Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Theory of Theories, Hypotheses and Inferences (and Darwinianism)

An article which starts quite well unfortunately wanders from its own precepts.
Is the Science Ever Settled? Theories, Hypotheses, and What Science Really Does

"Any time you write an article talking about the limits of science, as I did in my recent “The Importance of Not Being Certain,” someone will invariably show up to say “evolution is just a theory.” This pretty much always means the person saying it doesn’t have a very good grasp of either “evolution” or what a “theory” is, and so I thought, “okay, that’s a column.”

Let’s look into Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, and in the process let’s look at how science works to build confidence in something that is “just a theory.”

Here’s what Darwin actually said: species originate through natural selection among different characteristics.

He didn’t have access to the nearly 160 years of research that followed. He just made an argument from his observations at the time. Ernst Meyer (this is cribbed from Wikipedia) summarized Darwin’s argument as follows:
Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow (fact).

Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size (fact).

Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time (fact).

A struggle for survival ensues (inference).

Individuals in a population vary significantly from one another (fact).

Much of this variation is heritable (fact).

Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their heritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection (inference).

This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species (inference).
Two things to notice here: first of all, this is a theory: “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something.”

This theory takes the form of an argument: “a sequence of logically connected assertions that lead to a conclusion.”

Some of them are well-established, so Meyer called them “facts,” and some are called “inferences,” which is to say they’re conclusions drawn from the observations before them.

We’ll come back to that in a second, but I want to point out something else: at no point does Darwin make an argument for where life “came from,” how what we call life originated. So everyone winding up to throw “but evolution doesn’t explain the origin of life” at me, just stop. Darwin and evolutionary theory don’t explain that, because it’s not their job.
Stop right there. First, let's examine the process. We are supposedly taking Darwin's logic and judging it for factual content. If we don't care to quibble with some of the points which are summarily declared "fact", there still are three points of supposition inserted, and those are labeled "inferences".

An inference is an extrapolation beyond fact, an hypothetical extension into an area which is unknown, and in this case, unknowable. Thus, even with Bayesian manipulation of arbitrary probabilities, the truth of the matter (erroneously denoted as "fact" in this article) cannot be known, cannot be fact, cannot be called "knowledge", and most certainly cannot be called "objective knowledge". It is subjective, and it is pure opinion. So there is the injection of opinion into this "argument" in three separate places.

Further these opinions, which he calls "conclusions drawn from the observable data before them" are highly prejudiced by what comes next: the author immediately stops in his tracks in order to deny any evolution from minerals (First Life) as pertinent to evolution. This is necessary in order to prejudice the conclusions which follow by preemptively eliminating any falsification of the implicit Philosophical Materialism, which is a necessary ideological precondition, presupposition on top of the other opinion-inferences. The argument has eliminated, by decree, alternate hypotheses, while accepting unfalsifiable hypotheses as Materialist possibilities.

"Those inferences are the key. Every one of those steps should be examined closely, but the ones labeled as “fact” are pretty non-controversial.

Now we’re coming to the way science is actually done. There is a whole topic of the “philosophy of science” and lots of people making their livings writing about what science is and does, but for actual working scientists there are some pretty common guidelines.

A very influential paper on how to learn to do science is John Platt’s paper “Strong Inference.” While it’s controversial among philosophers of science, it’s not primarily a philosophy paper, it’s a “How To” paper.

Before we talk about strong inference, though, we need to take a side trip for some terminology. A hypothesis for which there exists a conceivable experiment that could prove it wrong is falsifiable. Performing that experiment, if successful, is a falsification. So, if my hypothesis is “Coffee is instantly fatal” it’s falsifiable, because you can drink coffee and if you don’t die, it’s not true. So I take a drink of coffee … yep, I’m still here, and so I’ve falsified the hypothesis.

So, Pratt [sic] recommends a process that goes basically like this:
1. You observe something.

2. You make several hypotheses. In this case, a hypothesis means a statement about the observation that proposes an experiment that would show the hypothesis is wrong – in other words, it’s falsifiable.

3. You perform the experiments. Every hypothesis that is actually falsified, you discard.

4. With what you’ve learned, you go back to 1 and repeat.
When you’re down to just one hypothesis, or at least when you’ve excluded some hypotheses, you’ve got a result, which you publish in a form that lets other people replicate your experiment and verify your results. Then what do you do? Remembering that science is never settled, you or someone else goes back and does it again.

Think about what happens over time. As this process goes on, you accumulate more and more explanations for some original set of observations that you’ve attempted to falsify, but haven’t been able to falsify. The more of those you have, the greater your confidence that you’ve got at least a good partial explanation.

Now, let’s look at those inferences that are the more controversial parts of the argument."
And here is what John Platt actually said in his 1964 Science article:
"Strong inference consists of applying the following steps to every problem in science, formally and explicitly and regularly:
1 ) Devising alternative hypotheses;

2) Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;

3) Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result;

1') Recycling the procedure, making subhypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain; and so on.
It is like climbing a tree. At the first fork, we choose - or, in this case, "nature" or the experimental outcome chooses - to go to the right branch or the left; at the next fork, to go left or right; and so on."
And this:
"Unfortunately, 1 think, there are other areas of science today that are sick by comparison, because they have forgotten the necessity for alternative hypotheses and disproof. Each man has only one branch-or none-on the logical tree, and it twists at random without ever coming to the need for a crucial decision at any point. We can see from the external symptoms that there is something scientifically wrong. The Frozen Method. The Eternal Surveyor. The Never Finished. The Great Man With a Single Hypothesis. The Little Club of Dependents. The Vendetta. The All-Encompassing Theory Which Can Never Be Falsified.

Some cynics tell a story, which may be apocryphal, about the theoretical chemist who explained to his class, "And thus we see that the C-CI bond is longer in the first compound than in the second because the percent of ionic character is smaller."

A voice from the back of the room said, "But Professor X, according to the Table, the C-Cl bond is shorter in the first compound."

"Oh, is it?" said the professor. "Well, that's still easy to understand, because the double-bond character is higher in that compound."

To the extent that this kind of story is accurate, a "theory" of this sort is not a theory at all, because it does not exclude anything. It predicts everything, and therefore does not predict anything. It becomes simply a verbal formula which the graduate student repeats and believes because the professor has said it so often. This is not science. but faith; not theory, but theology. Whether it is hand-waving or number-waving or equation-waving, a theory is not a theory unless it can be disproved. That is, unless it can be falsified by some possible experimental outcome."
It is obvious that Platt did NOT provide the approval for opinion-based inference that was stated in the article above. Look back at the claim, "you haven't been able to falsify", which supposedly is providing confidence in Darwinian propositions because they haven't been falsified. But lack of falsification for an unfalsifiable claim is not an indicator of anything at all, because it is both impossible and logically absurd. Darwinian evolution hasn't been falsified precisely because it cannot be: it predicts everything and nothing simultaneously, and is unfalsifiable. In the words of Platt, it is "a faith"; "theology". Which is apt, because evolution is the unifying theory of Atheism, and not biology.

There is one commenter below the article who comes close to illuminating this fatal defect:
"The problem comes in with the third inference: This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species (inference).

Theres really no problem until you hit the word, ultimately.

Everything before ultimately is fine: I know of no one who disagrees with anything in the entire argument up to that point. Clearly, variations accumulate and populations change and adapt over time. In fact, this sort of variation is the basis for crop development and animal husbandry and breeding.

However, the bit after ultimately has no basis in observed reality, and the assertion that these variations accumulate over time to form new species is always stated without any support whatsoever. "
No basis in observed reality. And That is a fact.

Back to Platt for a moment:
""But what is so novel about this?" someone will say. This is the method of science and always has been; why give it a special name? The reason is that many of us have almost forgotten it. Science is now an everyday business. Equipment, calculations, lectures become ends in themselves. How many of us write down our alternatives and crucial experiments every day, focusing on the exclusion of a hypothesis? We may write our scientific papers so that it looks as if we had steps 1, 2, and 3 in mind all along. But in between, we do busywork. We become "method-oriented" rather than "problem-oriented." We say we prefer to "feel our way" toward generalizations."
It's not quite that simple. The reason that experimental science is found lacking in some "sciences" is because they are ideological pursuits which are unfalsifiable, and which therefore require justification outside the boundaries of actual science. If the ideological and nonfalsifiable can be called "science", then the ideological methodology of opinion-inference can be called "scientific-method". One deception frequently spawns supporting deceptions.
[All emphasis is added]

1 comment:

Phoenix said...

Love these articles.It exposes the amount of prejudice and faith Atheists put into Evolution.