What science entails, beyond practical science (By Prof S G Dani)

1. How it all began

In the primitive world, as know-how began to be gathered the initial impulse was
only to harness it towards meeting the basic needs. Gradually questions arose
in the minds of people about the nature of the world around and in particular
whether it has implications to human behaviour on a broader scale, at social as
well as individual level. Since no coherent model for the happenings in nature
could be thought of with the limited inputs at hand, a feeling evolved that
nature is governed by something supernatural, or extraneous. The motivation
then shifted to trying to identify how the supernatural intervened in the natural
course, and to benet from the understanding (both in terms of setting up goals
– going to heaven, concern for consequences of actions during one’s life to after
death or rebirth, attaining moksha etc. – as well as appeasing the postulated
agencies of the supernatural to gain functional benets in everyday life). Many
principles emanating from this model (e.g. good behaviour so as not to incur
the wrath of the agencies of the supernatural) served also as fruitful devices on
account of their potential to bring stability of the societies. On the other hand,
to be sure, doubters of such a models have existed through the ages. A notable
instance in the Indian context would be the Charvaka tradition from around
600 BCE. Incidentally though the Charvakas have been much maligned in the
traditional milieu, their norms of behaviour were perhaps quite consistent with
the modern day norms. *

2. The scientic revolution

The scientic revolution (during 15th to 17th centuries) brought in, apart from
the massive technological boons, the profound realisation there is really no limit
to the amount of knowledge that humans can acquire about nature, into its
deeper and deeper manifestations, at macro as well as micro levels. One major
consequence of this to the thought process was to reduce the role of the super-
natural agencies. The scientic method that evolved alongside the technological
revolution did not need to accord any role to the supernatural. Being able to ar-
rive at explanations of phenomena in nature without recourse to the supernatural
was seen to enhance one’s ability to comprehend nature more eectively and to
use it fruitfully in practice. As a consequence it also came to be incorporated as
a crucial ethical principle in the practice of science { whatever the predilections
of the individual practitioners in this respect, the scientic community expected
that all reasoning and validation of knowledge be done through arguments in-
ternal to the system, not involving anything supernatural. For validation of
knowledge material evidence was a fundamental criterion, and all inferences this
had to be based on sound, independently conrmed, principles of logic.
As it crystallized, the scientic method of acquisition of knowledge may be
described as a system going through the following steps. It begins with obser-
vations concerning things or phenomena that we encounter, which then often
develop into ideas or hypotheses about how nature functions, in whatever spe-
cic context is concerned. The best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be
tested in various ways. The most reliable tests of hypotheses come from carefully
controlled experiments and logical analysis of empirical data. Depending on how
well additional tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require
renement, alteration, expansion or outright rejection. If a particular hypothesis
becomes very well supported, a general theory emerges.
This sets a model, or template (to use a more current word), for enquiry into
the nature of things and validation of knowledge. A crucial point is that the
method is of signicance far beyond the everyday practices of science. Admit-
tedly the method is not workable with equal facility in all contexts. There are a
variety of diculties, both at operational and theoretical levels. However there
are some fundamental features that stand out and adopting them would stand
us in good stead in our endeavour to acquire and validate knowledge concerning
various aspects of life, that are not directly concerned practice of science itself.  **

3.  Falsiability

Firstly, testability of a hypothesis is of paramount importance. A hypothesis
which can not be tested (e.g. the earth being supported on the hood of a giant
Sesha, a serpant) has no place in the body of knowledge, even as a candidate.
“Falsiability” is viewed as a primary criterion – if you can not have a test which
has a possibility of throwing up a negative outcome in case the statement is to
be false, the statement is worthless and may be safely set aside.
A colleague ones raised the issue as to how can you rule of the hypothesis
that “if a cat crosses your path something bad will happen to you”? If many
people nd it to be the case, it would be unscientic to deny it! The hypothesis
is in fact not falsiable, since what is “something bad” is not well dened, and
subject to one’s point of view, which even in the case of particular individual
could vary. On the other hand, if the statement were something like “if a cat
crosses your path your blood pressure will go up in the next ve minutes” is a
testable hypothesis, even though it is unlikely to come up. The more common
response on the part of most “reasoning” people would be say “how would the
cat know?” or in other words rely on our sense of causality, which is a part of our
accumulated knowledge about nature. The causality test would fail in respect
of both the questions as above. However, while causality provides a good test
in practical contexts there is a limitation associated with that the phenomenon
may be valid and yet you may not have means of knowing the cause.

4. Role of Questions

Second major feature is the importance of coming up with Questions, as a
means of enhancing knowledge. Since a question can in principle be answered
in a variety of ways (say blah, blah) we need also to have the means of judging
the merit of the answers. When a child I had read a wise-guy story in which the
king asks the number of crows in the city. The wise guy cites a reasonably big
random number (2573). The king wants it conrmed, but is soon informed that
to conrm it one would rst have to ensure that no crow should enter or exit the
city pending the process. Abreast of the diculty of the task at hand the king
closes the matter appreciating the smartness of the wise guy and rewarding him
for it. Even as a child I remember feeling that there was something wrong with
the answer; if many answers of can be give that are just as good as another, what
is the merit of any individual answer? Whatever the merits, or the amusement
value, of the story, as far as the issue of acquisition of knowledge is concerned it
is a big no no.
The art of acquiring knowledge, whether in practical science or in other as-
pects of life, consists of asking good questions and being able to correctly eval-
uate the answers. A more typical and concrete situation involved in acquisition
of knowledge is when together with the question you have a list of plausible an-
swers, with a possibility and potential for the list expanding it, depending on
the outcomes as they evolve in the process of testing the possible answers. This
is not a very restrictive scenario, given that testing hypotheses is an important
part of the process of augmentation of knowledge. If you can not think of any
possible answers to the question, there would be nothing to test, and no possible
valid answers to the question. Of course, initial list need not be adhered to. You
may happen to start with a question like what is the color of the bird that is
ying across the garden, and while your initial list may consist of some primary
colors, on closer inspection you may consider adding more of them or even add
something like a shade between this and that.
The answers, and understanding on most issues, usually develops in steps.
The subsequent answers may rule out the earlier answers; it is the brain that
does the thinking and not the heart as was once thought! (The original idea
would have been based on the response felt in the heart to various intense mo-
ments, and would have been “conrmed” by certain tests, the idea had to be
discarded following better understanding of biology, via other tests; the tests at
any particular time can have limitations and the eects may be overcome by
improved tests, that bettwer t with a larger collection observations. Questions
like whether intake of vitamin C improves body resistance have seen see-saw
developments. On the other hand in some instances later answers may subsume
the earlier answers, as in the case of the relativistic mechanics incorporating
Newtonian mechanics as a limiting case.

5. How and Why

There is a general cliche that science concerns itself with questions of “how”
while metaphysical pursuits are equipped to answer “why” questions. But this
is very misleading. It is indeed true that science concerns “how”? The issue
about “why” is rather complicated or complex. In some questions it is simply
equivalent to “how”; why does the earth go around the sun? we use “why”
here rather than how, since the latter would normally correspond to description
of the path (round, elliptical, oval etc) whereas the issue involved is something
else; but if you modify the question to “how does the trajectory of the earth
get determined?” and use our knowledge of Newtonian theory of gravitation we
have answer to “why the earth goes around the sun”. Many questions asking for
“scientic explanation” often get posed in this way e.g. why is the weather in
Mumbai humid? which are equivalent to “how” questions. On the other hand
there are “why” questions of other kind which are actually pointless: “why is
man endowed with food sources on earth?”. The possible answer “by God’s will”
is meaningless as it is neither falsiable nor testable. The question is pointless,
since if there were no food sources, we would not be here to ask or answer the
questions. A question can not treated as meaningful or deserving of an answer
simply by the test of following rules of grammar. Other “why” questions like
“why are metals hard and vegetables soft?” have a mixed avour depending on
the context in which you view them; from the point of view of condensed matter
physics it can be viewed as a “how” question while in a lay context it is pointless
– we simply accept them as their properties.
It may be claried here that this is not a critique, or an argument against,
asking why questions. In practice we do need them and they are quite important.
The point being made is that a “why” question is good and meaningful basically
when it can be converted into a “how” question, perhaps an awkward one in
terms of grammar, and the “why” is essentially a short or more elegant form for
the other formulation.

6. Pitfalls in the process

Let me begin this section with a quotation from Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhzen in
Latinized form), the Arab polymath who ourished in 10th century in Basra,
Iraq, renowned for his work on Optics. By some accounts he is the earliest
practitioner of the scientic method.
The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if
       learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that
       he reads, and … attack it from every side. He should also suspect
       himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may
       avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.
Ibn Al-Haytham
In practice however it is a far cry to meet such a obligation in pursuit of
truth. The practitioners are all too human and are prone to biases of various
kinds and these aect both the choice of the questions and the ndings: it may
be worth categorising these as follows depending on their sources.
  Predilections arising from personal motivations.
  Preferences borne out of professional considerations.
  Biases arising from parochial tendencies.

6.1 Personal aspects

In the course of our early development we acquire a variety of prejudices, pref-
erences, likes and dislikes. When a person engages himself/herself in scientic
pursuits, the projects as well as reported ndings may be aected by these.
By some accounts Copernicus was inclined to uphold the heliocentric theory
out of faith in “Sun God”. It seems also that some early works in bacteriology
fudged the ndings, purely out of personal convictions. These are instances
where a bias led to breaking away from dogma. However, it could happen that
personal biases lead to holding onto theories which may eventually be proved
wrong, wasting a fair amount of work.

6.2 Professional issues

There are a variety of professional pressures which lead to withholding or fudging
ones ndings. Gauss was aware of existence of non-euclidean geometries before
they were discovered independently by Lobachevsky and Bolyai, but did not
come out with it as he feared that it would seem rather crazy and harm his
reputation. Apparently the charge of the electron determined by Millikan by the
oil-drop experiment was actually higher, but several successive experimenters
adopted values closer to Millikan’s, discarding readings which were away from
that, and the value stabilized only over a period of 20 years.
When a researcher takes up a project there also a pressure to bring out
something “interesting” out of it. An anthropologist is more likely to highlight
positive qualities of the subject tribe (unless negatively disposed from the outset,
when the focus would be on negative qualities). Such a thing seems to have
happened in early studies in Indology, which later had a backlash where other
authors began to aggressively fault the ndings.
There are also issues about motivations coming from who is funding the
research. Especially in medical sciences, environmental sciences, this seems a
major issue.

6.3 Parochial issues

Though not so much in mainstream science, in studies in history, anthropology,
sociology, etc. parochial considerations seem to aect research. Many projects
are coming up on exploring benecial eects of gomutra, etc. and in the current
environment, with heavy revivalist overtones, one would wonder how much cred-
ibility can be granted to the ndings, which are in any case unlikely to be open
to scientic debates.

7. In place of a conclusion

This discussion is meant to be a rudimentary exposition of what science entails,
beyond direct aspects of scientic practice. There are inevitably many matters
of detail involved; some of the issues about them are resolved at a technical or
philosophical, while others may be unresolved. Evidently there are also practical
diculties in following the method at an individual level, with the limited time
and resources at one’s disposal. One way of meeting this shortcoming would be
to have a networking of people sharing the underlying ideas concerning scientic
inquiry and adhering to the basic principles with regard to validation of knowl-
edge. Actively pursuing it as our dharma would no doubt bring further clarity.
It would be of utmost importance however to sustain this valuable gift of science
to the broader cause of charting our way through life, in the individual as well
as social context.

—————————————————————————————————————————

* One oft quoted verse about them is
“yavad jeevet sukham jeevet, rnam krtwa ghritam pibet
bhasmibhutasya dehasya punaragam kutah.”
As long as you live, live happily; take loan to consume ghee
Once the body is cremated how will it come back?

** It is unclear whether this is an original formulations from the tradition or is a distorted version propagated by some detractors aiming to malign them, through what apparently appears an irresponsible advice on their part. Notwithstanding the status in this respect, it may be noted that even in that form it is far from being unreasonable, when seen in the right spirit. Contrary to the common (manufactured) perception the suggestion to take loan does not mean you may readily default on them – in a stable society, in equilibrium, loans are possible only when there is some way of ensuring that they would be recovered, at least to a suitable measure. Thus the advice would normally incorporate also a commitment to repay the debt. It may also be pointed out that loan is advised for ghee, and not alcohol for instance; consuming ghee was associated in the traditional society with keeping good health, which would in turn facilitate meeting one’s responsibilities in life. – I may mention that these observations were made in a book by Sharad Bedekar, a prolic writer on related issues in Marathi, but do not have precise reference.

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