21 June 2013

Cargo Cult Science

image from Suite 101 Cargo Cults
In an essay from 2011, Explanation vs Interpretation, I outlined an argument from a book called Rethinking Religion by Thomas Lawson and Robert McCauley. The book is about two different knowledge seeking behaviours, how they clash, and how the authors proposed to reconcile them. The argument is very relevant in academia because of sometimes bitter disputes between the camps to which academics. I hinted at, but did not really have time to explore, the way this dynamic plays out in everyday life. In this essay I want to go back and see if I can draw out some of these threads.

The basic dichotomy is between two forms of knowledge seeking. Those who seek knowledge through explaining observable facts and formulating them into causal laws which interact and combine to form a robust and highly useful, but to date partial, view of the universe. Science is the epitome of this approach. The success of the scientific method has been such that it totally dominated modern life. Even the detractors of science take to the internet to denounce it. 

The other approach is to interpret events by assigning meanings and reasons to them. In this school of thought all inquiry about human life and thought occurs in irreducible frameworks of values and subjectivity, and science is merely another framework. This is the approach of religion and certain varieties of philosophy.  The idea of universal human rights emerges from this approach. It allows a great deal of freedom for speculation but also leads to orthodoxies. However interpretations don't interact and cohere like explanations and thus can conflict with each other. The usual dynamic is cycles of fragmentation and synthesis.

I've since revisited this dichotomy several times, but in particular in my essay Metaphors and Materialism where I suggested that there is a dispute about the existence of the substance broadly called 'spirit'. The scientist finds no evidence of spirit and thus excludes it from explanations, but the religious cannot understand human exist without it and it becomes central to interpreting human existence. That most Buddhists believe in spirit is interesting because a number of early Buddhist doctrines would seem to deny spirit.

Schrödinger's wave equation

If you do not understand this, you
do not understand quantum mechanics
I have also obliquely addressed this issue in my essay Erwin Schrödinger Didn't Have a Cat in which I sought to debunk the idea that quantum physics has anything to do with Buddhism. The way that Buddhists employ quantum mechanics is through an interpretation of the narrative accounts of some of the consequences of the science, ignoring the mathematics which are central to the science of quantum mechanics (the 'mechanics' part is a reference to the mathematical techniques which underpin the science). This is valid from an interpretationist point of view since science is merely one framework amongst many. Ironically such relativity often cites the so-called 'observer effect', outlined by quantum theorists, as justification of their subjectivism, though this is a rather gross misreading of the observer effect. 

This dynamic of the creative re-interpretation and co-opting of science is what interests me in this essay. It is sometimes called cargo cult science (this label was first suggested by physicist Richard Feynman). Decontextualised facts and figures washed up on the beach are thrown together to make an idol which forms the focus of the psychological needs of the spiritual tribe. The 'power' of science is co-opted by adopting the forms of science without the content or the founding assumptions. A new improved spirituality.

In this approach to interpretation there is a tacit acknowledgement of the success of science as a mode of knowledge seeking. Cargo cult interpreters seek ways of incorporating some of the success of science into their interpretation, but on their own terms as though facts can be detached from their context without any effect. I've said that ordinary people often experience science as a pernicious influence that destroys valued aspects of social and religious discourse and practice. There is a general confusion of values as religion has fallen under the steam-roller of science. Whether the link is causal or incidental I don't know, but clearly some people are seeking a more robust world-view that will not be so easy to overturn as when Darwin overturned the notion of all at once Creation. One strategy for this is to co-opt science itself.

Almost everyone will be familiar with presentations of "evidence" for the supernatural in form or another. In another essay, On Credulity, I explored the readiness of people to accept 'proof' of the supernatural. The spiritual suffer more than averagely from confirmation bias. Despite some high profile debunkings over many years, and the failure of all supernatural claims under strict  laboratory conditions, the spiritual folk latch onto any scrap of confirmation. To some extent I understand the belief in spirit. Recall that Thomas Metzinger says that after having an out of body experience (OBE) that "it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards." (See Origin of the Idea of the Soul). The belief is persistent precisely because experience suggests it. However, all Metzinger's attempts to explain his OBE in dualistic terms failed to account for it, and he settled on understanding it as a failure to integrate several streams of input related to the construction of our sense of self. 

The cargo cult is even more evident in the area of health. The popular media have science reporters who write stories on research with an emphasis on the novel and innovative. Unfortunately such journalists often have no respect for the scientific process. They publish attention grabbing stories without bothering to critique them, without waiting for other scientists to corroborate results. One example will suffice. At some point a journalist published a report on the amount of water a person needs to drink. This was taken up by alternative health practitioners and has become a dogma: a person must drink X litres of water every day or suffer ill-health. So now where-ever you go people have bottled water with them and compulsively sip at it. This is not obviously harmful, but it is a bit infantile and the bottles are not particularly environmentally friendly. The story emphasises that it must water and that anything other than pure water is in fact dehydrating. In fact research shows that it doesn't matter what liquid you drink - coffee is just as good at hydrating as water, and the very mild diuretic effect has a negligible effect on levels of fluid in the body. This is not a simple case of bad science. There is good science here as well. Humans do need to drink water and we can die from dehydration (for instance in cases of dysentery). But if we drink when thirsty, and drink to slake our thirst, then we will get the water that we need. And a cup of tea is just as good as water. There is no need to force ourselves to drink litre after litre of water, over-riding our natural thirsts. Of course this over-riding of natural appetites is part of a much broader problem faced by civilisation which has cropped up in my writing from time to time (most notably in my essay on pornography). The water bottle has become like a talisman and the water a sacrament. Although the behaviour draws on science it exists in a magical worldview. 

Part of the problem is that science is complex and difficult to understand. I recently read Stephen Hawking's new book the Grand Design which presents itself as answering "life's ultimate questions". His proposed solution, M-theory, is so complex that its equations cannot currently be solved. As I understand it the theory itself has yet to be fully described mathematically. Even if they are one day solved it's not clear how they will provide any meaningful results on the human level - one of the main criticisms seems to be that the theory does not make any testable predictions. The fiendishly difficult mathematics of M-Theory are, not surprisingly, entirely absent from Hawking's book. And yet like quantum mechanics the theory is mathematical. What is presented, rather ironically, is an interpretation of M-Theory. Hawking is forced to do this because even if the experts did understand it, the average person never will.

Unlike Hawking I don't think philosophy is dead, but I do think that scientists often make poor philosophers. I can't help but wonder what effect Hawking's existential situation has had on his views on free will and determinism, but I don't want to go too far down that road. What really struck me about the book was that the "answer" put forward by Hawking to the "ultimate question" was conspicuous by it's absence. Hawking does not address the question of how we should live, he is not interested in that question, and M-Theory has nothing to tell us about it. Nor does he address such questions as what life is. Far from answering life's ultimate questions, Hawking fails to even ask them. Thus even a hard-core materialist like Stephen Hawking seems to be inadvertently promoting cargo cult science. 

One of the ironies of cargo cult science is that it fixes results and doesn't leave them open to review. The religieux who idolise scientific results are still interested in absolutes rather than development. Once we have proved that the supernatural exists then we can just relax and get on with our seance. This positivist approach to science has largely been abandoned by scientists themselves, who generally set out to disprove something or other. The best result a scientist can hope for is to disprove the present paradigm in their field and become the next Einstein. But not so the cargo cultist. Having assembled their idol the last thing they want to do is probe it or test it, or dismantle it. Thus cargo cult science is not a homage, but a travesty. One sees this to some extent in the Kabat-Zinn style "mindfulness" clique. They are concerned to show that their approach is beneficial, and thus emphasise studies which show their practices in a good light - there certainly are many such studies now, but they seem suspiciously uniform in supporting mindfulness as a pancea.

Apart from the metaphysics why is this dichotomy interesting? Why are people in opposing camps at loggerheads? Part of the answer to this is politics and economics: or in other words influence and control of resources. These are just the basic social primate motivations. Those who control the narratives about what is important get to control access to resources. So the conflict is non-trivial. Those who co-opt science to make their own beliefs seem more attractive are competing for followers and support. In the market place of souls, science sells. But people also care about how resources are put to use in society. Professor Steve Keen is a heterodox economist who is relentlessly scathing in his attacks on the NeoClassical Economics which, through over reliance on interpretation over explanation, has lead the world to the brink of economic disaster. He has said on numerous occasions that the same economists who seem to have almost deliberately wrecked the world's economies are motivated by trying to make the world a better place.

All sorts of well-meaning people believe that their interpretation of the facts is the panacea and set out to implement policies based on their ideology. Buddhists are particularly prone to seeing Buddhism as a panacea - and this is a narrative with centuries of history for us. But without the element of criticism and dialogue which form part of the explanatory approach to knowledge, we always, always run into trouble that we cannot get out of.


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