“So what’s going to happen next?” The room was full of physics grad students and nobody wanted to answer. You could hear a pin drop….
Dr Richard Berg ran the physics lecture demonstration group at University of Maryland. He designed and provided demos that professors and TAs could use to make their classes more engaging. My personal favorite was the electromagnetic can smasher (for obvious reasons). Every year, first year graduate students in physics were required to attend a seminar where the various research groups presented their work. It was an opportunity to learn about what was going on in the department, to help us shop for future advisors. But, traditionally, the first presentation was given by Dick Berg. He would present simple table-top experiments that inevitably defied intuition; so much so that a room full of kids with 4 years of physics study under their belts would squirm in their seats. He’d egg us on, “You tell me what’s supposed to happen next. We’ve got a room full of future physics professors here.”
One of the things you learn as a career scientist is that the world rarely conforms to common sense and it certainly doesn’t care what we want it to be. Demonstrations like Dr Berg’s are not exceptions. They are the rule. There is a huge chasm between taking a finite collection of observations and drawing a systematic conclusion from them. I often find myself floored by the way that many non-scientists (and sometimes even scientists) hurl themselves to conclusions that cannot be drawn from the very limited number of facts they have available. For many people, it is enough that a conclusion “just makes sense”, especially if that conclusion reaffirms what they want to believe. But, “making sense” can be an illusion and a dangerous one at that. In popular culture there is a concept of not “jumping to conclusions” prematurely. I think this is an understatement. When we talk about complex subject matters (whether they be the dynamics of Supernovas or curing cancer or tax policy or solving urban poverty), opinionated people can often be seen, not merely “jumping” to premature conclusions, but catapulting to them.
The human brain is an excellent pattern finding machine. In fact, it is too good at it! Many people are familiar with optical illusions. But, few people are aware of cognitive illusions: the brain’s ability to see patterns in things that aren’t really there. Given a few facts, our brains quickly connect the dots. I hope to discuss many of these in future posts. In the mean time, wikipedia provides an excellent list of cognitive biases here. Take the time and look at some of these.
It’s More Complicated Than I Think
The most important lesson I wish more people would take away is that in complicated, multifactorial problems it is much harder to come to a solid conclusion or understanding than you may think it is. It’s a humbling and liberating realization.
Above all, I wish that people would realize that this principle applies to all aspects of our human experience: not just science. I would like to live in a world where even our political lives were informed with the awareness that problems are unlikely to fit into our tidy, ideological boxes.
I would suggest that the realization of the world’s complexity offers a “third way”, a middle path in approaching truth. Rather than accepting the false choice between the relativist approach to truth (There is no absolute truth; it’s all relative) and a sort of chauvinistic approach (Of course there is an absolute truth and it just so happens to agree with my beliefs. What a coincidence!) it is possible to take on the realist view that there is an objective truth to the matter, but it is difficult if not impossible to fully understand it. Just remind yourself, “It’s probably more complicated than I think“. One needs to be disciplined to resist falling for intellectual mirages.
The Power of “The Alternative Hypothesis”
In my own experience as a scientist, no skill is more exciting, more important, and yet overwhelming than the ability to generate alternative hypotheses.
People make educated guesses all the time, to fill in the gaps in our understanding. These guesses can make a lot of sense. They can be really clever. And, if our intuition is well-trained, they might just be right. But, a major trick that the brain can pull on us is to underestimate either the complexity or the range of freedom available to the system we’re observing. One way we can shake ourselves out of this complacency, is to force ourselves to think of alternative explanations, beyond the first hypothesis to pop into our heads. In fact, it is best for us to come up with as many alternative hypotheses as possible. With practice and experience, one will get increasingly better at this exercise. Often, you learn it the hard way: testing your hypotheses and finding out they were wrong (again and again and again)…By seeing a more full scope and range of possible explanations that all make reasonable sense but imply very different conclusions, you can better figure out how to design tests to narrow down the possibilities, and you can open your mind enough to accept facts and observations that run counter to what you actually expect. Once you’ve gone through the exercise of listing as many possible hypotheses as you can think of, feel free to pick a pet hypothesis. The important thing is not letting yourself too hastily come to the belief that your hypothesis must be right or that it provides “the only possible explanation”.
Another important realization: even after ranking by which guesses “make the most sense”, observation can surprise you. There is not rule that nature has to conform to what makes sense to us. And, the very idea of something “making sense” can easily become suspect. Hypotheses are starting points not ends unto themselves.
Mixing Alternative Hypotheses and Politics: Be Careful
Scientists don’t just think up alternative hypotheses for ourselves. It is a part of our culture to offer suggested alternative explanations to our colleagues. This is sort of being like a friendly devil’s advocate. It is so important to the early process of developing a new theory or experiment. Because of this habit, we often tend to offer alternative hypotheses to non-scientists, when we hear them making really strong first guesses about an observation. In political contexts, I often find myself pushing back really hard as a devils advocate. The result is that non-scientists interpret my questioning as disagreement. My liberal friends end up convincing themselves that I’m an arch conservative and my conservative friends will think I’m a socialist. If offered patiently and politely, such thoughts can be very helpful. Just be careful; It can end poorly.
Modesty And Curiosity
Through the course of this post I presented a strong case for why we can’t easily draw conclusions from our observations of complicated systems. But, I do not mean for this to imply futility or nihilism. On the contrary, the beauty of the scientific enterprise is that it shows us the extent to which the world can be known. Appreciating how little we know opens us to knew ideas, to seeing the world through a different lens. It opens us up to our most important intellectual driver: curiosity. You cannot be curious if you’ve fooled yourself into thinking that the matter is closed and you hold all the answers. But, if you allow yourself to embrace that curiosity, if you approach problems with an intellectual modesty and a thirst for new knowledge, then you will be inspired to do the necessary work to systematically understand the given problem. Ultimately, the pursuit itself will be far more interesting and rewarding than whether or not you ever reach a fully complete or satisfying conclusion.