Starting with Part I of this post, I began with ayah 42 of Surah Yusuf which clarifies a distinction between worldly knowledge based on human-dependent capacities and the divine knowledge which comes directly from the Creator of the universe. The key distinction is of doubt. All human knowledge, by it’s very nature, must contain a portion of doubt in it. Consequently, Part II and Part III of this post were devoted to a survey of sample sciences with an overview of the issue of uncertainty in the sciences from different angles.
This post attempts to round-off this broad topic, by presenting certain delimitations of the survey, and by offering some key explanations, and by asnwering certain questions that must arise in a reader’s mind.
What the uncertainty survey is not meant to be
In-depth: Of course, that is never possible in such ‘general reading’ blogposts. The concern is not just about the length of posting, but also about the technicality of the subject. It was important to present the concepts as close to laymen terms of understanding as possible.
Systematic: Now this point is important. With ‘systematic’, I’m referring to the various scenarios of uncertainty covered through the survey. That one scenario was presented under the head of one type of science doesn’t restrict it to that science. All angles of doubt actually pertain to all sciences more or less.
For instance, the issue of sampling (whom, and where, you observe in the study?) is as important in biological sciences as in the social/behavioral ones. Making observations on animals and then applying them on humans may be the only way in much of medical science research, but it leaves wide open grave questions on how far we can trust conclusions based on organisms fundamentally different from us, mammals or not. The same holds even for physics. If an experiment proves hypotheses in a European lab, an Asian lab is not correct in ‘building upon’ the results of it before first repeating the original experiment and confirming the findings. If they ignore this step, and this is common (as Richard Feynman lamented in his lecture on the issue of integrity of science↓1), doubt will remain as to whether their follow-up experiment really leads to reliable conclusions.
Similarly, the fact that I mentioned measurement uncertainty in the section on physical sciences, doesn’t lessen the issue’s significance for sciences I surveyed before. In fact, measurement uncertainty rises manifolds as you move down on the scale of the ‘concreteness’ of your subject. That is, the less ‘tangible’ your subject (for instance brain activity is less tangible than the weight of an object), and the more ‘conceptual’ your variable (for instance ‘intelligence’ is more conceptual and abstract than ‘heart rate’), the greater rise there will be in doubt of accurate measurement. We have already seen how physicists have to agree on definitions of common physical quantities such as kg or metre and they even review and revise their definitions in the quest for further accuracy. In social/behavioral sciences, even the ‘agreeing’ part is difficult as the definition of any abstract concept often depends on one’s perspective, preference, and on what and how you choose to emphasize things. There are but few undebatable definitions in these fields.
Scholarly: Readers may have noticed the lack of references in portions of the post where a general discussion on doubt was presented rather than presenting a specific example such as cholesterol. Although, many general readers may be unfamiliar with the topic or its various angles, the issue is well-known and basic for any student of science. University departments emphasizing research as much as theory feed their students well on the relevent fields of knowledge: research methodology and statistics. Textbook stuff. Websites on the topic, however, are also of the technical, rather than layman, type that is why I refrained from linking to them.
Deprecative: Pointing out problems with the very roots from which the fountain of scientific knowledge springs forth is not meant to belittle the vast quantity of achievements humans have aquired, particularly in the last two centuries. They have discovered countless phenomena harnessed for therir advantage such as X-rays, electricity, and semiconduction. They have left their footmarks on the moon; acquired evidence of life from Mars, and have collected enough astronomical observations to formulate theories on both the beginning and end of the universe. They have eradicated numerous diseases from the face of the earth, and have invented numerous medical technologies to help in diagnoses, surgery and research.
And yet, to date, plenty of areas remain in which human knowledge is certainly speculative even in the case of wide-spread theories and beliefs. Pick any topic in medicine and psychology and, more often than not, (such as link between a food item and a disease, a personality trait and marital discord) and you will find plenty of negative as well as positive findings. Even where positive findings exceed the negative ones, the nature of the evidence remains speculative and formulated theories fail in explaining away many contradictory findings (as we have seen in the case of cholesterol). You will notice that the broader, the complicated, and the more abstract the variable, the more difficult it is to be measured, to be controlled and observed in experiments, and to obtain consistent findings about. As the ultimate and the truly dependable source of knowledge, science as a method does and will remain defective.
Indeed, you will attest that true advancements have been made only in two areas pertinent to the human condition: in theoretical knowledge and in living comfort or luxuries. Health levels _ physical, societal, environmental, and mental __ keep steadily declining.
Physical sciences may be defended here with the majority of the blame for declining healths levied on the more human sciences. Yet, there have been plentiful hints and even theories around which suggest that there is more to reality than is apparent to the physicist eye and that the true reality may be cloaked by this ‘physical’ layer of reality for us the observers↓2.
Why doubt must be there
Doubt must be there given the nature of things. Whether deep beneath the human skin, or deep within the seed of a fruit, or deep under the earth we walk on, or far far away among the stars that blink at us, things are plainly beyond our direct (and certain) observation. We can tear up the human body and confirm the presence of a heart and liver in it, but it’s not the same when we try to observe how DNA really works, and how light interacts with atom, and how the brain creates ‘a mind’. We must create technologies to capture some of the ‘signs’ which ‘point’ to the deep mysterious workings of things. We must speculate on what signs really show, and what signs are the best ones (the accurate, the measurable, the comprehensive and the reliable ones) to point to a variable not directly observable↓3.
Doubt must be there because you cannot manipulate every situation according to your scientific vigor to remove as much doubt from your conclusions as possible. You can seat people in a lab with high noise, and more people in a lab with low or no noise, and compare how much they can concentrate on a math task; but you cannot make people divorce their wives to observe how divorce effects the future development of their children. And you cannot control the kind of education people have while growing up, to see the quality of their later lives. And you cannot perform experimental surgeries on their brain areas, to see how altering the brain physiology affects their personality or intellectual functioning. Thus you simply have no choice but to take huge liberties with the amount of control you exert in an experiment, or to put up with merely observing two things occuring together, or to conduct experiments on non-humans and assume the conclusions can be applicable to humans, or to just plainly record observations or conduct interviews and try to conclude stuff from that alone.
Doubt must be there because even in cases where these problems do not arise and a nice, neat experiment is possible, the global scientific community is simply not organized or efficient enough to systematically repeat already conducted experiments around the world. At least that would help establish the consistency of the derived conclusions before assuming they readily apply to whole humanity. Numerous research topics have indeed received such attention but more often then not, this is a serious problem in the ‘spread’ of ‘knowledge’ around the world and its firm establishment as ‘certain facts’ in the public mind.
Doubt must be there since (as the uncertainty principle establishes with such finality) no matter how perfectly and ideally you carry on with research on a given ‘lucky’ topic, the influence of the ‘observer’ cannot be ruled out from what is being observed. Even the best of measuring technologies must be handled and interpreted by humans. And even if we designed robots to conduct each and every step of the research process (so that experimenter bias and weakness will not affect subjects, or will not make it a different experience for every other subject) what will observations made in such an artificial situation (of absolute handling by robots) tell us about the human situation? For, as Heisenberg’s principle highlights, the observer effects do not arise from the humanity of the observers, they arise from the situation of being observed.
If we take Heisenberg’s view for granted, strict causality is broken, or better: the past and future events of particles are indeterminate. One cannot calculate the precise future motion of a particle, but only a range of possibilities. Physics loses its grip. The dream of physicists, to be able to predict any future event in the universe based on its present state, meets its certain death.
And (from the same source):
If in an exact science, such as physics, the outcome of an experiment depends on the view of the observer, then what does this imply for other fields of human knowledge? It would seem that in any faculty of science, there are different interpretations of the same phenomena. More often than occasionally, these interpretations are in conflict with each other. Does this mean that ultimate truth is unknowable*?
*underlining is mine
Howcome the public and the practitioners remain ignorant of the uncertainties
… it is the paradigm itself that guides the scientific process, so when these anomalies do appear the tendency has been to force them to fit the current theory, to explain them away, or to simply overlook them. (p. 6 Mythbusters: Cholesterol)
When a theory gains popularity in the public through media, such as in the case of cholesterol-heart disease link, a lot of processes follow that ensure that the above happens. It’s human nature to keep face, to maintain repute, and to wish to bask in the glory of ‘human progress’. As the Neuroskeptic blog quotes from a published study on the effect of popularity on the research process:
In highly competitive fields there might be stronger incentives to “manufacture” positive results by, for example, modifying data or statistical tests until formal statistical significance is obtained. This leads to inflated error rates for individual findings… We refer to this mechanism as “inflated error effect”.↓4
There may also be an increase in positive findings just because of the fact that a lot of researchers wishing to partake in the potluck start testing the popular hypotheses; alternative hypotheses get neglected or forgotten __ a phenomenon the above cited authors call “multiple testing effect”.
When negative findings are found, human nature again comes into play: It’s an age-old tendency of researchers in general that they tend to publish positive findings more often than negative findings. Negatively conclusive studies (results of these studies have contradicted the hypothesis/theory) are somehow treated as not worthy of reporting although they are ‘findings’ as much as positive ones. This is a well-known bane of research called as ‘publication bias‘.
It is worth noting that the pressures that often drive researchers to these errors are not just psychological. In many cases funding and grant for research projects depends upon the apparent worth of the study being conducted; usually, further and further research building upon a popular theory gets funded easily rather than ideas that ‘go away from the mainstream’ or that are clearly ‘dissenting voices’. In medicine, pharmaceutical companies are a huge factor in channelling research in well-beaten tracks: investments of millions behind drugs and treatments (such as cancer-preventing sun screens) springing from the popular theory are at stake. The best resource for insights on how popularity in media distorts the truly scientific research process is a book I have already referred to in Part II of this post: Fragile Science: the reality behind the headlines by Robin Baker.
The facility of advanced measurement technologies, statistical softwares, and computer aids in research seem to be encouraging the bias of scientists towards findings of their liking. So much so that the number of published papers that are later retracted (i.e. taken off) by the journal after being challenged or closely scrutinized has been increasing in recent years↓5.
Being ignorant and unscientific, popular media itself might promote wrong leaps of rather ‘expansive’ conclusions from its own reading of research: conclusions which are false, baseless, and create a rosy picture of ‘human scientific power’ in the public mind. For an example, where results of primitive fMRI (brain scanning) studies were wrongly promoted as an advance in mind-reading technology by popular media, go to this Neuroskeptic blogpost.
Target of such rash attitudes on the part of researchers, investing companies, and sensationalist media are not just the general public but practicitioners of professions as well. Research is in focus for the academic side of the professional fields: the university departments and the research institutes. Professional degrees’ students (such as medical students) may get a basic know-how of how research works, but they are fed all of their knowledge not as findings of research but as textbook-published theoretical statements about their field. After getting their degrees, they get immersed in the throes of practice: that’s what motivated their studies in the first place __ generally interested in only new findings (that come with the background just described), with no hint of the ups and downs of the process through which those findings came by.
Why scientists sometimes make claims and promote them as near-certain truth despite all the doubt inherent in the very mechanics of their profession
Some reasons I have already quoted, but those reasons focused on ‘pressures’ on the researchers’ psyche. Here my focus is on deliberate promotion and belief-making that some scientists engage in: beliefs such as “the God delusion“, and “the evolution, not creationism” idea.
The two examples I have quoted above (they are same actually) are theories: conclusions derived from research in areas that are riddled with huge gaps in knowledge, difficulties of doing experimental research, measurement uncertainties, as well as the kind of researching pressures already described. In your mind try to apply all the uncertainty scenarios to the situation of ascertaining facts about the reality of the universe from observations collected from the comparitive variation and living patterns in various life forms; such that many of those life forms are not even directly observable today, only their fossils are available.
These scientists promote their theories by referring to divince sources of knowledge as ‘human constructed beliefs’. How come, when they are aware of the pitfalls of their own research and even admit the huge gaps of knowledge and the impassable difficulties of their methods, they promote their own ‘science constructed beliefs’ as the Certain Truth replacing the Divine?
An apt comment in the Qur’an springs to mind:
بَلْ كَذَّبُوا بِمَا لَمْ يُحِيطُوا بِعِلْمِهِ وَلَمَّا يَأْتِهِمْ تَأْوِيلُهُ
IN FACT, they deny what is beyond the reach of their knowledge, whose explanation has not reached them yet. (in Sura Younus, 39)
Some more pertinent commentary from the Qur’an:
أَمْ جَعَلُوا لِلَّـهِ شُرَكَاءَ خَلَقُوا كَخَلْقِهِ فَتَشَابَهَ الْخَلْقُ عَلَيْهِمْ
… have those whom they associate with Allah in His Divinity ever created anything like what Allah did so that the question of creation has become dubious to them? (in Ar-Ra’d, 16)
بَلِ ادَّارَكَ عِلْمُهُمْ فِي الْآخِرَةِ ۚ بَلْ هُمْ فِي شَكٍّ مِّنْهَا ۖ بَلْ هُم مِّنْهَا عَمُونَ
STILL less do they comprehend the life to come. In fact they are in doubt about it. Still more, they are blind to it. (An-Naml, 66)
فَإِنَّهَا لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَـٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ
Verily, it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts which are in the breasts that grow blind. (in Al-Hajj, 46)
And so, many scientists commit the same kinds of prejudice and bigotism in their attitudes that they accuse religions of promoting.
1. Read the last chapter (“Cargo Cult Science”) in Richard Feynman’s autobiographical memoirs “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”.
2. See my previous blogposts Outrageous Sensations and The Enjoining Light, as well as the synopsis of Michael Talbot’s book: The Holographic Universe.
3. To read more on the topic, see hypothetical construct on wikipedia.
4. Statistical significance means a conclusion with enough percentage of confidence interval that is accepted in that particular field. An inflated error rate entails that conclusions get wrongly labelled as ‘positive’ (i.e. confirming the hypothesized effect of a on b) more often than they should be.
5. See: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/08/why-are-scientific-retractions-increasing/
This sprawling post covered a major theme of the blog: the inadequacy of science in the quest for definite answers on the nature of the world and reality. To complete the argument initiated in this thread, however, will require many sister posts of perhaps same comprehensiveness. Following topics must be elucidated to make a complete case for the certainty of Divine knowledge and the contrasting failure of science-promoted no-God propoganda:
Irrefutable evidence of the Divinity of the Quran and the authenticity of prophethood.
Review of research in evolution with the same truly objective perspective as some researchers have applied in cholesterol and other cases.
A more developed discussion of why scientists and general people ignore the weaknesses in their own theories while staying indifferent or ‘finding faults’ with the Divince sources of knowledge.
May Allah Ta’ala bring these necessities to realization. Ameen.
Previously related in this blog: