Author: Teemu Koskimäki

  • January 11, 2019

Science Simplified

Introduction:

Science is paramount for building a more sustainable world. But how many of us know, what science really is, where it came from, and what is its role in society?

Let me take you on a journey through time, to find out how science came to be, and to understand, through its story, how it is practiced, what kind of thinking is involved, and how lost we are with it in contemporary society …and how dangerous that might be.

First act: The demon haunted world of “pre-science”

Imagine yourself living in England four hundred years ago. You could’ve gotten your employment by being a “pricker”, or a witch-finder. For each girl or woman turned over for execution, you would’ve received a handsome bounty. You would have searched for “devil’s marks” – scars or birthmarks – that when pricked with a pin neither hurt nor bled. These marks were often found in places where the male inquisitors wished to find them. It got truly grim.

It was nearly impossible to provide compelling alibis for the accused witches: The rules of evidence had a special character. For example, in more than one case a husband attested that his wife was asleep in his arms, at the very moment she was accused of frolicking with the devil; but the archbishop patiently explained, that a demon had taken the place of the wife. The husbands were not to imagine, that their powers of perception could exceed Satan’s powers of deception.

To question the accusations was to claim, that the church was committing a great crime by burning witches. Those who raised such possibilities were thus attacking the Church and committing a mortal sin. Critics of witch-burning were punished and, in some cases, themselves burnt. The inquisitors and torturers were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.

This depiction was written in the book “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan. His words will echo throughout this text and probably through the rest of my life to be honest.

We can see how difficult it was, for most people at that time and place, to master scepticism and rational thought. What a scary and confusing world that must have been to live in. Demons were real, superstition rampant. And I’m afraid we aren’t completely out of those murky woods yet …despite the enormous advancement of knowledge we live to witness.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said: “It seems to me that people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not. What is reliable, what is not reliable. What should you believe, what should you not believe.” He said, he does not remember from his life “any time when people were standing in denial of what science was”. “Every minute you are in denial” he said, “you are delaying the political solution that should have been established years ago.”

And Carl Sagan called this out more than twenty years ago. He said that “in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”¹

There are signs of confusion and misunderstandings in our times, in the current zeitgeist which we are trying to influence. Hence it is extremely important to understand what brought us here.

History of science

How is it possible that we have smartphones, long healthy lives, easy access to diverse nutrition? How can our experience of life be so distant to those who lived just a few hundred years ago?

The history of how we got here, is in a large part the history of science. It is integral to the human story. Science is all about understanding the world, gaining knowledge about it. The word “science” comes from the Latin word scientia meaning “knowledge”, and it is this multigenerational accumulation of knowledge, that has created the modern world.

Let me show you how it all started.

Around 2400 years ago the early natural philosophers of Greece thought that everything in existence was made up of four, fundamental elements. And that the body worked as a collection of four mystical humours. This was arrived at through philosophical inquiry, and these ideas remained in medical practice until the end of the dark ages. They were hypotheses, or best guesses, which remained largely unquestioned and untested by experimental means. It is only when the ideas of those great philosophers – about astronomy, physics, medicine, and about alchemy which preceded chemistry – were truly questioned by experimental means, when science is said to have started about 400 years ago.

In 17th century England, there was a group of new experimental philosophers, who wanted to understand the world through reason, logic and experiment. And in the year 1660 they transformed their “invisible college” into the Royal Society. Their motto was, and still is, “Nullius in verba”; Take nobody’s word for it. This was the start of a revolution.

Four years later, a strange star, appeared in the night skies above Britain. Instead of accepting it as a sign of doom, five young men started asking questions. What was it? Where did it come from? What could explain its trajectory?

Their thinking developed through a series of tangible experiments and findings. Robert Hooke designed a microscope and wrote the first major publication of the Royal Society, called “Micrographia”, about his literally unforeseen findings. Together with Robert Boyle he built the first air pump, which they experimented with and found for the first time that air had physical properties. In one experiment, they placed a bird within a glass chamber, and sucked out the air. They discovered, that air was essential for life. They had found invisible worlds all around us that we could understand through experiment and reason. The question was, how far could the same thinking apply? Were the movements of planets and stars also subject to hidden laws?

Edmund Halley, Cristopher Wren and Robert Hooke would regularly meet in London’s coffee houses to discuss their ideas about the possible laws of nature. They imagined an invisible force, that kept the planets in their orbits, but for this idea of an “invisible force” to have any credibility, there needed to be solid proof. Mathematics, which is based on deductive logic, was the way to find an explanation for the data.

Then, another comet appeared in the night sky, 20 years after the previous one, causing confusion among the experimental philosophers. Halley knew they needed Isaac Newton, and convinced him to start the research. After three years possibly the greatest work ever written was published; Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It held, for the first time, the mathematical principles of motion and gravity, that govern the universe. It was a paradigm shift in the way we understand the world like no other. Newton’s laws allowed Halley to solve the puzzle of the second comet, and we used those same laws to put humans on the moon. This achievement showed, that mathematics was key to all science. Together these five great men summoned science into being.

By using this new sceptical and experimental approach, and by building on the findings of the revolutionaries, the next generation saw the birth of equal geniuses whose findings again transformed the world. We learned to master and replicate even the most extreme natural phenomena, like lightning.

We learned that moving magnets could create electrical currents, and that electronic wires produced magnetic fields. The first battery was invented by carefully studying and mimicking the structure of the mysterious electric torpedo fish. And electricity helped us discover new elements. Spectacular science shows were held, especially here in London, to showcase the new findings to the curious public.

All of this, and much more that has defined the world we live in today, came from this new experimental approach. A new way of thinking. Science created new opportunities, inspired the enlightenment and made the industrial revolution possible.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, two theories of basic science, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, were used in a series of progressive steps to ultimately create the transistor. These developments were crucial for us to handle the overwhelming amount of data created by expanding population and commerce. Applied science created radio, television, and the computer based on these developments.

To me, this magnificent history really culminated in the space launches. We had started the scientific revolution by looking at the heavens, and during the latter half of the twentieth century we went there ourselves. It is something that captivates the imagination, reignites us with the wondrous possibilities that science can offer. And all this progress, the very world we see around us, reinforces the fact that science is simply not the same as any other system of thought. It is not a system of belief. It uses sceptical inquiry and experiment, and the technology we now take for granted, testifies how science has been able to master a true understanding of the laws of nature. Science works, and it can be trusted. No other way of thinking, wishing, praying or feeling has ever given us any concrete proof of its value in gaining a deeper understanding of reality, than science.

Philosophy of science

As we have seen, science started from a very practical place. Direct observations of the natural world and its phenomena. Concrete, easy to understand experiments and the acceptance and explanation of the results. But the main goal has always been to find out what is true about the world. Not accepting what authorities tell us, but observing ourselves. Achieving that goal isn’t straight forward, however.

There are three ways scientists, or any one of us, can try to claim truth. Deduction, induction and the inference to the best explanation. Deduction means we have some premises which force a conclusion, which is either true or not. We have to have perfect knowledge about the premises however. Usually we do not have perfect knowledge, and we have to make generalizations from the data we do have, from personal experience or measurements. This is called induction. But we can’t logically claim absolute truth based on it. The conclusions are either strong or weak, depending on the quality of the data. Scientists have strict rules about the use of induction, and statistics plays a big part in this. The third way of finding out things is inference to the best explanation. For example genes were first just a made-up explanation for the inheritance of some traits. They were called “discrete units of inheritance” in the 19th century. But the key is that such an explanation can produce predictions based on deduction, which we could then try to prove false by doing experiments.

If scientists do not observe what a hypothesis predicts, either the hypothesis or their experimental design is faulty. If scientists cannot get the experiment to work, they have to conclude that the hypothesis predicted something that wasn’t there, and it must be abandoned. Hypotheses can be ruled out using this experimental method, until you are left with some explanation that gives true predictions about the world.

This deductive approach of falsification, attempts to prove ourselves wrong, is what science is all about. We come up with something that makes sense, we see what it would logically entail, and we test that. Notice that scientists do not prove anything. There are plenty of examples in the history of science which show that you can get confirming results from a flawed theory. One example is the discovery of the wave-particle duality of light. It was preceded by wave-theory, which was already confirmed experimentally. But decades worth of testing finally falsified it. If you seek proof, you will most likely stop as soon as you see the first thing that confirms your ideas. If you only seek confirmation, you are not doing science, but pseudoscience.

Scientific hypotheses are tested by repeated experiments and by multiple independent scientists, and those explanations that survive this scrutiny, become eventually accepted as a consensus by the scientific community. Many such “confirmed” hypotheses are then combined together to form what is called a “theory”. The word “theory” is often confused with “hypothesis”, but in natural sciences, a theory is something strong. Like gravity. Something we can be sure of. But we cannot claim absolute truth even to our theories such as gravity.

Proving something with unperfect data is a logical impossibility. Not just for scientists, but for all of us! So, scientists have developed ways to measure confidence statistically, and they distain from claiming absolute truth. As should any honest person. That is one reason you cannot get a clear yes or no answer from a scientist. Claiming to know the “truth” is to admit that you do not know what you are talking about. Scientists look for approximate truth, the closest we can get to it with some confidence.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it:

“Out of the scientific method comes emergent truth – and it does it better than anything else we have ever come up with as human beings.”

If new evidence shows that some accepted theory is false, at least in principle, a scientist should admit, after critically examining the proof, that they were wrong and be happy that they were corrected. That is one of the reasons for the success of science. Newton’s theory of gravity was, in the end, after more than 200 years, falsified by Albert Einstein.

As always, Carl Sagan put it well:

“Valid criticism does you a favor. Some people consider science arrogant – especially when it purports to contradict beliefs of long standing or when it introduces bizarre concepts that seem contradictory to common sense. Like an earthquake that rattles our faith in the very ground we’re standing on, challenging our accustomed beliefs, shaking the doctrines we have grown to rely upon can be profoundly disturbing. Nevertheless, I maintain that science is part and parcel humility. Scientists do not seek to impose their needs and wants on Nature, but instead humbly interrogate Nature and take seriously what they find. We are aware that revered scientists have been wrong. We understand human imperfection. We insist on independent and – to the extent possible – quantitative verification of proposed tenets of belief. We are constantly prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs.”

Science in practice

The scientific method

Everyone uses the scientific method, sometimes unknowingly. Even babies know the scientific method. First you observe, then you form a hypothesis, which is tested experimentally. Data is analysed and findings reported, after which you ask others to reproduce the experiment. If you really think about it, you will find that this method is actually the only way we humans ever solve problems when it isn’t random luck. Trial and error, seeing what works, combining bits of information, copying others.

This method can also be used in a biased, pseudoscientific way, to arrive at false conclusions. That is why scientific manuscripts have to source all claims made, and present detailed methods for how the conclusions were arrived at. The finished manuscript is then sent to peer-reviewed journals for expert evaluation. This is the last step of the scientific process before the article is published, assuming it isn’t turned down. The accepted article is published for other scientists to read, cite and criticize. The peer review process exists to weed out any remaining subjectivity, biases and illogical conclusions which can remain despite the years of education and help from fellow researchers.

This multi-levelled criticism and checking is what is expected by the scientific community, and this practice, although not perfect, does increase the quality of scientific publications enormously. And this is why peer-review is demanded for. If you have some conclusions or research that doesn’t get through peer-review, in any of the available journals that offer it, then your idea is most likely faulty, or lacks the convincing evidence required for trusting it. And if there isn’t convincing evidence, we should withhold judgment until the evidence is in. Really, it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’. It’s a strength, and a large part of the scientific way of thinking.

Science and society

Science challenges us to question our accustomed beliefs. And as science develops at a quickening pace, the theories it formulates get more complex and difficult to understand. It slips away from people who aren’t educated to be interested. And so we find ourselves in the 21st century, where people do not know what to trust anymore. Not understanding gives space for making up your own rules, which are easier to understand. They begin to serve the way we want our reality to be. Supporting our existing beliefs. Often, they start to masquerade as “scientific”, enjoying the hard-earned authority and trustworthiness of science, but without internalizing its methods or conduct. This rising pseudoscience causes even more confusion and makes it even harder for people to understand what is real. Opinions become truths, facts start to “alternate”.

People have become distanced from science, and the misuse of it has led to it losing some of its credibility in the public eye. And as we’ve seen, demons have begun to stir. On the 22th of April 2017 there was a global march for science which was a response to the rising amounts of people who have been distanced from the methods and principles of science, who now have reached for the controls, just like Sagan predicted. Our future may be at stake here.

Science has alerted us of the perils we now face, it is an early warning system for our civilization. But society has been slow in responding to these alerts. The structures we have in place have vested interests for re-election or continued sales, and the learned self-interest drives them to fight the inconvenient truths and change. Maybe they even refuse to believe the warnings. As if it was a matter of belief. They claim that the truth is not fully established, that we are not yet 100 % sure. As if absolute truth was even possible, not the least necessary.

Industries are known to have even bought off scientists to produce and publish research that suits their vested interests, these scientists have testified their views as objectively sceptical. They have lied, maybe even to themselves. Scientists are human and thus fallible. And the existence of interests which want to take advantage of this for their own gain, is highly destructive and dangerous. But it is not science that is at fault, it is the socio-economic system we use.

Misinformation is rampant and easy to publish in the news. Even profitable. And commercials are full of psychological tricks that exploit the feelings and inclinations of people. They lie with superlatives, present misleading data and get away with it. Sagan also wrote that the “commercial culture is full of misdirections and evasions at the expense of the consumer. You’re not supposed to ask. Don’t think. Buy.”

I am ashamed to admit that the knowledge and skills of some scientists have been bought off to be used for these commercial purposes. It eats away the trust other members of society have for scientists. How can they do this? The answer is that there is a high reward for it in the current economic system, and a pressure to make money to survive. I maintain that despite all the misuse, science has still given humanity much more good, and it is the only thing that is able to save our future.

Science and TZM

Carl Sagan wrote, that “science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy.”; “The culture and ethos of science are, and for very good reason, collective, collaborative and communicative”. However, In the current socio-economic system the necessity of ensuring one’s future earnings has created an incentive for some scientists not to share their data. And then there are those scientists who are trapped in businesses and have to abide their rules of silence and secrecy.

Scientists are limited by the funds they get, and forced to “publish or perish”. This is a toxic environment for science. The resource based economy, advocated by TZM, would free scientists from this burden and ensure that science got the resources it needs to create a future of abundance for us all. Scientists would be free to share all their data, and to collaborate in a way science should work at its purest.

In a resource based economy, the incentive for uneducated masses and the structurally created vast inequality would be removed using the proved potential of automation and a new scientifically derived resource management system. The new incentive would be to encourage and invest resources to give everyone the highest education possible. This investment to create a potential 7 billion geniuses would pay back in a way we cannot even imagine. Think of how many Newton’s, Einstein’s, Curie’s and Hawking’s we have already lost because of the prevailing income inequality.

We need a new context – a new social system with different structural incentives, which would free us to utilize the scientific findings for the betterment of all. Not after decades of fighting with the establishments, but near instantaneously. Utilizing a technical solution.

Given the times we live today, it could be said that science needs a resource based economy as fundamentally as a resource based economy needs science.

This Natural Law Resource Based Economy is, I think, a scientifically falsifiable concept. An experimental test city can be built. If that experiment doesn’t work, we should analyse what went wrong and try again, and if it didn’t work at all, we should move on to something else.

To falsify TZM, one can point out inconsistencies in the train-of-thought we advocate, or in the societal critique we offer towards the current paradigm. Note however, that since we are all working towards the common goals of sustainability, advocates and critics alike, it is also valuable to try and solve the inconsistencies if they are found.

I am willing to be proven wrong. That is the scientific way. I do not care if it is a NLRBE, TZM, TVP or some other that gets it done. I just want to help create a better world, since no-one can logically say it is impossible to achieve. The future is too stochastic to predict that. Clearly, the way we are doing things right now is not evidence based and it must go. But let’s not claim absolute understanding and be closed off to alternative hypotheses. When researching the topics we care about, it’s equally important to seek evidence against than it is to seek evidence for RBE and other TZM ideas. And if there are easier ways of accomplishing our goals, we should study them.

And I am not aspiring to be a researcher who says: “I’m here to change the world and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen”. If someone said that, I would probably answer that “it sounds like you’re going to do a lot of bad subjective science then”. Feelings introduce bias, unfortunately. This is why the logical approach of science, which doesn’t care about your feelings, is often thought to be cold. But I don’t see it that way. I think science does produce strong feelings, Sagan even said they were equal to spiritual feelings. But they are only after we have made the discoveries. When we contemplate about what they allow us to understand about the universe we are a part of. Feelings are part of being human, and they are a part of science, but ideally only a posteriori, after the evidence.

Ending

When I was a child I remember we were walking somewhere with my parents during a dark winter evening. I noticed something bright in the sky and looked up. That was the first time I remember realizing what space was. It was in all directions, pitch black with countless tiny bright spots. It was infinite. I had a feeling of reverential wonder and it felt like time stopped moving. I felt tiny, insignificant, and for a moment I was afraid. But it was the truth. Or as close to it as I could get with my limited ability to sense the electromagnetic spectrum. Later, I saw footage of the space launches. All I can remember is that I was in awe. You mean we can go there?

We can, but it is only by using science. And the same applies to a Resource Based Economy.

In Sagan’s words, which apply to us both personally and societally;

“Better the hard truth, than the comforting fantasy.”

Thanks for reading.

This text is largely based on the following books:

Sagan, C. (1995). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. New York: Random House.

Uhlig, R. (2010) Genius of Britain: The Scientists who Changed the World. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Sober, E. (2004) Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings (4th Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Okasha, S. (2016) Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLeish, B.; Berkowitz, M. & Joseph, P. (2014) The Zeitgeist Movement Defined: Realizing a New Train of Thought.

And the following documentaries and videos:

Science in America – Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MqTOEospfo

Al-Khalili, J. (2011) Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity. Open University & BBC.

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Thanks for reading and (hopefully) sharing! — Teemu