Thursday, March 5, 2009

Quality Control

Lawyers, politicians and scientists love a good argument. As a scientist, however, I wouldn’t want to argue with neither a lawyer nor a politician. For, you see, while we all may love debate, a lawyer’s, a politician’s, and a scientist’s aim in debating are entirely different.

        Lawyers argue to win. That’s what they get paid for. Whether they are right or not is immaterial. Even when he knows his client is guilty a lawyer must defend the client’s innocence. Truth is not the lawyer’s main concern.

        A politician’s job --whatever Plato, Aristotle, and others may have said in the past-- is to attain office and to remain in office. Sad to say, but that’s the way it is, as you know. A politician argues to win or, failing that, to make people believe he has won. Politicians employ every trick in the rhetorician’s repertoire to defend even the wobbliest ideas.

        Scientists don’t argue to win. They enjoy victory  as much as the next guy, but winning is not so important. What’s important is the clash of ideas. In scientific debate only the fittest ideas survive. Flimsy notions perish. What you want as a scientist is not to be proven right, but to be proven, period. Sir Karl Popper, a contemporary philosopher of science, wrote: “The wrong view of science betrays itself in the craving to be right, for it is not his possession of knowledge, of irrefutable truth, that makes the man of science, but his persistent and recklessly critical quest for truth.”

        Popper also wrote: “Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the scientific game.”  Wolfgang Pauli, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, once hired an assistant whose job it was to constantly refute his employer’s ideas with the strongest arguments he could muster. Like the warriors of yore, scientists value a worthy opponent.

        An earthquake that leaves one building standing among others in ruins proves the sturdiness of that building. It is in the interest of science to constantly submit its constructs to conceptual earthquakes in order to test their sturdiness. Here is Popper again: “Once put forward, none of our hypotheses are dogmatically upheld. Our method of research is not to defend them in order to prove how right we are. On the contrary, we try to overthrow them.”

        Karl Popper is the creator of the idea of “falsability” of scientific hypotheses. He contends that, in order to be considered scientific, a hypothesis must be formulated in such a way that, if false, it can easily be proven false. This contrasts with the old idea of verfiability of scientific theories, but it makes for more solid foundations to the scientific edifice.

        For example: “Energy is conserved” is a valid scientific statement in Popper’s sense because it is easily refutable --finding one single instance of its not being true would suffice to topple it. The principle of conservation of energy was first formulated more than one hundred years ago. So far, scientists have not found a single case in which it is violated. You see, then, how Popperian “falsability” can yield sturdy scientific principles: energy conservation is easy to disprove, yet it hasn’t been disproven. The more tests it survives, the more confident we are that energy is conserved even in situations in which we have not explicitly shown this to be the case.

        When you buy a car you kick the tires and slam the doors to guarantee that you are making a sound investment. A scientist invests much more than money in the ideas he accepts as true. What’s on the line is his ability to do useful work in the future, his worldview, and his inner equilibrium. So when it comes to selecting our truths --our cars and buildings-- we scientists are extremely picky. It is painstaking work but in reward we, more than lawyers or politicians, can feel truly safe in the cars we choose to drive and the buildings we decide to inhabit.

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