Vanity thought #1015. Scientific Method – experimenting

Yesterday I talked about the very basics of “scientific method” – facts and observations. It’s presumed that these are straightforward things but actually they aren’t. Different observers see different things and this makes perception subjective, and then they interpret their observations to establish facts but it’s also a subjective process.

It’s fairly common for different scientists to reach different conclusions by observing the same phenomenon, and the best way to achieve uniform interpretations is to provide uniform training. This leads to circular logic – you can’t observe something unless you’re subscribe to a particular theory, and that theory is based on observing things in a particular way so you get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle. There are ways to break out of it but that is a subject for another day.

Today I want to talk about experimentation. Simply observing things in the outside world is not enough, there’s just too much information out there and 99.99999999% of it is totally irrelevant, like right now I can observe a stack of DVD disks on the shelf and try to guess how many are there and how many of them are still blank without actually counting them. It’s a great exercise but it doesn’t advance science in any way – it’s irrelevant.

Scientists need to isolate the relevant phenomena and they need to make sure that their observations are not interfered with by irrelevant phenomena. Most of the time it’s impossible to do in the real world and so they need labs and need to conduct experiments in a controlled environment.

Back to scientific method – the first step there is “Formulating a question” but I’m talking about observation going onto experiments, which is a step number four. Is this justified? I believe it is, because this whole thing with the steps is rather artificial anyway. It’s not how scientists work in everyday life even though they appreciate the ideal progression.

Most of their thinking time they spend on interpreting the results, it’s this process that helps them to formulate the right questions, and this difficulty with interpretation is caused by imperfect experiments, so it’s quite natural to discuss problems with experimenting first, regardless of scientific method’s ideal flow.

As I said, most of their work is answering the question “What did I just see?” which is totally different from formulating a question in step one. To help answering that question scientists try to get full control of all the variables and while it is totally understandable it also means that their theories of what had happened are not based on the real world situations but very artificial setups in their labs.

The question then becomes – do they ever have full control of all the variables? The answer is “never” simply because we don’t know yet what all variables are. At the end of the day it’s always settling on “good enough” rather than “absolutely sure”. Proponents of the scientific method would point out that science is always work in progress and so capturing the Absolute Truth is never going to be possible and this might disrupt our train of thought.

Most of us would immediately say that Absolute Truth is available if they follow our method or that our knowledge is based on Absolute Truth therefore it’s infallible but I bet such reasoning doesn’t impress “scientifically minded” opponents. Without buying into our entire philosophy they are not going to interpret observable facts the same way we do.

Perhaps what we should point out instead is that while current scientific or historical view might not support evidence from our books it doesn’t rule them being accurate either. This might seem like quite a stretch at first but let’s continue talking about experiments and their inherent problems.

Perfect experiment setup depends on the state of theoretical knowledge behind it. There are plenty examples in history of science where experiments were conducted in the most meticulous way and could be repeated over and over again, and yet yielded completely wrong conclusions simply because theory behind them was absolutely wrong.

One such example is trying to calculate weight of the molecules. At first everyone thought that all molecules are built of hydrogen atoms and so their relative weight comparing to hydrogen should be a whole number – five times heavier than hydrogen, for example. They’ve spent decades trying to prove it, all in vain. They blamed it on imperfect conditions and what not and searched and searched for interferences and gave up on the idea only when someone realized that molecules might be made of different stuff rather than combination of hydrogen atoms.

There are other examples, like when Hertz declared that “cathode rays” in vacuum tubes were not made of electrons. He was the best at experiments of this kind and his results could be replicated by anyone following the same procedure, yet his conclusion was totally wrong. Turns out that one needed better vacuum tubes, better cathode and anode materials and lots of other better things that were simply unavailable in Hertz’ lab.

It’s easy to see this rather straightforward solution when looking back but when you are on the cutting edge of science none of that is obvious. Things might make total sense with the best available equipment, it all might be fully compliant with the “scientific method”, and yet one might have no idea that future improvements would completely overrule the currently held theory.

Newton laws have been true for several hundred years but now we know they are wrong, even though they are “good enough” for solving common day engineering. ATM the biggest and latest thing is confirmation of Higgs Boson and it took half a century to prove its existence, some twenty years working on one single experiment in the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. It’s the best experimental setup for this kind of thing but if we look at the bigger picture we can be certain that there are tons of things scientists are not yet aware of when observing subatomic particles and some “Even Larger Hadron Collider” will most certainly overrule their current conclusions.

Perhaps the string theory will make a comeback, or they’ll discover antimatter, or maybe interference from other dimensions, or maybe something we don’t know exists even in theory, but we can be most certain that something will come up and turn science upside down, like theory of relativity or quantum mechanics did a hundred years ago.

Another problem here is that experimenting in the nineteenth century was relatively easy, nearly everybody could do it by himself and nearly every modern high school lab can replicate them with ease. Building that Large Hadron Collider, otoh, is a collaboration of a hundred thousand scientists from over a hundred countries. We are clearly running into a wall here – experimental demands seem to be limitless while our facilities aren’t. Political problems aside, Russians just declared that they are not going to maintain International Space Station beyond 2020, it’s just not worth it.

Idealists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson might fantasize about humanity expanding all over the universe but the realists who pay for these fantasies have other ideas. Perhaps days when improving out labs and our experiments was a given are past us, perhaps proponents of scientific method need to realize that while in the ideal world it works beautifully, in reality they are facing unsurmountable constraints.

Here’s a food for thought for them – direction of science is determined not by theoretical understanding but by very real world limits on experimentation. If we can’t conduct certain experiments, we won’t develop theories based on their results and instead will work on what’s available.

This is a very important point – in addition to subjectivity I discussed earlier, scientific development is restricted by real world problems outside of scientists’ control. Wars, economic downturns, politics, immigration policies – there are lots of things that affect scientific progress and can totally block some branches of it forever.

The conclusion is that science is not as magical as scientific method makes it to be. It does not provide an objective view of the reality and it does not progress in an independent, unconditioned manner.

Śrila Prabhupāda told us these things right from the beginning, all I do here is try to illustrate them by using science’s own framework. Practically, this should convince us that we don’t need scientific proof of Vedic knowledge and we don’t need to explain how things described in our books could be possible, and this attitude is not just a matter of faith but a realistic description of the situation.

Most devotees would say “but I already don’t feel the need to have scientific explanations so it’s not important to me” but I think we all strive for such proof. We can see this interest everywhere. Every time scientists discover something that suits our Vedic facts we immediately propagate the news through the whole society, not to mention a number of books written to prove Vedic version of history.

We say that we don’t want scientific explanations because we are afraid we might not get them. We are afraid that if we hear scientific alternatives it would affect our faith, and it’s probably the correct course of action, but this fear is unfounded. I hope posts like this can help me realize that scientific method is truly unreliable and whatever scientists throw at us can be disputed on their own terms. It’s hard to keep all of this in mind all the time but the memory, the confidence that if we sit down and think about it then ANY argument against Vedic knowledge can be discredited because it’s just how science works, will always be with me, and that’s a good thing.

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