The Importance of Guessing

Science is a cruel mistress.

As with a real mistress (I assume), misunderstanding science only makes things so much worse. I have been attempting think empirically for over 10 years now, day in and out and I still frequently have moments (often watching BBC documentaries) where I think 'oh that’s what science means'. It is not an easy way to think, but when the occasional revelation hits it's crazier than an acid trip (I assume).

Science often gets shelved with the dogmas, embodied in the often mocked phrase ‘I believe in science.’ Unfortunately this view is damaging. Science requires neither preconception nor faith to condone or accept it. It is not a belief; it is a rational attempt to examine evidence of a phenomenon, not to imply meaning or how it fits into our belief systems. Much like a detective attempts to recreate a crime as close to the actual event as possible, scientists are attempting to link pieces of evidence together through observation, experimentation and reasoning for an accurate view of reality.

Possibly the most important and most misunderstood aspect of this process is the inductive principle of inference.

There are two types of logic: deductive and inductive. Deductive is best understood as a math problem (oh goody). If you have 4 apples, and I run past and steal 2, you only have 2 apples left. 4 – 2 = 2. That is deductive logic, following the idea that if the first premises (in this case 1: you have 4 apples and 2: I stole 2), then the conclusion must be true. Here’s another: All humans breath. John is a human. Therefore, John breathes. See how that works? If the first premises are correct, then the conclusion must be true. This is obviously a very simplified portrayal of this idea, but you get the gist.

Now to the one you use the most. Inductive logic is basically a rational guess at the most likely conclusion. You can see how we use this in science immediately. Newton did some fancy math and observation and inductively presumed that all objects have a pull on one another known as gravity. He did not literally measure every object in the universe. He inferred that from the evidence, it appeared that all objects have the force of gravity. However, an important reminder is that this is falsifiable. If you find only one single object that doesn’t have gravity, you will have proved this theory wrong and can rub it in Sir Issac’s smug face (and will win the nobel prize almost immediately).

Before you infer that this is something only scientists do, let me point out that you do this about 48,000 times a day. When you drive, turning your wheel counter-clockwise, you assume the car will turn left. How do you know this? Do you know everything about mechanics, physics and probability? Likely, no. You know that turning the wheel that way has always turned the car left, so you inductively infer (if only subconsciously) that it will again repeat that action. In non science jargon, this an educated guess. Think about how often you do this. When you push in a bathroom door you assume it will open. When you turn on your computer, you assume it won’t blow up in your face.

As scientists we cannot measure every variable, it simply isn’t possible. When a new drug is synthesized and goes through trials, we cannot measure its effect on every single cell. We must infer that what happens in most cells is happening to nearly all we are hoping to affect (or enough of them). However, people do not like to hear that scientists are always just guessing. Discovering that your medicines, airplanes, cars, elevators, skyscrapers and appliances are all just running on a well thought out guess can be a frightening realization. Nevertheless, this is true.

What is important though is to use scientific inference responsibly. An inference in science must be based on evidence and unbiased experimentation. So many people cling to preconceived ideas when making a decision in politics, religion, relationships and sex, that the ability to think objectively is a very strained and difficult endeavor. As scientists (and I mean everyone) we all have to be careful to avoid bias and let opinions influence us. Such is the folly of pseudoscience like astrology, homeopathy, creationism/intelligent design, cold fusion and extrasensory perception. I am not saying anyone believing in these ideas is a fool or quack, but they are not following a rational approach in this instance and belief in these ideas could be a waste of money at best or deadly at worst.

So, please, infer responsibly. For things like pushing a door or turning on a computer, I doubt a thorough speculation of probabilities is necessary, but when you might affect the lives of others, consider the evidence and be objective.

We are all guessing here, but some guesses carry a heavy weight.