Hard Science and Soft Science

Those practising the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy et.al. know (or believe) they are being rigorous, rational, thorough and patient in their pursuit of truth. A goal reached only now and then to scientists – it is hard won, but practitioners are not deterred. They know science calls for such dedication; they are proud of themselves. By and large the public holds a similar picture of scientists; it respects them (ill-tempers over the proof of global warning notwithstanding). They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge. It is interesting to think that the word ‘scientist’ automatically carries with it the word ‘expert’. We do not conceive of a scientist being an inexpert or amateur.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. This separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Nor do practitioners ‘appear’ rigorous, testing, patient, objective researchers of the truth. Rather they are seen as amateurs, speculative, imaginative. To be enjoyed – surely at times; to be taken seriously as purveyors of knowledge and truth – infrequently. At best they are artists. They may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’ – an ambivalence – both pejorative and charitable a judgment surely.

But an alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guideline for young scientists, to begin with. It can also be their weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule which restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, yet to be considered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration are absent, disallowed. Research under restraint. It is only the exceptional scientist (usually renowned and retired) who concedes that speculation and imagination play an important role in the best scientific research.

But science can’t have it both ways: its formula is the ‘scientific method’; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not. Is it an aberration, which sometimes pays off?

Consider the humanities scholar: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, she is wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself, with all its ambiguities, allusions, and hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed; and they haunt you always.

Their studies target, in one way or other, the human condition, whether the subject matter is history and its wars, cities and their rise and fall, the quest for political power, women’s repression, and economic cycles. Human beings are always, no matter how implicitly, the subject matter. And humans change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and to themselves. How do we make these fitful, capricious beings an object of rigorous study? Let alone an object of ‘scientific’
study’? [The effort to square the circle may be the cause of psychology’s poor repute, and its retreat into a ‘testing’ institution].

How do we ever ‘know’ human beings in all their machinations and manoeuvres ? Can we ever ‘understand the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy – in all their guises ? Surely these studies are the real ‘hard sciences’. And there can never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’ – there the scientist has her ‘marching orders’, they know what they have to do, and they get on with the job, in a certain pure innocence.

Pity the poor poet or ‘student’ of politics (note we never say the ‘student of the galaxies’); they rely on little helpful directions on how to manage their work. Nothing instructs them; everything obstructs them. They grope and struggle for every insight in their practice of ‘hard science’.

Don Miller
8-3-2012

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Google’s Glass Ball

Google’s Glass Ball

“Can we live without it?” “Can we live with it?” Two pervasive questions dividing Google users these days. However “is it for real” is the question that intrigues me, initially raised implicitly and unintentionally by Amit Singhall, Google’s nominated ‘Visionary’, on talking about the Future.

The future is beyond information and into ‘knowledge’. The new ‘thinking’ computers will ‘synthesise’, for example, a PhD thesis of three hundred pages ‘into an easily understood but objective precis’. And this in a nano-second, because for Google everthing valuable needs its speed component. As Singhal says, appropriately economically, “Knowledge to me is how much you can learn in the least possible time.” Actually an efficiency of speed is perhaps the only virtue of pre-Google modern life that Google respects and retains.

We are then hence into the world of knowledge. Presumably (it is not raised) Shakespeare, Proust, Plato and Einstein and a modicum of other thinkers will also be efficiently synthesised for immediate ingestion by the millions.

And then ultimately this knowledge inexorably leads to the final stage, ‘Wisdom’, where there will no longer be wars, hunger, or poverty. Our knowledge will eliminate all such ‘wickedness’.

When such a thinking computer has been assembled and is operating, I would like to ask it two questions: ‘As what stage of Google thinking on the future can or ought we determine that its worthwhile imagination has turned psychotic and has become entirely divorced from reality?’ and secondly, ‘In the light of Google’s clipped slogan ‘Do no evil’ is it conceivable that unwittingly it may be seeding a disposition to do such that?’

Note: a longer article, titled ‘Google World – an Interim Report’ appears in Melbourne Centre for Ideas Enewsletter, No 63, December 2011.

Don Miller
12-01-2012

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Uncertainty

If deniers are not accusing the Reds or Greens of attempting to topple capitalism, or pointing the finger at the U.N. for planning to surreptitiously bring about ‘world government’, they are reminding us that even scientists admit there is some ‘uncertainty’ in their findings that the earth is in fact warming and that human behaviour is significantly responsible for this process. Therefore, they conclude, we must not get sucked into extravagant, needless and dangerous schemes to reduce such ‘warming’.

The first two accusations are so fanciful we should treat them with ridicule. The third, the apparently rational attack, is a different matter. In a way it is true – there is uncertainty. In a more rigorous way, it is untrue because the users of this argument don’t appreciate what they are saying when they are wording such an accusation; they do not understand the nature of science. All science exists permanently with uncertainty.

I suspect ninety percent of the world doesn’t realize this because education fails to explain to each generation the nature of natural and social reality, and the notion of knowledge with its inevitable limitations. They also ignore, albeit unwittingly, how all human beings live every moment of their lives with uncertainty, and that every time they make decisions, small or large, they act on gross uncertainty, and even were  people aware of that restriction, they can do nothing about it.

Certain scientists unfortunately do themselves a disservice by misrepresenting what science in practice is. A pity. Scientific practice is not entirely radically different from non-scientific practice.

The sooner we eradicate the dominant influence of two thousand old myths about what reality, life and knowledge are, with all their limitations and imperfections and changeability necessarily entailed, the sooner we can understand and help curb the more foolish and dangerous statements and policies individuals, corporations and governments regularly propose.

As far as I can see, the only certainty is uncertainty. It is structural and pervasive; it is not simply the occasional product of deceit or incompetence. The deniers’ use of the argument has no serious value; it can however mislead many sincere people who are consciously ‘uncertain’ about this critical issue.

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About Knowledge

Many years ago I reviewed a book which  prescribed all the latest sciences – in which ‘nano’ and ‘spikes’ flourish. The author insisted that “we now know over 90% of what constitutes the human brain, and within the current generation we will know everything”.

I criticized this, arguing that it assumes knowledge is always cumulative, each new piece building on some old, until the pyramid is complete. Whereas, new knowledge may well, in one sweep, jettison the existing system of knowledge, and a new enterprise begins. We are never in a position to know which way things will go. [By 2010 that author, I hope, would know better]

That morally and politically objectionable man, Donald Rumsfeld, expressed it more elegantly when he was putting a spin on the changing fortunes of the American invasion of Iraq: there are things we know we don’t know, but there are other things we don’t know we don’t know.’

I am reminded of this by the report in The Age on 6/11/10 of the work of  Sydney physicists led by Professor John Webb. They argue that “one of the fundamental constants of nature, alpha, is not a constant. Not only does it appear to be changing, it also differs depending from which direction in space you are facing.” In apparently 5-10 years time a definitive affirmation will be known, according to Professor Webb.

If correct “it means the laws of physics can vary throughout the universe, which would have a profound effect on science. —This would make the universe a much more complicated place. Scientists tend to consider simplicity is more likely than complexity. But I think that has historically been shown to be an incorrect philosophy” Professor Webb concludes.

We are foolish ever to think we are getting closer to the ?satisfactory completion of any system of knowledge. As Jacques Derrida reminds us “there is no ‘last word’ on anything.” Often we need to retrace our steps, or even start again.  And, as well, ?the more we learn the more we discover complexity and mystery not simplicity ?and order in everything.

Why is it that in so many ways we still ‘think’ mechanically, as if we were living still in the ?eighteenth century?

 

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