Useability of a Scientific Theory
The word abstract
has fallen from fashion, unfortunately. Its a simple word.
Its root means to draw away from. Its related
to the word extract which means to draw out
of. You can extract the juice from an orange.
Abstract also means the concentrated essence
of a larger whole. (American Heritage.)
Words, ideas, theories, models, etc., are all abstractions. They
all attempt to give the concentrated essence of some (much larger)
energy event-pattern of the physical universe.
Abstractions: idea, word, map, theory, model, principle,
dogma, knowledge ...
During the 18th and
19th century perhaps many natural philosophers (who later came
to be called scientists), were trying to verify theories. Karl
Popper, in the 20th century, brought into fashion the idea of
falsification of a theory. To him, a theory was scientific if
there was some critical test that could be done that might prove
the theory wrong. Popper was apparently inspired by Einsteins
theory of relativity, which made specific predictions (the bending
of light by matter) which were highly risky because events could
have proved them wrong.
18th & 19th Centuries
show theory to be true
show theory to be false
show theory to be workable?
In the Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy (Stanford University, available on-line) Steven
Thorton gives a summary of Poppers life and works. Apparently
Popper backpedaled later in life. Poppers final position
is that he acknowledges that it is impossible to discriminate
science from non-science on the basis of falsifiability alone
... This is itself clearly a major alteration of his position,
and arguably represents a substantial step down on his part.
It appears that the concept of falsifiability, so
dear to the hearts of skeptics, is itself falsifiable. Unfortuantely,
it does not appear to pass the test. For Newtons work has
been shown to be false, yet it is still bery useful as science.
How many scientific theories, laws, or principles are always true?
Perhaps none. If one examines the sequence from Aristotle to Galileo/Newton
to Einstein one sees changes in theory. Each theory apparently
corrected the flaws in the previous theory.
However, it is possible that Einsteins equations do not
hold true inside a black hole. (Thorne, 1993, p. 476) Perhaps,
instead of talking about the truth or falsity of a theory, we
should be talking about its useability.
heavy bodies fall faster
falsified by experiment
falsified by bending light
false inside a black hole?
An analogy could be
drawn to a map (which is a say). A map is useful, but is it true
or false? Imagine a map of the United States. Someone interested
in verification would take the map and venture out into reality
(a try). This investigator might find the Mississippi River and
the Ohio River and say, Yep. Here they are. Right where
the map said they would be. This is a true map. Another
investigator, interested in falsification, might take the map
to the same area (a try) and say, Here is a stream not
on the map. Here is another stream not on the map. This is a false
Oh Say, Can
Korzybski (1948) used to say, The map is not the territory;
the word is not the thing.
Theories, laws, words, principles, and ideas have strong similarities
to a map. They are all abstractions of the physical universe,
and so leave out some part of that universe in an attempt to capture
a smaller essence. Although it can appear that some theories are
perfect, and thus somehow were abstracted from the essence of
the universe, I believe that in the long run they are shown (or
will be shown) to have a correspondence with reality, but not
a perfect correspondence.
The say may affect
the see. Thomas Kuhn wrote about this in his classic work, The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and popularized the word
paradigm. What we say, our world view or paradigm,
said Kuhn, may affect what we see. I think the say affects the
see, for a period of time, until reality intrudes.
Perhaps one example of this is the word sunset. This
word describes an event that we have suspected to be false for
about 500 years--ever since Copernicus first suggested that the
Earth goes around the sun, instead of the sun going around the
Earth. Yet, what do most of us see when this energy event pattern
takes place? We see the sun going down.
I have suggested using the word spin-out instead of
sunset. The point on the Earth where you are standing
is spinning to face the outer part of the solar system. The energy
event pattern known as sunrise could be called spin-in.
(Maybe you can think of a better word.)
Although the say probably affects the see to some degree in all
of us, the say may affect the see, in certain individuals, at
certain times, more than others. In fact, an individual Homo sapien
may lie along a scale, or spectrum, of Belief-Disbelief that ranges
from fanatic to cynic. (We might call this the belief in the say.)
Unjustified enthusiasm. Zealot. Sometimes willing
to die so that a principle, model, theory, dogma may live.
Blindly buys, swallows, and trusts despite
evidence to the contrary. Looks for minor similarities between
theory and reality as evidence in favor of the theory; naive.
Looks for major similarities between theory
and reality as evidence in favor of the theory.
Realist; realizes that no theory/model can
be perfect. Accepts those that work (or parts of those that work)
in aiding survival. Discards what doesnt work.
Looks for major differences between theory
and reality as evidence against the theory.
Doubter; looks for minor differences between
theory and reality as evidence against the theory. Seldom buys,
swallows, or trusts despite evidence to do so; suspicious.
Suspicious, scoffer; nihilist; believes in
nothing; lives in order to prove others wrong, but may commit
suicide as there is no reason to live.
I believe that sanity
lies in the region between +90 and -90 on this scale. The scale
could also be represented as a circle. This scale, or Belief-Disbelief
Circle, may be of use in training individuals to think clearer.
Much more could be said about this scale, but here I will add
that I dont believe that a pragmatist or 0 on
the scale should be the goal, but rather that one should be able
to move freely between -90 and +90, in response to the given situation.
Obviously, with the proliferation of unsubstantiated belief in
alien abduction, some healthy skepticism is needed.
Insert Figure 4. [not
included in text-only format]
Another example of
a healthy skeptic would be someone on the lookout (see) for maps
that showed the Mississippi River running east-west instead of
north-south. Or a map that showed no Mississippi River. Or a map
that showed the capital of alleged Atlantis on the Mississippi.
There will probably
always be work for the nitpicker, as no model, by definition,
is ever perfect. For example, for a map to be perfect, it would
have to be as large as the Earth. In fact, it would have to work
exactly like our Earth, and would therefore have to have the same
mass, etc. If one tried to construct this Earth-2, it would totally
disrupt the dynamics of the original Earth-1, and Earth-2 would
have to change accordingly, and thus the whole thing becomes impossible.
Even theories that have been proven false are sometimes
still highly useable. Newtons equations are much more useable
than Einsteins, at speeds much lower than the speed of light.
My acquaintance, Dr. James Counsilman, is well known for using
Newtons Laws and Bernoullis principle in the analysis
of swimming strokes (1994). (Since swimmers will probably never
approach the speed of light, we have, in effect, principles and
laws that could be considered always true.)
In another example of this, robotic planetary probes have been
sent to most of the various planets of our home star in the past
few decades. This has resulted in an explosion of our knowledge
concerning these planets. Some think these past decades might
one day be called the golden age of planetary exploration.
All these probes have used the mathematics of Newtons laws
and the law of gravity to get where they were going. This was
because these spacecraft traveled at speeds much, much, much lower
than the speed of light.
of the Say
The useability of a
theory, model, etc., or abstraction might equal the predictive
power of that abstraction divided by its perceived size. Predictive
power of a theory would increase as the correspondence between
theory (in its major aspects) and reality increased. I call this
correspondence the match. Thus we could say that the useability
of an abstraction is equal to the match divided by the perceived
Useability of a Scientific
Theory or Model
Useability = Predictive
Power / Size = Match / Size
Match = Useability x
Size Size = Match / Useability
Perceived size of an
abstraction would be how much storage capacity (either interior
or exterior) is required by the organism for that abstraction.
Its probably not good survival practice for an organism
to use up too much of its gigabytes of storage memory.
Thus, advertisers are great at coming up with catchy
phases that are easy to remember. Good scientists are also. John
Wheeler changed Schwarzschild singularity to black
hole, and thereby helped to bring this phenomenon to public
A very detailed map may have a greater match to reality, but may
become too bulky to be of much use on an expedition.
A model of the universe may fill twelve volumes in abstruse philosophical
prose, but due to its sheer size would have limited useability.
Newtons laws and the theory of gravity have high useability
because they match fairly well to reality (at speeds much lower
than the speed of light) and they are small in size. The basic
mathematical theory of gravity can be stated in one sentence.
(Two objects will attract each other with a pull proportional
to their masses and inversely proportional to the second power
of the distance between them.)
Useability may partially explain the popularity of
certain non-scientific beliefs and models. They are
often small in perceived size and easy to remember.
Fake-science, or pseudoscience, is usually considered to mean
models that have a low match-to-reality. Of course a very low
match would lower the useability, no matter how simple the model.
Scientific theories that have a very large size would have limited
useability, despite their good match.
In Part I, when I developed the Try-See-Say model of science,
I choose to use Try-See-Say rather than Try-Perceive-Say, because
even though Try-Perceive-Say has a greater match with reality,
the storage capacity required, I felt, was too much.
1. Organisms, in trying
to survive, and gain knowledge, can be modeled by the Try-See-Say
cycle, which is sometimes formalized by Homo sapiens as science.
2. What Homo sapiens says are abstractions from reality, which
store what the individual and species has learned.
3. What Homo sapiens says, may affect what he sees.
4. A Homo sapiens may lie on a spectrum of Belief-Disbelief that
goes something like this: fanatic / gullible believer / cautious
believer / pragmatist / healthy skeptic / nitpicker / cynic.
5. Homo sapiens abstractions from reality, such as ideas, words,
maps, models, scientific theories, principles (all forms of knowledge)
have a useability that is equal to the match-to-reality of the
abstraction, divided by the perceived size (to Homo sapiens) of
Counsilman, James, and Counsilman, Brian, The New Science of Swimming,
Davis, Raymond, et al., Chemistry, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston,
Thorne, Kip, Black Holes and Time Warps, Norton, NY, 1994.
Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity, Business Press, Penn.,
Popper, Karl, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Stanford University, (available on- line).
Popper, Karl, Karl R. Popper, (ed. M.A. Notturno), Routledge,
1996 (as quoted in Skeptic magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1996, p. 104.)
Wortman, Camille B., Loftus, Elizabeth F., and Marshall, Mary,
Psychology, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.
(c) 1999 W. Lauritzen