Archive for the ‘Science|Religion’ Category

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part III

In Science|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 31, 2011 at 12:16 am


Continued from Part II.

In the last part of this post, I gave an introductory idea of the meaning of doubt or uncertainty in sciences. Then I proceeded with a selective survey of fields of knowledge organizing them in levels from areas with the most doubt in their conclusions upward. Briefly, I covered parasciences, social sciences, behavioral sciences, and biological sciences. In this post I intend to end my survey with physical sciences and mathematics.

Given the depth and breadth of this topic this overview is very general and needs clarifications. There is also a need to be more aritulate on how this survey relates to the initial idea (that certain knowledge comes only from the Divine). Hence I have decided to end this post with a final section, Part IV, to be presented as a concluding synopsis.

Now let us continue with the survey.


Physical sciences

I have selected two fields for my sruvey: physics and meteorology. Being pertinent to inanimate things, one might assume that such scienes should be free of doubt. However, uncertainty pervades even the very basic task of measuring physial quantities such as length, and air pressure – an issue which is definitely even more stronger in case of the non-physical sciences, particularly the socio-psychological domains.  

Am I measuring it accurately?

A lot depends on the answer to this question for a scientist. Measurements are the building blocks on which the high rise of scientific progress is construted: observations taken, experiments planned, hypotheses tested, ultimately paving the way for theories. For practial purposes, a 0.1% or lesser inaccuracy of measurement will not make a differene in real life, but will do so in research — which, in physical sciences today ranges from the nano-scale of subparticles making up electrons and protons, through the global variables of hurricane velocity and the density of ozone layer, all the way to observations of astronomical proportions such as the desplacement of stars, and the velocity of a meteor coming towards earth.

An idea of how relative our standards of measurement are (even such common every-day quantities such as length and weight), requiring constant research to keep them as accurate and uniform in time as possible, will be gained through the following examples:

  1. ” The international prototype of the kilogram, an artefact made of platinum-iridium, is kept at the BIPM↓1 under the conditions specified by the 1st CGPM in 1889 … It follows that the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram is always 1 kilogram exactly, m(grand K) = 1 kg. However, due to the inevitable accumulation of contaminants on surfaces, the international prototype is subject to reversible surface contamination that approaches 1 µg per year in mass. For this reason, the CIPM declared that, pending further research, the reference mass of the international prototype is that immediately after cleaning and washing by a specified method”
  2. “From 1889 to 1960, the metre was defined to be the distance between two scratches in a platinum-iridium bar kept in the vault beside the Standard Kilogram at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris.

    This replaced an earlier definition as 10^-7 times the distance between the North Pole and the Equator along a meridian through Paris; unfortunately, this had been based on an inexact value of the circumference of the Earth.

    From 1960 to 1984 it was defined to be 1650763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red line of krypton-86 propagating in a vacuum.

    It is now defined as the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” (From the online Hyper Dictionary)

  3. “A measurement process such as this one (i.e. measuring metre through the platinum-iridium prototype), which runs for decades, should have dimensionally stable control standards, but completely stable materials are rare and perhaps non-existent.”↓2 [The underlining is mine].


This relativity of measurement seems to exist because, in order to establish a standard for the unit of a quantity (for instance, the standard for 1 kg, 1 lt, and 1 sec, etc), we must rely on certain other substanes (such as the platinum-iridium rod) which are subject to change over time (such as erosion, or loss of mass through radiation) or on other quantities (such as the speed of light) which in turn are subject to uncertainty of measurement.

Of course, a special twist to the scenario is added by the famous special theory of relativity, which showed (and was proved through later experiments) that measurement of quantities such as time, length and weight, depends upon the frame of reference of the observer.


The vagaries of predicting weather

 A recent series of catastrophi weather events in the US history have prompted me to include this area of science. Just this last weekend, those of us living in the western side of the world were harrassed by the certain looking possibility of horrific and massive damages from Hurricane Irene. It’s size alone was one-third the length of the entire east coast of the United States, and it was expected to (and certainly did) sweep that entire coast-line even upwards into the Canadian side of the coast. It did, but it turned out to be much more slower and certaintly less horrifying than it was predicted to be; however, it did cause huge damages in certain areas and through some of its features which were being highlighted to a lesser degree by the forecasters.


Weather forecasting has been traditionally performed using numerical weather prediction. As wikipedia explains, even in the modern day:

Manipulating the vast datasets and performing the complex calculations necessary to modern numerical weather prediction requires some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Even with the increasing power of supercomputers, the forecast skill of numerical weather models extends to about only six days. Factors affecting the accuracy of numerical predictions include the density and quality of observations used as input to the forecasts, along with deficiencies in the numerical models themselves.

 The problems are really aggravated by the fact that even small differences in observing or predicting conditions on a day can lead to widely different forecast predictions for the follow-up days. This is because weather systems are of such massive and time-dependent nature, they exhibit a strongly sensitive dependence on the initial conditions↓3. That is, even short-term future scenarios in weather can vary hugely depending upon the set of currently existing conditions. As a result, meteorologists have switched to a different form of forecasting called as ensemble forecasting, requiring multiple predictions from the same set of initial data. Each prediction is made along with an estimate of it’s accuracy (actually, uncertainty in the accuracy of the prediction), but even that doesn’t help ensure freedom from the errors: “Sometimes the atmosphere behaves more chaotically, and small errors amplify rapidly. At other times the various forecasts stay within a narrow range, therefore they can be treated with more confidence”↓4.


Uncertainty at the very core of physics

I have mentioned this type of uncertainty in a biographial post before. It’s the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle I’m talking about. I quote directly from the webpage I’ve linked the principle to:

“… the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature… Ordinary experience provides no clue of this principle. It is easy to measure both the position and the velocity of, say, an automobile, because the uncertainties implied by this principle for ordinary objects are too small to be observed…”


Any attempt to measure precisely the velocity of a subatomic particle, such as an electron, will knock it about in an unpredictable way, so that a simultaneous measurement of its position has no validity. This result has nothing to do with inadequacies in the measuring instruments, the technique, or the observer; it arises out of the intimate connection in nature between particles and waves in the realm of subatomic dimensions.


Every particle has a wave associated with it; each particle actually exhibits wavelike behavior. The particle is most likely to be found in those places where the undulations of the wave are greatest, or most intense. The more intense the undulations of the associated wave become, however, the more ill defined becomes the wavelength, which in turn determines the momentum of the particle. So a strictly localized wave has an indeterminate wavelength; its associated particle, while having a definite position, has no certain velocity. A particle wave having a well-defined wavelength, on the other hand, is spread out; the associated particle, while having a rather precise velocity, may be almost anywhere. A quite accurate measurement of one observable involves a relatively large uncertainty in the measurement of the other.

In other words (from my own post linked above):

What this law in physics boils down to is, that the position of one of the smallest particles that we are made of cannot be firmly located [if we are trying to measure it’s velocity at the same time. In layman terms, an electron assumes its position when it is being observed. And when its not being observed noone can predict its location. Rather, its in a state of ‘suspension’, its literally not there; however, as soon as it is observed it (magically!) assumes a specific position in time and place! Wow!

In a way, this uncertainty is the same kind which taints all of science, only Heisenberg states it much more outrightly with a sense of finality of the impossibility of measurement of two quantities at once that is rare in other sciences: As soon as we perfectly control one variable for an experiment/measurement, we totally loose our grip on another.


It was Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from which quantum physics sprang forth (the theory that assumes that an atom behaves like a wave and a particle at the same time. Interestingly, this theoretical arena challenges Einstein’s theory of general relativity which helps explain all the observable phenomenon at the astronomical scale. Conversely, quantum physics explains today everything known about the subatomic level of things (the particles and subparticles in an atom). And yet, when considered together, both the theories cannot be right at the same time!↓5  

This puzzle, although interesting and worth considering, is beyond the scope of the current post, however.



The queen of sciences, mathematics is certainly not free of uncertainty of doubt, despite being considered the most ‘tight’ and ‘rigorous’ of all fields of knowledge.

Given the current specialization and sophistication of it’s subfields, the trend these days is that published mathematical proofs of theorems are so prolonged and complicated that it may take a great amount of reviewer time to confirm or refute them. The result is that the publishers and critics have began talking in terms of percent of certainty of a proof being correct↓6.

 The more interesting seed of doubt in the domain of maths however is the idea, that if a system set out to represent all the mathematical statements there were (such as a computer), there will be one true statement which would be unprovable by the system. This is the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which I attempted to present in my review of the book  Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to wikipedia, the theorem unsettles the foundation of mathematics  ___ those subfields of the queen of field that search for the ultimate basis on which math statements can be called as true.  Gödel essentially proved that there are limits to what we can expect from a tightly logical system.

Thus not even the apparently most rigorous of sciences is free of uncertainty and doubt.



A synopsis tying the various threads of this prolonged post as well as presenting certain important clarifications will be presented in the fourth part of this post.



1. The BIMP is the International Bureau of Weights and Measures responsible for maintaining the current system of measurement units universally adopted (suh as kiloggram and metre). The above passage has been taken from their website at the following page: http://www.bipm.org/en/si/si_brochure/chapter2/2-1/kilogram.html

2. In a research paper found at: 


3. In http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensemble_forecasting

 4. In http://www-das.uwyo.edu/~geerts/cwx/notes/chap13/ensemble.html

5. See: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/g/greene-universe.html

6. See: http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/mathematical_uncertainty/



QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part II

In Science|Religion, The Method on August 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Continued from Part I



In the previous part of this post, we have seen how God carefully distinguishes between ‘certain’ knowledge derived directly from divine sources and ‘human predictions’ speculated from skills and knowledge made available to humans in a general way. It is clear that claims, results, and theories derived from human sources can not be raised to the status of ‘certain knowledge’, they must retain a seed of doubt at their core.

This part of the post attempts to present the basis for the seeds of doubt (the hows and whys) present in essentially every field of human knowledge no matter how scientific or unscientific it is assumed to be. Before focusing on example fields themselves, below is a brief and accessible description of the issue of doubt in scientific research (which is the vehicle for deriving knowledge in any respectable field).


Doubt vs certainty in scientific research

Actually, the issue of doubt vs certainty in scientific research is closely tied to the issue of a study’s claim to be aunthentically scientific. That is, if a research study cannot provide substantiable details of the level of doubt/certainty in its results, it is rejected outrightly as being inauthentic. A study which does provide the requisite details but it shows lack of care and vigor in the study’s procedures towards ensuring a high level of certainty of results, is criticized as being substandard. Why is this issue at the very heart of progress in research? Let’s see.

The logic of a scientific experiment:

To prove that one thing (a) effects or causes another thing (b) essentially means proving that no other (c) factor was also affecting the same thing (b) at the same time. If a person claims to be worsened by a doctor’s prescription, it’s only just to expect to be proven that there was no other cause (other than the prescription) working at the same time that may have lead to the worsening. The doctor should be held responsible, if only his prescription was the relevant ‘worsening’ factor and no other factors were found. Or, the extent of harm from the prescription should be ascertained, with doctor eligible to pay for losses only in proportion to the harm caused, compared with other harming factors.

The same logic holds in scientific studies. Let us suppose a pharmaceutical company gives a new heart disease medicine to 100 patients, and continues a 100 other patients on a pre-existing treatment. After 6 months, it finds average improvement in the heart condition for the new medicine group, while the old medicine group shows no change in average. The question is: were there factors other than the new medicine that could have lead to the change? Were the 100 of one group similar to the 100 of the other group in the intensity of their disease, ages, genders, previous treatments, other health conditions, diet and lifestyle care, psychological stress and social support, financial security etc, etc ___ all factors that affect heart disease?

If the selection of patients was not done carefully, then there might well be pre-existing differences in the group also contributing to the different levels of disease condition after six months. For example, if the new medicine group were younger on average than the old medicine group, or if they were financially better off than the other group, or their previous histories of treatment and response to heart disease were superior…, any of these factors could have been the only factor leading to observed improvement (or it could have contributed to the improvement in addition to the new medicine).

Differences may also exist in the researchers’ handling of the study procedures. Were same doctors seeing both the patients? If the doctor knew which patient was receiving which medication, may be something in their attitude (for instance extra optimism when handling new medicine patients) could have also affected results. Or, the old medicine group may have found out about another group receiving newer and presumably advanced medication (hearsay works everywhere) and might feel discriminated. This will certainly affect their mental and behavioral attitudes towards their regimen affecting disease condition six months later.

A measure of doubt:

Let us suppose the two groups were more or less equal (all 200 being different, unique individuals, they can never be exactly equal). Let us also suppose that at the end of six months a 5% difference in the average level of their heart disease condition had been found. The question is, is this difference big enough to be attributed to new/old medicine factor, since other vital differences could not be ruled out 100%? If I claim ‘yes, this difference is big enough to come from the new/old medicine factor’, how certain should I be in my claim OR how much doubt should I acknowledge in my claim?

Scientists rely on statistics and probability theory to calculate levels of certainty vs doubt in their claims___subject matters beyond the scope of the general reader. The levels are reported in the form of ‘percentages’. For example a 95% confidence interval means that their is a 95% chance (vs. a 5% doubt) that the observed result is strong enough to be attributed to the factor-in-question.

The above scenario is one example of how the issue of doubt concerns itself in scientific research. In my survey of sciences below, other angles may be highlighted as I have already clarified the most common scenario of doubt. However-which way, it will be clear that the germ of doubt cannot be ruled out completely from the sciences. One may say, that this is well applicable to fields involving humans as ultimate subjects, but what about fields such as physics dealing totally in lifeless objects? Well, the nature of doubt in those fields may be different, but that it certaintly exists will be obvious in a short while.  


A survey of example fields, in ascending order of scientific authenticity of research:



Dream interpretation, astrology, hand-reading, psychic practices, and alternative medicine are all parasciences. This is because the knowledge or skills claimed by their practitioners do not pass the test of scientific scrutiny. Practitioners of such fields either do not conduct scientific research at all; their ‘knowledge’ and ‘art’ is based purely on theory, arbitrary observations of individual cases, and history of practice. If they do, their procedures of research are not clearly arranged to rule out unnecessary doubt as much as possible. Or, they do not take the care to report procedures clearly enough to be examined by other scientists. Also, when truely scientific studies are conducted to examine their predictions, results are often against rather than in favor.

Social sciences

Social sciences such as economics, sociology, and anthropology often concern with factors of such large scale that the scale of doubt is proportionally large as well. That is so because they are commonly concerned with effects of factors on society / population at large, rather than on individuals. For instance, economists may study how recruiting policy effects turnover of employees in a certain class of organizations. Or they may attempt to study the fluctuations in stock exchange rates in a certain market. Anthropologists concern themselves with the human culture at large. They may investigate effects on urban survival, human mobility patterns, or domestication of landscapes. Sociologists, may examine effects of instituitional fundings on inequality in educational opportunities. Or they may see how leadership styles affect gender discrimination in organizations.


Studying something ‘big’:

Such ‘macro’-level factors (‘variables’ in research terms’) are difficult to control in a research. For instance, how would you attempt to equalize the characteristics of organizations that affect gender discrimination in addition to the variable-in-question. Many times the context of study is so large, only a single case is included in the study, for instance a study of urban survival in Tokyo. In such cases, effect of, say, inflation, may be observed on survival in the city over time. Let us suppose that inflation in the city makes survival difficult in the city over 8 months. The question is, how can one control other factors also affecting survival in a real population of a city, to rule out the doubt that they may not have affected survival, other than inflation? It is true that experts have attempted to design studies to weed out some of the problems, but each design is riddled with it’s own set of doubt-casting factors.

Due to this impossibility of exerting too much control of procedures, their academics and professionals in these fields accept a 10% level of uncertainty in their scientific claims. This only refers to studies performed in a ‘scientific’ way; studies in which conclusions are based merely on an analysis of descriptive observations, interviews, or case studies are rejected by critics as not being truly authentic.

These large scale studies have another problem. To what extent, conclusions based on a city in Japan hold true for a city in a different part of the world, even in the same country? A huge probability exists that any two given cities are different enough (especially when they belong to different cultures, climates, and ideologies) that things operate differently in them even when the same variables are involved.

Behavioral sciences

Sciences such as psychology and management are more concerned with individuals’ behaviors. At this level, at least control of conditions is better; still as in the example in the last post, control cannot be too good. That is why, academics of such fields have settled on allowing a 5% level of uncertainty of results. Doubt cannot be ruled out but it can be lessenned; other rooms of doubt may still remain.

The people in the study:

One major issue is of ‘sampling’: whom did you include in your study? Just like the example of Tokyo, the question remains whether findings based on a small group of people can be applied to the larger population from which the ‘sample’ was selected. Ideally, a large number of people should be selected and should cover all the various segments of the whole population. For instance, there should be enough composition of genders, social status, and ages etc to reflect the overall composition of the population at large. However, due to difficulties of funding, and time and effort, researchers typically select people from a convenient location such as a university, shopping mall, organization, or airport lounge. As such, you essentially end up making claims based on actual observation of a small number of people of only a certain type of people who may be very different on the whole from the overall population. Some critics have even said that people who agree to participate in such research may be fundametnally different from people who do not volunteer or who refuse to participate. In that case, we will never find out the ‘true’ effect of ‘a’ on ‘b’ as our sample will always be of a certain type, never including anyone from the other type.

Is it the same as real life?


Another major issue is that, from the point of view of the participating person, the situation of research activity is often significantly different from the same activity performed in daily life. People hold myriad of opinions, but do they reflect them ‘as it is’ in a survey? Just so, we perform certain tasks in real life, but when we do so at a special place (in a psychology lab), or at a special time (on the request of the manager-researcher) when we also know that we are being observed, is it really the same? Many times such mental variables are studied that the tasks created to investigate them have no connection with real life. In real life, our problem solving skills are tested in real life challenges, risks, troubles, and dilemmas. In research, we are presented case-like or riddle/puzzle-like situations and are supposed to answer to related questions. Again, is it the same? Do conjectures derived from observations so artificially removed from the real, thriving, kaleidoscopic, and very ‘personallly’ experienced life outside a lab or office can really help us in that life?

Biological sciences

I am going to deliberately ignore fields such as zoology, botany, and microbiology at this level. The ultimate purpose of science is to advance the human kind; all sciences are a way towards this end (just as God proclaims that the whole world has been created to serve humans ↓1). Hence I consider only the fields more directly in connection with us: medicine, pharmacology, neuroscience; and I consider them as a single overall ‘human organism’ science.

When such sciences study internal body processes (such as how a certain chemical interacts with the human blood) in an experimental way, the level of doubt is much reduced and the accepted cut-off is 99% confidence level. In general, we see that the more we move towards ‘inanimate’ subjects (blood by itself is inanimate), the less doubt is allowed for scientific authenticity since a superior degree of control of procedures is naturally possible. However, since the ultimate goal in all sciences is to apply their technology on living breathing humans, some of the same problems already mentioned arise. And there are more.

Is the ‘effect’ as large as life? 

We should keep in mind that the only truly scientifically authentic method of research: the controlled experiment. I have already share a typical example of it above, in the first section of this post. Confidence in the findings of any such study is enhanced as long as the two groups in the study are identical to each other in all respects other than the factor-in-question (the new drug in that example), as long as the procedures of the study simulate how things happen in the real world, and as long as the people selected to study are similar to the much larger group of people to whome the findings will be applied. Despite all this care, a common problem remains in many experiments and that is of ‘effect size’.

In our main example, a 5% difference was found in the heart level condition of the two groups after six months. The question is, even if this difference truly resulted from the new drug, is it a big enough difference for practical reasons? Many a times, good control and large sample sizes lead to statistical significance (i.e. the difference is deemed big enough to leave only the accepted level of doubt in attributing it to the key variable). But is that difference really meaningful in the real world? For example, here, is this difference enough to increase the comfort and living of the people taking the medicine, is it worth the cost of the new medicine, worth risking the side effects of this medicine? What does it mean for the future of the patient? Will it lead to better prognosis in the long run, prevent fatalities from the disease or increase life span? What if the new drug leads to complications that build up over a span of years or even a decade? Speculations upon speculations…

 Are all studies truly experimental?

Over the course of my general readings through the years, I was surprised to find out that, just like social and behavioral sciences, medical sciences too rely on non-experimental research. The most common type of non-experimental research both prevalent and widely accepted in the academic fields is ‘correlational research’. In such research rather than attempting to demonstrate the effect of ‘a’ on ‘b’, the two factors are merely observed to be occuring together in some pattern. For instance, instead of actually controlling a sample’s diet in an experimental way, researchers merely guage the type and amount of diet nutrients actually being taken by the sample. They also measure, say, the weight or body mass of their sample and see if the two variables (nutrients and body mass) are associated: That is, do cases with high amoutns of fat-promoting nutrients in their diet intake also exhibit a higher weight (and vice versa)?

All that such research establishes is that two factors are ‘seen’ to be going along together. Where one is at an increased level, the other is also increased (or it could be, where one is increased, the other is decreased; this is also a pattern of correlation). Such research cannot explain why these factors are seen as varying together. That is, you can never claim: the nutrient type is responsible for or causes the weight levels in the people. The reason is obvious, so many other influencing factors out there were not controlled. Even the key variable in question (nutrients, here) was not controlled by the researcher. The subjects in the sample did not all take the same food in the same fashion at the same place; merely their life reports were taken. How can we even assume in that case that nutrients are causing the body mass variation observed across the sample?

It’s like, if you notice that during the months of May and June, rubber in household products melt easily and our skin frequently develops rashes, should you conclude that particles from the melting rubber are leading to the rashes? NO! There are so many other possibilities: Each of these two things could have their own separate causes, they are just occuring together for some reason. Or, both of these could be the ‘effects’ of a third cause; which is obviously in this case the high heat of these months.  (Althouth, results of such research are also reported in terms of confidence vs uncertainty, but that only amounts to: “is the degree of association between the two a real correlation or merely a coincidence?’)

Now it turns out that some of the famous ‘facts’ of our life-time such as ‘cholesterol is linked to heart disease’ and ‘use of sun screen reduces risk of skin cancer’ are merely ‘correlational’ rather than ‘causal’ facts↓2. I will take up here in detail two cases which interest me. 

Cholesterol–the innocent culprit?

Cholesterol is always observed at the site of damaged veins in heart disease, nobody has ever (and could never) induced people into high cholesterol vs low cholesterol levels and, after controlling all other related factors, established for sure that the high cholesterol group developed the problems associated with heart disease (angina, aneurysms, and heart attacks). It’s a combination of scientific diffidence, media sensationalism, and pharmacological marketing which has firmly grounded the mere ‘association’ as a ‘fact-beyond-doubt’ in both the practitioners’ and the public’s minds.


In fact, all kinds of myriad and mutually contradictory evidences exist about cholesterol. There are many academic sources for the topic↓3 but, as an example the following paragraph from a research project↓4 designed to demystify the cholesterol myth should be sufficient (I have converted the paragraph in numbered items for clearer presentation:

There are also many situations and scenarios that cannot be explained by the cholesterol-theory.

  1. Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic disease causing severely elevated LDL levels (in excess of 500 mg/dL). An FH patient would be expected to be critically at risk of heart disease, and yet there are many cases of entire families with FH never suffering a single heart attack.
  2. Other examples logically refuting the hypothesis include tribes of nomadic peoples in Africa whose diets consist principally of fresh red meat, high in cholesterol, who have no history of heart attacks whatsoever,
  3. and the recent Vytorin study, which showed that despite a particular cholesterol-reducing drug regiment, patients on the drug developed atherosclerosis at double the rate. (p. 5) 


Another area of biological research which is of considerable awe, wonder and amazement in the educated section of the masses is neuroscience: the one scientific field that attempts to cut across all the essential fields of knowledge and to decipher the riddles of how the mind, the body and the world relate to each other.

Areas of the brain and their functions–certainly?

Neuroscientists have progressed considerably in their knowledge of which psychological functions (such as mental activity, memories, emotions and social aptitude) are ‘performed’ by which brain areas. The typical methodology has been to engage subjects in tasks utilizing the function-of-interest and to simultaneously record brain activity patterns through one of prevalent brain-charting technologies of the time. They then try to correlate which brain areas were most active with the persons’ engagement in the tasks. Not only this approach is obviously correlational, the modern day’s ease of recording brain functioning given a multitude of technologies now available is making many scientists too relaxed in their approach to such research↓5.


What happens before stastically calculating the correlation is, that the scientists first look for those brain areas that are showing high activity during the task. They then correlate those same areas with the activity measure in the same subjects. The problem is that this kind of pre-selection can be highly misleading given the correlational nature of the research. That certain brain areas are seemingly active in that sample does not necessarily show a true relation: it could be an artefact of the observed subjects’ individualities (note that the sample sizes in such studies are usually very small, such as within thirties. It could be a ‘third cause’ scenario’; the engaging activity is leading to a process in the brain (not detected by the recording method in the study) which could in turn be associated with certain brain areas’ activity in a complicated fashion. Note that, a lot of brain areas are active during any task; scientists here select only the highest activity ones and then uNse only those to measure the correlation. Now it is quite possible that the high activity of those areas is not the underlying mechanism directly managing the person’s behavior. Instead, a complicated pattern of high-moderate-low activitis in a string of areas could be responsible __ one can’t say.

The Neuroskeptic blog sums up the problem better:

The essence of the main argument is quite simple: if you take a set of numbers, then pick out some of the highest ones, and then take the average of the numbers you picked, the average will tend to be high. This should be no surprise, because you specifically picked out the high numbers. However, if for some reason you forgot or overlooked the fact that you had picked out the high numbers, you might think that your high average was an interesting discovery.

Here are the comments of the critics (referenced in footnote 5) who orginally brought the problem to light:

any measures obtained from such [an] … analysis are biased and untrustworthy.



My survey is taking longer than expected. I must continue the rest in a Part III. I will InshaAllah finish the survey with physical sciences and mathematics; ending with a synopsis providing perspective on what we are learning from the survey.

Till then, fi amana-Allah. 



1. See Surah Ibrahim 32 & 33, Surah Luqman 20, and Surah Jathiya 13.

2. One of the best resources on this topic is a book by Robin Baker called Fragile Science: the reality behind the headlines, 2002, Pan Macmillan.

3. In addition to many literature reviews available fully or partially on the internet, any current textbook on health psychology should also suffice providing a multitude of cross references.

4. Letourneux, J., Ryder, M., Stone, C., and Waring, C. 2008. Mythbusters: Cholesterol. An interactive qualifying project submitted to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Found at http://www.wpi.edu/Pubs/E-project/Available/E-project-050508-202532/unrestricted/Mythbusters_Cholesterol_IQP.pdf

5. These linked two research articles investigate the issue: http://www.pashler.com/Articles/Vul_etal_2008inpress.pdf and http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n5/abs/nn.2303.html. For a relatively accessible but still technical account of the two, interested readers should go to these posts at the Neurocritic blog and the Neuroskeptic blog, respectively.



Related posts from this blog:

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific relativism, and rational knowledge

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a scientist upon science and reality

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part I

In Ramadaan, Science|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 23, 2011 at 9:59 pm

21st Ramadaan, 1432:

Today’s post takes inspiration from one word in a special context in Sura Yusuf. I will mention the source ayah in context:


Sura Yusuf is one of the most beautiful suras of Quran, the only example where one tale is described fully and solely from the beginning to its end. It is unlike the general style of Quran in depicting portions of a tale in different contexts at numerous places.

The Surah tells us that after being thrown into a dry well by his bothers, being sold into the hands of an Egyptian official, and being lured by his wife and rejecting her temptations, the young Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) ended up, wrongly,  in prison. Here, after many years, he interpreted the dreams of two imprisoned workers of the Egyptian kingdom who had been involved in a dispute. Prophet Yusuf predicted that their dispute had been decided with the result that one will go to the gallows and the other will be set free.

At this point, Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) asks the prisoner he had assumed to be set free to mention him, prophet Yusuf, in the court of the king (in the hope of his wrongful imprisonment being reconsidered). Here is the ayah that describes this occurence:

وَقَالَ لِلَّذِي ظَنَّ أَنَّهُ نَاجٍ مِّنْهُمَا اذْكُرْنِي عِندَ رَبِّكَ فَأَنسَاهُ الشَّيْطَانُ ذِكْرَ رَبِّهِ فَلَبِثَ فِي السِّجْنِ بِضْعَ سِنِينَ

AND he said to one of them who he imagined would be saved: mention me in the presence of thy lord. Then the Satan caused him to forget to mention him to his lord, so that he tarried in the prison several years. (Sura Yusuf, 42)

 The word I have highlighted is ZUNN.


Linguistic background of the word

The Arabic word zunna constitutes three root letters za-nun-nun ( ز ن ن ). According to the Quranic dictionary: Mukhtasir-ut-Tasheel fi Lughat-it-Tanzeel* this root stem means: assumption, suspicion, thought, speculation, belief, arbitrary notion, educated guess, doubt, and predominant belief. The online Project Root List adds ‘to know’ and ‘to imagine’ to the list of meanings. It also informs us that when zanna is followed by the words an ( أن ) or anna (as in above ayah) it means ‘to be sure of’.

From the root of the word, we may deduce that the essence of zunn is an assumption which the person may or may not be sure of and which may have been derived arbitrarily or systematically. Many translators of the Qur’an have used the word ‘knew’ for it for the above ayah, whereas many others have preferred words such as imagined (Daryabadi), considered (M. Asad), deemed (Arberry), and sensed (Ahmed Raza Khan)**.  


Contextual background of the word

It is a well-known fact that Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) had been give a special skill by God, i.e., the art of dream interpretation. Although, as Prophet Mohammed (salla-Allahu alaihi wasallam) has informed us that a true dream is the 46th part of prophecy (i.e. wahi), Hazrat Yusuf seems to have been given special proficiency in dream interpretation as a science, apart from it being a prophet’s wahi source. Infact, he had been distinguished by Allah Ta’la in the art of interpretation of events in general as attested by the term used to refer to this skill in the Sura:

تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ

 interpretation / inner meaning of happenings/things/visions/narratives (in 6, 21, and 101)


We know that dream interpretation is an area in psychology and has been practiced as a science since ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures. Given that it is an acknowledged part of prophethood (and that Hazrat Yusuf alaihi-salaam was given special proficiency in it and in general interpretation of events) certainly elevates it to the status of a psychological/parapsychological science. In practice, for us, though, it still remains a weak science in the sense that we, deprived of divine illumination and providence, have no bedrock of observed or confirmable knowledge on which to base it.

Yet, to Hazrat Yusuf (alaihi-salaam) the sources of knowledge and the level of skill required for the realm must have been available. Indeed, he seems to have been ‘sure of’ his prediction ( ظن أنه ); and perhaps that is why he even made a personal request to the person he had predicted as the one to be acquitted in the dispute.

On the other hand, we have already seen the undoubted ‘tentativeness’ of knowledge captured in the word zunn. In contrast the word for ‘certain knowledge’ in Quran, whether referred to God or to humans, is ilm ( علم ).


Ilm versus Zunn

Combining the two sources of Arabic meanings already mentioned, ilm means to be aware of, to discern, to know, to recognize, to believe, science, learning, knowledge, information. The connotation is certainly of factual knowledge or perceived information, rather than derived conjectures or assumed notions. The most remarkable instances of uses of this word are where Allah Subhana Ta’ala refers to His own Knowledge, which is certain beyond doubt; and in mentioning the God-consciousness and its consequent certainties in the minds and tongues of the firm believers. For instance:

ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ

AS FOR the believers, they know it is the truth from their Lord. (in Al-Baqara, 26

Since Qur’an is the direct revelation from God, every single iota of information in it is based on certain truths. Therefore, when we see our God carefully avoiding the more certain word ilm in favor of the more doubt-connoting word zunn in case of Hazrat Yusuf’s prediction, the following conclusion seems logical: All human predictions (unless lifted from direct divine information) carry a measure of doubt.


Doubt in human sciences…?

A majority of predictions in today’s world are made by scientists and professionals in one area or another. Masses, media and leaders all rely on them, trust, quote, promote, and defer to them. Yet the above conclusion seems to strike on the heart of the very business of science. And on examination, it will be revealed that doubt indeed riddles and pervades all areas of science and that the ‘extent’ of trust placed by society is often not well-based.

One may say that humanity has developed and advanced hugely a multitude of sciences which have led to such and such increase of our knowledge and such and such acceleration of our cultural progress. All of that seems to cast doubt in the public mind of ‘any doubt’ in the predictions, knowledges, propositions and counsel of scientists and professionals. The masses naively come to rely and believe on this human source of knowledge without ever suspecting that the whole range of human sciences carries the germ of doubt and uncertainty.

To prove my point, I will proceed in the next part of this post with a brief survey of certain well-known sciences in the descending order of the amount of doubt expected and acknowledged in them by specialists and academics in the pertinent fields themselves. Since, the seed for this idea has come from dream interpretation, I will include that and its fellow ‘para-sciences’ as well at the lowest level. I will also attemp to present, in laymen terms, the scientific issue of doubt in research.


Continued in Part II.



* Ed. Aziz-ur-Rahim Danish Imdadi, 1995, Hyderabad (Sindh): Haji Imdadullah Academy, p. 248

** Scroll down through the list of translators on the linked tanzil.net reference page.


Related posts from this blog:

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific relativism, and rational knowledge

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a scientist upon science and reality