Two myths, one method: the yin-yang of science

June 24, 2013 at 11:45 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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It’s often said that the key to science is the scientific method of testing hypotheses against reality using experiments.

It’s less often said that this looks a lot like what human brains do with the neural patterns which represent memories, beliefs and ideas. When presented with incoming stimuli which conflict with the stored patterns, the patterns can change to reflect the new information. Doesn’t mean they always do (see below), but they have the really rather remarkably cool capacity to learn from experience.

It’s also less often said that one scientific method gives rise to two rather different ways of thinking about science. They’re ‘myths’, if you like, about what science is and what it does. By ‘myths’, I don’t mean they’re false; rather that they capture — and vastly simplify — two contrasting aspects of the immensely complex set of activities we call ‘science’ (or, slightly less inaccurately, ‘the sciences’). In my book The Brain Supremacy, I call these two ways of thinking, for convenience, the ‘Athenian’ and ‘Promethean’ myths, after the two ancient Greek supernatural entities most often associated with science.

Traditionally, the scientific method was represented as a linear process, where A. Scientist dreamed up an Hypothesis, conceived an Experiment which would test its Truth (or Falsehood), performed the Experiment (science these days is more and more about performance), collected the resulting Data, and Analysed them (I know, I know, everyone else treats data as singular) to determine whether the Hypothesis had survived the test, or was doomed to be hurled on the waste heap of dead ideas.

Nowadays the method tends to be seen as more of a circular or looping process, whereby A. Scientist is constantly reading the literature, getting ideas for experiments and discussing them with colleagues, running and modifying experiments, and analysing data in the light of the latest research.

(Or, more realistically, teaching and marking, fighting the admin hydra, sitting on committees, writing endless grant proposals, and squeezing in a little research in any spare moments.)

The modern view acknowledges, in other words, that running an experiment, or analysing data, may be as fruitful a way of generating new hypotheses as are reading the literature, thinking, sleeping, and having a bath — all traditional sources of ‘Eureka!’ moments.

Whether you prefer lines or loops, for scientists the crunch point of the method is the experimental test, which is why such a huge amount of time, effort and money goes into experimental design.

However, where the two myths arise is at the point after the experiment has been run and the results are in.

In the case where the hypothesis has survived, there’s no problem. But if the data challenge the hypothesis, what then?

Athene was the goddess of wisdom, and on the Athenian view of science, the wise thing to do is to accept reality’s verdict and ditch the hypothesis. If your beliefs about the world have been proved false, you abandon them, don’t you?

In theory, maybe, and sometimes in practice — but not always. Experiments are expensive. Before you discard a project to which you’ve committed so much, you’re going to make as sure as you can that the world’s unwelcome answer (yes, unwelcome; scientists aren’t robots) can’t be explained away by a technical fault, a design failure, or some quirk in your hypothesis which you hadn’t previously noticed.

If it can’t, then the good Athenian scientist will shrug her shoulders, maybe swear a little, and start over. Athene adapts her beliefs about the world to the world as she finds it. If her hypothesis that, say, people always make rational decisions is disproved by experiment, she’ll stop regarding people as rational decision-makers. She values accuracy, and prefers to keep it real.

There is, however, an alternative response: the Promethean one. This is the technological approach, and it has been the source of much of what we value about our fabulous modern civilisation. Prometheus, who in legend brought fire to mankind, isn’t content to sit back and adapt to how the world is. He’s a world-shaper; he changes reality to fit his ideas of how it should be. If the world doesn’t match his beliefs about it, he’ll adjust the world to fit. Confronted with the failure of his hypothesis about human rationality, he’s quite likely to set up an education programme to teach people how to think more rationally (or at least write a book denouncing their failure to do so).

Clearly, science as currently practised is and needs to be a mix of the two approaches. Science needs to keep it real, of course, but it also needs to give us tech toys, medical advances, better housing, etc. Imagine making the case to a government funding agency for a purely Athenian science; without the technological applications, would there be much chance of getting the large amounts of taxpayer spend which science needs? Especially given that (in the UK at least) the science budget is, shall we say, already on the stingy side.

It may be more controversial to argue that the balance, driven by the constant demands for ‘value-for-money’ and the media/impact agenda, may have tilted a little too far towards Prometheus, but that case has been made.

The argument seems persuasive because of what we know of human nature. Remember, human brains don’t just test beliefs against reality in labs; they do it whenever new stimuli challenge their ideas. If those ideas are important, cherished notions, then the human response tends to veer away from the purely Athenian.  People defend their core beliefs as if they are part of their identity — as if an attack on the idea is an attack on the person. They get heated, stressed, sometimes abusive; or they practise denial and withdraw. World-shaping in order to protect the most sacred ideas of a person, or a group, can result in anything from great art to politics to murder. They’re dangerous things, strong beliefs, and they aren’t usually given up lightly — as a scientific hypothesis should be.

To weaken a strong belief, to ease humans away from the deadliest aspects of world-shaping towards a more Athenian acceptance that some ideas are better jettisoned, you have to find ways of making them care less about those ideas. Being Athenian about a belief is easy when you don’t give a damn about it; not being Promethean’s awfully hard when you do. That’s the challenge, for scientists and for everyone else. We all have beliefs it would hurt us to abandon.

Western culture tends to tackle the problem in three ways. It offers an ideological cornucopia, on the assumption that human passion’s a limited resource, so the more diverse beliefs, and multiple identities, a person has, the more weakly each of them will be held. And it offers a powerful competitor idea, in the form of money, to distract people away from other faiths. Finally, some beliefs and identities are, in effect, banned, by being rendered socially unacceptable. In mainstream British culture, for all the talk of free speech, there are certain ideas a citizen would be foolish to admit to holding.

Two myths, one method. The ancient legends of Athene and Prometheus are still relevant (as indeed is much of Greek thought) to how we see ourselves, and our science, today.


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