|Volume 4, Issue 3||March, 1998|
Join us March 4th, 1998 when we will host a panel discussion on population and resources. Our March 4th meeting will present a knowledgeable and diverse panel discussion on population and resources. At press time, the following people had agreed to participate:
All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. This month's meeting is being held 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.
You may be seeing publicity in the wider media from CSICOP concerning a skeptical view of superstitions centering around Friday the Thirteenth. Having gotten through the February date without observation, celebration or mishap, our local group will be joining many other local skeptic's groups throughout the country by enjoying refreshments and fun while spoofing various superstitions. Join us at the Guilderland Public Library at 7 pm on Friday, March 13th. Ladders will be supplied; however, you may bring your own black cat, broken mirror, hat to throw on a bed, etc. We hope to see lots of our favorite skeptics there and enjoy discussions and/or demonstrations of their favorite superstitions. Come on down!!
In addition, Herb Jones will stay continue as room coordinator, and Louis Treadway will remain librarian.
Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Concerned in Concord Answer: Mr. Concord. I've been so busy this past year with project ``Star Gate'' I've hardly had a chance to talk with Tamerlane. I sent a query to the Institute of Higher Noetics, where Tamerlane works since being passed over for tenure at Miskatonic University, and received this response.
Dr. Edvardssonn has been on an extended research sabbatical, since he announced he was due to be abducted by aliens from the Pleiades. However, our remote viewing staff has recently obtained disturbing information to the effect that the craft which took Dr. Edvardssonn went towards the galactic center instead. The heavy neutrino flux has been impeding viewing efforts, but the Institute of Higher Noetics, following its tradition of quality you have come to expect, is treating this setback as a spur to develop improved techniques of astronomical-scale spying. At the current date, our unofficial suspicion is that those Lords of Time which reside in the galactic center are responsible for diverting Dr. Edvardssonn's conveyance, as part of their efforts to prevent Dr. Edvardssonn's exposure of their conspiracy. However, our staff, from the Director on down, is confident that Edvardssonn will return soon. Before he was abducted, he precognized a hilarious event in which he participated in his physical body, which is to take place during the turn-of-the-millennium celebrations. Therefore, it is certain that he will be back before the year 2000. We at IHN eagerly anticipate the new insights Dr. Edvardssonn will bring, and look forward to updating the scientific community in due course.
Timon Josephson-Erschaffrankle Press Secretary, IHN, on behalf of Tamerlane A. Edvardssonn email@example.com vice-president for public outreach Institute of Higher Noetics 4847 Valley Ridge Road Ames, Iowa 50010-5799
-David Quinne, CPPI
David Quinne is ISUNY's psychic in residence. He is a graduate of Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor. David is working on a new book about his work as a police psychic.
The claim of falsifiability is that if the data do not match the predictions made by a theory, the theory should be abandoned. We are, the claim continues, slowly but surely converging to a truer representation by disproving the incorrect theories. This is what I will call naïve falsification. It, along with its corollaries, is a common myth among skeptics and one that should be put to rest. Falsification is usually attributed to philosopher Karl Popper.4 Popper did indeed place a strong emphasis on falsification in his proscription for science, but he did not believe that this is the way scientists actually work. Instead, Popper proposed falsification as a way of eliminating mistakes. Some theories have little to say, and vulnerability to controlled testing and observation is a scientific virtue. The logical basis of falsification is that Theories predict Data. In philosophical jargon they are said to have observational consequences. If the theory T is true, and it makes the prediction D, then we should expect to see the data D. Otherwise T is false. This is expressed logically as:
or, in English, if T impiles D, and we have ``not D'', this impiles ``not T.'' Note that it is a logical fallacy to assume the theory T from the data D, because multiple theories could predict the same data. The long recognized problem with this view5 is that theories are never tested in isolation. Instead, they are tested in bundles that include the hypothesis of interest, mappings of theory to the real world, and auxiliary assumptions (other theories upon which the data depend). If the data D is not observed, any one of these three could be wrong. This is expressed as:
which is read, if H, M, and A together imply D, and we observe ``not D,'' then either H, or M, or A or all three, or any set of two may be wrong. For the working scientist, this means that if you don't find the data predicted by your hypothesis, you are logically justified in maintaining belief in the hypothesis and assuming the mapping or auxiliary assumptions were wrong. Not only is this logically valid, but it is often practiced. Rare indeed is the scientist who abandons a good theory simply because of problems with one experiment. In the real world of laboratory work many things can go wrong, of which the theory being tested is just one. An example may help clarify.6 Using Newtonian mechanics and the appropriate mapping assumptions (how ellipses, foci, and differential equations relate to planets and stars) you can derive predictions about the orbits of the planets. The problem in Newton's time was that it didn't work. Newtonian physics failed to account for the orbit of first Saturn, and later Uranus. Astronomers at first assumed that their orbital measurements were inaccurate (bad mapping assumption). And indeed, obtaining accurate measurements was a big problem. Later, as measurements improved, an auxiliary hypothesis in the form of a conjectured new planet was introduced. This auxiliary hypothesis was tested, and found to be correct in what still stands as one of the most spectacular predictions made by a scientific theory. Simply put, Newtonian mechanics failed an early prediction. It had clear unambiguous observational consequences, and they were not observed. If scientists used naïve falsification, it would have been abandoned. Obviously it wasn't, but not because it passed all tests or solved all outstanding problems. In fact, as Kuhn and others have pointed out,7 when it came to the formation of the solar system, Newtonian mechanics initially predicted less than competing theories. Newtonian mechanics succeeded, however, because it was very good at solving many problems, and it proposed a uniform way in which many more problems could be solved. In short, it was a good, general theory with wide potential application. The lesson is, we are never testing just one hypothesis, and assuming the simple view of falsification would disallow much of what is considered good science. A point is reached, however, when continued failure does contribute to rejecting theories. After all, a theory that makes few correct predictions will find little support in the long run.8
In addition to rejecting theories which we accept as science, naïve falsification would accept theories that are without a doubt bad science. A second example: A mystic gives as his theory: ``Quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness.'' This is his central theory, it is core to his view of the world. ``But,'' you object, ``the theory has no observational consequences, and hence cannot be refuted. As such, it is not a scientific theory.'' ``Nonsense,'' replies the mystic. ``There are plenty of observational consequences of my theory. For example, If quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness, then flowers bloom in the spring, bees gather pollen, and narrow-minded nay-sayers reject my theory. As you can see all of these observations are true, so my theory is not refuted. If, someday, flowers stop blooming in the spring, or you accept my theory it would fail this prediction.'' What happens now? The problem is that any statement can be tacked on as observational consequences to any other statement. There has to be more then ``testable observational consequences'' in a good theory, since the mystic's theory is so bad. Some have proposed that a theory must have strong observational consequences. That is, nothing in particular attaches the mystic's consequences to his central theory. The problem with a phrase like ``strong observational consequences'' is that it assumes an empirical, scientific view of physics and causation, and particularly how the seasons and evolution work. We are, in short, applying our own auxiliary hypothesis to the mystic's theory. Why is this more justifiable than him applying his auxiliary (some might say ad hoc) hypothesis to our theories. No, this just leaves us flailing our arms wanting to shout ``but, that's not a theory!'' Well, why isn't it?
Finally, there is a problem with the notion of converging closer to the correct theory via a process of elimination. We only ever have a finite number of observations supporting any given theory. Newtonian mechanics may have a potentially infinite number of observational consequences, but, at any given time, we have only tested a finite number. As a result, there are a great number (potentially an infinite number) of theories that can predict the same data set.9 We cannot possibly eliminate them all. Since infinity - N is still infinity we are not logically justified in claiming convergence.
Note, however, that Newtonian mechanics does have an infinite number of observational consequences. This makes it a very powerful theory. Further, the more observational consequences found, the greater our confidence in the theory. While it is a simple task to create theories which account for our present set of data supporting Newton, it would be a more difficult task to create an alternative theory that accounts for our current data set, and any future data. Newtonian mechanics is a good theory by other criterion, such as those discussed in last month's column10 and those I will discuss in future columns.
Mike is ISUNY's lame duck president and co-editor of The Why-Files. This article was extracted from his ``Myths of Skepticism,'' presented to the Capital District Humanist Society on January 14, 1996. The talk is available in full on ISUNY's web page.
Polywater, Cold Fusion, Zero Point Energy and other pathological sciences.
Pamela Freyd, psychologist and co-author of Smiling Through Tears.
If you have a topic idea, please bring it to the attention of an officer at any ISUNY meeting.
All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.
The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information, contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.
1 Triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number thirteen.
2 Dennett, Daniel C., Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, The MIT Press, 1985
3 Krauss, Lawrence M., The Physics of Star Trek, Basic Books, 1995
4 For example, Popper, K., The logic of scientific discovery, 1959.
5 See, for example, Lauden, L. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1990, page 77, and Kitcher, P., Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, MIT Press, 1986, chapter 2.
6 This example, and the later example of the mystic are from Kitcher, P., 1986, pp. 42--50.
7 Kuhn, T. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1976; Lauden, L., 1990.
8 While I cannot find the quote, one philosopher suggested that theories are not so much refuted as embarrassed to death.
9 I leave this as an exercise to the reader.
10 ``Do Extraordinary Claims Always Require Extraordinary Evidence?'', The Why-Files, vol 4(2), 1998