Monday, 10 January 2011

How we deal with what we know - or don't know

Through the KM4Dev.org network, I came across this interesting article in the New Yorker: "The Truth Wears Off". It elaborates in the "Decline Effect"or empirical science, which is the phenomenon that the more scientists try to replicate previous empirical results, the more the statistic effects of these results wear off.

"Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can't bear to let them go.

And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren't surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will
soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.)

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that¹s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn't mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn't mean its true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe."

First, I think the article makes a nice point about the fact that we are all humans, and even in our most sincere efforts to acquire objective knowledge, often fail to deal with our world in an objective manner. Nothing really spectacular or contentious about that. It just reminds us that a healthy dose of humility in all that we do is always a good idea.

However, the article also points to a deeper issue. Some might argue that there is such a thing as gravity. There is such a thing as electrons. That one can measure toxins in the environment. That mere belief can never diminish scientific results. And that it was one specific contribution of Enlightenment that we must still answer the question whether what we believe is true or false.

But I don't think it's as easy as playing out "perception" (non-science) versus "fact" (science). Besides all the wonderful blessings that the Modern Age and Enlightenment brought us, that specific era also had at least one flaw, namely that it made modern society believe it eventually could know everything, and every subject could be approached with a dualistic scientific model that looks for true or false statements.

The last 100 years, however, have taught us that the universe is far more complex than that. We learned that sometimes two opposing statements are true at the same time, that light is both wave and particles, that the movement of the subject experiencing time is changing how fast time goes by, that it is physically impossible to determine the location and the vector of an electron at the same time and that by the mere fact of observing a scientific experiment, we are sometimes changing its outcome. And these are only the examples of physics.

What these discoveries did to us was moving us towards a post-modern society, in which we still build on the achievements of Enlightenment and modern science (modern in the sense of the clear-cut causalities of Newton mechanics), but in which we also acknowledge that there are boundaries to our cognitive capacity to get a hold of absolute "truth". This allows us to go beyond a dualistic world view in which we can only deal with phenomenons in yes/no or true/false categories, but in which we can embrace complexity, paradoxes and unanswered questions. Such a mindset even allows us to deal with unanswerable questions in an productive way (e.g. in the areas of ethics, social justice, law, culture, arts, philosophy, religion) which dualistic science was never capable of doing.

Let's not be afraid of a world that is bigger and more complex than our little boxes of knowledge are made for.

2 comments:

ithorpe said...

Johannes - nice piece on the limits of scientific thinking. I recently wrote a blog post on a similar theme which looks at the aid industries overly strong emphasis on "evidence" and why in practice this evidence is not there or not a reliable basis for action: http://kmonadollaraday.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/the-truth-is-out-there-or-maybe-not/
Would be interested to hear your comments.

Stepping Higher - Reflections on the Knowledge Age said...

Thanks Ian! I just commented on your blog post. I think the keyword here is "Sense-Making"...