What is science?

[From Bill Powers (950213.0845 MST)]

Mark Abrams (950212 and before) --

I'd like to echo Bill Leach's complaint; hope you can do something about
it. When you send posts, they all are double-spaced -- a blank line
between lines of text. And when you include files someone sent you, they
come out _quadruple_ spaced -- pages and pages! Also, you seem to be
including the entire text of posts you are replying to, instead of just
the statements, lines, or paragraphs specifically related to your
comments. All this leads to long periods of editing before I can read
your posts, and find your comments among all the stuff that's included.
I can't tell WHAT PART of the post you are commenting on. Just a
mechanical problem, but it gets in the way of the conversation.

How are you receiving and sending stuff? On a terminal on a mainframe,
or in a personal computer? Maybe if you have trouble eliminating the
double and quadruple spacing, someone on the net who has seen that
problem can help you fix it.

Also, it WOULD help if you would precede your posts with

From Marc Abrams (yymmdd.hhmm)

... so we can tell who the message is from right away. The date-time
information can be written any way you please, of course, but it helps
distinguish multiple messages. I download batches of messages as one big
file into my PC, 16 this morning, and all this formal labeling helps me
to know whose material I'm reading without scrolling to the header
information at the end of the message (which I normally delete anyway).
I don't necessarily see the files in the order they were transmitted,
either! Potholes in the infobahn.


The rest of this is for both you and Susan Schweers (950212 etc).

For me, science is simply trying to know about things in a way that is
influenced as little as possible by what I want to be true, hope is
true, or believe is true. Scientific methods are mainly tricks and
techniques that help to keep us from fooling ourselves, which even the
most famous scientists have done quite frequently. People who don't take
precautions against fooling themselves, of course, do it even more

Some people think that science works this way: first you think up a
theory to explain some facts; then you look for as much evidence as you
can find to prove that the theory is correct.

I think that if you want to know about things, this is the worst
possible way to do it. The reason is that observations need
interpretation, and if you only look for support for a theory you can
always find it. There are always events that can be interpreted as
supporting any theory, even if there are far more that would contradict
it if you looked for them.

The real paydirt in science comes when you try to _disprove_ a theory,
particularly your own theory. You say "If this theory is true, then by
its own logic if I do X then Y HAS TO HAPPEN." So you immediately
arrange to do X, and you look very critically to see if Y happens. If it
doesn't, you're finished: you've at least put the theory into deep
trouble, and at best have destroyed the theory. I say "at best" because
if a theory can be so easily disposed of we should do so immediately to
avoid wasting any more time on it. We can spend that time more
profitably in looking for a better theory.

The problem is that doing this doesn't come naturally to human beings.
If we have thought up a new theory, or received it as a huge insight
from some other person we think is smart and successful, we are likely
to fall in love with it, to believe it, to admire it. In other words,
just because we found it convincing when we first heard it or thought it
up, and just because we have seen some apparent support for it, we start
to BELIEVE it. Once we start to BELIEVE a theory, it becomes very
difficult to get up the motivation to try to disprove it. Why should I
try to disprove something that's so obviously true? And the longer we
use the theory, particularly if we've build a reputation or a following
on the basis of our expertise with it, if it's given us some authority
or status or a nice income, the harder it gets even to think of trying
to undermine it. Quite the opposite: any suggestion by someone else that
there might be something wrong with the theory is most likely to result
in a strong defense or an immediate counterattack.

In my idealistic view of science, a real scientist is aware of these
pitfalls and of his own urge to believe once and for all, and tries to
follow a path that minimizes these tendencies to self-delusion. One way
to do this is to be very tough on theories, particularly one's own. You
can't know whether another person is being influenced by a desire that a
theory be true, but you CAN know that about yourself, if you've learned
to be honest with yourself. When you come up with a theory, if you
understand this problem, your first reaction is "Oh, no ... what's wrong
with this idea?" It helps if you have memories (as I do) of believing in
other theories with great devoutness, only to have the whole structure
come crashing down. If it can happen once, it's bound to happen again if
I'm not careful, or maybe even if I am, so what can I do to avoid this
or at least postpone it?

One thing you can do is to keep it as simple as possible. If you can
think up a simple theory like PCT in which you can do tests involving
only a few variables, and make predictions in a way that clearly shows
failures if they occur, and if no test you can think of (within the
rules of the theory) is failed, then you're more or less forced to
accept the theory, for the time being, because you just don't see any
way out of it. To me, that's the ideal position to be in: where you
can't think of any alternative that comes even close to explaining the
phenomenon, so you're backed up into reluctant admission that this
theory does seem to do the job (today).

I think the ideal scientist looks at a theory the way he looks at a used
car. When I go to a used-car lot, my primary thought is that the
salesman is going to try to unload a lemon on me for as much money as he
can get. So if I see any car that appeals to me, I give it a very hard
look, from the engine and suspension to the wear on the brake pedal. If
I buy it, I know that I'm not getting all that seems to be there on the
surface; somebody, after all, got rid of it, and the salesman is making
his living off people like me.

So do I look at other theories, but most of all at PCT. All right now,
what is this logical brain of mine trying to get away with here? It all
looks very pretty on the outside, but what will happen when we set up a
real situation with a real person whom we can't control, and make the
theory try to predict what will ACTUALLY happen? We can explain things
that have ALREADY happened, using PCT, just by talking about them in the
right words. But what about predicting something that hasn't happened
yet, preferably something that wasn't anticipated when the original idea
came up? That, as they say, is when the metabolic product encounters the
air-circulation device.

A lot of my interaction with believers in other theories has been under
the assumption that other scientists have the same idealized views that
I do. In the basic literature of PCT you will find lots of examples and
simple demonstrations, most of them selected to make it very hard for
conventional theories to explain them. If I put a random disturbance (or
three independent ones) from an invisible source between a person's
action and the variable that person is supposed to control, the reason
is not just to test PCT (although that's always there). When the person
succeeds in controlling the remote variable quite accurately despite
those invisible disturbances, the message is not just that PCT predicted

For a real scientist, as I think of "real", all the basic experiments
and demos of PCT are challenges to alternative theories. If other
theories are to be sustained, they HAVE TO DEAL WITH THESE EXAMPLES.
It's no good to say, "Yeah, but look at all this other stuff that my
theory explains." We're not talking about the other stuff. We're talking
about simple phenomena of behavior which your theory not only can't
explain, but can't even allow to happen. But here they are, happening,
and you can reproduce them easily, if you want to. If you're a real
scientist, you will want to, if only to find the loophole. Look at me --
how I wish I really could talk to "you" this way, you bastards.

Real scientists, I have gradually come to realize over the years, are
pretty thinly scattered. Most people who call themselves scientists
think that you prove a theory by showing it is right. Most of them have
solid beliefs which tell them that any contrary theory is ipso facto
wrong. Most of them react to criticisms of their theories by defending
against them and by counterattacking.

That's only human, of course. But it's also one reason that I don't mix
much with humans: it's too frustrating. I like you folks on the internet
because you're here voluntarily; you're ready to look at the demos and
think about them and see what they mean for other theories, and nobody
is twisting your arms to do so. You're all free to conclude that it's
all bullshit and pull out any any moment. So if you're still here (and
most of the people on the list of 135 have been following this
scientific soap opera for three or four years) it must be because you're
real scientists (whether you use that title or not) and are willing to
be tough on theories no matter how well-established they are. I hope
you're just as tough on PCT as I would like you to be on the others.

Of course there are two sides to that: if you're going to bring your pet
theory to CSG-L, you have to expect that others are going to be tough on
it, too. How hard have you tried to find counterexamples, to find
something wrong with your theory? What's the evidence that has backed
you into a corner so you can't think of ANY alternative explanation of
the phenomena? I stick my neck out every time I make a claim about PCT,
and I expect anyone else with an alternative theory to be equally
vulnerable. That's the only kind of theorizing I can respect: the kind
that is willing to let the axe fall if it's going to.

So, Marc and Susan, I've answered the implicit question you ask about
science and probably a lot more you didn't ask. But you asked.

Bill P.