I am a Scientist

20121208-112448.jpg

Like most people I guess, I get irritated by folk who are wrong. But unlike most people, I actually don’t mind so much when I am.

Perhaps that’s because I believe in a ‘Bayesian brain’. Mash up all the facts, data and experience you have (however little) and come up with a probabilistic answer. That’s certainly how my mind works.

Of course we all live trapped in our own heads. So what seems common sense to me, absolutely may not to other people. Different experiences, different world views, different data.

As a recently deceased US Senator said:

“Sir, you are entitled your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

But what are facts anyway? Just a combination of data, theory and interpretation.

If someone says something I disagree with, generally speaking, I’ll have a quick go at saying so – and what I think. If pushed, I’ll point out the flaws in their position, if they are obvious.

But except in the most extreme or important situations, I’ll generally leave it after one or two tries. Experience tells; people don’t change their minds easily.

One of the weaknesses in a Bayesian approach is similar to the ‘ethical’ problem I used to have as a Utilitarian. The balance of probabilities, like the balance of morality, isn’t easy to explain or justify to people of principle and belief.

Most of the calls we make are analogue not digital. They are ‘probably’ not ‘binary’. So I’ve learnt, in the main, to simplify what I’m thinking when it comes to persuading. In the art of human persuasion, a single strong argument trumps several reasons.

And this cuts us to the chase. Why is it so hard to reason with people? Because most of human existence was in the pre-scientific era. Belief, superstition and commandment drove most people’s thoughts and deeds.

And a quote I read from the late great populariser of science, Carl Sagan, sums up the difference:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they would actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I am a scientist.

Mining

Some time ago the thought came to me that knowledge is an industrial business these days. In Aristotle’s era knowledge was lying around like coals on the fabled Newcastle beach. That’s not to say that Aristotle’s ceaseless collecting and inquiring and ordering where not great feats – and indeed arguably the invention of the scientific method. But there was plenty to go at and lots to be discovered. I consider this the era of beach coal.

Pace the Victorians and the great scientific amateurs. Named for the Latin ‘to love’, they pursued knowledge with independent means, chipping ‘curiosities’ out of geological strata, condensing chemical elements and taking care to ensure god was suitably credited in the processes they discovered. This was the age of independent mining – small entrepreneurs digging deeper and descending into specificity.

Then we enter the industrial era of knowledge. Universities, labs, great machines, competition between countries and ideologies, chemical warfare, Los Alamos, the military industrial complex, the 5 year plan, the ‘white heat’ of progress, the space race and the mindblowingly massive Large Hadron Collider. Science now sinks deep deep shafts and scours entire landscapes in the industrial pursuit of small incremental additions to the sum of what we know.

One of the downsides of this is the great discoverers of our time can generally only tell us a lot about very little. They are so deep down their shaft of knowledge – illuminated only a few feet ahead by their hi-tech miners lamps – that they sometimes struggle to interest the common man. They are also a fractious bunch. As the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn persuaded me 20 years ago, science is a competitive business. Flying elbows, trashing of reputations, the race to publish first and good old fashioned bickering are all a commonplace. Throw in powerful lobbies and money and the truth easily disappears back down the mineshaft.

Some are frustrated by this and believe public policy makers should rise above the melee and submit to the randomised double-blind trial. Others argue that more research and evidence will lead the human race to peace, prosperity and happiness. A few capture the popular imagination: Dawkins, Hawking for example. A very few (E.O. Wilson the socio-biologist is the only one I can immediately think of) manage to retain an Aristotelian ‘holism’ in their work and advance the big picture as well as the small detail.

So where does that leave the thoughtful polymath of today? Amateurs, in the Victorian sense or ‘lovers’ of knowledge, can feel intimidated without citations, a tenure, papers, experiments, machines and a peleton of research assistants. What chance of any useful discovery? Worse any statement, or thesis advanced might easily be disproved, infirmed or dismissed by competitive, individualistic and fractious experts.

I think the answer is to give up on the search for brand new knowledge. Leave that to the deep shaft miners. And as for ideas, like in the movies all the best plots have been written, all the best ideas have been had. New syntheses are what the complexity, chaos and the pace of change in modern life demand – new takes, approaches, ways of looking at ourselves. 

There are few new discoveries which are accessible to the amateur thinker, but we all have the Bayesian brains to form a new powerful, personal synthesis which helps us and others. 

I think ecology and epidemiology – seeing the interrelations and underlying patterns – not seeking the Eureka moment is where most of us will find our intellectual fulfilment.