Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The scientific method is not a myth

Heliocentrism, natural selection, plate tectonics – much of what is now accepted fact was once controversial. Paradigm-shifting ideas were, at their time, often considered provocative. Consequently the way to truth must be pissing off as many people as possible by making totally idiotic statements. Like declaring that the scientific method is a myth, which was most recently proclaimed by Daniel Thurs on Discover Blogs.

Even worse, his article turns out to be a book excerpt. This hits me hard after just having discovered that someone by name Matt Ridley also published a book full of misconceptions about how science supposedly works. Both fellows seem to have the same misunderstanding: the belief that science is a self-organized system and therefore operates without method – in Thurs’ case – and without governmental funding – in Ridley’s case. That science is self-organized is correct. But to conclude from this that progress comes from nothing is wrong.

I blame Adam Smith for all this mistaken faith in self-organization. Smith used the “invisible hand” as a metaphor for the regulation of prices in a free market economy. If the actors in the market have full information and act perfectly rational, then all goods should eventually be priced at their actual value, maximizing the benefit for everyone involved. And ever since Smith, self-organization has been successfully used out of context.

In a free market, the value of the good is whatever price this ideal market would lead to. This might seem circular but it isn’t: It’s a well-defined notion, at least in principle. The main argument of neo-conservatism is that any kind of additional regulation, like taxes, fees, or socialization of services, will only lead to inefficiencies.

There are many things wrong with this ideal of a self-regulating free market. To begin with real actors are neither perfectly rational nor do they ever have full information. And then the optimal prices aren’t unique; instead there are infinitely many optimal pricing schemes, so one needs an additional selection mechanism. But oversimplified as it is, this model, now known as equilibrium economics, explains why free markets work well, or at least better than planned economies.

No, the main problem with trust in self-optimization isn’t the many shortcomings of equilibrium economics. The main problem is the failure to see that the system itself must be arranged suitably so that it can optimize something, preferably something you want to be optimized.

A free market needs, besides fiat money, rules that must be obeyed by actors. They must fulfil contracts, aren’t allowed to have secret information, and can’t form monopolies – any such behavior would prevent the market from fulfilling its function. To some extent violations of these rules can be tolerated, and the system itself would punish the dissidents. But if too many actors break the rules, self-optimization would fail and chaos would result.

Then of course you may want to question whether the free market actually optimizes what you desire. In a free market, future discounting and personal risk tends to be higher than many people prefer, which is why all democracies have put in place additional regulations that shift the optimum away from maximal profit to something we perceive as more important to our well-being. But that’s a different story that shall be told another time.

The scientific system in many regards works similar to a free market. Unfortunately the market of ideas isn’t as free as it should be to really work efficiently, but by and large it works well. As with the market economies though, it only works if the system is set up suitably. And then it optimizes only what it’s designed to optimize, so you better configure it carefully.

The development of good scientific theories and the pricing of goods are examples for adaptive systems, and so is natural selection. Such adaptive systems generally work in a circle of four steps:
  1. Modification: A set of elements that can be modified.
  2. Evaluation: A mechanism to evaluate each element according to a measure. It’s this measure that is being optimized.
  3. Feedback: A way to feed the outcome of the evaluation back into the system.
  4. Reaction: A reaction to the feedback that optimizes elements according to the measure by another modification.
With these mechanisms in place, the system will be able to self-optimize according to whatever measure you have given it, by reiterating a cycle going through steps one to four.

In the economy the set of elements are priced goods. The evaluation is whether the goods sell. The feedback is the vendor being able to tell how many goods sell. The reaction is to either change the prices or improve the goods. What is being optimized is the satisfaction (“utility”) of vendors and consumers.

In natural selection the set of elements are genes. The evaluation is whether the organism thrives. The feedback is the dependence of the amount of offspring on the organisms’ well-being. The reaction is survival or extinction. What is being optimized are survival chances (“fitness”).

In science the set of elements are hypotheses. The evaluation is whether they are useful. The feedback is the test of hypotheses. The reaction is that scientists modify or discard hypotheses that don’t work. What is being optimized in the scientific system depends on how you define “useful.” It once used to mean predictive, yet if you look at high energy physics today you might be tempted to think it’s instead mathematical elegance. But that’s a different story that shall be told another time.

That some systems optimize a set of elements according to certain criteria is not self-evident and doesn’t come from nothing. There are many ways systems can fail at this, for example because feedback is missing or a reaction isn’t targeted enough. A good example for lacking feedback is the administration of higher education institutions. They operate incredibly inefficiently, to the extent that the only way one can work with them is by circumvention. The reason is that, by my own experience, it’s next to impossible to fix obviously nonsensical policies or to boot incompetent administrative personnel.

Natural selection, to take another example, wouldn’t work if genetic mutations scrambled the genetic code too much because whole generations would be entirely unviable and feedback wasn’t possible. Or take the free market. If we’d all agree that tomorrow we don’t believe in the value of our currency any more, the whole system would come down.

Back to science.

Self-optimization by feedback in science, now known as the scientific method, was far from obvious for people in the middle ages. It seems difficult to fathom today how they could not have known. But to see how this could be you only have to look at fields where they still don’t have a scientific method, like much of the social and political sciences. They’re not testing hypotheses so much as trying to come up with narratives or interpretations because most of their models don’t make testable predictions. For a long time, this is exactly what the natural sciences also were about: They were trying to find narratives, they were trying to make sense. Quantification, prediction, and application came much later, and only then could the feedback cycle be closed.

We are so used to rapid technological progress now that we forget it didn’t used to be this way. For someone living 2000 years ago, the world must have appeared comparably static and unchanging. The idea that developing theories about nature allows us to shape our environment to better suit human needs is only a few hundred years old. And now that we are able to collect and handle sufficient amounts of data to study social systems, the feedback on hypotheses in this area will probably also become more immediate. This is another opportunity to shape our environment better to our needs, by recognizing just which setup makes a system optimize what measure. That includes our political systems as well as our scientific systems.

The four steps that an adaptive system needs to cycle through don’t come from nothing. In science, the most relevant restriction is that we can’t just randomly generate hypotheses because we wouldn’t be able to test and evaluate them all. This is why science heavily relies on education standards, peer review, and requires new hypotheses to tightly fit into existing knowledge. We also need guidelines for good scientific conduct, reproducibility, and a mechanism to give credits to scientists with successful ideas. Take away any of that and the system wouldn’t work.

The often-depicted cycle of the scientific method, consisting of hypotheses-generation and subsequent testing, is incomplete and lacks details, but it’s correct in its core. The scientific method is not a myth.

Really I think today anybody can write a book about whatever idiotic idea comes to their mind. I suppose the time has come for me to join the club.


  1. I blame Thomas Kuhn for propagating mistaken ideas about how science works.

    A big problem of neo-liberal (or neo-conservative; same ideas, different terms, depending on where you are) thinking is that they believe that since a free market is good at creating wealth then it must also be good at distributing wealth.

    A big problem of the traditional left: most workers don't want to be workers, even if their situation is improved.

  2. That's interesting, Sabine (did you really post this at 4:19am?). Your adaptive systems model sounds a bit like what we used to call in my old discipline of Operational Research a hill climbing algorithm. The only problem with these is they don't necessarily find optimum solutions, just a local maximum. Presumably that's the point you end up with a Kuhnian paradigm shift?

  3. Kuhn's book is generally accepted as a landmark, and certainly has much to say about the way people follow fashion in physics. These papers aren't in the same league.

  4. Phillip,

    I prefer neo-conservative because I am quite sympathetic to many ideals of the original libertarianism. Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend, they were all propagating mistaken ideas! You are better off reading any textbook on institutional design or adaptive systems if you want to know how science works. Unfortunately people instead still read the nonsense from 100 years ago because that smells more intellectual.

    It is absolutely puzzling to me why we still don't have a model for knowledge discovery. Why isn't anybody working on this. Or, to put it differently, why doesn't anybody give me money to work on it?



  5. Brian,

    The "hill-climbing" in a "fitness landscape" and so on, that's all metaphors that come from the context of self-organizing adaptive systems. If you haven't read it, I can recommend Stuart Kauffman's book at home in the universe to give you a general idea. A more detailed account is Miller and Page's "Complex Adaptive Systems".

    Yes, the local optima aren't necessary global optima, I wrote about this a long time ago here. That's why in an optimal spot you need a mechanism for "valley crossing". This problem most often solves itself though because the background is time-dependent and what was a maximum yesterday might no longer be a maximum tomorrow. In fact this is typically the case. Science is an exception, unless you believe the laws of nature change. (Which brings up the conundrum whether there's a law for the change of the laws and so on.)

    Roughly speaking, people in my area of physics tend to differ in their belief on whether we can from here proceed by local optimization or whether we need a valley crossing. It's a difficult question. I'm not even sure it's possible to answer. The smart thing to do seems to be trying both.

  6. PS: I was indeed up today at 3:30 am, but the timestamp on my blogposts is still on East Coast Time. I never changed it because, looking at the stats, most of my readers are still in the US or Canada though the weight is slowly shifting towards Europe.

  7. " someone by name Matt Ridley also published a book full of misconceptions "

    That seems to be a misconception

  8. Not sure what you mean, I was referring to this book.

  9. Have you read that book? I haven't. And I wouldn't write a blog post declaring a book I hadn't read to be 'full of misconceptions'.

    Have you read the blurb about it at Amazon? It doesn't seem to be saying that the scientific method is a myth, more that scientific breakthroughs often occur more by accident than design, which I think is true.

  10. etzpcm,

    No, I haven't read the book. I think it only appeared last week or so. I think you didn't quite understand my first paragraph. Also, you didn't read the blogpost I wrote about the book extract, otherwise you wouldn't accuse me of believing it declares the scientific method as myth. What I am saying is that Ridley, like Thurs, believes in self-optimization without realizing that it requires a carefully set up system to work properly.

    As I, apparently unsuccesfully, tried to explain in this blogpost, the statement that "scientific breakthroughs often occur more by accident than design" is plainly wrong. It is only correct if you make sure to select with "accidents" you allow. Let me give you a comparison. If human reproduction worked by randomly scrambling gene sequences and then clumping them into 23 pairs, we'd be extinct within a generation. The probability that you in this way, "by accident", produce a live organism is ridiculously tiny. Likewise, the probability that you create a "breakthrough" by accident depends on what kind of accidents you allow for. If you pick 10 random people from the street and lock them into a lab, do you really think you have good chances of accidentally stumbling across a cure for cancer? No, nobody really thinks this. Having good chances for a breakthrough requires more than that.

    As I said, self-optimization requires the system to be set up suitably. Best,


  11. How come everyone thinks they are an authority on the nature of science? Or understand it particularly well at all? It's not a buy-one-get-one-free bolt on if you have a career in physics. Ms Sabine - will you answer for yourself? Why do you think you have a deep insight of the nature of science? What are in your view your top three accomplishments on this matter? Or missives.

  12. Ingslot,

    Your comment is a classical ad hominem argument. It doesn't work this way. If you want to argue with me, you will have to read what I wrote and criticize the substance, not me.

  13. Science requires objective qualification. Science must be ended in the name of compulsory degradative egalitarianism. Ignorance is a form of knowing things, as is faith. Personal accomplishment steals from the deserving. Knowledge, understanding, and empirical falsification mock diversity.

    We will all live together when nobody lives apart. One bathroom for all, no partitions, no TP.

    Intelligence can be ended.
    All knowledge is subjective and based on one's position in society.
    Five sigma to the right of the mean is beautiful, even in the dark.

  14. Hi Sabine,

    I agree with your opinion on the scientific method, but I think that physics is stuck in methods and technical requirements, plus the huge amount of results already accepted (call this the weight of knowledge), from which it is easy to think that if a theory agrees with measurements (even with some patches) it sits on the Throne. This, I think, is what the critics is about.
    For instance, in your domain, I bet it is very risky to even consider a paper that computes the dark and visible energies from theory.


  15. I read your posts regularly Sabine but never comment as I am neither as learned as you or other commentators nor am I in the same field of higher studies. Economics has been called dismal science and shunned by pure science people. So, it was wonderful to see you writing a piece about efficient market hypothesis, pareto optimality, market failures etc. Very few professors who research theoretical physics and black holes might be having such a wide exposure to be able to give arguments on humanities subjects as well which lie on the other side of spectrum. Thanks.

  16. Ha! Mrs. B you give me the opportunity for Revenge for pointing me in the direction of “the light blue touchpaper”. I refuse to buy the book you intend to write unless you promise to read Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae” first.
    ps. Did you mean Kaufmann as in “Random Autonomous Boolean Networks” and “the Origins of Order” or somebody else?

  17. papa,

    Yes, that very Kauffman. I read some things by Lem a long time ago, I can't recall whether the book you mention was on the list. I'm sure I don't own it, but possibly I got it in the library. I recall Solaris of course and some collection of short stories. Honestly, I found it all pretty depressing, I'm not sure I need any more of this. More seriously, I'll put it on the list. Best,


  18. Singh,

    It tops my list of things I wish I had learned earlier :) Srsly, I think it taught me a great deal about how the world works (or doesn't work). I'm still trying to understand the limits of how well we can possibly hope to understand the dynamics of social systems. If you have any useful reference on that (I mean what are the limits to predictability and how can one quantify them) I would be very interested in this.

  19. Mrs. B, Yes he wrote Science Fiction for a living. However, The book is a non fiction polemic that can be interpreted to mean those contemporary scientists who are unable to apply their discoveries to themselves and their methods. It is naturally somewhat dated but very relevant to your subject.

  20. Would an actual free market have copyright restrictions. Wouldn't that do away with all expensive entertainment?

    You could try fixing this by having everybody who rents a movie or buys a book sign a contract saying they won't copy and redistribute it, but if somebody sold it secretly to the pirates, could you arrest the pirates for having bought it from a thief? Wouldn't that require restrictions on commerce.

  21. As a graduate of a few courses at U of T on the scientific method - Kuhn's results are pretty clear - often there is no scientific method. Advances just happen.

    Start with your statement only a few days ago:
    " ...it would require a lot of fudging and fumbling to get rid off the binary slowdown by other means than GR. I'm sure it can be done somehow though, just introduce a few new parameters and you can fit anything ;) "

    You said that in jest, but we now have 11 or so dimensions and 20-50 or so completely unobserved particles or strings just to explain the 20 we have seen. Particle physics can explain anything - faster than light neutrinos were explained for a while just a few years ago. Dark matter is evolving from a single dark particle to an entire dark system of particles, as plain old WIMPs are not cutting it any more.

    Thus Kuhn was exactly correct when he pointed out that current physics never fails, so its tough for new theories as they just don't have the weight behind them, and worse - they in fact predict things more poorly than the current paradigm. So its tough to move ahead.

    For example the Copernican theory hardly changed anything - it only removed one level of Ptolemaic wheels. It was in many ways just as wrong as the Ptolemaic system. It took the Copernican theory and the ellipse and finally Newton to push the idea to a point where it worked better and was adopted by 'everyone'.

  22. I see science as a self-_consistent_ network of ideas, where enough ideas are present to avoid declaring science as having fallen into the 'self-consistent crackpot nonsense' trap, i.e. It's highly unlikely we've come this far by luckily avoiding the inconsistent truth.
    Science works best when a new idea is isolated against the background of verified knowledge, and can be tested in isolation, where it verifies a lot of existing science as well as adding something new. You cannot easily test a huge set of ideas together, and hope they reconcile.
    I quite like the 'meta' of science and its communication. There's a lot of interesting stuff in cybernetics, anticipatory systems, neural studies, and, dare I say it, old-style formal philosophy, that deal with the requirements of knowledge, its acquisition, and it's symbolic context in thinking systems. At their foundations, these subjects should converge with computing and physics.

  23. I still need to read Thurs' post, but my quick thought is that Sabine right about her four-step process and is slightly wrong to say science "... requires a carefully set up system to work properly." Rather it involves a highly evolved system, on that came about through messy historical processes. As far as I know, this does not contradict the rest of her post, but it is sort of what Ridley (and Thurs?) is on about (see http://ratnapala.de/the-myth-of-linear-science.html).

    Another way to put it is that her description of free-market economics gives it too much and too little credit. All the neat, mathematically tractible theories about prices equilibrating along smooth supply-demand curves don't describe reality very well. What markets really shine at is crunching social information, including information about how much ideas are worth.

    It didn't get that way because of careful social design, it got that way in spite of various bad laws and through various historical accidents. Simlarly, the I think the scientific method is pretty robust general, so much so that I can sort of see why you might not call it a method at all.

  24. Hello,

    Are you familiar with professor John R. Searle of UC Berkeley? Philosophy of science is not so much his main focus, but he addresses epistemic concerns as well as the issue of demarcation in his philosophy of mind & philosophy of society lectures. If you are not familiar with his work, I think you might appreciate his direct realism & biological naturalism.

    As for science, logic seems , to me, to be a huge gap in understanding coming from the scientific method is myth camp. I don't know what education is like in your corner of the globe, but Stateside logic has been educationally subsumed by mathematics (not necesarily a bad thing) and rhetorical technique (not such a great thing). Most don't even learn to distinguish what is true from what is "true to you" until graduate school with no formal logic being taught in high school.

    As for knowledge - whether knowledge you undergo (perception) or knowledge you undertake (verification) - it is simply empirical verification.

  25. Unknown,

    I agree to the point that "careful" might not be a good word in that it seems to imply a purposeful design, which is not what I meant. I merely meant if you change it too much the system will optimize something else. Though the difference between social design and history is debatable. What did history do if not design something socially desirable?

    I disagree on the supposed 'robustness' of the system, though without a quantification this is inevitably a subjective assessment I am afraid. I see too much going wrong with the system these days. To understand what I mean, just take into account how much effort is wasted because researchers try to optimize their citation scores and other impact factors rather than being able to follow their interests. The system is extremely susceptible to these externally applied measures, and it's one of the main reasons progress is much slower than it could be. The use of these measures is a case of system design, and a bad design in addition.



  26. For as long as scientific endevours are themselves an exercise in half-ignorance as much as other endevours, they can also be as tyrannical as everything else. They are just another manifestation of the same evolutionary trait revealed in Elias Canetti's "Nietzschian" analysis: "to keep living where others die!"

  27. Hi B,

    following your answer to Unknown, could you (or someone else) point to a list of remaining discrepancies in physics.
    I mean not things like the "missing" TOE (I guess there are many) or theoretical dreams like merging GR with quantum physics but just a list of major elementary issues like for instance the "wrong" muon magnetic moment anomaly or the absence of gravitational waves detection. I am sure there are many, and I just cannot find a list.

    I guess the link between this question and the post is not obvious; but explaining measurement has always been what progress is about. "Jewel" theories like GR or QED are usually closed systems of thoughts and experimental discrepancies are opening doors. So having a clearer picture of failures is probably the first thing to do.


  28. "Would an actual free market have copyright restrictions. Wouldn't that do away with all expensive entertainment?

    You could try fixing this by having everybody who rents a movie or buys a book sign a contract saying they won't copy and redistribute it, but if somebody sold it secretly to the pirates, could you arrest the pirates for having bought it from a thief? Wouldn't that require restrictions on commerce."

    It's this kind of libertarian bullshit which might move us back to the bad old days when the only creative people were rich people, or people employed by rich people. The printing press led to the democratization of creative work. The "freedom at all costs" mantra of the libertarians threatens this.

    You might just as well say that while the author's business model is that people pay (directly or indirectly) to read his books, the shopkeeper's business model is that people pay to remove items from his shop, so a truly free market should not punish shoplifting. True, even libertarians are not stupid enough to openly advocate this, but I've often heard them say that "laws should not exist to protect certain business models".

    (For the really stupid: it is a red herring to believe that digital copying doesn't deprive the author of anything, since nothing is taken from him. Something is taken, namely revenue from people who would otherwise have paid. Yes, some people might use a pirate copy who wouldn't pay for a legitimate one, but one cannot use this to abolish the principle that creative people should be paid for their works. Also, copyright exists because copying is easy. Back when monks copied books, there was no need for copyright, because copying was difficult and authors couldn't earn their living from selling copies anyway (see above). So, if copyright laws need to be modernized in the computer age, they need to become stricter. Some people say that distributing copies publicizes the author's work. That might be true, but if the choice is between money and fame, most would choose money; the copies producing the fame do reduce the profit. If an author, musician, or whatever wants to give his stuff away, he can do so, but that should be his decision. Compare it to sex: if a woman wants to go to a swingers' club, that's fine, but dudes can't just rape her against her will because of the "free market".)

    Libertarians are dangerous. Many children die because their parents don't vaccinate them. In some cases this is due to parents who believe pseudoscience, but in some cases it is (also) due to libertarian leanings: the state shouldn't tell me to vaccinate my children. Some libertarians can, and do, extend this argument to other forms of child abuse.

    Freedom is fine, but your freedom has to stop when you encroach on the freedom of others (even if they are your own children).

  29. sabine:
    i see that you chose not to publish my comment on your blog but that many others have responded to you in the same veiwn as i did. since we all have an obvious respect for your blog postings, it might be best for you to stick to discussing things which you are familar with and knowledgeable about. in the words of Abraham Lincoln "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." LOL Don't take that personally. it's meant as a joke. btw - the comment by Philip Helbig shows an amazingly profound lack of understanding of Libertarianism. he obviously does not know of the writings of Murray Rothbard (considered the leading 20th century Libertarianism) or Robert Nozick and others or else he is deliberately not only distorting, but misrepresenting, Libertarian views (which are not uniform - e.g. some oppose the right to abortion and some support it) . He obviously didn't follow Lincoln's dictum as anyone who has seriously studied Libertarianism will recognize. btw - do you really want your terrific theoretical physics blog to turn into a forum on unrelated topics such as political philosophy and philosophy of science - which as Feynman noted is as relevant to scientists as ornithology is to birds. :)

  30. naive theorist,

    I don't know which comment you think I didn't publish. Besides this, I don't give a flying fart what you or other people think I should "stick to." I'm not your property, I'm not your employee, and I do what the fuck I want. So much about my libertarian views. If you don't like what I write, don't read it.

    Besides this, that "others responded in the same vain" seems to refer to one commenter who instead of coming up with any argument chose to instead attack me personally. You're in good company, eh?

    Regarding libertarianism, you noticed that I didn't write anything about libertarianism, did you?

  31. B: I guess that you float like a butterfly just as well :-)

  32. I did read your previous blog post.
    You cited your own blog post incorrectly - it was about his article, not his book.

    My only objection is to you describing a book that you have not read as being "full of misconceptions".

    There would be no loss of face for you to correct your post to make it clear that you are referring to his WSJ article, not his book. There is plenty to criticise in his WSJ article.

    Accuracy, integrity and fairness are vital in science, I hope you will agree.

  33. etzpcm,

    Sorry about that. I understand that the WSJ article is a summary of the book, thus my statement. I understand what you are saying, but to me integrity also means that I stand by my words. He has summarized his book in his own phrasing. Based I that I must conclude it's full of misconceptions. That, incidentally, doesn't necessarily mean to me it's a bad book. It's one thing to collect data, another to misinterpret it. Best,


  34. Besides, not to belabor the point, but in plain text the first paragraph of this blogpost states "Unnecessary provocation now passes as intellectual. I will demonstrate to you how this works."

  35. "I'm not your property, I'm not your employee, and I do what the fuck I want" Management enforces rules, counts things, and avoids risk (overpaying for opportunity). The scientific method generates deliverables intolerant of discovery contradicting what we know is true but really isn't. Violent dissent pours forth from those who are vested in reliable failure.

    Alexander Fleming made paintings from colored fungi. What right had he to discover penicillin? Diversity so dances, so it deserves trophies - though having no deliverables. Disdain intellectual inertia, grab a blue rose.

  36. sabine:
    so you don't think comments regarding the free market have anything to do with libertarianism? not surprising since you appear not to know much about either one. but i think that you might want to see a doctor about those flying farts. they seem to be adversely affecting your mood - wow. talk about emotional overreaction.

  37. There was a lot of confused talk about how science supposedly works back during the famous science wars of the 90s. On the positive side, the confusions provoked some excellent writing in response. Susan Haack's book "Defending Science - within reason: between scientism and cynicism" is one of my favorite works to result from the 90s science wars.


    I wonder why the subject has suddenly become popular again?

  38. Sure comments on the free market have something to do with libertarianism. I just chose not to comment on this connection because, while I know some things about microeconomics, I don't know very much about libertarianism.

    Interestingly you first accuse me of commenting on something I didn't comment on and now you complain that I didn't comment on it. Maybe make up your mind. The only thing you seem to be doing is to repeat your attempts to discredit me personally rather than contributing something with substance. This reflects very poorly on you.

    I assure you my reaction is totally unemotional, I just prefer to express myself clearly if time calls for it.

  39. One of the things i've always found really annoying with this business, is that it is incredibly obvious what science is... When you are actively pursuing science. It's only when you step back and try to analyze and define everything in some sort of philosophy setting where a tremendous amount of fog is generated. Then you end up with absurd recent situations where a bunch of outsiders tell active scientists, that they are not doing science.

    Anyway, this whole phenomenon is far from being a first in the history of science. When quantum mechanics was first developed, literally half of the philosophers of the world (and a few physicists as well) rebelled at the idea and called Bohr and his compatriots charlatans and intellectual imposters b/c it didn't conform to their notions of what 'SCIENCE' is.

  40. I had my own model (which I may have mentioned here previously, I tend to bring it up whenever there is a lull in conversation) of the evolutionary process (or process of adaptation):

    1) a source of changes (new ideas, mutations), which could be and often is random in nature, at least in the beginning.

    2) a criterion or set of criteria by which to judge the changes as beneficial or not and filter out the less successful ones (survival and reproduction in biological evolution, survival of consumer products in the marketplace, peer review of scientific papers).

    3) some form or forms of memory to record the changes and pass them on to posterity (DNA, our brains, books, hard drives).

    I go on to postulate that this is the fundamental process that explains "intelligence" and "design" as well as biology.

    There are some similarities with the model you have presented, but yours is more detailed (and based on more information and study). Still, I am not sure your fuller explanations cannot be derived from my model. For instance, the points you make about the need for a good structure to facilitate progress rather than chaos. Under my model, those structures are a sort of meta-evolution, having evolved to facilitate evolving. I will have to think more about this, though. It is good to see a different opinion and formulation.

    I may be more skeptical than you about the superiority of the "free market" to optimize prices. I have been swayed by the arguments of Thornton Hall, who points our that if markets cleared by efficient price negotiation, the waste bins behind supermarkets would not reek of thrown-away fruit and vegetables, which they always do. Also, during WWII the USA market was almost completely unfree, with rationing of food and fuel, and General Motors told to produce tanks instead of cars, and that seemed to work well. The chief advantage of a free market, it seems to me, is that there is no one to blame for market inefficiencies - "what can you do, it's the free market in action".

    Anyway, those are the half-baked thoughts which you stimulated with your post. Thanks for it, and thanks in advance if you do write a book.

  41. Being an American, I've observed that a lot of people here do not understand how science is done. Science education in the United States is often pretty bad. Overall education quality is often pretty bad. It doesn't help that in some political and religious circles, it is "common knowledge" that scientists and other experts are idiots: all the evidence for evolution is wrong, global warming is a fraud, lowering the taxes on the wealthy is good economics, et cetera.

    Two personal examples. One woman I knew thought the Sun had a solid surface. She's not dumb, it's just that she never learned that in school, and has no interest in science. I encountered another person around 1984 (grew up in a poor area with bad schools) who did not understand the significance of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  42. @David Lambert "understand the significance of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki"

    Understand the significance of the cities of Kokura (Kokura's luck) and Kyoto (removed from the target list for its temples). General Curtis LeMay bombed then melted with napalm Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Yamato, Hamamatsu, Kure, Iwakuni, ƌshima, Toyama, Konan, Amagasaki, and Kobe. So? Hiroshima and Nagasaki had mass radiation poisoning - and that made all the difference in the world. Battle of the Somme to D-Day to Desert Storm, bombardment alone is not decisive.

    The scientific method will reliably squeeze blood from a stone. It's the most productive and reliable practicum mankind ever devised. The scientific method cannot identify stones to squeeze. It actively excludes insubordination (discovery). 2005 Nobel Laureate physician Barry Marshall was actively threatened with medical license removal bacause he was a crackpot: gastric ulcers were a curable bacterial disease. The scientific method then identified the best antibiotics and strategies to prevent infection.

    PNAS 14(7) 544 (1928) Beta-decay is chiral. Recanted crackpot.
    Phys. Rev. 105(4) 1413 (1957) Beta-decay is chiral. 1957 Nobel Prize/Physics.

    Newton missed GR, QM, and stat mech by less than 10^(-8) relative. Baryogenesis to gravitation, postulating vacuum exactly mirror-symmetric toward hadrons is not quite empirical. All the fun is in the footnotes - then the scientific method.

  43. Hi Bee,

    Do you think that maybe Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientiffic Revolutions, was in itself about the process of discovery?


  44. Bee - I read the article and I think the problem with your piece is that you didn't put the argument in the article to a strong form before then addressing it. It's almost as if you only read the title.

  45. Uncle Al - you spend so much time on so many blogs feed pearls to swine when you obviously have potential energy for more.

  46. JimV - well look, this is a moment in history when the future of science is in significant doubt, due to complications that directly translate into questions pertaining to the Scientific Method. Why do you think everyone is talking about it these days? Everyone is talking but no one is offering viable solutions to the actual problems. Are you?

  47. Hi Bee,
    agree completely with you on Kuhn and what followed after. I teach two courses in the history of 20th century physics (cosmology and particle physics) and time after time, I find the Kuhnian model a very poor fit to what actually happened.
    Best, Cormac

  48. thanks, you are now on my feed aggregator, this is an ad hominem compliment

  49. "Do you think that maybe Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientiffic Revolutions, was in itself about the process of discovery?"

    Certainly not, since his whole point is that there is no discovery of science. Rather, what we tend to think of the truth is just a paradigm, no more significant than yesterday's fashion trends in Mongolia, which will be replaced with another (though perhaps not until the orthodoxy defending the current paradigm dies off).

    It is total bullshit. Amazing is not that he believed it, but that so many other people believe it.

  50. Phillip - You're reading of Kuhn is correct, I would say, up to the definitions of individual words, and then assembly of the words into sentences, which in isolation are not wrong. But the meaning - the inflexion or interpretation - that you place on those sentences is wrong and misleading. Or misled.

    His work added substantial new knowledge, not just in terms of the subject itself, but also methodologically which was a departure from philosophy as it had been conceptualized up to then. An example of this being precision in the use of description language...

    ....and example of that being his summing up of what aspect of science and discovery his studies had come to be focused upon. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The intent of those words is an exact as possible capture of the limiting bounds. By the same coin 'limiting' obviously there is 'precise capture'.

    All concepts, arguments, definitions, necessarily inherit that bounding. Which in terms of single word concepts like 'paradigm' translating to a strictly bounded contextual domain: pertaining to the structure of scientific revolutions only.

    There is nothing in play of substance involving 'truth' or 'importance' (relative say to Mongolian women's undergarments. Not because truth is relegated, because his study had been structural characteristics of major scientific revolutions.

    apologies for the flabby verbosity. 2 paragraphs would have been more appropriate.

  51. >coraifeartaigh said..
    >Hi Bee,
    >agree completely with you on Kuhn and what followed after. I teach two courses in >the history of 20th century physics (cosmology and particle physics) and time >after time, I find the Kuhnian model a very poor fit to what actually happened.
    >Best, Corma

    Kuhn does not describe the 20th century developments past the, roughly, 1960's. Which in the normal run of things would amount to a straight falsification of Kuhn. But it's not an open and closed case, because fundamental progress slows dramatically after the 60's, in that the fundamental knowledge high water mark reached back then, is more or less where it still is now.

    And for that reason, the Kuhn/science mismatch problem after the 60's may turn out explained the other way - i.e. as a problem for Science not Kuhn.

  52. Interesting philosophical position, because I say so?:)

    Anomaly and emergence......maybe you would have to see it to believe it?

  53. @Lucy M The demise of hard science discovery past the 1960s was twofold:

    "The R&D Function" Harvard Business Review 61(6) 195 (1983)
    Research as an optimized business model is grotesque. "...Detroit eliminated 95% of its lock washer inventory by substituting a drop of Loctite, not by inventing more lock washers."

    Disqualify autism and monomania. DuPont hired mentally aberrant Wallace Carothers in 1928. He diddled for a decade, obsessed with making hugely long molecules (thus neoprene and nylon) and committed suicide. US Human Resources hires gender, racial, ethnic, and handicapped quotas, but zero nekulturny Carrothers.

    Ivory towers enthusiastically caught up with both.

  54. "His work added substantial new knowledge"

    Sure, but that's not enough. It has to be right.

    Kuhn actually claimed that the changes in physics a bit more than a hundred years ago were caused primarily by a "paradigm shift" and not by the accidental discovery of X-rays and radioactivity. Really.

  55. "agree completely with you on Kuhn and what followed after. I teach two courses in the history of 20th century physics (cosmology and particle physics) and time after time, I find the Kuhnian model a very poor fit to what actually happened."

    Nice to see that a professional agrees with me on this. :-)

    He probably took the Copernican Revolution (how many people even get the pun?) and used it as a model. In that case, it really was a true paradigm shift in his sense, but this is probably the last time this happened.

  56. If normal science is so rigid and if scientific communities are so close-knit, how can a paradigm change take place? This chapter traces paradigm changes that result from discovery brought about by encounters with anomaly.https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/Kuhn.html

    So the question I had was not frivolous even though there have been many good reasons why, it is of course necessary once the purpose of the question is realized.


  57. Perhaps paradigm changes take place eventually, because people themselves are less rigid then the methods they apply. A different era, a different 'Seitgeist' ( excuse me for bad spelling), can allow an improved or even radically new interpretation of the same (experimental) observations. In my view, the best version of a theory is the one that originated from treating mathematics, phylosophy, logic, intuition, observations, creativity, historical accounts...on equal footing. But not everyone would agree on that. I believe it was Einstein who told us not to disgard intuition to quickly.

  58. Hi, it seems no-one on this blog has the slightest idea why progress in fundamental physics stopped at some point in the 60s.

    Should we conclude that a species of warrior monkeys barely down from their tree has really understood nature in its foundations? Or should we envision that we just begin to understand what physics is?

    We know of three symmetries, a scalar field, three generations and 19 free parameters (plus 4 neutrino angles and 3 masses) - and all of this is empirical! I mean there is no theory explaining why it is so. There is not even the beginning of a paper questioning the significance of "free parameters". Is it a defect of the theory or the blunt randomness of nature?

    Nobody knows, then nobody searches! This is just 50 years of procrastination.


  59. Bee: Part of the reason why Matt Ridley didn't need grant funding to write his book is because he's actually "5th Viscount Ridley", a privileged member of the British aristocracy and Conservative member of Britain's House of Lords.

    Ridley made a career writing articles and books that appealed to right-wing politicians and people who have money. He wrote for The Economist and later became its Editor, before briefly becoming a national hate figure in the UK in 2007, when the bank that he'd become Chairman of, Northern Rock, went bust amidst allegations of incompetence and negligence on his part. The public were not amused to hear that the guy responsible had been earning an obscene (to most people) amount of money for a part-time job that he had no obvious qualifications or aptitude for other than his family connections, and for a while Ridley's name represented the worst of what was wrong with the UK banking sector. During the "Rock" crisis (which seemed to go on for ages) it was common to overhear people on the streets talking about the bank and suggesting their preferred method of execution for Ridley, whose lack of supervision seemed to be about to cause for a hell of a lot of people to lose their savings, and/or having their mortgages foreclosed on so that the bank could raise money.

    So, ironically, the first time free-marketeer economics writer and anti-regulation campaigner Ridley had an actual job being financially responsible for anything, it turned into the worst bank crisis in Britain for 150 years, requiring a massive government intervention to prevent a chain reaction that could have destroyed great chunks of the British economy and brought misery to millions, and to calls for far greater banking-sector regulation to make sure that this sort of thing could never happen again.

    I'm assuming that most of his fanbase is in the US.


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