Jim Al-Khalili, The Joy of Science

Here’s a short little book that is basic but substantive. Familiar yet essential. Frankly, if I had seen it in a bookstore, I would have glanced through it and likely set it back down. Seeing it online made it difficult to tell how small a book it is. Still, it’s good to once in a while review the very basics, and this book does so nicely.

Still, two things attracted me to it. First, of the eight chapters, one of them is called “It’s more complicated than that,” and it echoes a point made in Slate recently (which I discussed here) that Occam’s Razor is not necessarily true, it merely often is. I shouldn’t say echo — this is the book by the author of that Slate article. Second, this point in particular supports one of my themes in this blog, that too many people in the world think in terms of black and white, and all social issues are obviously right or wrong, with no nuance or shades of gray (or color) in between. Simplex, complex, multiplex, and so on. And third — three things! — the author was unfamiliar to me, and moreover is apparently *not* yet another old white guy, which in science (as in science fiction) is increasingly becoming a reason among cynical folks for dismissing established matters.

Fourth — four things! — the book has blurbs by Martin Rees, Sean Carroll, among others, so if I’d seen it in a bookstore, I might have bought it after all. They are people I trust.

Preface, Intro, and eight chapters on basic ideas of rational thinking and understanding what is and is not true. For key points, simply read the chapter titles below. And I’ll bold in a few places for key concepts.

Preface, p ix

Author recalls a book he read as a student, ‘To Acknowledge the Wonder’. Yet our wonder is highly subjective. Example of the rainbow. (Cf Sagan and Dawkins.) Details; diagram. Each of us experiences our own. Scientific understanding gives us a deep appreciation of the world.

Introduction, p1

The impact of Covid has affected how people view science. Some are always skeptical; others appreciate how necessary it is. Complexity and confusion aren’t new; that’s why science came about.  This book is a “guide to thinking and living a little more scientifically.” No intention to offer moral lessons or therapeutic techniques. And how scientists themselves think. Science isn’t just a collection of facts.

It relies on the scientific method, p7. There is no one way to ‘do’ science. Science history or pseudoscience, science means rejecting a theory when the evidence demands it. A key is that theories need to be falsifiable. Example of swans. A theory needs to be testable. Example of FTL neutrinos, in 2011. Compare astrology. Science is self-correcting; scientists correct each other. Yet there are other kinds of science—e.g. superstring theory—that may seem to violate these rules. And science may need diversity, not just white men in the Western world.

‘Following the Science’ p17. Sociologists insist on recognizing the cultural context of science, understanding the biases and motives of scientists. Author finds this overly cynical. Because the results of the scientific method are self-correcting. The truth will out. In a sense science is never value-free; there are cultural values; there are values internal to science like honesty, etc. Still, there are issues with how people think about science. Its successes can make people over-confidant, even gullible. It doesn’t help when scientists disagree. The media, especially social media, is not always responsible in communicating scientific results. Scientists take care giving advice to policymakers. Science is a process, not a belief system. Politicians tend to cherry-pick. The interaction of science, politics, and society is very complex.

Each chapter is a piece of advice, derived from some aspect of the scientific method…

1, Sometime is either true, or it isn’t, p30

Examples of ‘post-truth’. Widespread in social media. In science there are no culturally relative truths, or alternative facts. People who claim (such relative truths or alternative facts) them don’t necessarily believe them, they are trying to create plausible levels of doubt to suit their ideologies. Many of these are easy to understand. Examples from physics: things that are more than ‘just a theory’. Examples of random ‘facts’ p37 (humans have walked on the moon; the Earth is flat; life evolved through natural selection; the world is 6000 years old; and so on). We really do know which are these are true, and which aren’t. Remember falsifiability. Conspiracy theorists simply reject the evidence. Various kinds of denial, e.g. evolution and religion; climate change; viruses. True, some truths are relative: the one about how long an object takes to drop is different on different planets. Many real world examples of truths in context, e.g. exercise is good for your health. But truth is not whatever we decide to agree on. Science entails the idea of scientific realism. What about moral statements? P46. They are arguable, depending on context. Still, objective truths do exist…

2, It’s more complicated than that, p51

We’ve heard that simplest explanations are usually the right ones; Ockham’s razor. Example of planetary movements, using epicycles, was replaced by the heliocentric picture. But it wasn’t that simple; Copernicus still believed the orbits were circles. Similarly Darwin’s theory of evolution isn’t actually simpler than creationism. A better theory isn’t one that’s simpler, but one that’s more useful.

Instead we have the tendency to oversimplify complex issues. But real life is messy. In science we can say that something is ‘reference frame dependent.’ Lab experiments often simplify situations; but this seldom applies to human nature. The spherical cow. The Higgs boson. Feynman. Einstein’s mistake with his cosmological constant. Dark matter. Depends on basic assumptions. Society tends to make all issues black or white. Beware things that seem obvious, or stands to reason, or is common sense. Common sense is just the accumulated prejudices we have acquired early in life (Einstein).

3, Mysteries are to be embraced, but also to be solved, p65

Recalls the TV show Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, used three categories of mysteries. The first are those that were baffling to our ancestors but are well-understood now. The second are those yet to be explained, but which are confident we will explain one day. And the third kind are those which seem to have no explanation without rewriting physics, e.g. psychic phenomena. These last are really fictions; myths, fairy tales. They become dangerous when people believe claims of psychic therapies, etc.

The lesson here is from those of the second kind. The laws of nature are logical and comprehensive, but it did not need to be so. People reject science because they think it robs the world of awe and wonder, and provides no purpose or goal. Feynman, OTOH, sees more, not less, in the understanding of science. Ironically, some scientists hoped the Higgs particle would *not* be found, to leave some mystery remaining. Science also ensures the survival of the human race, e.g. in dealing with plagues. Black Plague v. Covid-19.

Plato’s allegory of the cave illustrates the value of knowledge over ignorance. Modern versions are Truman Show and The Matrix. Science welcomes mysteries as opportunities to learn more. Why do most people stop being curious about the world? It need not be this way.

4, If you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean you can’t if you try, p80

Anyone can take the time to understand something. Don’t worry about the imposter syndrome; everyone feels it, in different contexts. Example of physics seminars. Expertise in any topic takes time. A specialist in one field can be as ignorance as anyone in others. No one needs to know everything.

Example of a difficult concept in science. Traveling at the speed of light while holding a mirror… Frames of reference, etc. In the modern world it can be difficult to decide what to pay attention to, but this has been true for a while. …

5, Don’t value opinion over evidence, p97

How do we decide who we can trust? Now with the internet many people feel entitled to claim expertise on everything. … One definition of science: “the process of formulating meaningful statements, the truth of which is only verified through observational evidence.” P100.4 But how much evidence? Depends on the claim, cf Sagan. The problem of induction; the precautionary principle. How they apply to climate change. And the pandemic. And how being open-minded to evidence doesn’t mean we should be skeptical, e.g. w/regard conspiracy theories. When was the last time a conspiracy theory was proven true? It’s not about truth; it’s about the conspiracy. What would convince them it wasn’t true? Nothing. In contrast scientists *try* to disprove theories. Some conspiracy theories are harmless; others can be very harmful. Challenging someone about a conspiracy theory can be difficult, but is worth trying.

6, Recognize your own biases before judging the views of others, p114

We all succumb to confirmation bias. But science can help us inoculate against it. Author accepts human-caused climate change. Yet the idea fits with pre-existing liberal ideas and protecting resources, and so on. Another type is illusory superiority; we don’t recognize our weaknesses. Dunning-Kruger. We see this on social media. Those most qualified are those most cautious about their arguments. OTOH the DK effect may just be an artifact of data. Confirmation may work more strongly in areas of complexity, like the social sciences. Science has various ways of avoiding the effects of bias, like double-blind tests and peer reviews. Contrast author’s friend sure that the pyramids were built by aliens. Correlation and causation can produce confirmation bias. Hearing correct explanations sometimes does not shake initial impressions. Especially in politics and social media. So what to do? Know thyself. Ask yourself *why* you believe something to be true. Do those reasons make it right? And what happens when you realize you’ve been wrong?

7, Don’t be afraid to change your mind, p130

Cognitive dissonance is when people deal with two contradicting beliefs. How does science deal with this? Scientists are relucant to abandon long-established ideas, while at the same time always retaining some degree of doubt of skepticism. Error bars. This is a strength, not a weakness, of the scientific method. The media often misrepresents this. Completely different than politics, where any uncertainty is a sign of weakness. Science admits its mistakes; that’s how it moves ahead.

[[ this is really just another aspect of how the world is not as simplistic as many people like to believe ]]

8, Stand up for reality, p141

The 2020 presidential election saw the losing candidate push accusations of fraud and cheating despite lack of any credible evidence—and millions of voters believed him. Similar things went on concerning the covid virus and where it came from. Some believed the whole pandemic was fake news. Some liken this to a new form of solipsism. Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but social media allows them to spread very quickly. News reports can be true and still biased, with different sources stressing some aspects and downplaying others. But deliberate spreading of fake news should be combatted. Yet technology is making this more and more difficult. AI can help or hinder.

So whose truth do we end up with? Who do you trust? Is personal freedom more important than truth? Some people will mistrust anything. So is there hope for the future? Maybe through the use of confidence bars or ‘trust index’. [[ we have some of this, in that media bias chart… ]] There are also ‘semantic technologies’. Machine learning. Overall, numeracy, information literacy, is aligned with resilience to misinformation. [[ key idea ]] Critical thinking. And better civics. Even though much of the population is unable to do this. Yet these problems are not new. Author remains an optimist. We must stand up for reality; learn to think more scientifically.

Conclusion, p155

What is the value of thinking scientifically? Four answers. First, as a reliable way of learning how the world works. If all knowledge itself is lost, the scientific method will rebuild it over time. [[ See my Provisional Conclusion #9. ]] Second: because it works. The evidence is the technology all around us, e.g. smartphones. Science and technology are interwoven. They have built our modern world.

Third: the ways of doing science can be applies to everything we do in our everyday lives.

Finally: science enriches us; it provides a “sense of elation and humility” that is “surely spiritual” as Sagan said, p160. Think again of the rainbow.

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