Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You Can Teach Yourself To Think Like A Scientist - Part 2

{You Can Teach Yourself To Think Like A Scientist - Part 1}

OK, I'm trying to pick up this series again, hopefully with less typos and grammatical errors (hey, you have to expect these things especially when many of my blog entry are written on the fly).

The idea behind this series is to emphasize the notion that many of the decisions on how we live and behave are due to how we arrive at certain ideas or knowledge. I truly believe that the more we realize that we need to use the same scientific methodology in arriving at decisions and actions that we do everyday, the better off we are.

It has been raining a lot in the Chicago area the past couple of weeks. I was in a friend's vehicle during one of a rainy period, driving to somewhere. He had his windshield wipers on, and driving rather slowly. I told him that he could speed it up a little so that we get there faster. He told me he is just abiding the law, and driving just below the speed limit that was posted. I told him if he was so concerned about abiding the law, why didn't he have his headlights on? He had no answer.

{Here, in Illinois, the law says that when you have your windshield wipers on, you must have your headlights on as well}

One of the things I see very often here is that people often justify their actions because they are following some more generalized principle. In the example I relayed above, my friend was living by the principle of "abiding the law". A consequence of living by this principle is "driving under the speed limit". But as we all know, there are OTHER CONSEQUENCES of the principle of "abiding the law". I mentioned one of them, "wipers on, lights on". Yet, my friend didn't do this, and chose to ignore it, without any explanation.

So now, we are left to speculate on why that is. Is he truly living by the principle of "abiding the law"? Or is he really living by the principle "abiding by the law that I find convenient and the one that I remember"? If he is doing the latter, then simply espousing the idea that he is living by the principle of "abiding the law" is highly inaccurate. If you live by a certain principle, then you must follow and do all that principle asks you to do. You cannot pick and choose. If you do, you are no longer living by that principle, but rather, living by a modified form of that principle. This, you must clarify or you are conveying the wrong information.

In physics, any general idea, principle, or theory has a body of outcomes and consequences. Special Relativity, for example, makes many different predictions. Each one of them must be tested and confirmed. If any of the predictions and consequences do not match experimental observations, then (i) either the theory is wrong or (ii) there's new physics beyond what that theory can predict. We simply cannot pick-and-choose. This means that if something doesn't work all the time, we must know clearly where that boundary is, and this must be made very clear so that people know that beyond this boundary, it no longer works.

To think like a scientist in this case is to make a clear analysis on what the general principle is that people are using to justify their actions or arguments. You need to sit back, and figure out if what someone is arguing is based on some central principle or belief. Let's apply it to a hot topic of the moment, the debate on gay marriages. It is a hot topic here in the US at the moment, and it is certainly is one in France right now.

One of the most common argument against gays, and against gay marriages, that I've heard is that it is "not natural". Some of these people tried to "intellectualize" the argument against it by taking out the religious aspect of it, and using Mother Nature as the argument. So let's apply our analysis that I stated above. What is the overriding principle involved here? Of course, it is the principle of living "naturally", obeying what is natural, or opposing what is "not natural". Let's look at this critically.

First of all, what actually is meant by "natural"? Is it what would happen if left on its own without human intervention? Is it what can be found in nature without any artificial means or intrusions? Let us adopt both.

If these people are living by the principle of upholding what is "natural", then:

1. Does that mean that everything that is natural is OK and can be practiced by human beings? This includes animals eating and devouring their youngs that they know won't survive, and having multiple sexual partners, which is prevalent in the animal world.

2. If they are opposed to everything that is not natural, then they should also question other unnatural human behavior, such as clothings, shaving, circumcision (now what could be more unnatural than cutting off a piece of one's body?), etc.

Yet, these people who opposed gay marriages on the grounds that it is "not natural" (the principle involved here) do not oppose other unnatural aspects of human life. So are they like my friend who drove very slow, but chose to ignore turning on his headlights? Are they arguing against something "not natural", but with caveats? Are they closer to living the principle of "I oppose things that are unnatural, but only limited to my own personal dislike of certain behavior". Or maybe "I oppose things that are unnatural that are dictated by my religious beliefs. Other unnatural things are fine."

Either one of those will be significantly more accurate than simply stating that one is opposed to something because it is "not natural". The reason why this must be made explicitly clear is that knowing what principle is involved provides a very well-defined boundary condition and playing field. You clearly know that this really isn't JUST about something being unnatural. There are other factors involved. The analogy to physics is that this isn't just a simple trajectory motion. Other external factors such as wind resistance is involved. So the discussion (or arguments) can be framed within such boundary conditions. That other person is arguing against something based on a number of factors, not just because it is "not natural", the same way my friend was driving slow not just because he's obeying the law.

And interestingly enough, I find that some of the people I talked to, often do not realize this aspect themselves. In other words, those who opposed gay marriages by using the argument that it is "not natural", often truly believe that that is all the reason for such opposition. Like my friend, when I asked them whether they also oppose circumcision and wearing of clothing, and shaving, they looked at me funny. It often never occurred to them that there are other unnatural human behavior, and yet, these never bothered them. What is happening here is that they never examined ALL the consequences and outcomes of adopting such a principle. They never carefully thought through what other unnatural behaviors and practices are out there. Just because wearing clothes is normal, it doesn't mean it is natural. Just because one is familiar with something doesn't make it "natural", based on our definition above. Just like my driving friend who never considered the fact that living by the principle of abiding the law means that one has to abide by ALL the laws, these people also never made such consideration of living their lives without anything "not natural".

In physics, knowing what the general principle is is extremely important. It is the origin and the source of many other things, and we understand the limits, the boundaries and what can and cannot be done based on that overriding principle. A lot of  arguments that I've seen among the public and in politics are often arguments of the consequences of such-and-such a principle. Some politicians want to cut spending because they live by the principle of "small government" or some other things. Yet, if you examine carefully, the principle that they live by are not well-defined, and more often than not, they adopt it inconsistently, applying it here, while ignoring it there - cut spending and budgets for science funding, social programs, etc, while continue to increase military spending (drive under the speed limit, but ignore to turn on the headlights).

My personal diagnosis on all of this is that, many people FIRST adopt the CONSEQUENCE (i.e. oppose gay marriage, oppose funding social programs, don't want to drive fast), and THEN went back and find some general principle to justify their position (not natural, want to cut spending, want to follow the law). Now, there's nothing wrong with that. It is done in science too. In physics, we tackled problems such as the Blackbody radiation, which then eventually led to a more general principle of quantum mechanics. Only later on, do we realize that the blackbody radiation is a consequence of QM. But once QM has been formalized, we adopt ALL of QM as we learn more and more about it. We continue to test it, and explore the boundary of its applicability.

Unfortunately, this is not true in the cases of human decision that I've stated above. There was never any self-diagnose of one's adoption of some overriding principle. Those who adopt the opposition to things that are "not natural", never examined if they are opposing ALL of things that are not natural, because they are not! My friend never examined if he truly is living by the principle of abiding the law, because he wasn't.

So the central principle of this entry is the examination and the consequences of a central principle. Isn't that neat? :)


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