Friday, April 24, 2009

Doggerel #184: "There's No Such Thing as 'Probably' in Science!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

This particular doggerel was once spouted by an old troll named John Best. It demonstrates just how poorly he grasps science. "Probably" is what science is based on. Certainty is only for religious fanatics and mathematicians. Only the latter have a legitimate claim. Whenever you conduct an experiment, you have to keep open to the possibility something unknown is influencing the results, that factors outside the lab might produce exceptions, and so forth. I can drop apples all day to measure the effects of gravity and derive various laws and principles from the act, but there may very well be some sort of undiscovered anti-gravity phenomenon somewhere out there in deep space. That's speculation right now, but with any scientific knowledge, any new discoveries can change our understanding of the universe.

Additionally, with repeated experiments, especially "noisy" ones like medicine, statistical analysis becomes paramount. If you're trying to see if a chemical causes a response, you can't just try it on one person or cell culture and say it's so. You have to try it on multiple subjects and see if it's different from those not affected by it. That's what double-blind control studies are about. There has to be a statistically significant difference between the two groups. If you find one big enough to pass that bar, you haven't proven without a doubt that it has an effect, just that there's a very big chance it does. That's what the "p-value" is about: The chance that the effects could have been attributable to random chance. There's a chance if you repeat the experiment, you might find you just got lucky. It's unlikely but possible. That's one more reason why experiments are supposed to be replicable: Each successful replication makes it more unlikely to be chance.

Science is all about "probably." No matter how thinly you slice it, you can't arrive at perfect knowledge without being omniscient in the first place. Woos may love to depict that as a weakness of science, but it's not. Science is always open to change and growth. Those who claim to have certainty, especially if they maintain lower standards than science demands, are closing their minds.


MWchase said...

So many hyperlinks... should have sent a robot...Mathematics is a tricky thing, actually. Most results are based on First Order Predicate Logic, which is potentially self-contradictory. Mathematicians just try really hard to avoid the pathological constructions.

There's also the fact that sometimes there are unexamined assumptions. Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri tried to prove the fifth postulate, accidentally formulated hyperbolic geometry, and decided that it was an illegitimate geometry because it was 'icky' (paraphrase mine).

Dark Jaguar said...

I'll add that even "omniscient in the first place" won't get you perfect knowledge. I don't mean the definition of the word omniscient, I just mean that you've got to wonder exactly how you'd ever know you were omniscient. If you woke up with a mega dump of knowledge crammed into your head, how'd you know you knew everything? Further, how would you know that any of that knowledge is even accurate in the first place? Even if you woke up with the additional note "you're omniscient" in your head, you still have to wonder if that note is accurate and how you'd know that to be the case.

In the end, you'd need to test each and every bit of knowledge in your head and even then you'd only confirm that data as accurately as the test. You're stuck with science no matter WHAT you think you know.

This is one of the big problems I have with god, any god with omniscience anyway. Not "how do I know god is omniscient" so much as "how does god know he's omniscient?". There is simply no practical way such a being could know. Even an omnipotent one would be limited by having to confirm it all through experimentation, and even with an infinite number of "test universes" at it's disposal, it couldn't ever prove it all absolutely to itself, though it may approach zero, and that still leaves the fact that it didn't just HAVE omniscience by default, but had to earn it through observation and experimentation, rendering all the previous built in knowledge pointless in leu of what it later learned. Further, there's always the possibility of something "outside" it's awareness that it either never thought of or is simply outside it's scope of existance. While effectively meaningless in terms of scientific results, it does render the idea of omniscience meaningless.

Don said...

Even if you woke up with the additional note "you're omniscient" in your head, you still have to wonder if that note is accurate and how you'd know that to be the case.
Unless you simply define omniscience as containing the certainty that you actually do know everything. So you think you know everything, and believe without question that it is true.

In which case, most 15-year-olds and all religious fundamentalists are omniscient.

Tom Foss said...

I've always wondered if omniscience contained only true things, or all things true and false--or if future knowledge contained the knowledge of all possible futures.

There would be a way, I think, to test the omniscience claim to a reasonable degree of certainty. I mean, if you kept predicting things that were going to happen with perfect accuracy, eventually you could claim "omniscience" with some confidence, with the (scientific) caveat that new information (such as an unfulfilled prediction) could falsify the claim.

MWchase said...

Thing is, I'm not even sure that perfect knowledge is compatible with logic. Not even in a 'you don't need to reason anything out' sense, but in the sense that all knowledge must be consistent. As such, perfect knowledge actually contradicts most forms of logic, from the standpoint of proof.

And trying to work out the implications of that makes my head hurt.

Ergo Ratio said...

With perfect knowledge, there is no need for logic; we need logic because we have imperfect knowledge.

debra said...

What do you think of Operation Black? Is the comic, the UK Telegraph, an alarm to warn the world of catastrophic events? Or is it the biggest public relations coup ever for an upcoming movie or a TV series?

Don said...

And once again debra pops in to remind us that, no, she doesn't know the difference between reality and fiction, and she's perfectly happy that way, thank you very much.

Hey, remember when a terrorist blew up Stamford, Connecticut, and then all those metahumans fought it out in the streets?

Neither do I, because it was fucking fiction.

Jimmy Blue said...

What is Operation Black and why don't you tell us what you think. And are you saying the UK Telegraph is a comic - the wording of that sentence is a little confusing.

The UK Telegraph is, in fact, a newspaper (though some would debate the accuracy of that statement).

I repeat earlier calls that you seek serious medical help Debra.

And to save you some time in the future - if you read it in a work of fiction no we probably don't think it is actual evidence of a real world conspiracy or event.