Do Facts Merit a Taxonomy?

Tyco Brae’s instrument for measuring the angle between celestial objects.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about alternate facts.  I don’t have anything to add to that conversation that hasn’t already been said, but it has gotten me thinking about another kind of fact – namely “scientific” ones.  Truth be told, that phrase always sets my teeth on edge.  Here’s why.

Is there something about a scientific fact that makes it, unlike other facts, require an adjective?  Does being a scientific fact make a fact more or less believable than some other kind?  

I suppose there are non-scientific facts.  If I awaken in the morning with a headache, that surely is a fact for me, though not really a scientific one. And the kind of facts historians work to document are not usually referred to as “scientific” ones – unless, of course, they are unearthed using some special techniques such as documentation of a past poisoning by chemical analysis of an exhumed body.  Then so and so’s death by poisoning would rise (or fall) to the level of scientific fact.

But a scientific fact is a fact, plain and simple.  Unfortunately I think that for many, calling a fact a scientific one describes a phenomenon or cause and effect relationship not immediately accessible to all.  It might be a truth uncovered with the help of some kind of complex sensing device that identifies things beyond our five senses – think electron microscope, pH meter, volt meter, x-ray telescope – things like that.  But there are other kinds.  Surely Gregor Mendel had no more fancy instruments than paper and a quill pen in his studies of pea genetics which revealed previously unrecognized ground-breaking facts.  All he did was make multiple systematic observations in his monastery’s garden, carefully record and organize them and think logically about what he had observed.

And then there are the kind of facts that emerge from varying specific conditions and observing the result.  An example that comes to mind is mixing  antibodies (the chemicals our bodies make to fight infection) with antigens (a substance – usually a protein – that is not one made by the same organism creating the antibodies).  If one begins to add antibodies to a solution of antigen nothing happens initially.  As more antibody is added a cloudy precipitate forms  as the  antibodies combine with the antigen and are no longer kept in solution,.  But if still more antigen is added the precipitate re-dissolves.  Discovering that kind of antigen-antibody binding relationship by systematically changing the mixing ratios was important in unravelling how immune systems work.

What these examples have in common is that they reveal realities not immediately apparent to the casual bystander.  Of course, when such findings appear for the first time on our intellectual radar they can cause trouble.  Unfortunately, as the sensing devices become more complex, the observations more numerous and the logic of interpreting them more involved it becomes easier to reject the findings either because they fly in the face of previously held beliefs or they inconveniently  threaten vested interests.

In his eagerly anticipated annual lab session on chemical energy my 11th grade science teacher held a match under a hydrogen-filled balloon. The shock wave from the resulting explosion nearly blew his glasses off.   The class applauded.  Mr. Kilgour had made his point. Science was cool!  A few weeks later he convened the class after dark one evening to watch the reflected light of Sputnik – the Soviet Union’s first-in-the-world satellite – as it orbited  Earth.  That clinched it.  I was going to be a physicist.

But college sophomore physics convinced me otherwise.  Courses in Quantum Mechanics and Probability, Statistics and Random Error separated sheep from goats and I was definitely a goat.  Struggling over those equations and laboring long into the night to solve the problems was humbling.  I could get through most eventually, but for some of my classmates it came quite naturally.  I passed, all right, though my colors were definitely at half mast and I did learn some important things.

For one, those courses were usually accompanied by hands-on lab exercises where one learned  how meticulously conditions had to be controlled to get consistent results.  Those labs also made clear that one could prove the correctness of an idea by performing an action which depended on it.  Like so many of his ideas, Galileo’s intuition that the gravitational force acting on an object was independent of the object’s mass was greeted with skepticism by many.  Today an introductory physics lab can easily demonstrate its veracity by dropping a feather and a lead ball in a glass tube from which all the air has been evacuated and watching them hit the bottom at precisely the same time.  The right action performed carefully under the right conditions turn a theory into a fact – one of many such facts that allowed mankind to walk on the moon and launch a rocket from earth to land a  motorized vehicle on the surface of Mars!

And one of the other things those science classes taught me was that science comes in many different flavors: be it combining or separating materials as in chemistry, measuring the way matter and energy interact as in physics, systematically observing life forms as in biology or combining these modalities as in biochemistry or physical chemistry.  And most rewarding of all is when different methods of seeking truth converge, as they did when Mendel’s observations of pea characteristics fell into place with Watson and Crick’s biochemical unravelling of DNA’s double helix and the two fit elegantly with Darwin’s observations of natural selection – creating a set of harmonies as beautiful as Bach’s “B Minor Mass” or, if you prefer, The Beatle’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.

This convergence of different scientific disciplines on the same slice of reality from multiple different perspectives is what might be called “settled” science.  Sadly, a recent poll in England found that 35% of the population felt that scientific findings are adjusted to give the answers a researcher wants  and nearly as many think research is never, or only occasionally, checked by other scientists.  The wrongness of these beliefs is clear to anyone who has submitted an article to an established peer reviewed scientific journal.   The unblinking critique one gets back from the journal’s editors pointing out every possible weakness of the data and the conclusions drawn from them makes clear how very far off the mark those beliefs are! Similar survey information doesn’t seem to be available for the US but given our current political dialogue it is hard to believe the numbers would be any different.  And these are polls from countries with highly educated populations!

So let’s face it.  All facts are bits of verifiable truth, plain and simple. To describe something as a scientific fact is a redundancy.  It is a superfluity. It is a prolixitous pleonasm.  It is longwinded logorrhea!  It is like saying something is a cow cow or a chair chair to distinguish them some other kinds of cows or chairs.  

And what is most sinister, it frames the concept in a way which can imply a hierarchy of facts.  In fact (sic), it paves the way for that most oxymoronic of oxymorons – the alternative fact!

All things considered, then, I think it’s time to do away with subcategorizing facts.  Other beliefs or beliefs expressed as words might be called hunches,  suspicions, guesses, best judgements, feelings, impressions, conjectures, inklings, ideas, notions, intuitions, or instincts but let’s agree to let the word “fact” stand on its own.  Let’s keep it free of modifiers that create the dangerous impression that on any given subject there are a cluster of different kinds of facts from which one is free to choose a favorite out of which to construct one’s beliefs

 

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Rethinking God’s Finger

 

sistine-chapel-ceiling-adam-and-god-michelangelo-the-creation-of-adam-genesis-god-art-poster-print-prynk-tattoo-1999423788Darwin's_finches_by_Gould

                                                    nasa black hole

Some  interesting things are going on out at the peripheries of the so-called sciences, the so-called humanities, and the so-called arts.  I say so-called because I think the distinctions, in many ways, lack a difference.  At least, that’s the way “they” should be conceptualized because considering them as separate creates an intellectual silo mentality, and a silo mentality restricts creativity.

 

Science is the process by which we seek a verifiable vision of the universe.  The humanities seek to understand humankind which, of course, is a part of the universe  – arising from the same creative force; presumably governed by the same set of laws.  And the arts  are individuals’ attempts to articulate a vision of some part of the universe. (By “universe” I mean the totality of reality – feelings, concepts, and abstractions as well as nuts, bolts and table legs.)  Art succeeds to the extent that it mirrors  the vision of the universe held by others.  As currently practiced, the methods used by the arts, the sciences and the humanities are different.  That is a large part of the problem.  But whether one  is walking, horseback riding, or sailing to Byzantium, the basic event is the same. One is questing Byzantium, whatever the mode of transportation.

 

But out at the edges the distinctions blur.  From the antiquities onward important geniuses have straddled disciplines.  One look at Da Vinci’s notebooks makes clear his identity as both artist and scientist.  Michelangelo was as much anatomist as sculptor.  And consider Herbert Melville and his masterpiece of whale biology and grand allegory.    

 

Lately, I’ve come across some fascinating modern examples of such hybrid vigor in the works of contemporary polymaths.   Missa Charles Darwin is a recent composition by Gregory Brown, written in liturgical polyphony and structured in the form of a traditional mass.   Music has long been a mainstay of religion – soaring melodies reverberating in the grand architecture of cathedrals, calls to prayer sung from minarets, gospel choirs – lyrics  relating ancient stories or prayers.  The text of Brown’s Missa, however, is mostly quotations from the writings of Charles Darwin. And the notes of the music actually follow the base sequences of segments of the DNA of one of Darwin’s finches! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3IsKOXjcbk The result harmonizes magnificently with that part of us yearning for spirituality.   Such use of music to underscore the awesomeness and wonder of Darwin’s idea – to “religiousize it” if you will – succeeds so brilliantly that the comments following one of its performances on Youtube include a barrage of hate and fury from the religious right as heated as the conflict between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Despite this vitriol, however the music critic of the San Diego Story writes, after hearing the piece, “I have heard a surfeit of contemporary sacred music, and no composer has impressed me more than Gregory Brown. A smart publishing house should toss him a hefty retainer and sign him up to a very long contract.
And there are similar things happening on the other side of the supposed art/science divide.  A group of molecular biologists at Harvard, recognizing the beauty and complexity of their field, have collaborated with some very talented visual artists and animators to create a stunning video of the dynamic chemistry of a cell.  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/science/watch-proteins-do-the-jitterbug.html?hpw&rref=science&_r=0  The work is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and, perhaps to satisfy the “scientific” bent of that granting agency, its stated purpose is pedagogical. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that it could hold its own very nicely against many of the installations at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Clearly it merits matching funds from the National Endowment For the Arts, bringing to life for the non-scientist  the wonder and awesomeness of  the inner workings of……well….. life.  Equally awe-inspiring is an animated reconstruction of an event at the other end of the size spectrum – a spectacular star/black hole encounter. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap151028.html Given the right frame of mind, NASA artists’ visualization of this event – usually “explained” in terms of the mind-bending language of quantum mechanics – rivals the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for its power-driven beauty.  Not only that, but it has the advantage of being evidence-based!

And the scientific/literary interface is  yielding up some inspiring treasures as well.   Several years ago Alan Lightman – PhD. in Physics from Cal Tech and subsequently assistant professor of astronomy at Harvard – wrote Einstein’s Dreams a novel which became a runner-up for the 1994 L.L. Winship/PEN New England award.   Each chapter in this delightful little book features time behaving according to a set of laws different from the ones with which we are familiar.  As well as creating some thoroughly fascinating challenges for its lovable characters, the book manages  to imbue the reader with a much deeper grasp of the nature of this elusive entity.  

More recently, E.O. Wilson, after a distinguished career as a myrmecologist and evolutionary biologist, offered up a novel which made it to  number 35 on the NYTimes hardcover bestseller list.  Barbara Kingsolver, reviewing Anthill for the Times Book Section http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/11/books/review/Kingsolver-t.html wrote: “Scientists hardly ever write novels. Fabricating imaginary people is not the domain of the scientific method, to put it mildly. Constructing a plot, lacing it with clues to lead the reader to a well-prepared conclusion, is heretical business for those trained to unprejudiced observation. But any who take the leap may use their worldliness to good advantage, smuggling gems of empirical knowledge across the literary border to create fiction with unusually rewarding heft.”   Yes, “smuggling gems” across disciplinary borders – we need more of that.

We need more of this merging of silos.  Not just “interdisciplinary” work but broadened truth-seeking, rather than narrowed. More synthesis, less reductionism.  More Renaissance minds, less specialization.   More Da Vinci and his notebooks  – defining him as neither an artist or a scientist.

The greatest stories ever told in Western civilization are Genesis,  Exodus, the biography of Christ and the Quran.  These artistic, humanistic efforts were, like modern day science, an attempt to explain the universe and humanity as they were thought of at the time. As great stories, they have had phenomenal staying power but they are rooted in an understanding of the world which is literally millennia out of date.  And the greatest music ever written echoes these stories in one form or another.

But reality as we have come to understand it since these great stories were originally told has the potential for even greater stories, the potential to inspire even greater respect for the Great Power that set it all in motion.  And there’s another dimension. Given how much we now know that we couldn’t begin to have imagined back when those first great stories were told, it makes considerable sense, as we look forward into the future, to forsake the hubris of certitude and realize that there is a great deal more miraculous stuff still out there beyond the horizon of our current knowledge.

Just imagine Moses living today instead of 3500 years ago and now being the privileged recipient of the story of earth’s creation. A modern Moses would be well-aware of the overwhelming evidence that the earth is four and a half billion years old, would have already studied the fossil record of humankind, and already seen the remarkable images of the universe posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website.  Talk about miracles!  Those stories are so much richer than the deus ex machina trope of Genesis.  In the hands of an E.L.Doctorow, James Michener or some other equally talented writer perhaps the Gideon Society would even begin leaving copies of the new version of Genesis in motel rooms!  And even that story will no doubt merit rewriting within a matter of decades.

 

Readers’ Terror Alert System

Words ought to be color coded.  Not necessarily the U.S. government’s once-upon-a-time five level system of fear and paranoia in which yellow, appropriately enough, recommended remaining scared in spite of no immediate threat.  A three level system will be sufficient for words.  Here’s how it will work.

Green words mean what they say, plain and simple.  Red words are communication suicide bombers; their meaning is assigned independently by the user and the usee. That can cause trouble.  A yellow word is somewhere in between the red and green ones; not entirely clear but safe.

“Twenty-six” is a nice green word.  It means the same thing to everyone who hears it.

The words for lower numbers, by and large, are yellow. “Two” calls to mind all sorts of things –  company? for tea?  to tango?  And consider “sixteen” – so sweet and never been kissed?  But twenty-six is twenty-six. Definitely green.

“Science” is a red word.  Webster’s says “science” means the state of knowing and that “scientific” means of, relating to, or exhibiting the methods or principles of science.  Why, then, do so many good writers speak of “scientific” facts? Are there unscientific ones?

And what about all those passionate people for whom “science” means a grand conspiracy intent on putting the oil companies out of business and making us ride bicycles, to say nothing of attacking their religion.   For them science is a four letter word.

Not surprisingly,  professional practitioners of science don’t feel that way.  For them, “science” seems to mean the best truth obtainable. And isn’t truth something absolute?  But then, don’t people of faith feel that way about their, well, Faith.  So Faith and Science are identical?  Seems unlikely.

When pressed, some scien-tists say that science is a method. They say they imagine how something works and then try to do something which they couldn’t do if their imaginary explanation was wrong.  They call it testing a hypothesis with an experiment but it all starts in their imagination.  If  they end up being able to do what they imagined they could do if their original imaginary idea was true, they feel as though they’ve found a new truth.  But then if someone else comes along with another experiment and it ends up showing the opposite they don’t give up on the scientific method.  They just keep imagining and doing experiments. Keeps them in business. So the next time somebody says “but it’s been scientifically proven” run for cover.

Now for “economy”. Back to Webster’s. “Thrifty and efficient use of material resources….efficient and concise use of nonmaterial resource…the arrangement or mode of operation of something…a system especially of interaction and exchange…the structure of economic life in a country.”  What’s that last one? An adjective used to define the same noun it’s derived from?  Would defining “blue” as a bluish color get us anywhere other than in circles?  For a word that was among the top two dozen used in the last presidential debates, Webster seems to have missed the boat entirely.  “Economy” is definitely red.

For lots of people, it seems, a good economy means “I have a job.”  For others it means “my 401 K is growing at 12%.”  For others it means “I can afford stuff.”  For our elected leaders it seems like the whole enchilada. If it’s good for the economy it is Good.   But wait.

Hurricanes are good for the economy.  They create jobs and demand for products.   So is sickness.  Pumps up hiring in the healthcare sector.   And credit card debt – means you’re a real patriot spending what you don’t have.  And cars that rust out after five years – no problem, helps the economy. Keeps those auto workers employed. Think about regulations that will reduce the toxicity of the air we breath?  No way, the economy will suffer. Clean water?  Same deal.  Lower greenhouse gas emissions?  Flies in the face of common sense.  I’m getting confused. Maybe this whole matter is so complex I need a philosopher to help me out.

Thomas Carlyle, a famous Scottish philosopher whose ethnic stereotype puts him among the very most economical people in the world called teachers of economics respectable professors of the dismal science.

A double red!  Watch out.!