An Inquiry Into Common Misconceptions About Theory and Fact

In a democracy, the onus is on the experts to create languages to communicate with the layperson. Anything less is a recipe for exploitation.

Credit: jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The popular re-emergence of the old and well-vanquished binary of science and pseudoscience can be seen in the wake of the death of philosophy, this time caused not by Immanuel Kant’s return to experience but by the loss of institutional support (similar to what the UGC is currently doing to the humanities). This binary has pervaded not the layperson’s or the uninformed science writer’s idea of reality but the prime legitimisers of state policy: the higher echelons of academia. The creation of such a science/pseudoscience, or science/non-science, binary is believed to be necessary in recognising everyday causal relationships. What do I do to cure my headache? Do I eat a banana or pop an ibuprofen? What methods do I choose to achieve any goal?

Venkataraman Ramakrishnan, a Nobel laureate, is of the opinion that practices like homeopathy fall on the pseudoscience side of the binary, making them “bogus and harmful”. “[Homoeopaths] take arsenic compounds and dilute it to such an extent that just a molecule is left. It will not have any effect on you. Your tap water has more arsenic. No one in chemistry believes in homoeopathy,” he says.

These attacks stem from the assumption that a clear distinction exists between science and pseudoscience – the first, a symbol of progress and of all that is good and human; the latter, a parasitic devil. A more popular, yet erroneous, extension often made from this belief is that science ‘explains’ natural phenomena and discovers truth while pseudoscience deals in fiction. When people like Ramakrishnan deny a certain practice the badge of science, what they are referring to is the idea of a testable form: the falsification criterion of the science philosopher Karl Popper.

What is a scientific theory? It is a story. It is fiction that weaves together various observations. Why do we make this story? It makes life easier. Say we have a theory that when things are dropped they will fall to the ground. We don’t have to observe every instance of a dropped object to see if it does or doesn’t drop to the ground. Our theory helps us quickly step away from the range of a falling object.

Now, as David Hume has asked, what reason does one have to expect that “instances of which we have had no experience resemble those of which we have had experience”? We have experienced thousands of objects being dropped and they always fell. However, we cannot claim that all objects fall when dropped. All it takes is one helium balloon to disprove the theory. We have seen a million white swans and no black swans but we can’t reasonably claim that all swans are white. There is always the possibility that we might spot a black swan some day. Thus, a scientific theory can’t be defined as a theory that can be verified because we can’t reasonably expect to survey every swan to prove our theory.

A defensible definition

To counter Hume’s attack on the analytical quest to define the exact boundaries of science, Popper shifted the essence of science from verification to falsifiability. This demarcation of science from non-science was, for him, the “central problem in the philosophy of science”. Scientific hypotheses did not have to be verifiable, he said; they simply need to be in a form that can be tested. They have to withstand systematic attempts to refute them.

However, the idea of testable forms has significant limitations. Say I had a magnet with me to search a room for iron. The room might have silver or fairy-dust in it but I can’t look for them. My tool can only detect iron. So after searching, all I can say is, “I found iron” or “I did not find iron”. If you were to find iron and proclaimed, “The room is made of iron”, you are quite likely to be wrong. To hope that reality fits neatly into our language, and can be perfectly described by our language, is an indefensible belief.

Popper recognised that scientific theories “can never be justified, verified or even shown to be probable.” All that can be said is that the usage of a certain hypothesis has been more successful in reaching certain desired results. Science is not the truth. Scientific theories are not facts. They can’t hope to explain phenomena. Science may be imagined as a collection of tools that have varying degrees of success in reaching specific goals.

When your tool is a two-dimensional line segment, you have no hope of detecting a three dimensional object. The world for you is made of flat lines. This brings us to the problem of ‘pure’ observation. According to Baconian/Newtonian frameworks (named for Roger Bacon and Isaac Newton), general theories are arrived at by extending specific ‘pure’ observations. Popper agreed that observation is always ‘selective’ and ‘theory-laden’, and so there can be no pure observations free of theory. Is the reality of the world as we see it with our naked eyes the same as that perceived by a mantis shrimp, or as seen through a microscope? Our observations will always bear the imprint of our tools. The idea of a pure, objective world that exists out there independent of the observer is easily exposed as canonical and not essential.

In practice, scientific theories are not immediately decommissioned the moment a counter-instance to the theory is found. They remain in school textbooks and academic research as long as the theory/paradigm has utility – whether predictive, commercial or political. Contradicting theories are often verified by observations and furthered. Quantum mechanics is incompatible with general relativity and yet both continue to be valuable for predictions and manipulation. Evidently, what is furthered, funded and legitimised as science is often not what falls cleanly into the science part of Popper’s binary.

By limiting science to testable and/or falsifiable theories, Popper created a definition of science he could defend. But our world is full of exceptions. The outliers to dominant theories, and reason, tell us that we shouldn’t expect only simply black swans that can create paradigm shifts. We should also expect black swans that our languages can’t begin to describe.

Science as consensus

What then, is science, this mythical entity that has been the symbol of progress in our time? All that can be reasonably argued to separate a scientific theory from a pseudoscientific theory is that the former has the auspices of the dominant voices that influence public perception and funding. It is a consensus of academics or experts that confers scientificity to some theories while rejecting others as unworthy of their approval.

At the same time, outliers are constantly discovered in nature. While some can be accounted for and included in existing theories, with ad hoc adjustments to the old theory, some – such as quantum mechanics – seem to be at odds with popular theories and paradigms, and can’t be assimilated.

Consider the following example of how theoretical categories can affect lives on the ground. Popular scientific methods allow the classification of restlessness and poor concentration in children as ADHD. In the US, over 10% of school-aged children are diagnosed with this disorder and treated using psychotropic drugs. The experts support the theory that ADHD is a neurological disorder that requires the administration of, say, Ritalin to restless toddlers. In France, where the pharmaceutical industry has not yet won that battle, ADHD is theorised as a psycho-social condition and so treated using therapy and counselling.

It is to one’s peril that one ignores the role of marketing/commerce in creating the aims that science and scientists strive to achieve. From the role of funding agencies in selectively promoting paradigms to the medical representatives who incentivise your doctor to sell their drugs, commercial interests that profit from the furtherance of certain theories must be accounted for.

Imagine a form of Ayurveda that the people of a town have been in contact with over generations. They have learnt, through experiences as well as anecdotal evidence from sources they trust, that Ayurveda is better for stomach-ache than is English medicine. For immediate pain relief or terminal illnesses, they may prefer to depend on the allopathic hospital. Here, laypersons use their own judgement to make their choice from available options. But blind, confused attacks by the media on some vague idea of pseudoscience are conducive to state action and deny the experiential/cultural knowledge of the layperson.

While implementing or promoting a law or action that rejects Ayurveda or homeopathy as pseudoscience, the state, commercial interests, the judiciary or the media assumes that the implementer knows better and that its explanation is more valid than yours. But the fact remains that when the promoters of dominant theories reject observations that cannot be explained by their theory at face value, it is an act of power. It has nothing to do with the truth. So, just the fact that homeopathy exists in the framework of medicine – that does not mean it is a pharmacological theory, and there is no reason to condemn the practice as ‘unscientific’.

Scientific theories and laws are not facts that arrived at without their share of problems and subjectivities. Second: dominant scientific theories are reached through expert consensus. Science, at some level, is an economic activity. Funds often are directly proportional to the value of your research or paradigm to commerce. The steady decline of funds for philosophy and the human sciences is an old lament by now. It goes against the spirit of the scientific endeavour when correlations are discredited simply because they do not fall under dominantly disseminated paradigms.

In a democracy, the onus is on the experts to create languages to communicate with the layperson. Anything less is a recipe for exploitation.

Arun Krishna is the creative strategist at Cogsol Cognitive Research and works on the philosophy of language. His masters thesis at IIT Gandhinagar attempted a phenomenological interpretation of Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’.