Science and the Middle Way (An Objective Model)

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“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Maria Mitchell, astronomer, first female member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (quote and picture from Geozilla)

Science has a problem.  For all it’s wonderful, bewildering and sometimes terrifying discoveries (discoveries that have shaped the world that we live in, as nothing before has) science is treated with contempt and mistrust while at the same time (and often from the same source) being worshipped as the miraculous and supremely authoritative fruits of superhuman individuals – ruthless rationalists, seemingly void of normal human responses.  There are countless examples of this, from the MMR scandal and the climate change debate to the seemingly daily claims of cancer cures that adorn the front pages of our favourite tabloids (one would be forgiven for wondering how it is possible that anybody could even develop cancer any more)!  My suspicion is that the problem is borne and perpetuated throughout society, from schools and media to the scientific community itself.

I am not a scientist, most of my understanding of science comes from reading populist science books and so I offer no authority on the nuances of the scientific method.  My intention here is not to suggest possible alternatives to any part of the scientific process, suffice to say there are many dissenting voices and my guess is that any major shift will come – as it has in the past – from within the community itself.  What I will attempt here is to explore the perception of science, as it is presented and understood by what I believe is a large proportion of the population, whilst simultaneously suggesting a more objective (in the Middle Way sense of the word) model, that I hope will avoid dogma, still allow and possibly assist –  science to continue doing what it does best.

I have broken the process of science into five incremental stages, which can be put into three distinct groups of differing levels of public perception.  As can be seen in the scienceberg template stage 2diagram provided, the stages (which are numbered 1 – 5) form a triangle which rises up through the levels of perception (lettered a, b, c).

Level-a: 

This level contains the first stages of the scientific process, which are rarely publicized and are little understood by much of the public (Michael Brooks claims that this is how many scientists wish it to remain).

Stage 1 – People

Science, like art, begins with human beings, and scientists, like artists, are not only capable of wondrous creative leaps but also of jealousy, dishonesty, romance, delusion, dogma and the whole spectrum of human vices and virtues.  Yet the public perception of scientists seems to be of robot like boffin’s, working together with ruthless rationality and poise.  While science appears to maintain a dogmatic status-quo that is beyond challenge, individual scientist must be as competitive and ambitious as the rest of society.  While the established order jealously guard their hard won theories, the young upstarts must surely be desperate to instigate revolution.  These revolutions do happen, but they are rare and require exceptional creativity.  Relativity, The Big Bang Theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle all turned contemporary scientific thought upside down – their instigators all challenged the institution, and won.  To the scientist that proves that the speed of light is not the universal speed limit – a Nobel prize, world fame and the drinks are on you!

It is easy to stereotype scientists in the way that I have described above, or indeed as wild haired genius’s, but the reality must surely be more balanced.  Scientists come in all flavours which means that they can hold differing philosophies and have conflicting religious beliefs, enabling them to tackle problems from alternative points of view – which can only have a positive effect on the process of scientific endeavour.

Stage 2 – Enquiry/ Discovery

Much of this has been covered above, although not all scientific enquiry can result in the revision of commonly held thought.  Most of it is likely to be relatively mundane and most of it is also likely to be unsuccessful – in that results will be negative.  Nevertheless, it is at this stage that individuals and groups can really let their creativity and imagination go wild and this is where the maverick has a chance to shine.  It is worthy of note that the three theories that I cite above, most likely started life as ‘wacky’ ideas that were rejected by much the scientific community.  The majority of fringe hypotheses and unconventional theories are likely to fail, but their exploration should still be encouraged.  It is from here that the next major advancement is likely to come.

Level – b:

It is this level that I believe is the most visible, and it is these stages that many people seem to regard as ‘science’.  Again, Michael Brooks argues that many scientists want it to stay that way.

Stage 3 – Established Theories

This stage really represents the current scientific thought of any given time.  It is this thought that is often presented, in schools, the media and elsewhere, as unquestionable fact (which is actually stage 5).  In the scientific sense this is where the facts are, but this word causes problems and is misused by scientists as well as non-scientists.  The word ‘fact’ in this context should always be accompanied by a ‘with our current understanding’, which in most cases it (sometimes silently) is – even if it is only lip service, paid by a seemingly dogmatic individual.

That there can never be any fact that is 100% validated is a reality that is often exploited by those that wish to challenge current scientific thinking, and this can have serious consequences.  Climate change is a good example.  When ever a scientist makes a prediction, there is always an element of doubt, and sometimes these predictions prove to be wrong or inaccurate.  From a scientific point of view this is fine, but this inherent uncertainty enables those that have conflicting agendas to exaggerate the margin of error to devastating effect.  The same tactics are also employed in the creation/ evolution debate.

While it seems to me that stages 2 & 3 must directly inform each other (in a kind of feedback loop), it is important that they remain separate in terms of advancement to level 4.  Challenges to any scientific theory should be encouraged, but those challenges that determine or alter the application of science, without the appropriate evidence must be treated with caution.

Stage 4 – Application

This is where established theory is employed for practical purposes.  Our whole society can seem like it is the result of stage 4.  There are bridges, aeroplanes, computers, electricity, medicines, films, recorded music – the list is endless.  For many, this is science; putting a man on the moon and microchips – but this is only the result of a long, and (despite my simplification) complex process.  Many people expect science to be useful, and it often is, but that is missing the point.  Science should come from a curiosity of the universe that we live in.  Many theories never have a practical application, or at least don’t during the lifetimes of those that discover them, and that is fine.

Stage 4, although often the accumulation of the stages that precede, is no more important and a scientific journey should not always be expected to arrive at this destination – even though it can obviously be worth it when it does.  Additionally, It should be noted that not every application of scientific discovery is always desirable!

Level – c:

Although this level can never be reached, claims are sometimes made, or misunderstood to have been made that would fit here, and for some this is where science already resides.  This level can often be confused with, or thought to be a part of, level – b.

Stage 5 – Absolute/ Unquestionable Claims

Stage 5 represents the logical conclusion of any scientific exercise, which is to fully understand the universe, even though this aim is unachievable.  While it is regarded as an unattainable ideal, of which the journey towards is worthy in itself, it can be useful as a point of focus.  Nonetheless, it can be problematic, especially where it is claimed that a final and unquestionable truth exists.  I would suggest that in many cases, where it appears there is a claim that would be at home in stage 5, there has actually been a misunderstanding that has resulted from the language used to describe claims in stage 3.  The speed of light is a good example of this.

One can often hear scientists saying that it is impossible for anything in the universe to exceed the speed of light, and this sounds very much like an absolute claim.  At school it is taught as such and the media treat it as such, they are mistakenly presenting it as a stage 5 claim.  However, when a scientist makes this claim there is, in most cases, the additional ‘given our current understanding’ and ‘if you are suggesting otherwise then show me the evidence’, the problem is that these are usually presumed, and therefore unspoken statements.

As human beings, there are undoubtedly individual scientists that believe that some of the claims of science have reached stage 5, but as long as science in general does not then I do not see this as much of an issue.  Some scientists also believe in God while others don’t – which similarly does not cause me concern.

From the perspective of the Middle Way I think that it is important to view science as a whole, which along with the arts and philosophy forms part of an even greater whole.  I think that when one places too much focus on any individual stage then misunderstanding will arise and science will suffer.  The only stage that I am unsure of is number 5, for me it is fine as a motivating but unobtainable goal, but I suspect that others might differ in this.

Level – c (stage 5) aside, the current trend of focusing mainly on level – b should be disregarded, and I would like to see levels a and b combined, which a Middle Way perspective should achieve with little effort.  Of course for the early stages to be better understood they need to be much more visible, and this will ultimately come down to the efforts of the education system, the media and the scientists themselves.

This is clearly a simplified model.  In reality there is much overlap between the stages and the order is not set in stone – as I mentioned above there is an obvious feedback loop in effect between levels 2 and 3.  I have also negated to mention the ethics of science, which is already an ongoing debate.  Some seem to believe that ethics only exist in the application of science, but I would suggest that the reality is much more complex.  Ethical considerations, in varying forms (owing to stage 1), seem likely to exist and to play an active role at every stage of the process – perhaps this is something that the Middle Way Society can explore in greater detail at a later time.

There are bound to be errors here, both in my understanding of science and my application of the Middle Way to it , and I accept that I may have missed my target.  As yet I have not discussed or shown these ideas to anybody but I hope that, if they are not as complete as they seem to me at the time of writing, they might still form part of a wider discussion about how the Middle Way Society might approach science and scientific issues in the future.

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

5 thoughts on “Science and the Middle Way (An Objective Model)

  1. Hi Rich,
    I will not even attempt to judge that the model you have produced above is correct, I have no qualifications to do that, but on a superficial level it does make sense to me. I will find out more about the views of Michael Banks. I do like the way you describe how break throughs in science are often made, I can think of one scientist who said that he solved a mathematical problem in his dreams and remembered it, it may have been Jim Alkelali (forgive the spelling).
    I do know that funding is critical for research in medicine, drug companies will pump funds into research where there is the high possibility of financial gain as a result, for example new drugs to treat illness. The funds going into astrophysics seems huge, but in relation to other funding it is a small percentage, science that seems not to be useful so often is quite the reverse and new insights into our planet are found which increases our understanding. New discoveries are made accidentally while persuing other targets, it is a very creative process, I’m sure there will always be mavericks, we need them as well as the sustained, lengthy plodding investigations of less romantic goals that do not catch the public’s eye. I have an admiration for scientists, I am personally grateful to the medial profession for numerous reasons, while accepting that mistakes will be made with even the possibilty of fraud and corruption. Certain beliefs can be provisionally accepted, one that the universe is composed of the same stuff throughout. I haven’t come across scientists I have read about and watched on television who don’t accept that little is certain and theories will be continually revised and changed when necessary.

  2. Hi Rich

    I very much admire your tackling science in this essay, which I’ve read through once to get an early feel for its meaning. The following phrase leapt out for me:

    “The majority of fringe hypotheses and unconventional theories are likely to fail, but their exploration should still be encouraged. It is from here that the next major advancement is likely to come.”

    As you’ve come to expect, I shall challenge this, but only in the sense that you suggest encouragement. My own experience is that encouragement to challenge convention feels like an insidious subversion, a negative injunction. I want to be obstructed, I need people to roll their eyes, groan, tut and talk about me outside my hearing, what a bloody nuisance I am and why can’t I toe the line and listen to sense. That’s what gets my creative juices flowing. If I’m an oyster I need grit, not jeweller’s rouge, to grow my pearl.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work! :)

  3. Hi Rich,
    I like this post, and especially your account of scientific truth as an inspiring but unattainable goal – an aspect of what I call truth on the edge. It’s a good example of what I’d like to see more of on this site – people articulating their own understanding of the Middle Way in a particular area based on their own experience and study.

    There’s only one area where I’d slightly disagree with you, and it may just be a difference of emphasis. That’s on your stage 4, and the relationship between science and technology. Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives some interesting evidence here that a lot of the direct impact of science on technology is greatly over-rated. Many technological advances seem to come, not directly from the application of scientific theory, but by tinkerers trying things out practically in a workshop. The invention of the jet engine is an example of this that he cites, and almost any of the technological devices that have changed our lives seem to have primarily involved tinkering. However, one could also argue that the entire context in which tinkerers tinker has nevertheless been informed by scientific advances. For example, jet engines need petroleum, which depends on advances made in chemistry that enable mineral oils to be refined. Those who fail to distinguish between science and technology may be largely, though not completely, mistaken.

    I also think that the idea of ‘pure’ science having a ‘pure’ intellectual value is often overrated, and indeed can become a metaphysical belief. Nobody would engage in a scientific career without the likelihood of reward, and that reward depends on funding that comes from a variety of decidedly impure motives: national interest, the hope of eventual technological applications, economic advantage, the positive impact of research on education. A supposedly pure scientific project is just an impure one whose possible practical applications are not yet known. Nobody knows as yet what applications the Large Hadron Collider and discovery of the Higgs Boson may have in future, but I doubt very much if such a large amount would have been spent on it if there was no likelihood of long-term benefit.

    I do agree that projects without any immediate application should be funded – up to a point, and not indiscriminately. The more basic the research, the bigger the chance that it will have very far-reaching long-term implications. But the reason this kind of research should be funded, I would argue, should be based on our recognition of ignorance about future applications, rather than the value of ‘pure’ science in itself. The same applies to ‘pure’ mathematics and ‘pure’ philosophy. The purer these pursuits become, the greater the danger of a self-perpetuating and isolated elite with a vested interest in maintaining their own authority by over-estimating the impact of theory on practice.

  4. Hi

    Norma,

    Funding is a real issue and of course those that provide funding are more likely to do so if there are significant chances of ‘results’, and perhaps financial return. I can understand this, if large amounts of government funds were allocated to discover if Marshmallow can become conscious and animate then there would be understandable outrage. If however, an eccentric Billionaire chose to fund the study, then why not? It seems highly unlikely that the primary aim would ever be achieved, but other unanticipated (and possibly important) discoveries might be made along the way. I believe that this has happened throughout scientific history (perhaps not with such a silly primary goal), but it is a big gamble – all that we might find out is that it is probably impossible to give Marshmallow consciousness.

    I saw a program with Brian Cox where he visited a big pharmaceutical laboratory. He was impressed with the science being done there, it was very goal orientated and the occurrence of positive results was high, which is good for the company and good for us too. He then gave a warning that too much of this target driven science might be detrimental in other ways. Traditionally, scientists would record all of their results – positive or negative- and this often led them along lines of discovery that they had not imagined, but in these big corporate labs the (significantly numbered) negative results are discarded, along with the possibility of many chance discoveries.

    Peter,

    While I think that it would be foolish to actively encourage any old wild hypothesis, I think that we should avoid dogmatic obstructions. So my use of the word ‘encourage’ could, in some circumstances, just mean not bullying somebody that you don’t agree with into giving up their chosen lines of enquiry.

    I am not sure about your challenge for this reason; I do encourage challenges of convention (although I do not wish them to all be successful). I expect it from my self, and I respect it in others. If I were to accept that active encouragement to defy convention is an act of subversion, then the opposite of this, which would be to actively discourage this defiance, would be even more insidious and subversive – because I would be doing this in an attempt to manipulate others into reacting against me in an act of reverse psychology.

    Robert,

    Stage 4 need only contain those applications that do result from science, although these can be difficult to recognise. I would say that even if an engineer does not understand the scientific principles behind their creation, that doesn’t mean it has not originated in scientific discovery. John Gribbin describes this well (in his book In Search of Schroedinger Cat) when he describes the Quantum cook book. The man who is designing the next smart phone does not need to have any knowledge of Quantum physics, but he does use a set of rules and instructions that have been laid out by the physicists. I think that there are examples of this throughout engineering, but I would still say that these applications belong in stage 4. I also think that tinkering in a workshop can be a form of science, which belongs in stage 2, only when a discovery has been made (the jet engine for example) does it then move to stage 3 (and 4, simultaneously?). Nevertheless, there will always be exceptions.

    I don’t like the sound of pure science but it sounds like the kind of misrepresentation that I am keen to avoid. There are individuals whose inspiration to conduct science is purely based on the reward of quenching curiosity and exploring virgin territory. Despite this, any thing that we can discover about the world/ universe has a chance of being put to some use, but as you say, any application might not be immediately apparent. I like your example of the Hadron Collider, and agree that it is not the ‘pure’ science that it is often perceived to be – but it is a voyage into the unknown. They think that they know what they will find (and have so far) but it could throw up some serious challenges to the current thinking – which is much more exciting.

    Rich

  5. Hi Rich,
    I think I learnt about the funding debate after listening to Brian Cox’s programmes. It is unfortunate that reports of failed experiments are discarded because who knows what they may unintenionally reveal under further examination. Scientists sometimes troll through old research papers to search for snippets of helpful information which had been overlooked by the original scientist.
    I would also think that since funding is precious there has to be a close watch on those who have completely pie in the sky theories.
    I agree that there is rivalry to be the first to succeed, didn’t Wallace have the first inklings about evolution but Darwin had more success promoting the theory?
    I do hope you will write more blogs on your subject. Do you find time to watch the television series Horizon, I find it a mine of information?
    Environmental issues interest me too. My younger daughter wrote a paper on badger culling for her BSc studies for example, she set out to show that not only was it unwise to attempt to wipe out the species in chosen areas but that the cull would not provide the required result. I learnt recently that only 10% of animals world wide are wild, the rest have been domesticated, a sad statistic if it is true.

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