William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Science? What’s That?

The Scientific Ethicist, PhD

The Scientific Ethicist, PhD

Definition

Science is the measurement of quantifiable things. That which is not measurable is not science. Causality and morality and consciousness and so on are not measurable and therefore are not scientific. That which unquantifiable but which is coerced into quantification is pseudoscience. How strongly do you agree with this, on a scale of 1 to 7?

Parable

Lady Margret lifted the fan to cover her face, turned to the Duchess, and whispered, “He said what about science?”

“That it couldn’t answer all questions!”

“Ooohhh….!” The sound came out of Lady Margret as she fell to the ground in a dead faint was like the air escaping from a life boat holding a 240 pound woman—coincidentally, the same weight as Lady M—eighty nautical miles from land and any hope of rescue.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton has nothing on me.

Science!™

To quote from our friend Mike Flynn:

Science!&tm; Makes Astonishing Breakthrough
“Tired All the Time? Maybe You Need More Sleep”–headline, Philly.com, May 29

Scientific Ethicist

Incidentally, the Scientific Ethicist is awaiting more questions before his next column can be produced.

Deadly Sins

Here is an equation:

\frac{\partial u}{\partial t} - \alpha \nabla^2 u=0.

Ain’t it pretty? It seems to say how (in the causal sense) the quantity u changes over time in some coordinate system. That might be 3-D space, or something else. Several groups have made it their own. Some say that u is heat, others that it is information, and still more that it is money.

Who is right? All and none.

The danger is, as always, the Deadly Sin of Reification. The equation becomes the thing it represents because the thing it represents is not ideal. The thing departs from perfection in the way the perfect model does not. The thing, the old, worn, but serviceable and loyal reality, is thrown over for a trophy equation.

Reality is ontological; things exist; equations are immaterial. Equations are epistemological; they express and quantify knowledge. But, of course, not all knowledge can be quantified. The equation can belong to anybody who claims it represents knowledge of any real u, but the equation never becomes any u.

Equations are never indications of reality—reality itself is all the proof we need of reality.

Jaki

We may as well give the rest of the space over to Stanley Jaki. Quotations from Means to a Message: A Treatise on Truth, the chapter on Science.

Don’t forget that The Consensus—the old one, not our new one; we are too far ahead to be in the grip of fallacy, right?—for “generations of scientists” was that the ether was real, because why? Because equations were confused with reality.

Similar was the case with the mathematics of Maxwell’s equations that certainly worked while nothing could be verified about the ether which those equations seemed to control. Maxwell’s calculations of the coefficients of the rigidity of the ether, and similar data offered by Lord Kelvin do not belong to the proud pages of physics. Hertz himself found that electromagnetic waves spread across space but he did not find the ether, the presumed material substratum which was supposed to undulate if there were waves. The gripping recognition of this failure promoted Hertz to coin what has become the most pithy phrase ever uttered in reference to physics: “Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s system of equations.”

The phrase summed up what should have been formulated about all earlier great laws of physics.

Equations are lifeless.

Quite the contrary happens once the construction of a major physical theory is completed. There remains nothing in it with explicit contact with anything material. The edifice becomes a complex of equations. As such it exists in full independence of all the philosophical and quasi-philosophical assumptions and factors that helped its erection in the first place. Even letters, wholly arbitrary signs of course, that stand, say for the electron charge, for mass, and so forth, are, within the theory, merely reference points to quantitative data.

Reality is soon relegated to a closet. But at least equations can be taught—and their learning graded.

Who will quote for us Feynman about the (what was it?) Brazilian students knowing the equations but not the physics? In the meanwhile, Jaki quotes Feyman, that “two theories, although they may have deeply different ideas behind them, may be mathematically identical, and then there is no scientific way to distinguish them.” See the equation for you u above.

Statistics Too

Probability doesn’t escape.

Quantum mechanics is a statistical method, utterly void of philosophical propositions. The expression, the philosophy of quantum mechanics, is a glorified oxymoron.

Philosophy comes before probability and quantum mechanics, not after.

29 Comments

  1. Nikola Tesla supposedly once said “Today’s scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality.”

  2. Theory is to Reality as a blog post about reification is to Reification itself.

  3. Surely it’s still acceptable to talk about “the philosophy of quantum mechanics” in the sense of giving coherent accounts of reality that serve as putative interpretations (and even explanations) of the equations themselves?

  4. Science is the seeking of external truths. How these truths are presented is influenced by philosophy. Philosophy is the seeking of internal truths. However, unless guided by love and wisdom science and philosophy always are falsified for selfish reasons. The sage knows there is never a single truth; what is true in one circumstance is not necessarily true in another. True science tries to discover why.

  5. Sander van der Wal

    3 July 2014 at 9:10 am

    I completely disagree with you.

    Causality is a reification, morality is measurable and consciousness is so obvious to everybody who has it that there is only a need to measure it when people appear to be unconsciousness.

    The equation describes the thing. If the description is very good, it keeps being used. And the Universe itself has lots of different situations that are described by the same kind of equation. Personally, I would blame the Creator.

    Now, whet the equation does is tell us what reality will do in a given situation. So we create that situation is possible (this is called an experiment) and check whether the equation has given the right numbers. And it it does not, repeatedly, we try to find a better one. And if we cannot create that situation then we try to find as many existing situations as possible to try and check how well the equation predicts.

    Regarding Maxwell, there have been both wave theories and particle theories of light. But you are clearly missing the entiere point of Science. Aether was thought up because nobody could figure out how to get waves without a carrier. And they needed waves very much because light shows diffraction patterns. Maxwell’s equations clearly did some things right, and some other things wrong. People were actively looking for those things. They found them. And then they created a better theory.

    And the edifice doesn’t stand without philosophical support. It can be falsified.

    What Feynmann said is that the equations describe the physics. There is physics first, and equations second. If the equations say something and the world say something else, the equations are wrong.

    His two theories quote doesn’t work for the equation. Heat flow is different physics from movement in space. So you have two different theories. With two different equations which both happen to have exactly the same mathemathical structure. But the first one is about heat flow, and the second one is about position. No physicist is going to confuse them, and start measuring positions when he should be checking heat flow.

    The two-theory-with identical mathematical structure problem sounds interesting. How many physical theories do you know that exhibit this?

    And what’s wrong with Quantum theories? The replacement theory for Maxwells equations is a Quantum Theory (Electroweak theory), and it works brilliantly. It even explains why you can look through a window and also see yourself reflected a bit. Not even Maxwell’s theory managed that.

  6. Ye Olde Statisician

    3 July 2014 at 10:01 am

    “Theory determines what can be observed”
    — comment by Einstein to Heisenberg

    “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
    – Werner Karl Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science

    IOW, if your theory is a hammer, all of physics looks like nails.

    “And how could anyone understand it when its great prophet, Werner Heisenberg, frankly stated in his Physics and Philosophy that at the quantum level the law of noncontradiction has to be abandoned. This, of course, means that his view had to be unintelligible nonsense. … Violation of the law of noncontradiction should have been a red flag to Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Instead, Heisenberg abandoned the long-held concept of science as a description of reality and substituted an instrumental notion of science. The equations work, but they don’t describe the underlying reality. The older, realist view that the equations of science represented the underlying physical realities was grievously wounded and has yet to recover.
    — David Haddon

    “Keep in mind that all prevalent scientific concepts of matter, and of the universe, are models. A model is man-made, dependent on its inventor. A model cannot, and must not, be mistaken for the world.”
    — John Lukacs, “Putting Man Before Descartes,” The American Scholar, (Winter 2009)

    “The calibrations and ruminations of sociologists all too often dress up as expert ‘findings’ what we already knew, resulting in conventional wisdom with numbers added.”
    — Richard Neuhaus

  7. Thanks Matt for a fine and witty post. You and I are both followers of Fr. Jaki. To Sander, I believe you’re wrong in what you say about science. Read some of the anti-realist philosophers of science (see references in:
    Confessions of a Science Agnostic

  8. “Who will quote for us Feynman about the (what was it?) Brazilian students knowing the equations but not the physics?”

    Here you are:

    After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens–they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”!

    You see that he said something a bit different than knowing the equations.

    “Maxwell’s calculations of the coefficients of the rigidity of the ether, and similar data offered by Lord Kelvin do not belong to the proud pages of physics.”

    Have to disagree with you (Jaki) here and you should be so lucky.

    “Philosophy comes before …” Which philosophy would that be? There are many and they do not all agree.

    van der Wal,
    “It even explains why you can look through a window and also see yourself reflected a bit. Not even Maxwell’s theory managed that.”

    Not sure what you are going for here.

  9. Here’s what Nancy Cartwright has to say (and supports it by examples from BCS theory, quantum damping, and the measurement problem in quantum mechanics); I don’t entirely agree with her, but it’s nice to do tipping on the sacred cow of science.

    Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie

  10. shoot…I can’t manage the HTML tags…
    here’s the quote:

    “The fundamental laws of physics do not describe true facts about reality. Rendered as descriptions of facts, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their explanatory force.”

  11. Here’s another quote from Feynman:

    I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
    Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol III

  12. Oh yes there is this “Tired All the Time? Maybe You Need More Sleep”

    I haven’t read the article itself but the statement isn’t a priori foolish. There are many reasons that one can be tried all the time besides lack of sleep. Once the snark attack passes I am sure that Briggs and Flynn can think of a few.

  13. Sander van der Wal

    3 July 2014 at 10:37 am

    ““Theory determines what can be observed”
    – comment by Einstein to Heisenberg”

    Einstein is as entitled to his opinion as anybody else. Just because he’s Einstein, do you actually believe a physicist would not love to prove him wrong on General Relativity? (Which will be quite hard, given the corroboration that theory has).

    ““Keep in mind that all prevalent scientific concepts of matter, and of the universe, are models. A model is man-made, dependent on its inventor. A model cannot, and must not, be mistaken for the world.”
    – John Lukacs, “Putting Man Before Descartes,” The American Scholar, ”

    Models, theories, explanations, the same thing. Of course they are theories. What else could they be?

    Any change Heisenberg could be wrong about this?
    ““What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
    – Werner Karl Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science”

    Indeed. But what reason is there to believe those methods will always result in a bad approximation? And if my theory looks like a hammer, the ones of my esteemed colleges look like nail guns, screwdrivers and glue. Let the best theory win.

    ““And how could anyone understand it when its great prophet, Werner Heisenberg, frankly stated in his Physics and Philosophy that at the quantum level the law of noncontradiction has to be abandoned. This, of course, means that his view had to be unintelligible nonsense. … Violation of the law of noncontradiction should have been a red flag to Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Instead, Heisenberg abandoned the long-held concept of science as a description of reality and substituted an instrumental notion of science. The equations work, but they don’t describe the underlying reality. The older, realist view that the equations of science represented the underlying physical realities was grievously wounded and has yet to recover.
    – David Haddon”

    I would like to see the exact words of Heisenberg regarding this matter. Google doesn’t turn them up.

    ““The calibrations and ruminations of sociologists all too often dress up as expert ‘findings’ what we already knew, resulting in conventional wisdom with numbers added.”
    – Richard Neuhaus”

    Personally, I would be much more bothered if that wasn’t the case. Because it means that humans are actually rather good at building theories about people. It means that people understand each other rather well.

  14. “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” -Albert Einstein

  15. The most philosophically useful of definitions of “science” is that it is the mutual information between observed and inferred states of nature. The mutual information is the information theoretic measure of the intersection between two state-spaces. One of these state-spaces contains one or more observed states. The other contains several inferred states.

    To have mutual information is to have the power to control the outcomes of events. This is the utilitarian value of a study that is “scientific” in nature. A pseudoscientific study (e.g. the IPCC’s study of global warming through AR4 ) provides us with no mutual information or power to control the outcomes of events but seems to many to do so.

  16. Terry as a physicist, who’s used entropy/information theory considerations for texture analysis in MRI, I don’t agree with your blanket subsuming (right verb?) of philosophy of science into information theory. Might you give some specific examples of how your definition might apply to philosophic considerations of a) quantum mechanics, and b) cosmology?

  17. Sander van der Wal

    3 July 2014 at 11:41 am

    @Bob Kurland

    I don’t think a scientist is, or should be, that concerned with what kind of theory he’s working. After all, all theories are meant to be stopgaps, stepping stones to better theories.

    But there are people who are doing Scientism. Well, its a free world. It is an opinion, and it can be and should be critized. Here Scientism is equated to science, and that is worthy of criticism indeed. Lots of it, because that criticism is about Scientism.

  18. @Sander van der Wal
    I think your attitude is much like that of Nancy Cartwright. You might enjoy reading “How the Laws of Physics Lie”…it’s available in pdf format online (free!):

    How the Laws of Physics Lie. pdf online

  19. Bob Kurland:

    Thanks for posing the interesting questions. As generalized from Shannon’s theory of communications by the physicist Ron Christensen and others who include the physicist Ed Jaynes, information theory supplies logical principles for application to systems for which information about the outcomes of events is partially or completely missing, including quantum mechanical systems, and to systems for which information is not missing, including classical mechanical systems; the latter satisfy the principles of the classical logic. Among the fruits of these principles are the templates for correct inferences in the classical logic, Modus ponens and Modus tollens; thermodynamics; Girolamo Cardano’s theory of fair gambling; devices and Shannon’s theory of communication. The second law of thermodynamics is an application of the principle of entropy maximization under constraints expressing the available information. Thermodynamics is a consequence of maximization of the entropy of the inference to the microstate of the referenced system under the constraint of energy conservation. There have been successful applications in many fields of inquiry including the ones referenced above but no instances known to me in which conformity to entropy minimax failed to provide results that were superior to those produced through conformity to the method of heuristics. These results suggest that we possess a scientific theory of logic and epistemology and that its principles are entropy minimax as described by Christensen in his many works.

    An element of this theory (attributable to Christensen) is that the words and phrases of the natural languages are references to patterns discovered through entropy minimization and maximization. Thus, though Plato felt that patterns (usually called “forms” in the English translation of his works) had eternal existences, under Christensen’s theory they were discovered.

    As I am not well equipped to address cosmology, I’ll pass on the opportunity. A book that relates to cosmological questions and might interest you is Christensen’s “Order and Time: A General Theory of Prediction” ( ISBN 0-938-87619, copyright 1984.) In the book, Christensen addresses the question of how we can gain information about the outcomes of the events of the future when to provide this information a signal would have to travel at superluminal speed.

  20. Terry, thanks for the references. I wanted to see if you had a comment on John Wheeler’s theory “It from bit”, that reality was compounded of information. Wheeler was an imaginative and great theoretical physicist who had lots of speculative and interesting ideas. He proposed the delayed choice experiment and the “Participatory Universe”. Feynman was one of his students as was Everett, who proposed the relative state (“Many Worlds”) theory of QM…here’s one web-site reference for his “It from Bit” ideas…lots more from a Google search.
    It from Bit 1
    It from Bit 2

  21. shoot again…can’t do two links in one comment… OK, here’s the first:
    It from bit 1

  22. “The equation becomes the thing it represents because the thing it represents is not ideal. The thing departs from perfection in the way the perfect model does not”

    Why waste your time on Aristotle/Aquinas when you are clearly a Platonist/Kantian?

  23. mpcraig,

    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

    Yogi Berra

    Does the attribution affect our opinion of the insightfulness of this quote?

  24. @Scotian

    In practice you need a better theory.

  25. Bob Kurland:

    I read the articles that you cited on Wheeler’s “It from Bit” mantra. Thanks for the citations to them. Upon reading these articles I found “It from Bit” to be consistent with Christensen’s theories of logic and epistemology.

    A mantra that I find effective in reaching audiences on these theories is “Measure. Inferences, Optimization and Missing Information.” This mantra expands into an argument whose conclusion is the identity in logic of the principles of reasoning. The argument is that a model is an algorithm for making inferences. On each occasion in which an inference is made, there are several candidates for being made. In the probabilistic logic, an inference has the unique measure that is called its “entropy.” The entropy of an inference is the missing information in it for a deductive conclusion per event. In view of the existence and uniqueness of the measure of an inference, the one correct inference may be discriminated from the many incorrect inferences by an optimization. In this optimization, the entropy of the selected inference is minimized or (dependent upon the type of inference) maximized under mathematical constraints expessing the available information. Thus, the principles of reasoning are entropy minimization and maximization aka “entropy minimax.”

    A definition for “episteme” results from a corollary. The “episteme” is the mutual information between a pair of state-spaces. One contains observed states of nature, the other unobserved but observable states of nature. Provided that there are two or more of them, the observed states are called “conditions.” The unobserved but observable states are called “outcomes.” The maximum possible episteme is created through conformity to the principles of reasoning in the construction of a model.

  26. ” In view of the existence and uniqueness of the measure of an inference, the one correct inference may be discriminated from the many incorrect inferences by an optimization.”

    I’m trying to figure out why this worldview makes a fair coin toss fundamentally impossible, even in principle.

    Something smells very fishy about this. Way too much determinism implied by the assumption of uniqueness.

  27. Sometimes I think it would be nice to understand what people here are talking about. Then I go eat some ice cream, or dig a hole or go for a swim and come back and say, “Nah, never mind. I really don’t want to know.”

  28. anona

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify. By the definition of terms, a game of chance is “fair” when it maximizes the entropy of the inference to the way in which the outcome of each event will occur without constraint. In a coin flip, there are the two ways in which the outcome can occur that we call “heads” and “tails.” Maximization of the entropy assigns equal numerical values to these values. As the two values sum to 1, the values of the two probabilities are 1/2.

    The statistician and magician Persi Diaconis is able to conduct unfair flips. He does so by creating a wobble in the coin that makes it look to his audience as though it has been flipped when it has not. His deception places a sufficiently great constraint on entropy maximization for the value of the probability of one of the ways in which the outcome can occur to be 1.

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