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Science and the quest for truth

from Lars Syll

28mptoothfairy_jpg_1771152eIn my view, scientific theories are not to be considered ‘true’ or ‘false.’ In constructing such a theory, we are not trying to get at the truth, or even to approximate to it: rather, we are trying to organize our thoughts and observations in a useful manner.

Robert Aumann


What a handy view of science.

How reassuring for all of you who have always thought that believing in the tooth fairy make you understand what happens to kids’ teeth. Now a ‘Nobel prize’ winning economist tells you that if there are such things as tooth fairies or not doesn’t really matter. Scientific theories are not about what is true or false, but whether ‘they enable us to organize and understand our observations’ …  

Mirabile dictu!

What Aumann and other defenders of scientific storytelling ‘forgets’ is that potential explanatory power achieved in thought experimental models is not enough for attaining real explanations. Model explanations are at best conjectures, and whether they do or do not explain things in the real world is something we have to test. To just believe that you understand or explain things better with thought experiments is not enough. Without a warranted export certificate to the real world, model explanations are pretty worthless. Proving things in models is not enough. Truth is an important concept in real science.

  1. robert locke
    February 23, 2018 at 7:24 am

    Lars, why do you continue to discuss the subject in orothdox terms. If you shift the subject from market capitalism to the visible hand of he firm, you might get closer to reality and to fruitful discussion.

  2. Frank Salter
    February 23, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Your blog states, what I see as the major misunderstanding of economists. Most seem to wilfully disregard the scientific method. This is exemplified by the recent paper, Economics as a science: understanding its procedures and the irrelevance of prediction, by Adam Fforde, in RWER-81. Fforde, in discussing two distinct forms of the scientific method, concludes that economists understand that which Aumann espoused. The other form described is one which scientists would immediately recognise. It is extremely simple. Make your hypothesis. Test it against the empirical facts. if they do not correspond, discard that hypothesis. Repeat until a valid hypothesis is found. This is then recognised as valid theory.

  3. February 23, 2018 at 10:41 am

    Robert Aumann seems to be confusing hypotheses with theories. I could accept his story as half-way to a good description of theorising, but the missing half is the theory being true for some purposes and thus for some people if and only if it does in fact help them organise and understand their observations. We are at a cross-roads. Which way shall we go to reach X? “That way” directs our attention to one of the roads, and if it does lead us directly rather than (with luck) “eventually” to X then the advice is true.

    However, we are discussing economic theorising. Its hypotheses have proven false in that they in fact disorganise understanding and create ambiguity in our observations, being truly malign insofar as this is done deliberately to disadvantage those on the receiving end and thereby benefit insiders: those “in on the scam”, those “in the know” . This argument must be acutely embarrassing for insiders, but dear camp followers, it is time to change camps. Leave your ivory towers and offices and get a feel for what it is like to be scammed, made homeless, bombed and faced with the death throes of our lovely world, that we had hoped to better for our descendents. Even if it proves too late to save it, at least we can have tried to ease its pain.

  4. Edward Ross
    February 23, 2018 at 10:47 am

    In response to Lars Syll February 23, 2018
    ” Mirabile dictum! to just believe you understand or explain things with thought experiments is not enough. Without a warranted certificate to the real world, models explanations are pretty worthless. Proving things in models is not enough. Truth is an important concept in real science.”

    As a non academic with experience in the real world it appears to me that most.
    economists place far to much reliance on models that were formed in ivory tower situations devoid of any connection to the real worlds. Note that I am not suggesting that there is not a place for models provided they are constructed from careful observation and experience in the real world. Here I remember C.T.Kurien’s insistence :
    “That economics is a field of study must be a set of clues to probe into real life issues. As Einstien famously stated ‘pure logical thinking can give us no knowledge whatsoever about the world of experience ; all knowledge begins with experience and terminates in it’ C.T.Kurien(2015)


    • February 23, 2018 at 12:08 pm

      As Einstien famously stated ‘pure logical thinking can give us no knowledge whatsoever about the world of experience ; all knowledge begins with experience and terminates in it’ C.T.Kurien(2015)

      Einstein is quoting Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in the most simplistic and partial terms, since he avoids the issue of a priori knowledge that is not based in experience: for example, our understanding of space, time, and causality (at least in Kant’s time). It is not encouraging to see such quotes out of context and not properly attributed. This Kurien chap apparently needs to go back to school.

      A good deal of the knowledge we infer about the nano-scale world has nothing to do with experience. Both relativity and quantum theory were largely developed in the absence of any experience and only confirmed by experiment subsequently – GR is famously the result of Einsteins Gedankenexperiments. In fact, there is still no consensus on how to interpret the ontological implications of quantum theory. Does schrodinger’s equation connote superposition, many worlds, or any of the other dozen or so major competing interpretations?

      All that we can say is that both theories make predictions that are, to date, more accurate than our capacity to measure, and that neither theory is complete. GR breaks down in conditions of extreme curvature of space; and QM doesn’t explain gravity (yet).

  5. February 23, 2018 at 10:57 am

    I completely agree with Lars that we must compare our theories with observations of the real world, and refine our ideas so they better align with observations.

    On the other hand I would not call the result “truth”. What we have is a story that is a useful guide to how the observable world works. The criterion is *usefulness*, not some unattainable absolute. And usefulness depends on context. A rough approximation might be very informative in one context but quite inadequate in another where some precision is required.

    • February 23, 2018 at 6:30 pm

      On truth, Geoff, see my comment above. Who said that truth had to be an absolute? My working definition of it has long been “an ADEQUATE interpretation the facts for the purpose in question”. In a sense theory is only needed for the unobservable, and what you and Lars both seem to be missing is the technique of making the unobservable observable by interpreting its structural form as equivalent to that of a paradigmatic example.

      • February 23, 2018 at 11:55 pm

        Well my understanding of ‘truth’ is that it is unequivocal, not subject to revision. I agree with the sense of your usage, but I think you will be commonly misinterpreted.

        Another difficulty with your usage is with Newton’s gravity. Does Einstein’s bent universe make Newton’s theory ‘untrue’? It’s still very useful, just not as widely or as accurately useful as Einstein’s.

        Don’t follow the last bit. A theory says ‘if the inner workings are like this, then the observable result would be that’. By ‘unobservables’ do you mean inner workings? I would just say the ‘inner workings’ are just part of the story you use to make sense of the observations. I would not call them observable.

        My sense is our understandings are similar, but we’re using rather different words.

      • Frank Salter
        February 24, 2018 at 7:18 am

        Science does not enter into a binary true or false argument at all for theories.

        Valid theories are ones which are no falsified by the empirical evidence.

        Newton’s theory of gravity is sufficiently accurate to be used without the refinements which may be provided by relativity.

        Accurate clocks in different gravitational fields run at different rates. Relativity is necessary for GPS.

        Relativity is valid at large scales. It fails at the extremely small. Quantum mechanisms are required at the very small scale.

        We have no mathematical description which spans the whole range from sub-atomic to universe-wide scales. If this were seen as binary true or false, one could conclude that there is no valid theory whatsoever — hardly pragmatic. What happens is that the appropriate description is used — horses for courses.

        If only economic theorists were as pragmatic as scientists and stop discussing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin,

      • February 24, 2018 at 9:18 am

        Frank, just a couple of comments.

        “Valid theories are ones which are no[t] falsified by the empirical evidence.” Which evidence, gathered how, by whom, with what tools, over what period? The “evidence” in the world is virtually limitless, so we need to include all the steps in choosing what we look at, how, when, why, who does the looking.

        “What happens is that the appropriate description is used — horses for courses.” Good point and clearly stated. But the “appropriate” description must be chosen before it is used. That choosing is a judgement by scientists. Sometimes impossible to describe clearly or mathematically. But in the community of scientists such choosing evolves toward a consensus, which of course may never be reached.

      • February 24, 2018 at 7:56 am

        Bear in mind I am not trying to disagree with you, Geoff, just to explore our differences. As I now understand it, the accuracy of Newtonian science is limited by observation, Einstein’s and Shannon’s by the infinite divisibility of their measures of space and time on the assumption of their continuity. The curvature of Einstein’s space is now interpreted not as the curvature of a non-existent “space” but as that of Bubble’s Bubble: the surface which the energy of the Big Bang has now reached, where gravity and sideways expansion bend the light we see.

        As it happened I discovered a new piece of the jig-saw only yesterday, watching a TV series in which the presenter, Michael Portillo, was exploring Scotland by rail and had a look round the famous museum of medicine in Edinburgh. What I had known was that in 1603 King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and the English Chancellor, Francis Bacon, tried to interest him in “The Advancement of Learning”. What I was referring to earlier was the Baconian recipe for the task of science: taking things to bits to see how they worked, and his own doctor William Harvey’s success in discovering the circulation of the blood. What I had not realised was that in 1604 a world leading medic in Edinburgh was setting up an academy teaching surgery via the study of anatomical speciments obtained from amputees and cutting up cadavers. One cannot see the circulation of the blood, and even with microscopes it was not possible to unambiguously prove the theory that blood cells have circulated until we had developed the modern technique (derived from Shannon’s parity checking and packet switching of messages) of labelling flows with dyes or cells with radio active isotopes.

        All the problems we are having in economics and today’s science may be traced back to a fortune-seeking philosopher, David Hume, 135 years after Bacon, outlining a methodology for the social sciences which used dumb if then unanswerable arguments to exclude morality and politics. Even physical scientists (who typically just want to get on with their job, not study philosophy), have absorbed the Humean doctrines as “the methodology of science” completely oblivious of their history, Hume and Bacon and certainly the genuine Baconian methodology, which led not only to Harvey but to Descartes’ radical theorising and the Academies of the Encyclopedists in France. Perhaps the most objectionable feature of Hume’s method was its building reputations on rhetorical ambiguity and obscurity of language rather than dynamic logic and the pragmatic pursuit of truth.

      • Frank Salter
        February 24, 2018 at 11:24 am

        Ken Zimmerman — February 24, 2018 at 9:18 am:

        I think you are applying binary logic when scientists would see that as inappropriate. For example: The Law of Conservation of Mass is still taught — to introduce the fact that it is really the Law of Conversation of Mass-Energy adds unnecessary complexity which would obfuscate the simple fact that the law of conversation of mass is only invalid when nuclear reactions are involved. So perhaps it is that, scientific laws and theories are best seen as operant definitions.

        Possibly the scientific method should be seen to start with conjectures which are explored and refined until they becomes hypotheses. They become theories when not invalidated and accepted by the community.

        Possibly this may be best described in terms of sets. The number of elements (cardinality) in that set of theories, which are accepted to be valid and which describe a set of empirical facts, may be greater than or equal to one. I hope this answers your final point, which I have understood to be, that, consensus is achieved when the cardinality is equal to one.

      • Craig
        February 24, 2018 at 6:58 pm

        Wisdom is the discerning process of integrating the truths, workabilities, applicabilities and highest ethical considerations in apparently opposing perspectives. And that is precisely what economics needs to truly progress, and science needs to move beyond its 400 year old process of becoming an orthodoxy rather than a legitimate paradigm for inquiry.

  6. February 23, 2018 at 12:12 pm

    For God sake, stop using the word “science”.

  7. February 24, 2018 at 6:55 am

    Mesons are a family of subatomic particles composed of a quark and an antiquark. Mesons are sensitive to the strong force, the fundamental interaction that binds the components of the nucleus by governing the behavior of their constituent quarks. Predicted theoretically in 1935 by the Japanese physicist Yukawa Hideki, the existence of mesons was confirmed in 1947 by a team led by the English physicist Cecil Frank Powell with the discovery of the pi-meson (pion) in cosmic-ray particle interactions. More than 200 mesons have been produced and characterized in the intervening years, most in high-energy particle-accelerator experiments. All mesons are unstable, with lifetimes ranging from 10−8 second to less than 10−22 second. They also vary widely in mass, from 140 megaelectron volts (MeV; 106 eV) to nearly 10 gigaelectron volts (GeV; 109 eV). Mesons serve as a useful tool for studying the properties and interactions of quarks.

    Has any physicist ever had a long, close-up, and direct view of any meson? No. Over the years physicists inferred the structure and actions of mesons from observing what they believed are the effects of mesons. After years of research like this the built-up inferences are extensive and have been strung together to create a consensus among physicists about mesons and other subatomic particles in high energy physics (HEP). Examining the day-to-day actions of physicists reveals how some of this happens. First, physicists do not work alone. They are part of a community studying HEP, attempting to figure out how things fit together. And they’re looking for a consensus in the community on the answers to these questions. Second, physicists are not passive observers of “reality.” Rather, they are active manipulators. They choose what to study, when to study it, and how to study it. They set the time for the studies, choose the methods and tools to use, and select how and when to present results. They ultimately choose what is a confirmatory observation and what is not. Third, each physicist deploys her/his version of the scientific culture, along with her/his own special expertise in a research practice addressed to, and drawing upon, that of her/his colleagues. In other words, science is a dynamic communal process. In summary, physicists are active constructors of the world of natural phenomena through a social symbiosis of experimental and theoretical practice. Emphasis on the word practice. The results of this communal practice are scientific truth, at least for physicists. So, Lars, tell me, is this the process for economists?

    • February 24, 2018 at 9:01 am

      Ken, I can accept all this, but there are a couple of words missing from your summary: “active constructors of MODELS OF the world of natural phenomena.” Not that high energy bombardment is particularly natural, but still. Your discription of the detail doesn’t alter what one sees in an overview: that the purpose of science is to discover (dis-cover) what cannot already be seen.

      Unless of course you are talking economics, when just a few years after the institutionalising of reserve banking the point of the modelling was “sleight of hand”: to pre-occupy people with the models (and hence incidentally with the modellers), so that they don’t actually get round to seeing what is there for anyone to see. We may use different words, but on this we agree.

      • February 24, 2018 at 9:35 am

        Dave, I chose the word constructor for a reason. It emphasizes that scientists are not passive discoverers of the world. They are active constructors of the world. Scientists interact with the world and choose which parts explain their areas of concern (which they also choose) and which do not. And, of course the scientist may change her/his choices. Unlike HEP economists choose to examine many areas that are seen by many, e.g., prices, money, employment, wages, wealth, etc. The economists’ job (practice) is to figure how they work and fit together, if she/he can.

      • Frank Salter
        February 24, 2018 at 2:09 pm

        Ken Zimmerman — February 24, 2018 at 9:35 am:

        I refer you to my comment at 11.32. In the above, you also are also using binary logic and presuming boundaries and choices where non exist. Scientists are unable to choose arbitrarily as you seem to be suggesting. Other scientists would point this out and reject such findings. High energy physics requires experiments of extraordinary size and precision. Just examine the number of authors in the majority of papers. The choices made are based more on what might be possible than on personal preferences.

        It is also instructive to read the Wikipedia page “Physics beyond the Standard Model”. It describes the very many areas where there is no consensus, but a multitude of conjectures, which may, at some time, become theories. This is a very different picture than the one you imply.

        Only when economists accept the discipline of the scientific method will progress be made and leave not their not ivory-tower but their tower of Babel — after all every neoclassical paper on production provides a different mathematical description than every other — and all wrong!

      • February 25, 2018 at 9:56 am

        Frank, let’s talk people, not sets. Scientists as people make choices, A or B, or maybe C if neither seems to fit, or maybe a combination of A and B, or B and C, or A, B, and C, etc. The choices drive the science. They are the science. This means human judgements drive science. In their book, “The Golem: What You Should Know about Science,” Trevor Pinch and Harry Collins give this advice about science to citizens, “For citizens who want to take part in the democratic processes of a technological society, all the science they need to know about is controversial.” It’s their way of noting that most science in our times is not controversial, but some at the uncertain edge remains so. But their advice to those are or may want to be scientists is even more important. “Although the book is primarily aimed at the citizen, there are, as we explain in the text, perhaps, three lessons for scientists as scientists to take from The Golem. Firstly, the beginning researcher, such as the doctoral student, should be prepared for the untidiness of experiment revealed in these pages; that is a universal phenomenon. Secondly, those who may be put off a scientific career because of its cold, impersonal, automaton-like, precision, may take comfort in the discovery that it has a warm, everyday, exciting, argumentative aspect, just like the arts or social sciences. Thirdly, there is an unfortunate tendency these days for scientists writing for a popular audience to compare themselves and their subject with God. The final lesson is that science is less of a God and more of a golem.” The golem is a humanoid made by people from clay and water, incantations, and spells. It will follow orders, protect you and yours, but it’s also clumsy and dangerous. Without control, a golem may destroy its creators and wreck our world. The golem may be animated (in the Jewish tradition) by truth, but that doesn’t mean it understands truth. Far from it. But the golem can’t be blamed for its mistakes, for its mistakes are our mistakes. We should not expect too much. A golem (science), powerful though it is, is the creature of human art and craft.

        Frank, all this talk of boundaries that don’t exist and binary logic is interesting but irrelevant. People invent boundaries, and they invent logic. It is what they say it is. Or, better it is what the consensus of humans says it is. These are social constructions, as is gravity or economic class. We need to study how they’re constructed, not assume away that process by pretending we know and have always known what they are.

        The best overview of the field of social studies of science, of which Pinch and Collins’ book is a part, is Andrew Pickering’s introduction to his “Science as Practice and Culture,” and the introduction to Pickering’s book “Constructing Quarks.” Information for all can be found on Wikipedia. If you want to read more, please send me an email address. I’ll send a basic bibliography.

      • Frank Salter
        February 25, 2018 at 2:05 pm

        Ken Zimmerman February 25, 2018 at 9:56 am:

        The subject of this blog is “Science and the quest for truth”. I have responded to your previous comments by discussing the scientific method and scientific truth. That economists embrace the scientific method is of critical importance for the development of real economic understanding. This is the reason I contribute to these discussions. I do not wish to indulge in metaphysical student discussions.

        I introduced sets and their cardinality to bring precision into what I was saying to explain the nature of scientific theories and there being at times multiple theories attempting to describe the same aspect of reality — “Physics beyond the Standard Model” providing an example of this.

        You introduce flawed logic upon which to base your assertions — you claim: “The choices drive the science. They are the science.” This assertion is false. Reality drives the theories — this is the nature of science. Human judgement may limit our ability to get everything right but we keep persevering.

  8. February 24, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    Ken, I understand what you are saying, but ‘constructor’ detracts from the earlier stage of science, where (if you like) what you are reconstructing is your own way of thinking, so that you become able to discover what is already there – whether or not it was constructed by man. From such basic discoveries one does indeed move on to articulating them and constructing applications which are able to make use of them, i.e. basic discoveries like Newton’s realisation that gravity wasn’t just the earth pulling the apple, it was each pulling the other. That isn’t seeing anything different, it is seeing the same thing differently. Incidentally, Newton didn’t do that amid a crowd of fellow scientists, he did it entirely on his own, having been isolated from the Black Death on a remote farm.

    I’ve been talking about constructing models above, but another discussion of the difference between parables and paradigms triggered memories of two model steam engines, the one an accurately and beautifully carved representation of the appearance of a particular type of engine in coal, the other a crude little toy which was nevertheless a working example of how steam engines actually work. The Humean view of science produces the purely descriptive model, the Baconian method the explanatory second.

    • February 25, 2018 at 9:59 am

      Dave, long ago some humans figured out that whatever knowledge or understanding they have is by and from human observations. Observing the world requires always an observer. The observer chooses what to examine and how to examine it. The observer in the end is the source of all human knowledge. There is no “already there.” There is only what the observer or observers conclude is there. Those conclusions are social constructions based on sensory inputs and human creativity and imagination. This places humans at the center of science as it should be. Newton was a creative and imaginative man. That’s shown by the elaborate theories of gravity and motion he created. But even with several centuries of use and practice, Newton’s imaginings remain social constructs. They will always be social constructs. But sometimes useful constructs. As to Newton’s world and culture, don’t forget that Islamic science had been moving around Europe for more than 600 years when Newton made his “discoveries.” Islamic scholars had reached conclusions like Newton’s several hundred years before. Did Newton borrow some of his creativity and imagination from the Moslem scholars? Seems likely.

      • Craig
        February 25, 2018 at 5:32 pm

        “Observing the world requires always an observer. The observer chooses what to examine and how to examine it. The observer in the end is the source of all human knowledge. There is no “already there.”

        That begins as an apt observation, but then contradicts itself.

        As Jon Kabot-Zinn’s book states Wherever You Go There YOU ARE. So the “thing” that is always there is consciousness and excluding or suppressing that fact is very unscientific…if one believes in good non-orthodox science that is. Wisdom, which is the de-dogmatized science inclusive mental discipline of inquiry, is what is needed for the complete (though momentary) understanding known as scientific breakthrough. And grace-graciousness as in love in action/process is the pinnacle concept, experience and goal of both science and wisdom.

        Investigate the concept of grace vis a vis economics and you’ll find its aspects of individual freedom, systemic free flowingness, gifting, abundance as opposed to austerity and dynamically flowing, simultaneous integration of opposing factors….to be precisely what all of the present cutting edge reformers are saying….yet not fully cogniting on or unifying under because they’re only thinking with science and mathematics instead of Wisdom which includes consciousness itself and which is a component part of a new paradigm.

  9. Craig
    February 24, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    Science is wonderful, progressive and necessary for understanding temporal apparencies. Wisdom is inclusive of science. (the sages of yore, particularly of the Hindu and buddhist traditions were the scientists and most objective observers of consciousness of their or of our age) Integrating Science and Wisdom can enable a higher state of epistemological insight, and in fact the signature of scientific breakthrough is the integration of the scientific method and an aspect of consciousness like looking-visualization, curiosity, intuition, imagination etc. etc. This is why we require a Wisdomics.

    If I may suggest a couple of koans and a straight forward question for economists and scientists:

    What exists wherever you go?

    How can you experience the three dimensionality of space while blindfolded?

    What is the single integrative and aggregative point between the micro and macro economy, and as both the pricing system and the money system are digital what might that mean so far as beneficial monetary policy?

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