Saturday, May 20, 2006

Certificate of authentic Science

There's a silly debate raging in America right now. Some people believe that Evolution is just a silly theory, and really some divine being created the Earth. This means that you and I are original creations, have nothing in common with monkeys, have never evolved, and so on.

Think about that for a second. A country we think is well educated is having a discussion based on stupid theories, blind faith, and ignorance.

Alright, so I don't want to annoy anyone here, but I want to point out two very important things that are useful to any student of Science.

Small Steps

Firstly, good science proceeds in small steps. New research shines light on a very small puzzle. If you read any research paper, you will notice that stating the problem takes quite some space. Scientists publish very specific results. I am yet to find a research paper that says, "I know everything, everywhere, everytime." So when I see a person who claims to be a scientist, and is very glib, my warning lights go off. A good scientist says, "I don't know" much more often than, "yes, I know." Focussing on a small problem helps learn enough to solve it. Usually, even a big breakthrough impacts a very small section of science. The structure of research is like a grid of a large number of small stones cemented together. Take a very big breakthrough as an example: Einstein's theory of relativity, and the fact that mass is not constant. Before it, mass was held constant, and a lot of research was based on this. Doesn't Einstein's theory throw it all in the water? Well, not really, because at low speeds (even that of a Formula One racer), mass is constant, and the change in mass is almost negligible. So we can ignore it. Mass changes only as we approach the speed of light, which is quite difficult to achieve for most of us. And Einstein's theory changed nothing in Biology: we still have cells that make up humans, eggs create new birdies. And zero impact in Geology: erosion still happens, plate tectonics don't change, and people still don't know how to predict earthquakes. So even a big, huge breakthrough like that has a relatively small impact overall. So when you see a theory that has such a big impact that entire fields of science get called into question, chances are it is false. Consider the changes to Science if there really is _magic_: people can fly (gravity might not exist), pigeons come out of hats (and not eggs), trains disappear (mass is completely destroyed, without energy being created), and women can be cut into half (Biology is wrong, basically). That is a pretty darn broad claim, and chances are that it is false.

Some research might be false, but one little claim cannot disprove absolutely so much existing science. This is one reason why I don't believe in the huge number of Indian Babas, charlatans who claim to do magical stuff. If they could do what they claim, mainly magical stuff, it would mean that 5 or 6 giant areas of Science would be wrong. That kind of impact is too big to not get noticed. Occam's razor says the chances of Babas being crooks is higher than the chance that Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics are all simultaneously false.

What will prove it wrong?

The second interesting thing about Science is that real Science comes with conditions that will prove the result false. Read that again. If I am a real Scientist, and give you a theory, you get to say, "What will prove you Wrong?", and I should be ready with an answer. If I don't know the answer, I am not a real Scientist. If my answer is "nothing will prove my theory wrong", then my theory is not science. It is blind faith. Take Einstein's theory again[1], where mass can change based on the velocity of the object. What would prove his theory wrong: If you took a 1Kg object, and hurled it to very close to the speed of light, and it was still 1Kg, then clearly, his theory is rubbish. This is something a novice can construct, but there are more elegant circumstances that invalidate his theory. This happens in all fields, even Mathematics[2]. In Computer Science, there is a famous result regarding the Halting problem, saying that you cannot solve the Halting problem. I don't have to believe in the result. It comes with a nice certificate which will prove it false: if you find a program P that can look at any program A and say whether A will halt or not, then you have shown that the Halting problem can be solved (and the result is false). But elegant arguments show that no such P ever exists, so don't go looking. Even such a strong result comes with a condition which will cause it to fail, completely and utterly.

This is one reason why "belief" in Science and "belief" in religion are completely different. I have not seen a single condition which will cause any religious belief to be incorrect. You cannot possibly show that it is wrong, which is surprising. You do not give proof for why it is correct (one is supposed to have faith that it is correct), and there is nothing that can prove it wrong.

See this for a similar argument: "Because of Vik." That is my entire belief. Why is the Earth round: Because of Vik. Why do cows moo: Because of Vik. Why is the atom built of Protons, Neutrons and Electrons: Because of Vik. You're supposed to have faith in those words: Because of Vik. What will prove it wrong: NOTHING. This is absolutely perfect: no burden of proof on anyone: everything is "Because of Vik". And nothing can show it wrong. What use is such a philosophy? It doesn't lead to any new understanding: doesn't lead to Physics, Chemistry, detergents, computers, watches, medicine, cars, and the other fruits of Scientific study. More importantly, since nothing will prove this wrong, this is not science at all. This is blind faith. You either subscribe to it, or you don't. People who subscribe to it cannot say why it is true, and people who don't cannot show why it is false.

So while you could claim I believe in Science, that is a very different thing from belief in religion.

And Science is open to criticism, open to dissenting voices, and open to scrutiny. Try to find holes in Newton's theories, and if you succeed: people will praise you.

Try doing that in a Theocracy.


1. My examples are all in Physics or such, because that is a field I know a little better than others. The ideas here are common to all of Science, and even a Masters student should have no trouble providing examples from their field: Biology, Chemistry, ...

2. Mathematics is a little more elegant, because stuff in Mathematics is shown to be always true. Pythagoras' Theorem is true, and cannot be shown to be false. There are hundreds of proofs for it, and so you could say that Pythagoras' theorem would be false if there was a right angled triangle whose smaller sides (x, y), and larger size (z) did not follow the ratio x*x + y*y = z*z. But in Euclidean geometry, this will never happen. But you're welcome to try, just be good to kittens and teddy bears in the meanwhile.