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there's nothing that is scientifically proven
August 5, 2014 12:00 PM   Subscribe

(A theoretical physicist explains why) Science Is Not About Certainty
...[S]cience is about constructing visions of the world, about rearranging our conceptual structure, about creating new concepts which were not there before, and even more, about changing, challenging, the a priori that we have. It has nothing to do with the assembling of data and the ways of organizing the assembly of data. It has everything to do with the way we think, and with our mental vision of the world. Science is a process in which we keep exploring ways of thinking and keep changing our image of the world, our vision of the world, to find new visions that work a little bit better.

...Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain. In fact, not only is it not certain, but it’s the lack of certainty that grounds it. Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct. So the focus of scientific thinking, I believe, should be on the content of the theory—the past theory, the previous theories—to try to see what they hold concretely and what they suggest to us for changing in our conceptual frame. [...]

The final consideration regards just one comment about this understanding of science, and the long conflict across the centuries between scientific thinking and religious thinking. It is often misunderstood. The question is, Why can't we live happily together and why can’t people pray to their gods and study the universe without this continual clash? This continual clash is a little unavoidable, for the opposite reason from the one often presented. It’s unavoidable not because science pretends to know the answers. It’s the other way around, because scientific thinking is a constant reminder to us that we don’t know the answers. In religious thinking, this is often unacceptable. What’s unacceptable is not a scientist who says, “I know…” but a scientist who says, “I don’t know, and how could you know?” Many religions, or some religions, or some ways of being religious, are based on the idea that there should be a truth that one can hold onto and not question. This way of thinking is naturally disturbed by a way of thinking based on continual revision, not just of theories but of the core ground of the way in which we think.
Edge: Science is not about certainty: a philosophy of physics - a conversation with Carlo Rovelli
(covers very similar ground to the New Republic piece; includes video ~37 min. & full transcript)

Patheos/Science on Religion - Believing Impossible Stuff Is Dangerous, Except When It’s Awesome*
Scientifically proven facts are the difference, we’re told, between cowering in caves and living comfortably in climate-controlled homes, between endless religious wars and landing on the moon. Of course we want a world where people only believe the facts, right?

Yes, of course, but for one little detail: facts change... Don’t misread me. It wasn’t reality that changed. It was our understanding of reality that did. But facts are never anything but our current, best understanding of reality. When our understanding of the world shifts, we need to be ready to reevaluate what’s true or possible. If we’re too rigid to reconsider our understanding of the facts, we end up with unfortunate phenomena like, say, conservative climate denialism.

Imagination, in other words, is necessary for the progress of knowledge. You have to imagine a new perspective before you can evaluate it or design a crucial experiment. This is why a researcher with a slightly kooky view of reality is a great asset to any scientific team... Openness to the impossible – and I mean the really impossible, the opinions that makes your colleagues look at you funny – is a prerequisite for truly radical advancement. Every great step in the march of genius is taken by some damn fool who either refuses to concede to, or is simply ignorant of, what’s impossible.
*references Rob Brezsny's Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: see Liberate Your Imagination and Crimes That Don't Break Any Laws
The fundamentalist takes everything way too seriously and way too personally and way too literally. He divides the world into two camps, those who agree with him and those who don't. There is only one right way to interpret the world, and a million wrong ways. Correct belief is the only virtue. To the fundamentalist, the liberated imagination is a sinful taboo. He not only enslaves his own imagination to his ideology, but wants to enslave our imaginations, too. And who are the fundamentalists? Let's not remain under the delusion that they are only the usual suspects -- the religious fanatics of Islam and Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism. There are many other kinds of fundamentalists, and some of them have gotten away with practicing their tragic magic in a stealth mode. Among the most successful are those who believe in what Robert Anton Wilson calls fundamentalist materialism. This is the faith-based dogma that swears physical matter is the only reality and that nothing exists unless it can be detected by our five senses or by technologies that humans have made.
Jennifer Percy in The Atlantic: 'Life Keeps Changing': Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World
The language of science was unsatisfying to me. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible,” Einstein said. But I don’t think human relationships are ever fully comprehensible. They can clarify for small, beautiful moments, but then they change. Unlike a scientific experiment with rigorous, controlled parameters, our lives are boundless and shifting. And there’s never an end to the story. We need more than science—we need storytelling to capture that kind of complexity, that kind of incomprehensibility... And this is a fundamental problem with writing nonfiction. People say, “How do you write a profile of someone? How do you capture them fully?” Well, you don’t. It’s artifice. There are small moments, little parts, that crystallize—but they are part of something larger that’s always changing and evolving. Even if you’re writing autobiography, you only capture a specimen of a larger self. You’re not ever going to comprehend a life fully on the page, because life keeps changing.
posted by flex (33 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
I feel this is a somewhat dangerous idea to throw around, because people who are strong with woo do not understand the important distinction between the philosophical concept of 'proof' and the regular everyday usage of it. This just gives those people another weapon in their arsenal of ways to avoid having to challenge their preconceived notions about anything, and in general try to bring their personal belief system into some kind of accordance with the physical world.

Basically I'd save this sort of thing for Epistemology classes and such, where there will be appropriate context for it, so people understand that while you cannot 'prove' evolution (for example), you also cannot 'prove' the existence of the Earth itself by similar standards.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:15 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Sounds great, but you can't win an argument without absolute certainty.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:18 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Sounds great, but you can't win an argument without absolute certainty.

Prove it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:21 PM on August 5 [16 favorites]


There's an interesting subtext here that speaks to the difficulty that this generation of physicists is having with the reality that in their minds they haven't accomplished anything. I don't necessarily see it that way, but historically speaking there has been this gap, following the advent of the standard model, to the next big breakthrough.
I recently watched the documentary on the LHC, "Particle Fever", and the tension about this 'failure' was palpable throughout.
I feel like the particle physicists have taken it upon themselves to apologize for all the climate change denial, anti-vaxers, and intelligent designers because they haven't been able to step to the plate and hit the big "here's the explanation of the universe we've all been waiting for" home run.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:25 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


I have been thinking a lot lately about this. Many people seem to think of science as working kind of like the way the rationalist philosophers of the 17th and 18th century conceived of knowledge: that to know something is to see it in perfect completeness, the way God sees things, and also to see that it is necessary. But nothing is like that, not even mathematics.
posted by thelonius at 12:38 PM on August 5 [3 favorites]


I definitely like his ideas, but this bothered me:

"[Science] has nothing to do with the assembling of data and the ways of organizing the assembly of data. It has everything to do with the way we think, and with our mental vision of the world."

I disagree. There's a lot of science out there that is empirical by nature - biology, for instance, where we keep adding on more and more observations as our tools improve and our specializations narrow. It is very much assembling and organizing data that we did not have before and in many cases could not even speculate on. That's certainly science and a very important aspect of it indeed.

When it comes to the fringes of the known universe, however, like at the border between quantum and classical physics, things get a little weird — and that's where his ideas make a lot of sense. But out there in the world where chemists and paleontologists and geologists are painstakingly measuring things with pipettes and calipers and scraping away, inch by inch, the mantle of obscurity placed over the natural world, the science of empiricism is still very much an important and sound concept.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:41 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


This is a subject very near and dear to me as a geologist; I've spent a lot of time thinking about certainty, and could write a whole treatise. But it's best summed up by my professional motto, the code I live by (given to me through John McPhee), inscribed on a doorway at the German Navel Officer's School, in Kiel, and translated to English by a hero, David Love:

"Say not, 'This is the truth' but 'So it seems to me to be as I now see the things I think I see.' "
posted by barchan at 12:53 PM on August 5 [12 favorites]


Intellectually, the Rovelli pieces are interesting/valuable. I have to admit that I frequently also share with students and friends how important it is to move past certainty, and learn to think (and live) without it. But I do worry, like Mitrovarr, that this will be misleading to non-scientists, and, even worse, quite possibly used by obscurantist ideologues as fodder for their lies.

Rovelli is a very smart fellow, and a deep thinker, but it seems that he is making a semantic error common to those with a lot of mathematical training. Only mathematical theorems "prove" anything in a formal way. But that standard of "proof" is a very, very high bar, one that no other form of knowing can meet. So, while it's true that science doesn't prove anything in a mathematical sense, neither does anything else. So I'd argue that, linguistically speaking, there's absolutely nothing wrong with saying something has been "scientifically proven": it is a different standard of proof than mathematics (by necessity), but it is still a very rigorous standard. If science can't prove anything, then neither can legal argumentation, nor non-formal philosophizing. And as far as theology goes... fuggedaboutit. Do we really want to restrict ourselves to a definition of the word "proof" that cannot cover such less-certain forms of knowing?

This stuff is fun (and useful) to ponder and debate, but the danger when this sort of discussion percolates out into mainstream culture is that the baby will be thrown out with the bath water, much as what has happened with the notion of objectivity. (Nothing is perfectly objective, that is true, but the concept is still something that can be approached, as a state of being.) Science can't prove anything, if one is comparing it to mathematics, but it does a very, very good job of identifying things that have a high probability of being true. There are virtually no other modes of knowing that can even compare, in this regard.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:54 PM on August 5 [13 favorites]


I feel this is a somewhat dangerous idea to throw around, because people who are strong with woo do not understand the important distinction between the philosophical concept of 'proof' and the regular everyday usage of it.

This sounds like a theologian trying to keep discussions about the nature of God in the seminary, and away from the hoi polloi.
posted by No Robots at 12:58 PM on August 5 [4 favorites]


No Robots: This sounds like a theologian trying to keep discussions about the nature of God in the seminary, and away from the hoi polloi.

I'm not against people actually having reasonable discussions about the nature of philosophical proof and such, but I fear it will be used by shysters and woo peddlers to mislead the unwary. I think a really good solution would be if philosophers just quit calling it proof. Make up a new term or something (epistomological certainty?) It's not the same concept as proof as used in ordinary speech and it'd be less confusing to philosophy students, too.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:05 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


You win an argument by doing a better job of making your case than the other person, to the point where either they or an arbiter third person accept your point.

I mean, define absolute certainty. I can win a bar argument by pulling out my phone and showing the person the answer to a bit of trivia on wikipedia, but is that complete certainty? Wikipedia is rife with inconsistency, just as any other catalog of data has been. The good old World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica encyclopedias had their issues, too. Outside of exact measurements of physical phenomena with calibrated instruments, there is no certainty. And at some point, you're going to have to trust someone else's recorded measurements.

I think what I'm saying here is that no argument can be won.
posted by mikeh at 1:17 PM on August 5


mikeh: Outside of exact measurements of physical phenomena with calibrated instruments, there is no certainty.

In philosophy, that doesn't even count as certainty. What if you misremember the measurements? What if you were hallucinating? What if you're really just a brain in a vat? Etc., etc.

Philosophical certainty is next to impossible to come by and you basically can't get it about anything in the empirical world (you can't even prove the world really exists). It depends on the system of proof you are using. But there is essentially nothing that all philosophers will agree is truly proven.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:21 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


The data of general relativity are that the Mercury perihelion moves 43 degrees per century with respect to that computed with Newtonian mechanics.

Who cares? Who cares about these details?
I do. It's 43 arc seconds per century, not degrees.
posted by doop at 1:27 PM on August 5 [17 favorites]


I understand the fear about the woo peddlers, but I would argue that not talking about certainty and science is the dangerous idea.

There's a certain public conception of science, and part of it includes ideas around "fact" and "truth" and "certainty". Thus, when concepts and paradigms change, as is the nature of science, it often leads to public mistrust of that science. An example would be the ever changing idea of eggs and whether or not eggs are good for you. (Call me idealistic and naive, but I also think it's possible to do so without getting really philosophical about it.)

If scientists could get better at describing how certainty works, that we expect paradigms and understanding to do everything from flex a little to completely change, not only would it help with the public's understanding/perception of science, it would also help scientists become better at science - from everything like improving publication of no result/failed experiments to the scientific arrogance that results in very nasty infighting to being more open-minded to different ideas from others and different ideas within our minds, the kind that lend to leaps of scientific understanding: some of the ideas that these writers are expressing.

I admit I'm completely cynical about this ever happening, but it's a worthwhile hill to die on.

At the very least, it might improve journalism about science. Oh that would be the day...
posted by barchan at 1:29 PM on August 5 [7 favorites]


Oh, doop, what's a factor of 3600 between friends?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 1:35 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


Very true, Mitrovarr. Very true. As far as I understand truth, that is.
posted by mikeh at 1:53 PM on August 5


I'm pretty sure all of you are just trickster demons in my head. Like, 82% sure.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:01 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Doleful Creature: I'm pretty sure all of you are just trickster demons in my head. Like, 82% sure.

Not all of us, only the one who just inserted the memory of believing that into your personal history.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:05 PM on August 5


I feel like the particle physicists have taken it upon themselves to apologize for all the climate change denial, anti-vaxers, and intelligent designers because they haven't been able to step to the plate and hit the big "here's the explanation of the universe we've all been waiting for" home run.

But the real joke is on anyone who believes that this will ever happen.

I get the point that these scientists are trying to make, and I have struggled with it for most of my life, in trying to explain how I think and learn and am (apparently) able to sometimes just absorb information as a whole system, versus having to dig into the strange nitty gritty details (you don't need to know Pi to the billionth iteration for you to understand the concept or the function).

But Science is, fundamentally about building a model in your head of the current understanding of the universe.

"It's only a model." /Monty Python

Yes, what you think is only a model of reality, and is all it will ever be. Understanding that simple fact will help you immensely in understanding when things don't go as you expect (no model is a perfect representation of reality, otherwise it would just be another reality).

There is also now "win" scenario. If you've "won", then that means you have perfect knowledge of everything throughout all time and existence. What would be the point of existing if that were to happen? Everything would be perfect (or perfectly understood) so there would be no point is continuing to interact with reality. You'd sit on a wooden chair in a dimly lit room, sipping luke warm iced tea, because there would be no point in doing anything because you already know you will do it perfectly, so why bother (to paraphrase a story I once read many years ago and have since forgotten the title).

The understanding that facts are only momentary samples of incidents in time, only measured once, and never repeated (because time marches ever onward) is extremely useful information, but it is only useful in the construction of a model to try to understand what those facts mean.

The temperature at 2:13:57 PM PST in Portland, OR on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014 AD is 73° F and partly cloudy.

That is a fact. But what does it mean? Why does it matter? Because it is a temporal slice of information that plugged into another stream of information helps to build a model of reality, but not reality itself.

Science is not record keeping. Part of scientific study does involve record keeping, and measuring, and trying to find more and more accurate ways of measuring the physical world, but it does nothing except tell you where you've been.

Science allows you to create the model of what happened from those measurements and create theories and tests and methods of using that information to create NEW understandings of the world.

And the beauty of our sentience is that every day, a new sentient being comes into existence not knowing any of that. And every day, through scientific principals, that sentience is given the opportunity to build those models of reality in their heads, and learn about the world.

And it doesn't stop at just the physical sciences. Human interaction and social behavior is part of Science. It just happens to be complicated by the fact that the model makers are trying to build models of themselves. And that, in and of itself is possibly the most difficult part of being human.
posted by daq at 2:20 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


This is the language that science deniers use to "disprove" accepted science. Real science always has some doubt involved because, you know, you can't know everything. Science deniers latch onto that language and use it to "prove" their pet theories because they absolutely are sure.
posted by zzazazz at 2:25 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]


I wasn't exactly sure what the suggestion involving Einstein was getting at:

If Einstein ... was any one of my colleagues today who are looking for a solution of the big problem of physics today, what would he do?

He would say, okay, the empirical content is the strong part of the theory. The idea in classical mechanics that velocity is relative: forget about it. The Maxwell equations, forget about them. Because this is a volatile part of our knowledge. The theories themselves have to be changed, okay? What we keep solid is the data, and we modify the theory so that it makes sense coherently, and coherently with the data.

That's not at all what Einstein does. Einstein does the contrary. He takes the theories very seriously.


Here's an opposing view that theoretical physics today takes theories too seriously and is overly divorced from empirical data.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 2:49 PM on August 5


In Praise Of The Unknowable
posted by kliuless at 2:56 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


I've only read the Rovelli essay, but I'll try to get to the rest of the links later.

Loop quantum gravity certainly sounds interesting. I don't know enough about it to make even a wild guess, but what he says about basic assumptions sounds plausible. Einstein tried to reconcile classical mechanics with the Maxwell Equations (and in the process solve the Ultraviolet Catastrophe) - which he accomplished by changing a basic assumption, making the speed of light invariant and altering everything else to fit. So maybe there's some other kind of erroneous assumption standing in the way of reconciling General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:57 PM on August 5


fwiw, here's john baez's seminar on LQG (which he was working on before moving over to AGW ;) [0,1!]
posted by kliuless at 3:33 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Man, he doesn't like string theory, does he?
posted by klangklangston at 6:05 PM on August 5


Commenting as the linguistics nerd, the term "proven" here means "tested." From the Latin "probare" to test ("probe" is a cognate). It's an older usage, but still current in certain expressions, as when we bake bread, we "proof" (i.e. test) the yeast with warm water and sugar to see if it's still effective (it foams up). Likewise, "a soldier proven in battle," is a soldier who has had her/his skill and/or courage tested on the battlefield. Or when we say, "the exception proves the rule," we mean exceptions test the rules, not necessarily affirm/confirm them. Hence, "scientifically proven" means "tested using the scientific method," but does not necessarily imply certainty. So no, "Scientifically Proven" is not a contradiction in terms.
posted by smrtsch at 8:12 PM on August 5 [8 favorites]


As a professional scientist, I'm getting pretty tired of people who talk about the problems in their own field and laments that Science Writ Large somehow has that problem. Perhaps theoretical physics has, at its core, a profound malaise that has hobbled its ability to improve on the standard model. Perhaps not; it might instead be that the breakneck speed with which physics advanced in the early 20th century was somewhat anomalous, a lucky combination of the right theoretical problems being juxtaposed against the right engineering possibilities. Maybe they got a head start because the uniformity of elementary particles vastly simplifies the process of statistical inference, relative to those of us who work in the "dirtier" data higher up in the frames of reference.

But the idea that science has made no dramatic discoveries since the mid-70s, or is trapped in the thicket of its own airy speculations, is not merely absurd: It's insulting to the people who have labored quite fruitfully in the last 40 years. Our understanding of the genetic machinery of life on Earth, or the discovery that the universe is expanding, to say nothing of the dramatic work in mathematics, statistics, and computer science that have been made possible by hitherto-undreamed computational resources, should all be enough to make our breath catch for a moment.

My advice to scientists is: If you find yourself craving a sense of scientific adventure that you feel your own field has lost, or wanting to transcend your stodgy preconceptions, try spending some time working with folks in another field. Physicists: You have a lot to offer neuroscience, and they have a *ton* of discoveries just waiting to be made. Economists: It looks like those psychologists are on to something. Ecologists: Looking into geology may be more important than you presently realize.

But please, don't wander around your back yard in a bathrobe looking at your neglected herb garden and lament that horticulture is dead. Your science is not the Science. Each field has its own particular quirks and pitfalls. Some fields are young and brash, while others are facing mid-life crises of sorts. A few won't survive in their current form, and we'll look back on them within my lifetime with a sense of embarrassment. Peer over your fence and see what it is your neighbors are so excited about.
posted by belarius at 1:10 AM on August 6 [3 favorites]


Isn't this what Hume was talking about back in 1740s? That all these scientific and inductive theories are rest of unprovable premises. That for all the explanations of gravity we don't really know why matter is attracted to other matter.

The deformations of "Space-Time" are not really an answer. Even the common-sense model in 2 dimensions relies on the existence of gravity to even illustrate its principle. So how can something relying on gravity to make sense illustrate how gravity works?
posted by mary8nne at 2:18 AM on August 6


I think we should colour all facts and factual statements on the Internet with a code that indicates how true they are. Deep red - bollocks. Green - well, it's 50/50. End-spectral violet - that's as good as it gets, bud.

Problem solved. Just a matter of implementation.
posted by Devonian at 2:29 AM on August 6


But the idea that science has made no dramatic discoveries since the mid-70s, or is trapped in the thicket of its own airy speculations, is not merely absurd: It's insulting to the people who have labored quite fruitfully in the last 40 years.

It's funny how people can read the same text and interpret it two different ways. He talks about "science" in the essay, but my impression is that Rovelli was really just talking about theoretical physics. The title "Science Is Not About Certainty" and the references to science instead of physics are an attempt to get a wider audience to read the article, but he isn't really talking about chemistry or biology or anything like that.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:15 PM on August 6


Kevin Street: Equally, please don't conflate physics with theoretical particle physics.
posted by edd at 3:05 PM on August 6


The economist who revealed how media bias works
It's interesting, this question of whether we're entering some kind of post-theoretical age. Some people have talked about the "death of theory." There was a big Wired magazine piece on that a couple years ago. Do we need theory anymore?

Absolutely. I disagree completely with the view that theory is dead or that even theory is less important than it used to be.

I think what is not always so productive is theory in the absence of data.

We can debate for a long time my model versus your model... Having data to discipline theory helps make that a much more productive process. But also having theory to guide the way you look at and understand data makes empirical analysis a much more productive process.

And I think if you look around economics today, it has certain become a much more empirical, data-driven field than it was 30 or 40 years ago. But a lot of the best work combines theory with empirical analysis; going back and forth between the two is where the really big gains are to be had.
posted by kliuless at 4:48 PM on August 6



I think we should colour all facts and factual statements on the Internet with a code that indicates how true they are. Deep red - bollocks. Green - well, it's 50/50. End-spectral violet - that's as good as it gets, bud.

How convenient that you are likely reading this in either black or white lettering and therefore containing all of the colors or none of the colors, depending on how you view the text on screen, as light or as a pigment.
posted by maryr at 8:34 PM on August 6


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