Category Archives: scientific method

On Evolution

History and Evolution (from biology) are somewhat similar in that both are quite descriptive, and involve in their description some events that cannot really be predicted from any known first principles. Indeed, it will not be too much of a sin to say history is evolution of some kind by itself.

This being the case, there are atleast two ways in which one can approach evolutionary topics, which can complement or (probably more common) confront each other. All evolutionary topics that we are interested in always suffer from a lack of complete data about them. As mentioned a couple of posts back, this has motivated people to assume an underlying ‘model’, and use it to string a story through the facts which seems plausible. Another, equally interesting method to deal with the same would use the notion of a ‘constitutive absence’.

‘Constitutive absence’ is simply a way of saying that what is absent from the data collected or story woven is as important as what is present. This motivates us to ask the question ‘Why not this?’, as opposed to the question ‘Why this?’. It is my suspicion that looking at history and biological evolution in this manner will be able to structure our thinking about these subjects in a more constructive manner. For example, instead of asking ‘Why do birds have two wings?’, it may be more constructive to ask the question ‘Why are there no birds with six wings?’. It may just so happen that we have missed finding these flying critters, or there is some other reason. This to me is more in line with the theory of natural selection — Natural selection can only select against, not select for. To select for something implies evolution should ‘know’ what to select for, which is obviously nonsense. In the game of natural selection, there are no winners, only survivors. However, most biology literature seems to try and explain why a particular trait is present in an organism. Schrodinger came to the conclusion that the molecules that carry life (The structure of DNA was unknown then) must be large by asking why cannot there be small molecules of life (Answer being related to the fact that at smaller scales, Brownian motion dominates and smaller the molecule, the more suspceptible it is to change (mutation) by bombardment of other molecules).

The picture that this provides us with is not of an all-encompassing Story of Everything, but about the constraints that are put on organisms which prevent any other possible scenario from being viable. It is somewhat like trying to understand how water flows — If you look at water in a large river, trying to follow one blob of water may be hopeless, but in a stream you may have better chances. The constraints of a narrower channel makes this easy for us. Even so, you may not be able to predict precisely how the blob of water flows, but you know that it will remain within a confined boundary.

However, you will need to admit that beyond a certain stage you can’t really be sure about things when you take up this approach, whereas the Big Story approach will try and explain everything.

History is no different. Instead of asking ‘Why did the Europeans have an Industrial Revolution?’ one can ask ‘Why did the Indians and the Chinese not have an industrial Revolution?’. Instead of asking ‘Why is India mainly vegetarian?’ one can ask ‘Why did not Indians develop a meat dominated cuisine?’. You can probably see how just framing the question differently leads one to think very differently about the same problem. If you appeal to the physics of complex systems, then you are acknowledging that the trajectory of any complex system is inherently hard to predict, but constraints on the system make certain trajectories highly unlikely, and everything that happens does so within the phase space that is still viable. Historically we hoped to find laws of Nature and Society that would enable us to see forward and back in time. Unfortunately, we know now that these laws, if they exist, are probably too complicated for us to comprehend, and so a ‘constitutive absence’ is a more sensible way to move forward.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

The problem with nonlinearity (AKA why I cannot predict the weather)

Being from an engineering background, and having mainly engineers for friends, I normally get asked why I cannot predict tomorrow’s weather, and jibes as to how weather prediction is a pseudo-science etc etc., Thus, I decided to just rant about how life is so difficult for me.

Engineers of all kinds like to work with computationally friendly methods of analysis. One way to ensure this is to use mathematical maps that are linear in nature, and preferably orthogonal. What I mean by this is that it should be representable by a matrix, and all columns should have a zero inner product with every other column but itself. The classic example is the Discrete Fourier Transform. One of the most important properties (atleast to me!) of a linear system is that of superposition, i.e, if x and y are any two ‘signals’ or vectors, and F is a linear transform, then F(x+y) = F(x) + F(y). This property tremendously simplifies the analysis of the behavior of the transform. It is easy to identify ‘problematic’ vectors and do away with them.

For example, if im building a music system and I have a linear amplifier which I know goes nuts if I input music containing the 2 Khz frequency, I can remove that frequency in advance so that there are no problems in performance. Thus, a signal localised in a certain frequency band will not ‘leak’ to other bands. The case is not so in nonlinear systems. There is a transfer of energy from one part of the spectrum to another (eg: the Kolmogorov spectrum in turbulence), and thus there is no guarantee that your amplifier will be well behaved for all time.

This also implies that the superposition principle no longer applies. Since energy in one frequency invariably finds its way to other places, there is interaction between different frequencies and thus the resulting behavior of the system is not just the addition of the behavior of the system with the individual frequencies as inputs, i.e, F(x+y) \neq F(x) + F(y). Thus, the resulting behavior is not easy to predict in advance, and pretty much impossible if the number of interacting components is huge, like in an ecosystem or the climate. This is called emergent behavior, since it cannot be predicted by looking at the individual components themselves.

If losing superposition was a problem, the problem of chaos is as bad, if not worse. Chaos is a fancy way of saying that nonlinear systems are extremely sensitive to their inputs and their mathematical formulation. For example, if you had perfect knowledge about every quantity but not a perfect model of the phenomenon being observed, you will make errors in prediction, which are huge. Similarly, if your models were perfect, but you were not able to measure accurately enough, the same fate. In real life, both are true. We don’t understand natural phenomena well enough (Of course, dam builders will disagree), nor do we have measurements that are accurate enough. Thus, even the fact that we can say whether tomorrow will be cloudy or not with reasonable confidence is a testament to how well weathermen have learnt to live with nonlinearity.

And if all this was not enough, there is the problem of phenomena occuring at multiple scales. A typical cyclone has a horizontal extent of around 1000 km, while the convection that drives it is of the order of 1 km. There are planetary waves that have a wavelength of 10000 km, and they are dissipated by turbulence acting at the micrometer level. Any model that tries to incorporate the largest and the smallest scales will probably tell us about tomorrow’s weather sometime in the next century!!

And coming to the worst problem of all, rain.While one can say with reasonable confidence about whether it will rain or not, since that is constrained by the first law of thermodynamics and behavior of water vapor, it probably is next to impossible to predict when or how much. Quite amazingly, there still does not seem to have been found a sufficient condition for rainfall to occur: the necessary conditions are known, and still we don’t know when it will rain.

Interestingly, average behavior is more predictable, since averaging ‘smooths” out the nonlinearity in the system, and thus we are able to reasonably estimate climate, which is a long time-average of weather. The constraints of thermodynamics, which seem to be the only thing that will never be violated, are stronger as we go into longer and longer time scales.

Handling nonlinear systems is hard, but we are getting there! (In a century or so.)

Bridging Nature and Humanity

I personally find it quite strange to think of humans as apart from nature and vice versa, but after many interactions with people who think otherwise, it seems that I’m in a minority. If evolution is to be believed, we as a species (Dawkins would say individuals!) have evolved mechanisms to improve our survival rate, to the extent that we are now the most dominant species in terms of geographical reach and resource use.

However, our genes seem to have forgotten to encode limiting behavior, atleast with respect to resource utilization, which would enable us to live sustainably. Therefore, we have to resort to non-biological notions like stewardship and animal rights to keep ourselves in check. From where such notions arise, one really does not know. Nevertheless, questions in ethics, epistemology and ontology have interested us as much as questions in physics, math or chemistry.

Ancient scholarship, both Western and Eastern, never viewed either category as seperate from the other and, to quote a friend, did both physics and metaphysics. It is only recently that our world view has taken a schizophrenic turn, looking at billiard balls using differential equations (bottom-up) and guiding human behavior using teleology (top-down). It has been notoriously hard to reconcile these world views and thus each developed practically independent of the other.

No doubt, there have been attempts by one to encroach upon the other’s turf. Dawkins and like minded compatriots went one way, while the Christian Right in USA and Astrology try going the other. All in all, it seems unlikely that one or the other will have total dominance anytime in the near future.

Thus we are stuck with quarks on the one hand and The Goal Of Human Life on the other. For example, mainstream economics ignores nature by invoking the Axiom of Infinite Substitutability (One kind of good can always be substituted for another, thanks to human ingenuity), so if rainforests go, then we can always conjure up something to take its place. Marxist thinking takes the view that all human development is the result of economic processes, so trees and animals don’t even merit a mention – they are simply unimportant as far as human society’s development goes. On the other hand, we have climate models which put in a large amount of CO2 into the model atmosphere and see how things change, as though humans are just passive CO2 emitters who cannot recognize calamities and adapt their behavior (This seems ominously probable nowadays!). Each approach has value, no doubt, but it is obvious that neither economics nor climate modelling can actually solve the problems we face today.

One solution is for people with different outlooks to sit down and reach a consensus. My last experience with such an experiment was not very encouraging, and the recent spat between Rajendra Pachauri and Jairam Ramesh did nothing to to encourage anyone about interactions between politicians and scientists, I’m sure. The other solution, of which one is more optimistic, is for researchers to break  the new barriers and go back to a world view where one can engage with physics and metaphysics without being called a witch-doctor. Natural and social sciences are ripe for such a synthesis — we have finally reached a state where our metaphysics (explicit or otherwise) is affecting the earth’s chemistry and biology, maybe even the physics: while I don’t think we can change the Gravitational Constant anytime soon, but a few thermonuclear warheads here and there could change g=9.8 m/s2 to something substantially smaller!

Little known but impotant steps towards such a synthesis are being seen — ecological economics is bound to be mainstream before we kill ourselves, social ecology is bound to be important in the future too. Scientists seem to be getting more comfortable doing politics outside their institutions and politicians are learning some thermodynamics, thank heavens. The principle of  learning two subjects well, one closer to quarks and the other closer to the God side of the spectrum of human thought will serve researchers well in the future. Oh, and present day economics does not count on either side of the spectrum.

Epistemic limits of scientific enquiry

Had attended a talk the other day by Dr. Jayant Haritsa from the CSA department, on using textual representations of Carnatic music (Music written as Sa Ri Ga Ma etc.,) to determine what is the ‘Aarohana’ and ‘Avarohana’ (the equivalent of scale in Western music) of a given Raaga or identifying the raaga itself, given another piece of music, outside the ones used to train the identification system. Among other aims than the ones given above, was to provide a ‘scientific basis’ for the raagas, based on the statistics of usage of notes in various compositions, and maybe, provide a better Arohana/Avarohana for the raaga itself than the one received from tradition.

The talk was itself quite interesting and the system seems to do pretty well. In the Q&A session, a lot of concern was generated as to whether the ‘better’ Arohana/Avarohana proposed by the system would capture the ‘mood’ of the raaga, which seems to be an essential part of each raaga. Haritsa was of the opinion that as scientific researchers, we must not take things for granted and must try to question tradition using tools of science.

The essential issue, which one can generalize to things further than just music and its analysis, is the question of what is knowledge and/or Truth. More specifically in this context, one can ask the question as to what type of knowledge can we obtain using the scientific method, and whether this is the only kind which is ‘reliable’, the rest being ‘subjective’  is useless in a more general context, i.e, whether Truth in all its glory is best sought out using the scientific method.

Upfront, one must understand the fundamental premise of the scientific method, even leaving out its reductionist inclinations — Nature is not random: it follows some logic, some pattern which by large number of observations and/or experiments is discovered and this knowledge (from observation/experimentation) eventually can be called Truth. This is not hard to justify: we can see patterns everywhere in Nature and can build quite accurate models of the same. The reliability of scientific knowledge depends hugely on the concept of measurement – representing natural phenomena as cardinal numbers – numbers we can use to say something about the size of the measured phenomenon. No observation or experiment can be called a success/failure if it does not produce some kind of number. For example, Haritsa’s system produces a number per candidate scale for a raaga — higher the number, more likely it is the correct scale.

Immediately, one can see phenomena that the scientific method cannot be used to investigate : Emotions, ethics, likes, dislikes, etc., etc., Not only are these immeasurable (neuroscientists may disagree!) quantities, but they are also incommensurable: a statement like 2.5\times Happiness \geq 0.5\times Sadness makes absolutely no sense. Also, science can give no answers to statements like ‘The world is Maaya’, or ‘What we perceive is not what Is’. These statements belong to the same class of knowledge that the fundamental ‘axiom’ of science belongs to — you cannot prove or disprove them within the logical system that is built upon that axiom.

Now, music is a strange beast. It is highly patterned (scientists like to talk about its ‘mathematical’ structure), but at the same time, its main (probably only) value is in the emotion that it evokes: it is not coincidence that music is an essential part of religious worship, especially of the Bhakti variety. Therefore, no musical education is complete without a good understanding of both the patterns and the emotions (Bhaava) associated with music. Now, scientists are uncomfortable (or dismissive) about things they cannot measure, and musicians are uncomfortable (or dismissive!) of statistical analyses of their art. Therefore, it is not surprising to for each to value one of the two more. Haritsa’s and the audience’s apprehensions merely betrays their respective inclinations.

With the advent of huge computing power, a scientist’s optimism in understanding the universe has understandably increased. It is a common notion that failure of mathematical models is simply due to the ‘exclusion of some variable’ from the model. With more information/data, one can do arbitrarily well. This attitude conveniently ignores the fact that some quantities are not measurable and even if some quantitative representation is possible, they might be incommensurable. This can be seen best in sciences dealing with human tastes and values, like economics, sociology or anthropology. Subjects like econometrics, social psychology seem to be treading a fine line that distinguishes scientific knowledge from gobbledygook. For example, if one surveys 100 students asking them to rate the facilities at the hostel on a scale of 1 to 10, and we conclude that the average score is 8 and so most are satisfied (assume a score greater than 7 implies satisified), we are making two assumptions : we can add the satisfaction of 100 people and divide that number by 100, and that one student’s rating of 7 is the same as another student’s rating of 7. Though there have been arguments justifying such an approach, it is upto the individual to decide how seriously to take such surveys.

The dominant paradigm of our times is that of scientific optimism, and most appeals to emotion or morals are considered ‘woolly’ and ‘unscientific’. But one must realise that unless there is a healthy engagement with both pattern finding and moralising, the Truth can never emerge.

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

How important are laws ?

The Pope Benedict XVI was recently stopped from speaking in a university whose professors took offence against his comments before becoming the Pope that the punishment that the Church gave Galileo for proposing the heliocentric theory was ‘just and rational’. According to him, from Einstein’s time we have known that there is no absolute reference system, but only relative reference frames, and therefore we can conclude that Galileo’s model simplified calculations but added nothing to our knowledge of the universe. Since the political and social implications of his revolutionary idea were ‘worse’, he kind of deserved to be punished. Apart from the stark lack of acknowledgement of the fact that they lack any moral right to carry out such a punishment (I don’t recall Jesus instructing the Church to maintain political and social stability), one interesting thing that comes out of this is the role laws play in our life.

It can hardly be called an exaggeration that Galileo was at the forefront of the Renaissance, which completely changed the political, cultural and scientific geographies of the world, and in proposing the heliocentric model, was trying to find a way to understand the universe better. But as the Pope reminds us, laws don’t only serve scientific purposes, but political and social purposes as well. One can look at this as saying that laws are not outside the social life, but contribute their bit in shaping social life as well. The heliocentric model, or rather, the attitude behind its formulation which is now famous as the scientific method of observation, experimentation and hypothesis formulation revolutionized the world.

Similarly, when the quantum theory was first put forward, Einstein’s famous ‘God does not play dice’ was not a disagreement at the level of physics, but what changes it would imply for our view of the world. Come to think of it, it would seem that most ‘laws’, whoever puts them down, science or religion, definitely help in shaping our behavior and attitude towards the external world. This point, however, seems to be lost on people like Milton Friedman (who is a Nobel Laureate in Economics), whose statement was used in the Microeconomics textbook that I use to defend the laws of utility theory. The argument goes something like this: Just like the pool player does not know the laws of physics, but still knows ‘somehow’ that hitting the ball in a certain place will make it go a certain way, models of economics are made ‘as if’ the individual were trying to maximize profit. If it fits reality , good, else too bad. To put it more simply, balls on a pool table cannot hear the laws of physics, but they follow it anyway, don’t they ? So, when Adam Smith discovered the ‘Invisible Hand’, and wrote an enormously influential treatise to propagate his ideas, people reading the treatise ‘realised’ that yes, this is very close to what they are doing. If you think that there is something missing from the pool table example to the other one, that is probably because there is. My contention is that the very act of putting forward such a law will cause changes in human behavior either to conform to or subvert the law. If you tell someone that instead of bothering about other things, if you simply look at profit maximization, you will become very rich, they will actually start following it. Other things – peace of mind, health, happiness, environment and other insignificant parameters. Seems like a case of chicken-and-egg, and it is my view that the egg came first.

Would the Renaissance have happened without thinkers shouting out the powers of science with their newly found discoveries ? who knows. If the world was populated by pool tables, maybe not. Would people start acting as though they were trying to maximize the utility of their limited income after someone points it out that this is what they are trying to do? most likely. One can compare this situation with the stock market. Stocks fall in value because there is a rumor that their value will fall, the rumor does not circulate after the price starts falling. This is probably because people can interact, process information and act based on certain facts. The fundamental difference that I see here is pool tables cannot modify their behavior, since it is based on certain rules which have never been found to have exceptions, whereas people can, and therefore, there must be something wrong in the hypothesis that has been put forward.  Human action is more normative in character than mechanistic, i.e, we not only follow physical laws, but also have certain things called ‘values’ and ‘feelings’ which also influence behavior.

Therefore, assigning blame for our actions onto ‘laws’ which make it inevitable for us to follow certain behavioral patterns is pure escapism and removes the element of personal responsibility from the equation. Now, the previous statement can be used as a good law which tells us what we ‘really’ are doing :D

Whence the Social Sciences ? – 2 : Comments on Method and Outlook

As I had previously mentioned, the social sciences came to be heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, especially the naturalist and positivist outlooks. It is in order that one takes a critical look at the methodologies and outlooks of these schools of thought and the attendant consequences.

With some thought, one can notice that the scientific methodology is steeped towards observation and verfication of facts. Now, for scientific method to be a socially acceptable system of generation of knowledge about the world, there must be one important component : reproducibility. Thus, observation and verification of facts must inevitably take the form of constructed experiments, whether they be elaborate or simple, easily reproducible or not. The results which follow and the method for obtaining the results themselves are then published and debated over. The best example for such a phenomenon is the present debate over climate change. If one set of people ( supporting Al Gore, mostly) say that we are going toward decimation, another set ( sponsored by Bush, no doubt) will say that both the method of finding facts of the opposing group and their interpretations of the same are both rubbish, and present other evidence to prove that infact, more petroleum must be burnt, preferably from those companies controlled by the American President. Another parallel is in the Open Source Software debate. Microsoft is decried for making expensive and psychologically damaging software, and Microsoft sponsors a study which shows that Open Source alternatives are much more expensive or more depressing. One thing is to be noted, however, all opposing groups claim to be committed to the same scientific method of observation and verification.

One, however, gets the feeling that both these might contain a grain of truth (unless we look from a partisan point of view), but a lack of larger amount of data is causing the confusion ( Malevolent mischief cannot be counted out, however). I remember reading in a slide of a boring presentation, to an omniscient being, there is no probability, no question of chance. Therefore, until definite information is acquired, nothing can be said. But here lies a weak link in scientific method : it is defined in a negative sense rather than in a positive sense. What I mean by this is that something is held as true only because there have been no observations to refute it. It takes only one antagonistic case to throw elaborate theories into the dustbin. This is due to the fact that most sciences deal with real life, and there is no “Theory of Everything”. The only positive proofs that one can give are only related to things which have no actual existence outside the human brain, like mathematics and computer science (CompSci can be taken as a subset of Maths). These are artificially constructed systems which sometimes (fortunately and also by design, sometimes) find applications in real life.

So, one can construct two body experiments in the lab and verify physical laws, stretch a little bit, call change of color of a solution to verify chemical laws, take a leap of faith, you can categorize all things with similar (not same!) features as part of the same species in biology. If it gets this bad in constructed experiments, one can only hope and pray to the unverifiable God that we can generalise and discover (not make, since one also hopes that there is something extra-human called society that makes the laws) laws governing society.

Indeed, the time that we are looking at consists precisely of heroic efforts trying to achieve the above. So, one says humans are brute, scum of the earth being held from destroying each other by people in power who threaten them with dire consequences, and this is the structure of society. Another says, wait a minute, humans are nice things, wanting only to maximize their own pleasure and minimizing their pains, and human society is made to help this happen. Yet another says all crap, humans are divided into classes locked in a death struggle with each other, and finally the lower classes will win. Bull, says another, humans are slowly evolving and so is society (which is taken to be an organism, like all others), and one can see what society was, is and will be by applying Darwinian principles.

And so on and so forth. It is not at all a bad thing to put forth ideas, but to put them forward in a way so as to give it a false legitimacy is what is bad. These were supposed to be ‘scientific’ opinions, put forth after their proponents delved into ‘deep study of humans and society’. Whereas nothing could be more correct than the opposite. In short, most of these propositions were a priori, and not empirically verifiable. This is the firm ‘scientific’ foundation on which our social sciences, notably economics and sociology came into being.

Added another book from which to draw from: Masters of Sociological Thought by Lewis A. Coser. Sapna bookstore, Indiranagar. Next time will be a more concrete example of how the above theoritical discussion took solid form in Economics or Sociology, depending on mood.