Saturday, February 11, 2017

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

I run quite consistently, at least every Saturday morning. This morning was another great session in the park, with continuous running for half-an-hour followed by some simple calisthenics. And while running (as always, ideas come streaming into my head) it occurred to me to blog today about the scientific method. This is probably because I've been catching up on some of the developments in particle physics recently and I'm back in my "scientific mood".

I think I've blogged elsewhere before that an education in the science stream during my secondary school days has been one of the biggest influence in my life. Since those feverishly passionate days of devotion to science, I've always adopted a scientific attitude towards everything in life.

What do I mean by the 'scientific attitude'? Well, it is at its core, a respect for hypothesis, experimentation and data. No assumption should be left unexamined; skepticism should be the guiding principle towards everything, including everyday life situations.

Does that mean that one goes about life not trusting anything or anyone? Certainly not. It means, first and foremost, never prejudging any situation or anyone. Always go by the facts and never jump to any conclusions. Even when something seems 'obvious', always verify. Never assume.

The other scientific attitude that I adopt is: always go for the simplest explanation as a starting point. It doesn't mean that I'm being simple-minded or naive, on the contrary, it reflects a cautious attitude towards any superfluous explanations of things. Occam's Razor is my favourite instrument. Someone texts me about some rumour; I'll read it and say in my mind 'perhaps'. 'Perhaps' is my mind's favourite word. And perhaps not coincidentally, one of my favourite oldies is the song, 'Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps' (of which Nat King Cole's rendition Quizás, Quizás, Quizás is my favourite).

I am comfortable with not full knowing everything. Sometimes we just don't have sufficient facts to conclude about something; so just let it be and wait until there's further data. Ask more questions, investigate and always ask yourself: is there an alternate explanation for what is being implied by something or someone.

A scientific attitude towards everything is even more important nowadays when our social media is littered with unverified or downright fake news. Sometimes we just believe what we like to believe. What we want to believe in is usually driven by our ego and prejudices. A true scientist knows that he has to put aside his favourite hypothesis, no matter how reluctantly, if the facts do not support it. As did Johannes Kepler (read my previous entry, Perfect Ideas), who had to give up his idea of perfect circles for the orbits of planets around the sun when Tycho Brahe's accurate measurements indicated that they moved in ellipses.

The scientific attitude also comes in handy in my line of work, which involves a lot of debugging and troubleshooting. We coders know that it is very difficult to detect our own bugs. That's why, alpha and beta testing phases are very important in development. Similarly, anyone who writes frequently also knows that it is difficult to detect one's own typos. Our minds tends to move faster than our hands or fingers.

We must be aware that the mind has a tendency to assume and gloss over things. The only way to overcome this mental bias is to habitually relook at things from a different perspective. Break the pattern: Read, starting from the last sentence to the first. Or go do something else first: get something to eat, take a walk, water the plants and then come back to tackle your work with a fresh mind.

Looking at things from many different perspectives is a very scientific attitude indeed. After Kepler successfully described the elliptical orbits of planets around the Sun, Isaac Newton re-looked at it and figured out that Kepler's laws are a natural consequence of a universal force of gravity acting between objects with mass: the Sun's gravitational force keeps planet in their elliptical orbits and they can be proven mathematically from the basic principle of an inverse square law. And then, in the 20th century, Einstein astounded the world with his General Theory of Relativity which re-formulated Newton's law of gravity as the geometric curvature of space-time. How simple and ingenious is Nature!

To adopt a scientific attitude is to apply some very basic common sense. With so much data and information bombarding our senses should our phones, tablets, computers and televisions, it is increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But one should not despair: access to information is better than none. Question is: will we always be able to distinguish the true from the false? I don't really know. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

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