December 11, 2007

A note on science

In reading Gary Taubes' new book Good Calories, Bad Calories, along with his recent UC Berkeley webcast, he drew my attention to the great and quotable Claude Bernard, who was the father of the science of medicine, and the man who discovered homeostasis.

Some quotes I think are quite worthy of reflection:

"Particular facts are never scientific; only generalization can establish science."

"A great discovery is a fact whose appearance in science gives rise to shining ideas, whose light dispels many obscurities and shows us new paths."

"In experimentation, it is always necessary to start from a particular fact and proceed to the generalization....but above all, one must observe."

Some ways to look at this:
- If you observe something that contradicts your prevailing theory, perhaps that theory is wrong.

- If you observe something that no mainstream theory explains, perhaps an alternative hypothesis is worthy of further study.

- One does not improve knowledge in a scientific manner by just building, specifying, or explaining new things. One improves knowledge by observing effects, and working back and fitting a consistent hypothesis.

I find in our profession, we most often fall back on arguments from authority over arguments from empirical evidence. This takes several forms: "If a particular vendor/community/person builds it, it MUST be good.", "if the experts agree, it they MUST be right", "if the analysis say it will be so, we MUST invest in it", etc.

Perhaps all of this is because it's so hard to create a controlled experiment when dealing with systems science (except perhaps as simulation). Or because most empirical observations in our field are anecdotal, because we don't have an open environment sharing results due to competition. I also think it may have to do with business managers' need to make technical policy decisions where a YES/NO is required, and tend to be taught that deferrment is bad.

Taubes' book, by the way, is a very deep technical read on the science of obesity, heart disease, fat accumulation and a political history of how policy makers mixed with inconclusive science may lead to a generation or more of disastrous consequences.

I take heart that technologists aren't the only ones known for their great blunders, but I pity the victims. The world needs paradigmatic subversives.

Posted by stu at December 11, 2007 01:55 PM