Home > Uncategorized > Black cats in dark rooms

Black cats in dark rooms

from Ken Zimmerman (originally a comment)

At least part of the problem here is that these economists seem to have made up a way of doing science that exists nowhere else. To be sure their way existed once among some at or shortly after the beginning of science in Europe.  Scientists are depicted as patiently piecing together a giant puzzle. But with a puzzle you see the manufacturer has guaranteed there is a solution. Certainly not the case with the work of scientists. This view remains common among the general public and even some scientists. When most people think of science, it appears  they imagine the nearly 500-year-long systematic pursuit of knowledge that, over 14 or so generations, has uncovered more information about the universe and everything in it than all that was known in the first 5,000 years of recorded human history. They imagine a brotherhood tied together by its golden rule, the Scientific Method, an immutable set of precepts for devising experiments that churn out the cold, hard facts. And these solid facts form the edifice of science, an unbroken record of advances and insights embodied in our modern views and unprecedented standard of living. Science, with a capital S.

That’s all very nice, but I’m afraid it’s mostly a tale woven by newspaper reports, television documentaries, and high school lesson plans. And it’s definitely not science.  Let me tell you my somewhat different perspective. It’s not facts and rules. It’s black cats in dark rooms. As the Princeton mathematician Andrew Wiles describes it: It’s groping and probing and poking, and some bumbling and bungling, and then a switch is stumbled on, often by accident, and the light is lit, and everyone says, “Oh, wow, so that’s how it looks,” and then it’s off into the next dark room, looking for the next mysterious black feline. If this all sounds depressing, perhaps some bleak Beckett-like scenario of existential endlessness, it’s not. In fact, it’s somehow exhilarating. It’s challenging and an adventure but also at times frustrating as hell. And, it’s important to note that what scientists do differs from everyday life only in that for scientists the rooms are larger and darker and the reliability of the reports of a black cat much more uncertain.

(Based on Ignorance, How It Drives Science. Stuart Firestein)

  1. pfeffertag
    November 11, 2021 at 10:45 pm

    Ken, those two paras are articulate but I don’t know how illuminating they are. The first is a caricature and the second is a metaphor. Allowing for the consequent exaggeration and vagueness, I am not sure that what they describe differs by much.

    The anecdotes of significant scientific discoveries are many (and interesting) and it seems to me that by and large both paragraphs apply.

  2. Gerald Holtham
    November 19, 2021 at 6:15 pm

    A distinguishing feature of science, with or without a capital S, is the courage to generalize; to assert that such and such an event is an instance of a general class of events. This starts to break down the feeling that reality is just one damn thing after another without rhyme or reason. A second, equally important characteristic is that all such claims are supposed to be tested not judged on their congeniality. Methods of testing are disputed, results can be explained away so the process is seldom clean. Poor generalisations are more frequently ruled out on points than by a knock-out. Still the process: define domain, propose generalisation, test to destruction is more productive of understanding than most methods available to people. There are some areas of knowledge where it is very difficult to apply, of course.

    • pfeffertag
      November 20, 2021 at 12:32 am

      Gerald, what you have described may be better characterised as non-scientific. Such generalising is what we all do. Russell’s chicken generalises that when it sees a certain person coming it’s dinner time. What you have described is the normal process of learning for sentient creatures.

      So it can’t be a distinguishing feature of science.

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