative therapies
The interesting thing is that most people I’ve had these discussions with are more curious & independent than most people. In other words, they’re not crazy…they may even be smarter than your average person.
In fact, many of them have come to their conclusions after spending a fair bit of time investigating, digging around and finding inconsistencies with the mainstream scientific narratives.
Sure, sometimes these inconsistences are simply errors in understanding what the scientific establishment is saying. But the fact remains that every so often these inconsistencies & holes do in fact exist.
If you ever want to meet a self-assured person, I’d recommend talking to a reasonably bright fellow who has spent a lot of time doing independent research. Because their belief is based on evidence they’ve found themselves, their aura of self-assuredness often reaches fanatical levels.
Usually it doesn’t take much to go from there to full-blown conspiracy theory land. Over the course of many conversations, the rationale seems pretty clear to follow:
1. Modern science claims to explain the truth and show facts
2. Scientific claims do not align with my experiences or research
3. Therefore science is not to be trusted and there must be an ulterior motive for pushing scientific thought/agenda
Where do you think the problem lies?
Many people I’ve shared this simple 3-step logic with think that step 2 & step 3 are clearly where the error must lie.
Contrary to this, I believe that Step 1 is the source of all misunderstanding.
Understanding the role of science is something that isn’t discussed often in our formative years. But it is a conversation that is absolutely essential if we are to use evidence to improve the world & our lives.
This article is an attempt to talk about science’s role in our world. The hope is to dispel certain assumptions about science & the scientific method and gain appreciation for what science should be aiming for.
What purpose does science serve?
The first point we need to address is that “science” is not special or sacred. In my experience this is where many “rationalists” get stuck. They buy into the peer-reviewed methodology with such gusto that they become fanatical in their endorsement.
As with any fanatic, speaking to these people is just as painful and frustrating as you’d imagine.
In truth, science is simply one of many competing frameworks that aims to explain the “truth”. Each framework (not just science) is a theory that can explain a collection of phenomena in an internally consistent manner. If it can help predict the future – all the better.
All competing frameworks (examples include religion, intuition, experience) try to approximate some aspect of reality, not perfectly represent it. Perfect representation is a pipedream because:
1. We can’t claim to have observed all phenomena that exist in the universe. It is a big place, and for all we know there could be phenomena out there we haven’t encountered that make our frameworks inconsistent
2. Even for observable phenomena, there is usually a trade-off between accuracy and usefulness. A framework that seeks to perfectly represent reality may easily become so unwieldy so as to be useless for any practical purpose
What this means is that each framework (including science) WILL have holes. It is impossible to create any framework without holes! This also means that each framework (including science) isn’t perfect & unquestionable.
But just because something isn’t perfect, should we discard it?
The answer is NO, even though many people pretend it should be yes.
Discarding something less than perfect is too aggressive because (a) EVERY framework will have holes, and (b) when was the last time you saw something perfect (i.e., is perfection even possible?)?
Instead the best we can do is put our faith in the framework with least number of holes. In life you can’t get perfect, but you can at least aim for the least-worst option.
Knowing this, let’s think about what science or medical establishment are really solving for?
It is not an unquestionable theory about the truth, this is blatantly arrogant and impossible. Rather the scientific method often aims to solve for least number of errors/holes (incl. type 1 & type 2 errors) in predicting outcomes under a certain set of circumstances.
Let’s make it real with a scientific “fact” – one that people tend to view as a truth, the theory of gravity.
Even such an obvious fact cannot claim to represent a truth. The theory of gravity is simply a framework that helps predict how masses interact with each once they reach a certain size. Believe it or not, holes exist even in this theory - for example its seeming incompatibility with quantum mechanics (physics at the sub-atomic scale).
However, compared to any other framework, the current theory of gravity does do a better job of predicting how two large bodies interact due to their masses. In other words using this theory will give you the least number of wrong answers compared against competing frameworks.
Understanding that science is all about increasing the probability of being right is key to interacting with it!
It doesn’t matter if scientific theory only predicted gravity based interactions correctly 98 times out of 100 (or any arbitrary number above 51 that people feel comfortable with) ; what matters more is how often other competing frameworks (other scientific theories, intuition, religious scriptures etc.) were able to do so.
NOTE 1: If there’s a competing framework that is right and/or less wrong more often, we should immediately adopt it! Even if it’s not understood well.
NOTE 2: If there’s a framework that still makes accurate predictions but has a large number of false positives, it does not mean that the framework is “wrong” or stupid. Think about alternative medicinal practices. We may still be able to learn from this other framework, but there is also a higher probability that we may be wrong using that framework.
The key is to realize that as problem-solvers or explanation-generators, we have a limited amount of time & resources. The scientific method is a way to focus us on increasing the probability of being right when searching for a solution.
Doesn’t mean it’ll always lead to the perfect solution. BUT overtime, applying it leads to better chances of being right.
Using an example
A good way to think about this is through an analogy of a lucky gambler. Imagine a gambler who is offered a choice between three bets.
Bet #1. The gambler must pay $10 if a coin lands heads but will receive $5 if a coin lands tails.
Bet #2. The gambler must pay $10 if a coin lands heads but will receive $15 if a coin lands tails.
Bet #3: The gambler must pay $10 if a coin lands heads but receives $40 if the coin lands tails.
In this case, two things bear mention:
1. In all cases, the gambler doesn’t know whether a specific coin toss will lead to a win or a loss, but he knows that over time it is likely that Bet #2 & #3 will make him money, while Bet #1 will lose him money.
2. Furthermore, the gambler also knows that over time Bet #3 is likely to generate him more money.
In this analogy, the gambler is similar to a human trying to make sense of the world. The bets are competing frameworks that can help make sense of the world. And bet #3 is the scientific method – simply the best available bet from a probabilistic point of view.
To take this analogy further, three important take-aways emerge:
1. There are some frameworks that are going to be more wrong than right (Bet #1). This doesn’t mean you won’t ever be right if you use this framework (after all you can win $5 on a specific coin toss in Bet#1). Just that over time, you’ll be more wrong than right.
2. When it comes to frameworks on the other end – i.e., ones that are more right than wrong, differences still exist.
Bet #2 is going to be a money-making bet in the long term. But it doesn’t mean it’s a better bet than bet #3.
3. Finally, there’s no guarantee that another gambler will not make more money than you with a sub-optimal bet. It is very unlikely, but not impossible for someone to make more money with Bet #1 than another gambler who went with bet #3.
All you can guarantee by choosing bet #3 is that on average you will win more money.
This is an important point! The fact that bet #3 may not always be right, but it will be right most often.
Similarly, science will not always be right. But the scientific method maximizes our chances of being right.
Of course, if as a gambler we didn’t care about money and were interested in some other aspect of gambling (say the act of placing a bet), things would be different. For example, we could go after all or any of the three betting strategies with equal enthusiasm. But is that realistic expectation from a gambler?
Similarly if humans were immortal and had the luxury of unlimited time & resources, there would be no need to prioritize science as a framework for seeking “truth”. We could concurrently study & research every framework, giving each framework its due.
But alas, humans are indeed limited by the time & resources available to search for the “truth”. This is why the scientific method is the least-worst option — even if it may be riddled with mistakes itself.