Category Archives: Philosophy of Science

“Bloody Bad Science”

I’ve just completed “reading” (listening to) The Black Cloud, by astronomer Fred Hoyle. It has been refreshing to discover a book – science fiction at that – which I can enthusiastically recommend to almost any reader. Hoyle was a successful astronomer who turned to writing science fiction later in life. Hoyle’s science fiction emphasizes the science more so than most authors of the genre, and in particular almost all modern authors. The Black Cloud describes the proper process by which scientific discovery and inquiry advances. In particular, for those interested and knowledgable in astronomy, it is a wonderfully accurate depiction of the science as it was practiced in the 1950s. My fascination with the book also derives, in part, from being old enough to remember at least some of the technology that Hoyle describes, though I was experiencing it much later, in the 1980s, not the 50s.

The story in the book (which I won’t spoil here) does get sufficiently unusual to easily classify as science fiction, but continues to bring in fascinating philosophical sidelights. Unlike most science fiction, I’d even go so far as to say there was no obvious lack of plausibility in the story line – though I’m sure if I thought about it harder there would be plenty of mud to throw, it is fiction afterall. For the faint of heart, I’ll warn you that many people die, though the description of the calamity is not particularly detailed – I might even classify it as “callous”. But for Hoyle, the story is only a vehicle to make some very deep points about the philosophy of science, the nature of information, the nature of life, and even voice some frustrations about government.

What I want to discuss here are the thoughts he provides on the nature of science – I may very well come back to other thoughts he expresses in this wonderful book in later discussions. The point he makes (only stated openly twice in the book, but demonstrated continuously) is that observations of correlations or coincidences are not a proper basis for science, and do not represent causality. This is certainly not a new sentiment presented by Hoyle, but it is one that is essential to grasp, and which is of increasing relevance in what passes today as “science”.

The purpose of science is to determine the causes of phenomena. By a cause we mean an antecedent particular entity or event whose existence results in the existence of the phenomenon. The determination of cause is a structured activity, involving observation, formulating a hypothesis, prediction, and verification.

The correct progression in the development of a scientific theory starts with observation of the phenomenon under study. The researcher may then find correlation between the phenomenon and other entities or events. This must lead to the formation of a hypothesis which explains the connection between these antecedents and the phenomenon, and this explanation must be formulated within the context of existing knowledge. That is, the hypothesis cannot be arbitrary, whimsical, or rely upon unknown forces or entities. The hypothesis must arise from inductive reasoning from the observations made of the phenomenon and its antecedents. Any valid hypothesis must further be capable of making predictions which can be subsequently verified.

Hoyle’s commentary specifically deals with the critical step of when a hypothesis becomes a theory – when it is accepted as an explanation, and the cause of a phenomenon established. Hoyle points out that the mere observation of correlation is never sufficient to establish a connection; furthermore, that attempting to “prove” the hypothesis by deductive reasoning using the correlation and hypothesis itself as a starting point leads to completely invalid chains of logic, and cannot bring additional validity to the hypothesis. The only way to validate a hypothesis is to use it, in conjunction with other observations if necessary, to make predictions of future observations, and then to make those observations and confirm the predictions.

Let’s have a look now at the actual text from The Black Cloud. It is additionally interesting how Hoyle manages to present his ideas in very short passages. He further shortens them by using the Russian character “Alexandrov”, who speaks very tersely. After a few comments from Alexandrov that only later become interesting (and to which I’ll return), the first example of Hoyle’s attack on poorly constructed science arises after the astronomers observe a strange behavior in how the Cloud reacts to block radio transmissions. After reviewing the actual observations, the scientists begin hypothesizing a feedback mechanism, but without explaining how it would work. Here is the relevant passage:

“Let’s go into this in a bit more detail,” … “It seems to me that this hypothetical ionising agency must have pretty good judgment. Suppose we switch on a ten centimetre transmission. Then according to your idea, Chris, the agency, whatever it is, drives the ionisation up until the ten centimetre waves remain trapped inside the Earth’s atmosphere. And — here’s my point — the ionisation goes no higher than that. It’s all got to be very nicely adjusted. The agency has to know just how far to go and no further.”

“Which doesn’t make it seem very plausible,” said Weichart.

“And there are other difficulties. Why were we able to go on so long with the twenty-five centimetre communication? That lasted for quite a number of days, not for only half an hour. And why doesn’t the same thing happen — your pattern A as you call it — when we use a one centimetre wave-length?”

“Bloody bad philosophy,” grunted Alexandrov. “Waste of breath. Hypothesis judged by prediction. Only sound method.”

The next outburst by Alexandrov follows a comment about ESP experiments:

“I know this is rather a red herring, but I thought these extra-sensory people had established some rather remarkable correlations,” Parkinson persisted.

“Bloody bad science,” growled Alexandrov. “Correlations obtained after experiments done is bloody bad. Only prediction in science.”

…“What Alexis means is that only predictions really count in science … It’s no good doing a lot of experiments first and then discovering a lot of correlations afterwards, not unless the correlations can be used for making new predictions. Otherwise it’s like betting on a race after it’s been run.”

The final passage uses an example that can easily be remembered. This both reinforces the theme discussed so far, and suggests another variant of the theme. The situation leading to this passage requires some explanation. The governments of Earth had launched nuclear missiles into the cloud. These had been redirected by the Cloud to return to their points of origin, with “random perturbations”. Three major cities had been destroyed.

“It looks to me as if those perturbations of the rockets must have been deliberately engineered,” began Weichart.

“Why do you say that, Dave?” asked Marlowe.

“Well, the probability of three cities being hit by a hundred odd rockets moving at random is obviously very small. Therefore I conclude that the rockets were not perturbed at random. I think they must have been deliberately guided to give direct hits.”

“There’s something of an objection to that,” argued McNeil. “If the rockets were deliberately guided, how is it that only three of ’em found their targets?”

“Maybe only three were guided, or maybe the guiding wasn’t all that good. I wouldn’t know.”

There was a derisive laugh from Alexandrov.

“Bloody argument,” he asserted.

“What d’you mean ‘bloody argument’?”

“Invent bloody argument, like this. Golfer hits ball. Ball lands on tuft of grass — so. Probability ball landed on tuft very small, very very small. Million other tufts for ball to land on. Probability very small, very very very small. So golfer did not hit ball, ball deliberately guided on tuft. Is bloody argument. Yes? Like Weichart’s argument.”

“What Alexis means I think,” explained Kingsley, “is that we are not justified in supposing that there were any particular targets. The fallacy in the argument about the golfer lies in choosing a particular tuft of grass as a target, when obviously the golfer didn’t think of it in those terms before he made his shot.”

The Russian nodded.

“Must say what dam’ target is before shoot, not after shoot. Put shirt on before, not after event.”

“Because only prediction is important in science?”

“Dam’ right. Weichart predicted rockets guided. All right, ask Cloud. Only way decide. Cannot be decided by argument.”

I will return to discuss the new aspect which I believe Hoyle has introduced in this particular passage in my next post.

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Harriman and Galileo

This Fall my reading has centered on David Harriman’s recently published “The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics”. I started off listening to the book on Audible, then realized that there was too much detail I was missing, so I went ahead and purchased a hard copy. After a great deal of reflection on the book, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is a very significant philosophical advance, largely derivative from Ayn Rand’s epistemology. The main thesis in the work consists of several observations regarding how the proper process of induction is performed, and how following this process leads to the attainment of truth. The presentation of these ideas is accomplished through relatively brief explanatory material in the opening and closing chapters of the book, and through a lengthy series of examples from the history of science through the central mass of the work.

There has been much commentary on the accuracy of the presented history, and whether the errors in this history result in an invalidation of the theory of induction Harriman presents. This lead me to review original (translated) material from Galileo in particular to judge the accuracy for myself. Indeed, I found clear errors in Harriman’s account of some of Galileo’s work on falling bodies, matching the factual criticisms by John P. McCaskey. I am also generally skeptical of anyone who attempts to describe the thought processes that lead a researcher to perform various experiments and reach conclusions. In the case of Galileo, my skepticism is raised because of the stylized nature of Galileo’s writings (in artificial dialogues), where the actual thought process is not likely to be the thought process presented in the work. However, Galileo was very explicit about his theory of knowledge and support for proper scientific method in other writings. Though Harriman may take some license with his portrayal of the details of Galileo’s thought process, he does portray Galileo’s underlying theory of knowledge perfectly.

The errors Harriman makes in describing Galileo’s falling body experiments center on indicating that Galileo had not conducted experiments in an aqueous medium, and that if he had he would not have been lead to the induction of universal gravitational acceleration. However, Galileo describes such experiments in detail, and in fact used the results of these experiments to inductively conclude that the acceleration of falling bodies in a vacuum is independent of the falling body’s mass. Although there is a curious confusion here in Harriman’s account (given the breadth and depth of Harriman’s research into the history of science), the error is not essential to Harriman’s evidence for the nature of the inductive process. I conclude therefore that his inaccuracies do not affect the validity of Harriman’s theory of induction.

I still have not read through the original works of the other scientists (and proto-scientists) that Harriman uses as examples, though I do have selections from most of them (Ptolemy, Newton, Lavoisier) and I will eventually read through this material. I am willing in the meantime to accept Harriman’s accounts as representing at least the “essence” of their thinking.

Regarding Galileo himself, I have greatly enjoyed reading both of his Dialogues – On the Two New Sciences, On the Two World Systems, as well as Letters on Sunspots, The Assayer, and some of his other letters dealing with the relationship between science and the Church. Throughout these, we see Galileo declaring the proper source of scientific truth – induction from observation – and disdaining the peripathetic argument from the “authority” of Aristotle. In several places, Galileo states that Aristotle himself would change his conclusions if he were presented with the observational evidence available to Galileo. Since I am also a great proponent of Aristotelian logic (though not his “science”), I found these statements gratifying.

Galileo’s struggle with the Church is fascinating. Far from being an atheist, he defends his “freethinking” by relying upon other ecclesiastic authorities to make his argument, in particular Augustine. Augustine I had written off as the worst of the Christian “philosophers” (and such he remains, from an ethics viewpoint); however, he offers at least a partial defense of science by separating matters of faith from matters of fact. In matters of fact, says Augustine, the Bible should not be interpreted literally, and as we discover new explanations for phenomena through the use of logic and observation that are at apparent odds with scripture, it is our interpretation of the scripture that should be questioned and changed, not the use of logic that should be abandoned. Another form of this argument suggests that since our rational faculty is a given to us by an perfect God, both its use and scripture must lead to Truth. When those truths conflict, it is our faulty understanding of scripture (which is the word of the unfathomable) which is in err. Of course both of these approaches to balancing faith and reason are ultimately fatally flawed, as no definition of the boundaries of the arbitrary field of “faith” can be described.

I would enjoy reading the entire body of Galileo’s work – of which an immense quantity apparently exists, filling many volumes. But, amazingly and disturbingly, the vast majority has never been translated into English. There is an apparently comprehensive translation from the Italian dialects in which he wrote to French, but no one has found a reason to translate most of the work to English. Given the astounding range of Galileo’s contributions (astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, dynamics, fluid dynamics, meteorology, not to mention the philosophy of science) this is a disturbing fact.

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