Wednesday 28 May 2014

Scientific facts and democratic values

I spoke at the Circling the Square conference last week, keeping closely to the text I put up before I went to Nottingham.  The most significant change was that I ended with a comment on a claim made by an experimental physicist (hereafter labelled as "EP")   the previous day that "E=mc2 is a fact" and was on the following panel where he argued that "Science is  not democratic".  I want to explore these two points.

As a mathematician, E=mc2 looks like a model, and I come from a tradition that lives by the aphorism that "all models are wrong".  But this is simplistic, a better argument is presented by Poincare, who is an authority I suspect that EP would be reluctant to dismiss with the confidence that they dismiss sociology.

Poincare is difficult to read, because his approach is to take ironic positions that he then dismantles.  In Chapter 6 of Science and Hypothesis he does this with the playful statement
The English teach mechanics as an experimental science; on the Continent it is taught always more or less as a deductive a priori science.  The English are right, no doubt
He then proceeds to cast doubt on that indubitable statement.  Poincare notes that the issue is that
treatises on mechanics do not clearly distinguish between what is experiment, what is mathematical reasoning, what is convention and what is hypothesis
Over a hundred years on physicists are still unclear about these things, something that annoys sociologists.  Later, in Chapter 8, Poincare untangles the difficult concept of energy, and it is in this context that I asked the question "Is E=mc2 a definition", if this is the case and we associate facts with definitions we are close to Nominalism.

In response, the EP raised a cup as if to drop it and the claim was made that it will accelerate at 9.81.. m/s2 and this was a fact, known within definite errors.

A fact with error bars on it, mmmm.  Not convincing.

The point is this fact, even with error bars, is dubious.  I worked in the oil industry and one way of prospecting is to search for gravity anomolies, that is to make money by looking for where the model fails.

Thus far EP has failed to justify to me that physics is based on facts, but I still believe in physics.  What is my reasoning.

In Chapter 7 of Science and Hypothesis Poincare asks the reader to imagine a planet that is covered with thick clouds, so much so that they cannot see the stars.  He then argues that, at some point, a Copernicus will "come at last'' to the planet and would argue that
 It is more convenient to suppose the earth turns round, because the laws of mechanics are thus expressed in much more simple language. 
and then he goes on to say
these two propositions "the earth turns round,'' and "it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round,'' have one and the same meaning
This statement was picked up by a mathematician and  philosopher, Edouard LeRoy. LeRoy was a friend and follower of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who is associated with philosophical irrationalism and  LeRoy believed that science "can teach us nothing of truth; it can only serve as a rule of action'' and, following Bergeson,  "the intellect deforms all it touches'' and is a version of Nominalism.  Poincare was forced to write his second book The Value of Science  where he clarifies his earlier work and argues, passionately, for the value of science.

Poincare starts by arguing that science is not simply a 'rule of action' in the same way that there are rules to a game,
[If science has] a value as `recipes' have a value, as a rule of action, it is because we know they succeed, generally at least.  But to know this is to know something and then why tell us we know nothing?
He then goes on to distinguish a 'crude fact' from a 'scientific fact'
The scientific fact is only the crude fact translated into a convenient language. 
Poincare observes that the convenient language could be French or German (or  Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometry), but the point is that, in science at least, a French speaker could come to understand German, "because there remains between the French and Germans something in common, since both are men''.  The nominal language that scientists use is only a convenient veneer on the universality of science.

Poincare then goes on to answer the fundamental question: What is science? and offers the following
 it is before all a classification, a manner of bringing together facts which appear separate, though they were bound together by some natural and hidden kinship.  Science, in other words, is a system of relations.  Now, ..., it is in the relations alone that objectivity must be sought
followed by
 Therefore when we ask what is the objective value of science, that does not mean: Does science teach us about the true nature of things? but it means: Does it teach us about the true relations of things? (my emphasis)
The equivalence of the statements "the earth turns round,'' and "it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round,'' is a consequence of the relativity of space.  To state that either "The earth turns around'' or "The earth does not turn around'' only has meaning if space absolute, and not if science is about relations of things.

Having set the scene with Poincare, to entice the EP in,  I will run forward to modern philosophy.  Susan Haack gives us the metaphor of knowledge (scientia) as a crossword puzzle, we answer some clues and infer others.  For example if in my crossword I see the letters "f_l_c_t_" I am justified in filling in "felicity" (without referring to the crossword clue), just as a physicists are justified by filling in "E=mc2" in science.  But, if I find the answer that gave me the "l" is wrong, I have to re-visit "felicity"; it could be "ferocity" or "frascati".  Metaphorically, my issue with multiverses is that I feel physicists are solving  the clue with "fulocite" (rhymes with "full of ..."); inventing a meaningless word to fill in the blanks.

Haack is not immediately interested in the natural and physical sciences, her main concern is the law and how science influences legal judgements (which is itself related to the topic of the conference).  The reason Haack, Poincare and I take this line in knowledge is that we want science to take a central role in policy making.  This implies we cannot be exclusive in our definition of science as that which relates to nature.

What I mean by this is I believe it is equally justified to claim the "E=mc2" and that "Raping three year olds is wrong" and I need to have a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of these claims.  The reason I use an extreme example is that the question of raping children is clearly predominantly a moral question, so what I am claiming is that my intellectual framework needs to be equally robust in supporting "facts" as "values".  I cannot immediately justify either claim, I rely on a confidence that I can discover robust justifications.  Furthermore, I would conject that the proportion of the British population who reject both claims is similar, and more controversially that there is an overlap in the groups.  My basis for the second claim is in the recognition of a link between emotivism, that moral statements are essentially emotional, in moral philosophy and relativism in philosophy more generally.

Now the sting in the tail:  emotivism is closely related to logical positivism, notably through the work of A. J. Ayer.  I see a connection between logical-positivism, that the only truths are those that can be verified through experimentation, with emotivism, that moral statements are propositionally empty,  with relativism, that there can be no absolute justification for a claim.  If you take the logical positivist out of the laboratory their position, for me, becomes untenable and relates to the relativists they typically despise.  N.B. Do not quote this argument in a 101 Philosophy paper.

Why do I care?  Why do I need to employ a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of the claims?  The reason is that, like Haack and Poincare,  I believe that scientists have a role in policy.  I finished my statement at the conference with the hyperbole that the Credit Crisis was caused by people who are committed to the idea that E=mc2 is a fact.  Let me explain.

Since the 1980s investment banks have been actively recruiting, at an increasing rate, graduates from science, technology, engineering and mathematics backgrounds.  The reason was the increasingly quantitative nature of finance.  This was not new, there has always been a strong relationship between science and finance that had become overshadowed between 1914 and 1970 when states set exchange rates deterministically.  Finance gained much from these graduates, but they came with baggage, they believed in the truth-bearing nature of mathematics and did not recognise an ethical dimension of the equations they employed.  As the Financial Crisis Enquiry Commission reported, the Credit Crisis was a result of "a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics".  It was not the mathematics that was wrong it was the moral context in which they were used. In response,  my work since 2010 has centred on un-covering the ethical dimension of the abstract mathematics employed in finance.

Something that struck me at the Conference was the extraordinary status of finance and economics.  I plan to explore this in a future post - I need to check what people actually said on the recordings rather than rely on what I think I heard - but for the benefit of those who were not their it came up a number of times that no-one, from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the government's scientific advisers, academics and so on, challenge the basis of financial decisions.  This is extraordinary because modern policy decisions are based primarily on economic arguments.    For example, the Stern case for taking action today to mitigate uncertain climate change in the future rests on taking an unconventional financial position.  As economists are reluctant to take this position, there is never an economic case in favour of many mitigation strategies.  In un-covering the ethical dimension of the abstract mathematics employed in finance I present a case for Stern's position.  If there is no questioning of the financial basis of policy decisions, most of the discussion about scientific advice is redundant.

As something of an aside, but an issue that came up at this conference and after the Mathematical Cultures meeting is the widespread belief that the root of science's problems is "neo-liberalism".  I have explained a number of times that "neo-liberalism" is a technical term relating to a synthesis of statist and classical liberal policies.  The financialisation of academia, taking it from public to private control,  is a return to "liberal" policies.  There seems to be a reluctance to associate what is bad with policies that originate, in part,  with Bentham and Mill.  One academic responded "Well at least we've never had "liberal" governments then".  The problem is we have.  The British policy of Russell's government in response to the Irish Famine from 1846 was classically liberal and perceived as being "scientific" (in accordance with Mill's conception of political science) at the time.  Peel's Tory policy had been both less liberal and motivated by Christian charity and is usually perceived as humane, but flawed.

This leads me on to the second statement by EP: Science is undemocratic.  Given that I had made the point that, as a bystander, I think that the climate debate has degenerated into one of seeing which camp can have the most peer-reviewed papers published, suggests that we are in agreement.  Maybe, but not in how to present the case.  I argue that the issue is inside academia - it is about getting papers published, EP suggests the problem is outside the academies, in the public space.

Claiming "E=mc2 is a fact" and "Science is undemocratic" are both problematic: the first is open to challenge, as I have done, and if it looks invalid it undermines subsequent claims.  The second raises in the hearers mind, if it is not democratic, what exactly is it: technocratic? plutocratic? theocratic? In my work I identify a correspondence between good scientific, democratic and commercial practice.  I build this case on Cheryl Misak's Truth, Politics and Morality, which, according to the publisher, "argues that truth ought to be reinstated to a central position in moral and political philosophy": nothing woolly there.  Misak's argument is essentially that if we are to arrive at something we can call truth we must put our claims up to be challenged; this is the democratic ideal.  The very fact that EP embarks on an admirable crusade to challenge published work demonstrates that they advocate that science is democratic: they are rejecting the autocratic authority of the journal and the peer review process.

Poincare suggested that what distinguishes the scientist is their ability to ask the right questions, not their ability to deliver the right answers.  My feeling towards the end of the Circling the Square conference that academics seem to be becoming very introspective.  When EP claims that "Science is undemocratic" they are talking to other academics, not to the broader public. The discussions focussed on climate science, particularly geo-engineering and the badger cull.  As Sheila Jasanoff pointed out, the academics' main mechanism for affecting climate policy, the IPCC,  has failed and we should move on to thinking of something workable while someone else pointed out that public opinion on the fate of British badgers was clear: we don't care.  I was left thinking that academics are fighting amongst themselves over the scraps under the table, when the juicy joint has been left unguarded on the table.  All this was going on while  a significant portion of the European public was going to the polls and giving the establishment, of which publicly funded academics are part, a significant vote of no confidence.


  1. Hehe ! multiverses & fulocite.

    I think part of the problem is that people forget that 'value' exists as a pre-intellectual - or ontologically prior - phenomenon (as well as post). Perhaps because they experience it as "hypothesis - experiment - data - FACT". And FACTS are science currency. They conflate discovery and invention.

    Interesting point on logical positivism & emotivism. I'm just about to read a book on Freud's philosophy (Tauber's - Freud the reluctant philosopher). Freud seems to me to be an interesting figure in these sorts of debates. Roundly hated by all sides, I'd guess. But someone who saw himself as trying to create a bridge between passion & reason. I blog any quote I find appropriate to this fact/value debate.

    1. Tauber frames his thinking on the 'interplay of facts and values in positivist and post-positivist science' as a 'moral epistemology. His thinking comes from medicine rather than finance but there do seem to me at least clear parallels with your own work. There's a paper here

      I best crack on and read his book.

    2. Cheers Jon,

      In my paper I comment that finance is peculiar in having so little discussion of (professional) ethics as compared to other professions. I was interested in the position Mark Carney put forward earlier in the week ( because the summary I heard on R4 about 6:20am was similar to the summary of the case I submitted to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. Obviously I assume there is a direct link between my submission and the BoE's actions.

  2. I think you are using the wrong example. In fact, E=mc^2 is really a definition, or tautology. It just relates the same thing (which you can call either "energy" or "mass") in two different units (J and kg, respectively, if you like.) This is because in modern science c is just a translation of to units for the same thing (length or time of a unified space-time), so it has a fixed numerical value (relative to the SI standard units), that is, its value is *defined* by SI. And as a direct result, it defines the relation to two units for the same thing (energy/mass). Also note that m in this equation is *not* the rest mass (if it were, than it would be a model, and it would be wrong.) And if you would ask then if it's not the rest mass, then what is it? Well, it is the one that makes this equation true. In other words, m, the dynamic mass, in this equation can be see as being defined as the energy in a different unit (i.e. E/c^2). Now there is a model involved, but that is what the role of this mass/energy is in dynamics, namely as a source of gravity and as a parameter in the equation of motion. That is a model, and not a fact, it could be wrong. But E=mc^2 cannot be wrong, it really is a fact, because it's a definition.

  3. To add to my comment, I think it is really obvious if you're working in high energy physics. In HEP one uses different units, and the units of energy and mass are actually the same: eV (electronVolt). In those units, Einsteins famous equation would be written E=m. In other words, they're just two names for the exact same thing. That's a translation, just like translating English to German, not a model. BTW I think the real confusion comes from the fact that E=mc^2 is often presented as the big insight of Einstein, but this is really misleading. His insight was not really that you could change units from mass to energy. His real insight was that what we used to call mass (really rest mass) and energy should be added together, to get a total quantity, which we alternatively could call total energy (E) or total mass (m) depending on the units you use (c^2). In other words, E=E_0+E', where E_0=m_0c^2 and E' is what we used to call energy (kinetic and potential energy). In his model this total energy is what's relevant, not the terms by themselves. Next, you can call E/c^2 total or dynamic mass m. But that's just a convenient name. This makes the equation true, by definition. The c^2 is just a red herring.

  4. If you look at how human reasoning works, it's basically statistical. Experience and learning provide the priors, and you are stuck having to make the best choice as you try to predict which actions will produce which results. When I first learned physics back in grade school, I was told that every statement has to be taken within the bounds of our knowledge, experimental and observational. So, Newton's Law of gravitation was true within the kinds of measurements one might make in a machine shop or when firing artillery. Einstein's Law was just as true, but covered a broader range of applicability.

    The whole point of the statistical apparatus of thought is prediction. If one desires food, one must decide which patterns of light indicate that firing certain motor neurons in sequence will provide one with a tasty morsel. On this fuzzy foundation, we've invented various logics and mathematics which are surprisingly effective in providing us with such things as tasty morsels. These patterns of thought have the advantage that if one follows a rigorous set of rules, such as might be implemented by an unthinking machine, and deduces a certain effect, then nature, it seems, is left without recourse but to produce the computed results. (I think the physicist Wheeler had an argument with a rock about this in one of his books.)

    It really doesn't matter if E=mc^2 is a definition or a fact or an observation. The mathematician Giancarlo Rota observed that much of mathematics is arbitrary. Those in his field might take one algebra's theorems as postulates and then prove its postulates by means of theorems. The structure of this reasoning, the movement from priors to consequences, is invariant. Mathematicians build all sorts of novel artifices and then discover that they are all one. The proof of Fermat's last theorem involved demonstrating that elliptical curves were the same thing as modular forms.

    When you start comparing things like moral judgements about raping toddlers against relationships between mass and energy, you are stretching the rubber sheet a bit. There have been, and quite likely still are, societies where raping toddlers is seen as perfectly acceptable. There are no societies where the conversion ratio between mass and energy is different. In that sense, E=mc^2 is in some way more true. As Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

    The financial sector is about getting tasty morsels. Claiming to be able to make predictions is one way to get tasty morsels. It really doesn't matter if your predictions come to pass. Mathematics, with its unreasonable effectiveness, provides a rhetorical mechanism for convincing people that one's predictions are better than those provided by another party. Walt Kelly once asked what language the Romans used to produce a 24 karat bamboozle. My guess would be Greek, as the Greeks were considered extremely clever. Nowadays, it would be mathematics as those versed in the mathematical arts are considered extremely clever.

  5. #1 of 2


    Apologies for the delay in responding -- I've been up to my ears in exam marking.

    As I'm the "EP" to whom you refer in the post, I'd like to address a few points.

    First, I agree entirely with Christiaan and Kaleberg above. Kaleberg gets bonus points for quoting Philip K Dick!

    There are no societies where the conversion ratio between mass and energy is different. In that sense, E=mc^2 is in some way more true. As Philip K. Dick said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.

    This is exactly what I meant when I mentioned E=mc^2.

    Second, you say that I "dismiss" sociology. I don't. I dismiss certain aspects of sociology. Indeed, I am a big fan of the writings of John Ziman, the physicist-turned-sociologist and have learnt a great deal from his writings and those of, for example, Robert K Merton. Moreover, I'm a member of the Management Committee for the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) Strategy Group at Nottingham where I work alongside sociologists. I was also a member of the Programme Committee for the "Circling the Square" conference.

    So I would argue that you are somewhat unfairly overstating the case when you say that I dismiss sociology.

    You said,

    In response, the EP raised a cup as if to drop it and the claim was made that it will accelerate at 9.81.. m/s2 and this was a fact, known within definite errors.

    A fact with error bars on it, mmmm. Not convincing.

    What's not convincing about it?! The precise number used for g is not the point. Of course there are error bars - we never have 'infinite' precision. But that doesn't mean that we can't make predictions based on that universal law. Why otherwise would we ever attempt to fit a theoretical prediction to experimental data points?

    I often tell the 1st year physics undergrads at Nottingham that to quote a result without an associated experimental uncertainty is, to quote Pauli out of context, "not even wrong". Those uncertainties are absolutely central to the scientific method and I see no problem at all with having an uncertainty in the value of 'g' and stating that F=mg is a scientific fact.

    The point is that the cup will fall to the Earth with a force given by F=mg. Yes, this is "only" a model (and, yes, it's leaving aside, for example, air resistance in this instance. That's just the addition of another term in the differential equation!).

    But it's a model that is universal and which has exceptionally successful predictive power. Someone on the other side of the world, on the moon, or on Mars (see discussion over at Making Science Public) will find the same relationship and can perform experiments which give results which, *within experimental error*, agree with this law and are independent of cultural and social mores.

    What I mean by this is I believe it is equally justified to claim the "E=mc2" and that "Raping three year olds is wrong" and I need to have a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of these claims.

    I am entirely with Kaleberg on this -- you're over-reaching by a long, long way. I can see what you're trying to do but your attempt to equate universal physical laws with the idea of a universal moral framework makes no sense at all.

    We can make independent and repeatable *measurements* in a variety of environments to confirm/rule out a theory, which, I'll admit entirely, can often be reached through a complex network of social interactions. But it's the *data* resulting from those measurements which represent the acid test for the validity of the theory.

    The only way to decide between two competing theories is on the basis of the experimental evidence/observations.

    Just how do you extend this to decide between two 'competing' moral frameworks?

  6. #2 of 2.

    In the final paragraph you say,

    The very fact that EP embarks on an admirable crusade to challenge published work demonstrates that they advocate that science is democratic: they are rejecting the autocratic authority of the journal and the peer review process.

    The validity of a piece of science is not decided by committee or by vote or by cultural/social bias. All that matters is the evidence. It doesn't matter if 99% of the scientific community are behind a particular theory/hypothesis, if the data do not support that theory then ultimately - and, yes, it might take decades - it's dead in the water. This is what I meant by the laws of physics not being democratic.

    Challenging published work should be the bedrock of science. It's when science is decided by "democracy" (i.e. by the greatest number of 'votes', or, in other words, by 'cultural' bias) that the rot sets in. A major factor enabling that fundamentally flawed work to which you refer to be published time and time again (see here ) was the idea that it must be OK because the referees of earlier papers agreed that the work was fine. ("Peer-reviewed papers from this group have previously been published in prestigious journals such as Nature Materials and Science. The work has got to be right...")

  7. I've put up a brief post on this debate which includes, what I think, is a very relevant quote from Tauber. (see below)

    The jist of my post is that a distinction between value-free and value-neutral is crucial.

    "Freud's 'physics envy' belied his scientific aspirations, for he could not overcome the insurmountable normative structure of his enterprise. Scientific theories generally fall into two camps: Some are simply descriptive with no judgments about optimal or suboptimal states. Such theories, which characterize the natural sciences, for example, Newtonian mechanics or general relativity, are value-neutral (i.e., relative to human or subjective values) and thus non-normative. Of course, they are not value-free, but rather judged and governed by their own hierarchy of values, for example, objective, universal, coherent, parsimonious, 'aesthetically elegant,' or simple. Older kinds of theories embed different social or personal values in their descriptive structure that are necessarily derived from human experience, and, accordingly account for conditions on a normative spectrum of values. Physics is not evaluative in this way, because there is no value judgement on whether an eclipse of the moon, itself, is good or bad, better or worse (at least not in Western secular society). Needless to say, the effects on human life of such phenomena are valued, but the phenomena themselves, at least in their descriptions, are neutral and only elicit a normative judgement relative to how that phenomena or theory affects well being."

    Albert Tauber Freud - The Reluctant Philosopher (2010) p.33

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