How human is science ?

March 7, 2007

Subhojoy wrote an interesting comment to my previous post. You can of course read the entire comment and the ensuing discussion. But, for the benefit of readers, I just wanted to pull out some interesting things that came up – especially the latest comment of mine. I will just provide some context and reproduce that comment.

He pointed out that

.. science – universal and unifying as it may be – is also very much a *human* pursuit.

to which I essentially agreed with some qualifications :

as you say, there is something quiet engaging about science – a mature passion that is a mix of child-like curiosity, a detective’s diligence, a kind of exalted honesty not to fool oneself[1] , a deep humility [2] combined with a conviction to stand for a scientific fact come what may.

to which he replied

Well if one has the analogy of a ‘child’ in mind, I wouldn’t stress too much on the ‘exalted honesty’ and ‘deep humility’ part of it … Also, I think the ’scientific method’ is there precisely to exploit human intuition, and other human cognitive biases.

And here is the reply I wrote :

..I wouldn’t stress too much on the ‘exalted honesty’ and ‘deep humility’ part of it..

I think it is a question of what you choose to emphasise.

Sometimes in science, the boundary defining “being honest with oneself” is so clear-cut, so obvious that one should be crazy to cross that Rubicon. What would you think, say, of a person who denies a proven theorem in mathematics and actually believes that theorem to be false with his whole heart ?[1] Such people are indeed rare [2] and their self-delusions are obvious enough to their colleagues.

But, more often, it takes a lot of effort to protect oneself from self-delusion. Mathematician to a large extent and physicists to some extent do not need to put in so much effort – but, we should not underestimate how our natural cognitive biases can hamper our understanding of say evolutionary biology, anthropology or Cognitive Neuroscience. It often takes some effort to not let in our prejudices(both innate and acquired from our culture[3]) seep into our analysis.

Having said that, the misleading notion of a dispassionate scientist wearing lab-coat staring into nature “scientifically”[4] should be thoroughly debunked – there is no great scientist I know of who did not have deep feelings about their subject. Or more importantly, both rational and emotional thinking arise out of a single nervous system – to assume a priori that reason and emotion inhabit two different worlds is not an easy hypothesis to justify.[5]

This brings us to what you later write :

..I think the ’scientific method’ is there precisely to exploit human intuition, and other human cognitive biases.And as for ‘human’, I really mean these human ‘qualities’, like our curiousity or our bias towards seeing patterns.

I will agree that Science is deeply human in the way it involves some of our cognitive biases. But, the keyword is “some”. A bias towards seeing patterns might be a great gift but it is known how it hampers our understanding of probability and the notion of randomness – we tend to “see” patterns even when they are really not there ![6] Quantum mechanics is not very intuitive, which is unsurprising given that our brain evolved in a mostly classical world. So, science picks and chooses among our biases, sublimates some of them into deep understanding while cautioning us to be careful about some others.The scientific method could not have been formulated by those who didn’t have at least a preliminary understanding of human biases. In my opinion, a scientific understanding of human irrationality is absolutely necessary for better understanding of what constitutes scientific method.[7]

And I liked the quote by Grothendeick.

“Only innocence can surmount them, which mere knowledge doesn’t even take into account, in those moments when we find ourselves able to listen to things, totally and intensely absorbed in child’s play.” Grothendieck

I will just add that among the noblest influences that science has on its practitioners is to deepen that innocence. It takes quite a lot of wisdom to be child-like.

[1] I have chosen an example in mathematics . Similar examples in Natural Sciences do exist but are slightly more trickier to find/formulate.

[2] The main reason for they being rare is this – Most people (are simply ignorant of) / (do not care about) deep theorems in mathematics to express their opinions one way or another.

[3] I suspect “innate vs acquired” distinction might itself be an almost universal cognitive bias. That suspicion of mine , if you are interested, comes from my inability to formulate a natural way of defining that distinction.

[4] Sometimes one hears people sincerely believing that to do something “scientifically” is to take a thing, break it into pieces, get rid of all the “beauty” in the stuff, put it into a mental centrifuge, take the useful thing and dump the rest ! To be fair, quite some “scientists” go about doing their work this way – but, to do science this way is, in my opinion, is to descend into mediocrity. Scientific diligence is not mere mechanized execution. To do something scientifically is not so much about breaking stuff as much as it is about the wisdom to know when/how to break and when not to.

[5] Given that art,culture,science and religion(of both superstitious and deeply philosophical kind) arise out of a single system, the onus is on those who believe in great walls dividing these human endeavours, to justify their belief.

[6] The pseudo science of Astrology, for example, sustains itself mainly because of our “ability” to see connections between things which are unconnected. In fact, the wikipedia list of cognitive biases reads like one long answer to the question – “Why pseudo-science is so popular ?”

[7] I consider scientific method to be (at least partly) a scientific theory like quantum mechanics or evolutionary biology and that explains why our understanding of it is definitely incomplete.The successes of science definitely show that we have got a very good approximation to the theory of scientific method and scientists in most cases seem to have a very good gut feeling for what is scientific. But, it would definitely help to understand this gut feeling better. Many do not realise that “what is science ?” is as much a scientific question as it is a question in philosophy.


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