May 28, 2017

Science is more than a body of knowledge

Reading the scientific literature for understanding takes a lot of effort and practice. The scientific method is fascinating; its method of inquiry keeps evolving, it enriches our factual knowledge, and it debunks what was thought to be true. Although not perfect, it has gained a privilege in history as the most effective way of understanding how the world works. But understanding is quite difficult, specially of this complex process. We can easily confuse the sense of understanding without the actual understanding taking place as explored by J. D. Trout:

According to the research findings on judgment and decision-making, the sense of understanding is a common, but routinely unreliable, index of intellectual achievement. To a large extent it can be traced to three causes: hindsight bias, overconfidence bias, and a mistaken attachment to the idea that transparency is routinely achievable. These biases interfere with the truth-tracking role of explanation.

The best-known accounts of explanation are objectivist: they treat the goodness or otherwise of an explanation as wholly dependent on how it relates to external objects and wholly independent of the psychology of the particular explainer. But even the most trenchantly objectivist philosophers of science are tempted by the allure of internal access.

Trout, J. D. (2007), The Psychology of Scientific Explanation. Philosophy Compass, 2: 564–591. doi:10.1111/j.1747-9991.2007.00081.x

Another trap that we may fall into when of having a sense of understanding without it taking place is when we are part of a community. Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman in a NYT's article write:

Knowledge isn’t in my head or in your head. It’s shared.

[...] Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t.

[...] The sense of understanding is contagious. The understanding that others have, or claim to have, makes us feel smarter.

[...] People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, Why we believe obvious untruths., March 3, 2017

The question then is: what do we need to do independently to make sure we understand? Lee Shulman, a long time researcher in education says this about the process of understanding:

When I profess my understanding, I am urged by my teachers to use critical reasoning, to demand evidence, and to make my arguments clear—to always ask, How do you really know? Skepticism, questioning, the demand for proof are at the heart of professing one's understanding.

Lee S Shulman, Taking learning seriously, Change. New Rochelle: Jul/Aug 1999.Vol.31, Iss. 4; pg. 11

Concepts such as skepticism, questioning, proof, critical reasoning, etc require more unpacking and will be addressed within later blogs. But I agree with Shulman that these concepts are at the heart of understanding what we learn. Learning how science works is important to the process of understanding the scientific literature, otherwise we will not be aware of the difference between what's science and what's not science. Not knowing the difference can bring about undesirable consequences due to the fact that the application of knowledge is more effective if we have a better understanding how the world works. Understanding, as part of the process of scientific reasoning, should not always be delegated to others. As Carl Sagan said in his book The Demon-Haunted World:

Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood - except that the language breaks down here. If you've never heard of science (to say nothing of how it works), you can hardly be aware you're embracing pseudoscience. (p.19)

If we teach only the findings and products of science - no matter how useful and even inspiring they may be - without communicating its critical method, how can the average person possibly distinguish science from pseudoscience? Both then are presented as unsupported assertion. (p.26)

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. [...] Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge. (p.41)

Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, 1996

In an interview with Charlie Rose in 1996 Carl Sagan reminds us that science is more than a body of knowledge and also warns about what can happen if we don't practice it well (minute 3:53):

[...] science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility. If we are not able to ask skeptical questions, to interrogate those who tell us that something is true, to be skeptical of those in authority, then we're up for grabs for the next charlatan, political or religious, who comes ambling along. It's a thing that Jefferson laid great stress on. It wasn't enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. The people had to be educated and they had to practice their skepticism and their education.

In another instance, as per this podcast from Science Magazine which quotes a passage from the book The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, Carl Sagan states:

The recent criticism of a prevailing belief is a service to the proponents of that belief, because if they are incapable of defending it, they are well advised to abandon it. This self-questioning and error-correcting aspect of science is its most striking property, and sets it off from many other areas of human endeavor, such as politics and theology. The idea of science as a method rather than a body of knowledge is not widely appreciated outside of science or indeed in, I’m sorry to say, in some of the corridors inside of science. For this reason, I and some other of my colleagues in the AAAS have advocated a regular set of discussions at the annual AAAS meeting of hypotheses which are on the borderlines of science or which have attracted substantial public interest. The idea is not to attempt to definitely to settle such an issue, but to illustrate the process of reasoned disputation, and hopefully to show how scientists approach a problem which does not lend itself to crisp experimentation or is unorthodox in its interdisciplinary nature or otherwise evokes strong emotions.

Kerry Klein and Sarah Crespi, Science 12 Oct 2012: Vol. 338, Issue 6104, pp. 274, DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6104.274-b

As we have learned from history, great minds have been wrong and I think that's also a valid reason to follow Carl Sagan's advice on exercising scientific reasoning. Yes, there are many aspects of our lives in which we have no choice but to follow people who know better than us, but that doesn't mean we should just stop being skeptical.

We should try our best to not be led astray from the scientific method by a sense of understanding which may be due to internal or external factors. Understanding requires a set of processes that should not be taken for granted. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating that science fixes everything, that would be scientism. Science has its limitations and that will be addressed in a future post. But I encourage you to be skeptical and exercise your own understanding, to question, to seek disconfirming evidence; it's the scientific method and it's one of the best inventions we have.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan