The Useability of a Scientific Theory

by William Lauritzen

Abstraction and Truth

The word “abstract” has fallen from fashion, unfortunately. It’s a simple word. Its root means “to draw away from.” It’s related to the word “extract” which means “to draw out of.” You can “extract” the juice from an orange. “Abstract” also means “the concentrated essence of a larger whole.” (American Heritage.)

Words, ideas, theories, models, etc., are all abstractions. They all attempt to give the concentrated essence of some (much larger) energy event-pattern of the physical universe.

Abstractions: idea, word, map, theory, model, principle, dogma, knowledge ...

During the 18th and 19th century perhaps many natural philosophers (who later came to be called scientists), were trying to verify theories. Karl Popper, in the 20th century, brought into fashion the idea of falsification of a theory. To him, a theory was scientific if there was some critical test that could be done that might prove the theory wrong. Popper was apparently inspired by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which made specific predictions (the bending of light by matter) which were highly risky because events could have proved them wrong.

18th & 19th Centuries Verficationism (Bacon show theory to be true
20th Century Falsificationism (Popper) show theory to be false
21 Century Useability? show theory to be workable?

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, available on-line) Steven Thorton gives a summary of Popper’s life and works. Apparently Popper backpedaled later in life. “Popper’s final position is that he acknowledges that it is impossible to discriminate science from non-science on the basis of falsifiability alone ... This is itself clearly a major alteration of his position, and arguably represents a substantial step down on his part.”

It appears that the concept of “falsifiability,” so dear to the hearts of skeptics, is itself falsifiable. Unfortuantely, it does not appear to pass the test. For Newton’s work has been shown to be false, yet it is still bery useful as science.

How many scientific theories, laws, or principles are always true? Perhaps none. If one examines the sequence from Aristotle to Galileo/Newton to Einstein one sees changes in theory. Each theory apparently corrected the flaws in the previous theory.

However, it is possible that Einstein’s equations do not hold true inside a black hole. (Thorne, 1993, p. 476) Perhaps, instead of talking about the truth or falsity of a theory, we should be talking about its useability.

Aristotle heavy bodies fall faster falsified by experiment
Galileo/Newton gravity/motion equations falsified by bending light
Einstein relativity equations false inside a black hole?

An analogy could be drawn to a map (which is a say). A map is useful, but is it true or false? Imagine a map of the United States. Someone interested in verification would take the map and venture out into reality (a try). This investigator might find the Mississippi River and the Ohio River and say, “Yep. Here they are. Right where the map said they would be. This is a true map.” Another investigator, interested in falsification, might take the map to the same area (a try) and say, “ Here is a stream not on the map. Here is another stream not on the map. This is a false map.”

Korzybski (1948) used to say, “The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing.”
Theories, laws, words, principles, and ideas have strong similarities to a map. They are all abstractions of the physical universe, and so leave out some part of that universe in an attempt to capture a smaller essence. Although it can appear that some theories are perfect, and thus somehow were abstracted from the essence of the universe, I believe that in the long run they are shown (or will be shown) to have a correspondence with reality, but not a perfect correspondence.

Oh Say, Can You See?

The say may affect the see. Thomas Kuhn wrote about this in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and popularized the word “paradigm.” What we say, our world view or paradigm, said Kuhn, may affect what we see. I think the say affects the see, for a period of time, until reality intrudes.

Perhaps one example of this is the word “sunset.” This word describes an event that we have suspected to be false for about 500 years--ever since Copernicus first suggested that the Earth goes around the sun, instead of the sun going around the Earth. Yet, what do most of us see when this energy event pattern takes place? We see the sun going “down.”

I have suggested using the word “spin-out” instead of “sunset.” The point on the Earth where you are standing is spinning to face the outer part of the solar system. The energy event pattern known as “sunrise” could be called “spin-in”. (Maybe you can think of a better word.)

Although the say probably affects the see to some degree in all of us, the say may affect the see, in certain individuals, at certain times, more than others. In fact, an individual Homo sapien may lie along a scale, or spectrum, of Belief-Disbelief that ranges from fanatic to cynic. (We might call this the belief in the say.)

Fanatic-Cynic Scale

+180 Fanatic Unjustified enthusiasm. Zealot. Sometimes willing to die so that a principle, model, theory, dogma may live.
+120 Gullible Believer Blindly buys, swallows, and trusts despite evidence to the contrary. Looks for minor similarities between theory and reality as evidence in favor of the theory; naive.
+60 Cautious Believer Looks for major similarities between theory and reality as evidence in favor of the theory.
0 Pragmatist Realist; realizes that no theory/model can be perfect. Accepts those that work (or parts of those that work) in aiding survival. Discards what doesn’t work.
-60 Healthy Skeptic Looks for major differences between theory and reality as evidence against the theory.
-120 Nitpicker Doubter; looks for minor differences between theory and reality as evidence against the theory. Seldom buys, swallows, or trusts despite evidence to do so; suspicious.
-180 Cynic Suspicious, scoffer; nihilist; believes in nothing; lives in order to prove others wrong, but may commit suicide as there is no “reason” to live.

I believe that sanity lies in the region between +90 and -90 on this scale. The scale could also be represented as a circle. This scale, or Belief-Disbelief Circle, may be of use in training individuals to think clearer.

Much more could be said about this scale, but here I will add that I don’t believe that a “pragmatist” or 0 on the scale should be the goal, but rather that one should be able to move freely between -90 and +90, in response to the given situation. Obviously, with the proliferation of unsubstantiated belief in “alien abduction,” some healthy skepticism is needed.

Insert Figure 4. [not included in text-only format]

Another example of a healthy skeptic would be someone on the lookout (see) for maps that showed the Mississippi River running east-west instead of north-south. Or a map that showed no Mississippi River. Or a map that showed the capital of alleged Atlantis on the Mississippi.

Useable “False” Theories

There will probably always be work for the nitpicker, as no model, by definition, is ever perfect. For example, for a map to be perfect, it would have to be as large as the Earth. In fact, it would have to work exactly like our Earth, and would therefore have to have the same mass, etc. If one tried to construct this Earth-2, it would totally disrupt the dynamics of the original Earth-1, and Earth-2 would have to change accordingly, and thus the whole thing becomes impossible.

Even theories that have been “proven false” are sometimes still highly useable. Newton’s equations are much more useable than Einstein’s, at speeds much lower than the speed of light.

My acquaintance, Dr. James Counsilman, is well known for using Newton’s Laws and Bernoulli’s principle in the analysis of swimming strokes (1994). (Since swimmers will probably never approach the speed of light, we have, in effect, principles and laws that could be considered always true.)

In another example of this, robotic planetary probes have been sent to most of the various planets of our home star in the past few decades. This has resulted in an explosion of our knowledge concerning these planets. Some think these past decades might one day be called the “golden age of planetary exploration.” All these probes have used the mathematics of Newton’s laws and the law of gravity to get where they were going. This was because these spacecraft traveled at speeds much, much, much lower than the speed of light.

The Useability of the Say

The useability of a theory, model, etc., or abstraction might equal the predictive power of that abstraction divided by its perceived size. Predictive power of a theory would increase as the correspondence between theory (in its major aspects) and reality increased. I call this correspondence the match. Thus we could say that the useability of an abstraction is equal to the match divided by the perceived size.

Useability of a Scientific Theory or Model
Useability = Predictive Power / Size = Match / Size
Match = Useability x Size Size = Match / Useability

Perceived size of an abstraction would be how much storage capacity (either interior or exterior) is required by the organism for that abstraction. It’s probably not good survival practice for an organism to use up too much of its “gigabytes” of storage memory.

Thus, advertisers are great at coming up with “catchy” phases that are easy to remember. Good scientists are also. John Wheeler changed “Schwarzschild singularity” to “black hole,” and thereby helped to bring this phenomenon to public awareness.

A very detailed map may have a greater match to reality, but may become too bulky to be of much use on an expedition.

A model of the universe may fill twelve volumes in abstruse philosophical prose, but due to its sheer size would have limited useability. Newton’s laws and the theory of gravity have high useability because they match fairly well to reality (at speeds much lower than the speed of light) and they are small in size. The basic mathematical theory of gravity can be stated in one sentence. (Two objects will attract each other with a pull proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the second power of the distance between them.)

“Useability” may partially explain the popularity of certain “non-scientific” beliefs and models. They are often small in perceived size and easy to remember.

Fake-science, or pseudoscience, is usually considered to mean models that have a low match-to-reality. Of course a very low match would lower the useability, no matter how simple the model. Scientific theories that have a very large size would have limited useability, despite their good match.

In Part I, when I developed the Try-See-Say model of science, I choose to use Try-See-Say rather than Try-Perceive-Say, because even though Try-Perceive-Say has a greater match with reality, the storage capacity required, I felt, was too much.

In Summary

1. Organisms, in trying to survive, and gain knowledge, can be modeled by the Try-See-Say cycle, which is sometimes formalized by Homo sapiens as science.
2. What Homo sapiens says are abstractions from reality, which store what the individual and species has learned.
3. What Homo sapiens says, may affect what he sees.
4. A Homo sapiens may lie on a spectrum of Belief-Disbelief that goes something like this: fanatic / gullible believer / cautious believer / pragmatist / healthy skeptic / nitpicker / cynic.
5. Homo sapiens abstractions from reality, such as ideas, words, maps, models, scientific theories, principles (all forms of knowledge) have a useability that is equal to the match-to-reality of the abstraction, divided by the perceived size (to Homo sapiens) of the abstraction.

Counsilman, James, and Counsilman, Brian, The New Science of Swimming, 1994.
Davis, Raymond, et al., Chemistry, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Austin, 1999.
Thorne, Kip, Black Holes and Time Warps, Norton, NY, 1994.
Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity, Business Press, Penn., 1933, 1948.
“Popper, Karl,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, (available on- line).
Popper, Karl, Karl R. Popper, (ed. M.A. Notturno), Routledge, 1996 (as quoted in Skeptic magazine, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1996, p. 104.)
Wortman, Camille B., Loftus, Elizabeth F., and Marshall, Mary, Psychology, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.