A few days ago I wrote about the iron rule of science, the subject of a book by Michael Strevens, "The Knowledge Machine." I decided to order the book after reading a review of it.
Today I finished the Introduction. So I've just scratched the surface of what Strevens has to say about the iron rule. Here's how he describes it in the part I read today.
How can a rule so scant in content and so limited in scope account for science's powers of discovery? It may dictate what gets called evidence, but it makes no attempt to forge agreement among scientists as to what the evidence says.
It simply lays down the rule that all arguments must be carried out with reference to empirical evidence and then steps back, relinquishing control. Scientists are free to think about anything they like about the connection between evidence and theory.
But if they are to participate in the scientific enterprise, they must uncover or generate new evidence to argue with. And so they do, with unfettered enthusiasm.
I absolutely love this emphasis on evidence. So much so, I wanted to share my ideas about what it means to me even before I've gotten past page 10 of the book.
My ideas might change as I learn more about how Strevens views the iron rule. That's the nature of scientific progress. He'll present his evidence in the form of the rest of the book, and I'll consider what it means for my theory of how life should be lived.
All I know at the moment is that I felt really good after pondering the iron rule of empirical evidence more fully today. Evidence cuts through all kinds of worries, anxieties, uncertainties. It grounds us in the expansiveness of reality rather than the confines of our own minds.
Here's a concrete example from my own life.
Since last February, about eleven months, I've been dealing with sciatica pain in my right leg. I don't have back pain. An X-ray of my lower back showed normal wear (or degeneration) for someone my age, 72. I don't know what the cause of the sciatica is.
It's much better now, but it still bothers me -- particularly in the morning. I've been wondering if some of the exercises and stretches I do every day are making the sciatica worse, rather than better.
This isn't a new idea; it just hit me more strongly after reading the Introduction this morning.
What I need to do is eliminate certain exercises that appear to be the most likely culprits for exacerbating my sciatica, stretches where I bend at the waist, either standing or sitting, while keeping my knees locked and trying to touch my toes. Doing those stretches the past few months has increased my flexibility.
The question is, have those stretches also slowed down my sciatica recovery? Well, the best way to tell is to collect evidence via an experiment. I've stopped doing those stretches and will see how this affects my sciatica.
If it gets better, great. I'll then start doing the stretches again and see if the sciatica worsens.
Now, I realize this sounds like common sense. But until today I hadn't realized how much sense doing this is. Instead of worrying about whether I'm doing the right thing, exercise-wise, I now have a pretty dependable way of finding out. That made me feel relieved, like evidence had replaced my competing beliefs about doing those sorts of stretches.
Are they good for my sciatica, or bad for my sciatica?
Thinking about that question, about those alternatives, wasn't getting me anywhere. Based on what I've read about sciatica, I could find arguments for either good or bad.
This seems to be what Strevens is getting at in the subtitle of his book, How Irrationality Created Modern Science.
Evidence isn't rational. So I guess we could call it irrational. Rationality is me trying to find reasons for why stretching by bending at the waist could make my sciatica better or worse. Irrationality is me collecting evidence to see what happens when I stop doing the stretches, then when I start doing them again.
Sure, I need to use reason to interpret the meaning of the evidence I collect, which is very simple evidence compared to what is collected in a genuine scientific inquiry.
But the evidence speaks for itself, in a sense.
Not in a logical way. In a way that is separate from how I think about the evidence. How I interpret the evidence of my possibly altered sciatica pain is akin to the arguing Strevens mentions in the quote above. I need to make sure that the evidence forms the basis for my conclusion about the value of stretching at the waist in my daily exercise routine.
I'll have more to say about the iron rule of empirical evidence after I get further into "The Knowledge Machine." That word, empirical, is key to how evidence is used in various areas of inquiry: scientific, personal, spiritual, ethical, and such.
Basically, empirical evidence makes it possible to find truth that is greater than the truth available to any person based on their own individual experience. I know for a fact that I enjoy the taste of raspberries more than the taste of blueberries. However, this isn't an objective fact. It's a subjective fact.
If we want to know whether humanity as a whole likes raspberries or blueberries more, we'd have to collect empirical evidence in the form of taste tests involving a large number of people. Yet me liking raspberries more is a genuine fact. For me.
Religious believers need to understand the difference between objective and subjective evidence. But that discussion will wait for another blog post.
I'll end with an example of how I sometimes (well, often) don't use empirical evidence in my life. A few weeks ago my wireless color laser printer, which I keep in my office, said a software update was available. I clicked on "update" without much thought, even though the printer had been working fine.
A few days later I wanted to print something from my laptop upstairs. But nothing happened. The printer wasn't available. I tried turning the printer off, then on again, which often resolves a wi-fi connection problem. Not this time.
I had the printer do a wireless connection test. That came out fine. But no matter what I did, I couldn't get my laptop to connect with the printer.
I got frustrated. I told my wife, "I never should have done the printer update. It's screwed things up." My mind was convinced that the update was the problem, because I'd had no problem printing before the update was installed.
Then, in the course of checking the printer wi-fi settings one more time, it hit me.
A few hours before, our always slow DSL "broadband" (if you can call it that) had slowed even more, to the degree I could hardly do anything on my laptop. I'd decided to switch the wi-fi connection from the Google Nest that we'd been using for quite a while back to the original CenturyLink router's wi-fi network.
Oops. I'd completely forgotten that my laptop was on one wi-fi network, and the printer was on the Nest wi-fi network. As soon as I switched my laptop back to the Nest wi-fi, the printer worked fine, unsurprisingly.
My point in sharing this tale is to show that the beliefs we hold -- in this case, why my printer wasn't working -- are only as good as the evidence the beliefs are based on. I'd fashioned a totally believable story in my mind about how the printer update had messed things up, whereas actually it was me changing the wi-fi network that had caused the problem.
If I'd taken some deep breaths, settled back, and thought about any possible changes I'd made to my laptop, rather than focusing on the change to the printer, I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble. No amount of reasoning about why the printer wasn't working would have solved the problem, because I wasn't aware of the crucial bit of evidence -- the changed wi-fi network.
But it can be tough to recognize when we're going down the wrong belief path, if we've convinced ourselves that we're on the right path. Evidence can get us back on track, if we're wise enough to collect it, or recognize it.