Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter

The story of the blind men and the elephant comes from India.  One version, in Wikipedia follows:
Six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant's body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

Some may see it as a parable about the impossibility of knowledge, but the way I look at it, with enough blind men operating under the incentive structure of science, comparing notes, arguing this interpretation and that, they would eventually "get it" perhaps making a clay model of an elephant that one person could get their hands around.  Of course if they are no good a listening to each other, or lack persistence and/or the right sort of discipline this won't happen.

Previously, I wrote about how the few rare "natural machines" like the solar system have been a major factor in bringing sciences into being.  Now I'd like to suggest a different metaphor and try out the notion that the keystone of a science is finding its invisible elephant.  Rather than make all scientists blind, I'd rather make elephants invisible.

What does it look like when we are failing to find our elephant?  Maybe one man really is grasping a pillar, another a tree trunk, or hand fan, and another pushing on a wall.  No wonder their observations don't add up.  Suppose they insist on their observations adding up to something - then they may produce a forced "body of knowledge", something like astrology.

So what does a science finding its elephant look like?  There should be some convergence of observations when the blind men work together effectively, like more than once a man grasps something like a pillar.  Attempts to find relationships between observations.  Maybe 4 men are saying "this is like a pillar", and they can tell by listening they are close to each other, and they reach out until they grasp each others' hands, and get a sense of where each man is, and maybe all link hands to discover that the pillars are in a rough square.  Someone again says it's like a rope, and they wave their hands around until the one with the "rope" finds he's roughly equidistant from two of the "pillar" men.  And on and on.  Someone says "this is like a creek", but his voice is too far away, so the others say "That's something else, come back to where we are."  And as long as they stay close together, maybe holding hands, circling the object together, certain observations occur repetitively, and all the relations between the observations begin to add up to something.  Maybe someone bounces a basketball their way, one grasps it and says "something new!" but they soon realize it isn't part of the thing they're trying to understand.  It is "irrelevant data", or "noise" as in Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - but Some Don't.

When observations add up and complement each other, and it becomes more and more clear which observations belong to the newly emerging object of study, and which do not, we can say there is a tractable domain.   Tractability is not absolute.  Until the 20th century, medicine was largely intractable.  We had only glimmerings of understanding here and there that could not be worked into any sort of whole.  Failure to admit this -- wishful thinking -- led to systems like that based on the "humours" (or 5 basic fluids supposed to account for the body's workings) which lead to inappropriate bleeding and purging, and sometimes even preventing elimination, all on the theory that too much or too little of some "humour" caused a given syndrome.

A tractable domain means one has a good sense of the thing that is under study - and this leads to techniques of study specific to the domain or object of study, unlikely to make sense in any other domain.   It might be invisible elephants, or equally invisible atoms, whose properties can only be known via more complex and roundabout ways than merely looking.  The idea that all scientific methodology can be summarized by one "method" is more often heard in disciplines that are trying hard to be scientific than in those which have gotten very clear about, and been shaped by, their subject matter.

Consensus that we are talking about the same thing (from different angles) is the sign that you may have found your elephant. In 17th century physics it was the large objects of the universe going around and around in patterns that Galileo, Kepler, and Newton finally made sense of and it lead to powerful general principals.  In the 18th century, various manifestations of electricity presented a mystery to be solved, once some of the phenomena proved to relate to others in certain patterns.  Lightning in the sky may somewhat resemble the sparks that jump from the glass globe that has been rubbed in a certain way, but are they really alike?  Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have answered this. In late 19th/early 20th century physics it was the structure of the atom (you can tell by now that a field might have more than one elephant, but it needs at least one).

Maybe it's just because of an argument I had a while back over global warming with a guy claiming methods cited to support it were not "the scientific method", and he described "the scientific method" as he learned it from his psychology professor some decades back ... but I really suspect it is a sign that a science has not yet gotten much traction when you hear so much about a (one size fits all) "scientific method".

Sometimes mistaken "knowledge" plagues humanity, and a radical new vision is required to prove tradition must be broken, and that a better understanding can be gained.  But the image of Galileo or Columbus or Pasteur standing alone is a kind of story that has itself become too much of a tradition - a story that our minds love to hear -- we are fooled into thinking that practically everything good had to come from such a stand.  We have an addiction to the idea of the individual rebel that is so prevalent that groups with quite opposite tendencies, such as Hollywood liberals and those who loathe such liberal politics are alike sunk in it up to their eyeballs.  We celebrate Steve Jobs and forget about Xerox PARC, a collaboration which generated the fundamental concepts behind the Apple computing model.  "Liberal" Hollywood gives us Dirty Harry, Jack Bauer, and dozens of other action heroes who act on their own, as well as heroic victims and lone whistle blowers by themselves against shadowy forces, and artists despised in their own lifetimes.

There really are many occasions for honoring such individuals, but our popular art and literature hardly recognizes anything else, and we tend to exaggerate their aloneness. Like Newton, had to stand on the shoulders of many others (not all giants).

Superheroes. which have gone from comic books for nerds to a main staple of Hollywood, seem to be the purest embodiment of our fascination with one great soul having to save the world with no help from anyone, and, of course they are the least realistic embodiment.  The right leaning press gives us  the lone gunslinger (in the supermarket yet) and heroic billionaires at risk of being tied up and paralyzed by the system.

Science still on occasion needs the unique visionary who find a new elephant, or find out that everybody else had the elephant upside down.  Sometimes they can't make themselves understood, and suffer frustration, but, at least in the hard sciences, it still takes a unique vision to win the greatest rewards, such as the the Nobel Prizes.  Scientific culture is such that if nearly everyone is mistaken, and one person can demonstrate this, they may be controversial for a while, but the best proof or demonstration tends to win in time -- due to a culture founded on the idea that the truth is the most important thing

But the majority of scientists are trying to get more and more detail on the same elephant, like the astronomers who spent their lives even before telescopes plotting where the star or planet is in the sky at such and such a longitude and latitude at a certain moment, who gave Kepler and Newton the masses of data they required.  Without them, most great leaps could not have happened.

Scientific consensus has been confused with group-think, which is far more likely to come from think tanks set up to serve a particular political agenda, or scientists who cater to tobacco or oil companies.  True scientific consensus comes from many scientists putting maps, table, graphs, observations and experiments together and after much wrangling coming to approximate agreement about what they add up to.  It is often something that just one of the scientists cannot confidently pronounce without the others, all looking at the problem from different angles.

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