Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where descriptions of “real science” end

My concern here is with the book pop. sci. book Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends…and Pseudoscience Begins by Wynn & Wiggins. However, this isn’t a review. I will deal mostly with the first chapter (“The Road to Reality: The Scientific Method”). This is for 2 reasons. First, one cannot begin to answer the implied question of the book’s title without being able to identify “science”. The reason The Scientific Method (TSM) is the subject of the first chapter is because the authors use their description of it to identify science and subsequently pseudoscience. Second, there is probably no aspect of the scientific endeavor so thoroughly misunderstood yet reinforced systematically as is the notion that there is TSM. A main point to this blog is bridging gaps between research in the sciences and what the general public is led to believe about it. Key to doing so is, of course, the methods scientists employ.

I am not about to answer that, but I can give the answer the authors give in their opening chapter. The authors begin with the claim “Everyone uses scientific reasoning to some degree” and follow with a simple example: you hear a noise in the middle of the night, investigate the cause, and find some evidence. They then reformulate this example:

“Let’s look at this example in a more systematic, yet extremely useful, way. Science begins with OBSERVATIONS: You have OBSERVED a noise in the middle of the night. If your general understanding, or HYPOTHESIS, about the cause of the noise is correct, you could PREDICT [it]. You perform an EXPERIMENT when you get up and look for evidence of such a chase. If the result of the EXPERIMENT is not the one you’ve PREDICTED…then your general understanding is clearly inadequate and must be reformulated…as a REVISED HYPOTHESIS. If the result matches the PREDICTION, this supports (but does not prove) the validity of your HYPOTHESIS.” (p.3)

The problem with the authors’ assertion that “Everyone uses scientific reasoning to some degree” is related to why the claim “science begins with observations” is misleading. Everybody does do what the authors describe: we observe/perceive the world around us and we make inferences, guesses, predictions, etc., about it. However, scientists rely (ideally) on logic to make inferences, design experiments, interpret results, etc. Evidence accumulated in various fields over several decades clearly shows that humans systematically make incorrect inferences in regular ways, struggle with and see as counter-intuitive the logic scientists use, see patterns and causes where none exist, and in general do not naturally “think” in a way required for scientific research.1

This may be disheartening, but the real issue is whether the authors give a decent explanation of the methods and processes used in research. Again, this is related to the first claim: the first serious problem with the authors’ account is that scientific research begins with observation. It doesn’t. Everybody sees things move. Virtually no culture ever produced somebody like Aristotle who developed a theory of motion. And even though his theory was wrong, neither he nor anybody else for the next ~1,000 years bothered to test it. Partly this is because almost all cultures, including the Greeks, held cultural worldviews that made the notion of scientific inquiry (had it been proposed) pointless and/or idiotic. For example, many cultural belief systems have posited an unchanging or endlessly repeating cosmos. Things happen the way they do because they always have and always will- end of story. So what’s the point of investigating natural phenomena (a criminal charge leveled at Socrates for which he was convicted and executed)? On the one hand, then, we find the reasoning required in the sciences is counterintuitive and is not how most people think. On the other hand, worldviews made applying such reasoning to observations in an attempt to develop scientific theories practically impossible anyway.

We are so accustomed to taking the sciences for granted that I’m sure the above sounds like both an absurd and extreme claim. To make it easier to swallow, consider how we have lived for most of the over 150,000 years our species has existed: no ability to sustain a population as large as an ancient village, no writing, little to no farming or domestication of animals, little to no technological developments, etc. For over 100,000 years, humans lived as they always had: in small groups leaving behind mere hints, such as burial sites or rudimentary tools, that they ever existed. It took thousands and thousands of years for humans to go from using stone to using iron, but we went from Newton’s alchemy to nanotechnology and computational quantum chemistry in a few hundred years. While we are often taught about the “scientific” advances of cultures as far back as Egypt and spanning the world from the Aztec empire to ancient China, there were none. Technological developments are not “science”.

However, neither is it the use of observation and reasoning in the way described in chapter 1, and shown by what is left out of chapter 2: “Scientific Reasoning in Action”. While the authors’ sketch of developments in physics after the advent of science in the 17th century is a fairly accurate simplification up to the early 20th century, what they gloss over shows how wrong their description of TSM is. Namely, they use the example of the atom to show the success of testing and revising hypotheses in the development of atomic theory from Democritus to quantum physics.

This is so vital to understanding both modern science and why the authors’ presentation is so off that it bears examining. The development from classical physics to modern physics wasn’t due to any “revised hypothesis”. To see why, we have to look back to Newton and his contemporaries. Newton held (like the Greek atomists) that everything was composed of “parts” or “particles”. Light presented a problem. It didn’t appear to be made of parts. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Thomas Young famously showed that light had properties only waves exhibited and no particle could. Experiments from Young onwards continually showed that light was a wave, and later that it was an electromagnetic wave. Enter Einstein, who showed that all electromagnetic waves were made up of “particles”. Now we had a problem: waves can’t be particles nor particles waves. But we had tested and confirmed the hypothesis that light was a wave and tested and confirmed the hypothesis that it wasn’t. So which hypothesis was right? Neither. The problem was the entire theoretical framework of physics. Centuries of amazing success came to an abrupt halt and the foundations of the oldest and arguably most distinguished science collapsed. Classical physics was replaced with a physics (quantum physics) so bizarre that one of its founders (Einstein) spent much of his life trying to show it can’t be correct. The only reason physicists didn’t reject quantum mechanics from the start as a ludicrous fantasy was because experiment after experiment kept “confirming” two hypotheses that were mutually exclusive.

Perhaps THE central component of the authors’ explanation of scientific research and TSM is runs as follows:

“Each time a hypothesis withstands these tests, its credibility increases. Each time it does not, the hypothesis must be either revised or discarded. Scientists must be open to either possibility” (p. 3).

Were this true, we wouldn’t have modern physics. Because what we discarded wasn’t a hypothesis, but the framework of physics itself.

To be fair, the authors’ account is more nuanced than your generic description of The Scientific Method. However, in their well-intentioned attempt to demarcate pseudoscience and science for the public, the authors have promulgated a conception of scientific inquiry that is almost as inaccurate as it is pervasive. According to this conception, there is a singular scientific method, that it consists of testing hypothesis that are independent of theory and can be interpreted independently of theory, and that scientific knowledge advances in a more or less linear way (i.e., new findings either offer more support for some theory or allow us to improve the accuracy of theories by incorporating new information). In reality, scientists develop, test, and interpret the results of said tests in terms of theoretical frameworks. That’s why nobody ever thought to test whether light was neither a particle nor a wave. Sometimes, what has to be rejected isn’t a hypothesis, but a method or even the foundations for some field (as in the case of classical physics), but the complex relationships between hypotheses, theories, methods, and interpretations of findings make it very difficult to determine what should be rejected much of the time. Nor are scientists always sure when something should be considered “science” rather than e.g., metaphysics. This doesn’t legitimize pseudoscience, of course. Just because the borders between what is and isn’t science can be fuzzy doesn’t mean we aren’t able to say that organic chemistry is a science and astrology isn’t. Rather than trying to depict the scientific endeavor as consisting of something other than it is, the authors should have shown the ways pseudoscience consists of things that the sciences do not.

1There are some excellent, non-technical reviews of the scientific literature on this, including:
Gilovich, T. (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. Simon & Schuster.

Sutherland S. (1992). Irrationality: The Enemy Within. Constable

Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (1996). Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds. Wiley.

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. HarperCollins.

There are also a few textbooks on argumentation, logic, and/or probability that approach their subject matter at least in part through the ways in which common fallacies and human cognition fail us here. The best is Hacking, I. (2001). An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic. Cambridge University Press.

Finally, for an account of how logic and inference come into play at various levels within the sciences, the following is a short list intended to give some idea (especially for those who read them). It is not meant to be even a representative sample of recent works, as this would require hundreds of citations.
Beltrametti, E.G., & Cassinelli, G. The Logic of Quantum Mechanics. (Encyclopedia of Mathematics and its Applications: Mathematics of Physics Vol. 15). Addison-Wesley.
Street, A. P., & Street, D. J. (1986). Combinatorics of Experimental Design. Oxford University Press, Inc.
Dickson, W. M. (1998). Quantum chance and non-locality: Probability and non-locality in the interpretations of quantum mechanics. Cambridge University Press.
Jaynes, E. T. (2003). Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. Cambridge university press.
Bovens, L., & Hartmann, S. (2004). Bayesian epistemology. Oxford University Press
Popa, R. (2004). Between necessity and probability: searching for the definition and origin of life. (Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics). Springer.
Howson, C., & Urbach, P. (2006). Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach. (3rd Ed.). Carus.
Doya, K. (Ed.). (2007). Bayesian brain: Probabilistic approaches to neural coding (Computational Neuroscience). MIT Press.
Burdzy, K. (2009). The Search for Certainty: On the Clash of Science and Philosophy of Probability. World Scientific.
Eells, E., & Fetzer, J. H. (2010). The Place of Probability in Science (Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science). Springer.
Ben-Menahem, Y., & Hemmo, M. (Eds.) (2012). Probability in physics (The Frontiers Collection). Springer.
Courgeau, D. (2012). Probability and social science: methodological relationships between the two approaches. (Method Series Vol. 10). Springer.

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