Book responses

Is science real?

cropped-screen-shot-2018-09-22-at-12-00-29-am1.pngWhen science is inconvenient and we want to disregard its conclusions, we tend to rely on the old axiom that science doesn’t prove anything. And it’s true. But science does tell us what has the highest probability of being true at any given time, and therein lies its power.

We think our giant brains are such an asset to us. But in this age of fake news and social media bubbles, it’s easy to see how our brains might actually be a liability. After all, we can delude ourselves quite as fast as we can dream up useful explanations for observed phenomena. Maybe even faster.

Despite our ability to delude ourselves, humans have a variety of mechanisms through which we profess to acquire truth, some of which include science, philosophy, religion, reason, experience, intuition, and even love. Unfortunately, every single one of those truth-discovery tools shares at least one common defect: They all require the human lens. But sadly, humans are irredeemably biased.

This brings us to Harari’s book, the subject of this inaugural post on my new medical science blog. In his sweeping account of the human species, history professor Yuval Harari makes the case that four major historical turning points brought our species to this pivotal moment in time — which is at the precipice of either utter world annihilation, or complete and total mastery of the universe. (The jury is still out on which of those two options it will be, but I’m betting that you have an opinion. Click here to tell me what it is.)

Brain evolution
The brain of modern Homo sapiens: Finally large enough for self-delusion

Oddly, his take on the scientific revolution 1,500 years ago isn’t even the most interesting thing to discuss in this science blog. Rather, I want to talk about his take on the cognitive revolution, which started about 70,000 years ago, because that was when our species first developed the capacity for self-delusion. According to Harari, the cognitive revolution began when our species developed the capacity for imagination, thanks to an evolutionary change in brain size. Among other things, this change gave us the capacity to convince ourselves (and others) to believe in complete fictions. You might even be surprised to learn (as I was) that modern humans actually believe in a startling number of fictions. Incredibly, most of the things that we build our lives on — things we take for granted as objective truths  are actually fictions, or at best subjective truths.

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 10.13.21 PM
Humans have been thinking for about 70,000 years.

Harari defines a subjective truth as something that is only “true” because most people believe in it. The dollar, democracy, the free market, the US government, human rights, and justice — all things that are foundational to our way of life — would cease to be if people suddenly quit believing in them. Harari illustrated this by explaining the origins of the French automobile manufacturer Peugeot: The company doesn’t really exist, he says, at least not in the sense that there is a set of objects that comprises it. Rather, Peugeot is a subjective reality that came into being when a few Parisian lawyers wrote the right magic words into its articles of incorporation. After that bit of hocus-pocus, people suddenly started showing up — bringing raw materials, assembling engines, and buying and selling cars.

Sounds magical, doesn’t it?

A car company that exists in the minds of Frenchmen

When you understand that the very validity of our most beloved values and institutions requires shared belief, the idea of subjective truths can be rather disorienting — especially in this cultural moment of extreme disunity. Is climate change real? Do vaccines cause autism? Does Trump lie? Is the deep state a thing? When you read Sapiens you may begin to question — as I did in a momentary pang of existential uncertainty — whether anything you ever believed is even knowable at all.

Consider the truth-acquisition tools above. Which of these objectively exists outside of the human mind? Not a single one. No, not even science is real in this sense. It’s a philosophy. A set of methods. A process. It’s a deeply creative practice — perhaps even approaching the mystical — by which we can make imagined things real.

Let me explain:

Consider John Snow, an anesthesiologist in nineteenth-century London. He lived and worked at a time when speedy ship travel could pick up newly-infected cholera patients in one exotic locale and deliver them to England with just enough survival time to infect unsuspecting Londoners. At the time, most people believed that cholera was caused by “bad air,” but John Snow — something of a prophet, poet, or magician — imagined something different. And then he made it so. A full decade before the microscope was invented, and at least a half-century before germ theory emerged, Snow invented the idea of microscopic disease-causing particles producing a deadly diarrhea, and contaminating the water supply.

Vibrio cholerae, the disease pathogen first imagined by a powerful bacteriomancer

He simply imagined it.

When Snow was dreaming all of this up, it was a complete fiction — an idea that existed in his mind and nowhere else. But the idea endowed Snow with immense power — to stop cholera epidemics. Years later humans learned to visualize, empirically measure, and selectively destroy the disease-causing pathogen Vibrio cholerae, at which time it ceased to be a fiction and it became an objective truth. But it’s not unfair to say it was a truth brought into existence by a powerful “bacteriomancer” named John Snow. It’s as if he said, “Let there be water-borne, microscopic disease pathogens,” and they appeared.

This “powerful fiction” phenomenon is not an anomaly. This is how all hypotheses start! We have many modern science fictions that are not yet alchemically transformed into truths. For instance, we still can’t see the nucleus of atoms, but our model for atomic orbitals is a fiction that correlates so well with chemical behavior that modern organic chemists are like masterful wizards, manipulating the very elements!

Never before seen by human eyes, the sacred, iconic atomic orbital endows modern chemists with supreme power over the very elements

Science is the only one of our truth-acquisition tools that consistently enables the human collective to make reliable progress toward eliminating human delusion. I believe that this is true even though scientists are not any less biased than the rest of us. You see, disagreement about shared subjective realities is as much a problem in science as anywhere else. Just consider these scientists fighting over how to sample vaccine evidence. It’s a fight between two factions within Cochrane, the ivory tower of medical evidence synthesis.

Despite that lack of dispassionate objectivity, here’s what’s cool about science: While the feminists will likely never see eye-to-eye with the men’s rights activists, the Fox News viewers will never agree with New York Times readers, and the atheists will never achieve consensus with the monotheists, we can all rest assured that the Cochrane blowout is going to work itself out. Why? Because at the heart of its meta-physics, science has a secret weapon. Unlike most other fictional realities, it is powered by an empirically measurable force that no self-respecting practitioner of science will ever disregard. What other belief system can say the same?

Screen Shot 2018-09-22 at 10.52.31 PM
The Cochrane logo on fire: Cochrane works to maintain a comprehensive library of the best “spells” in medical science

What is this mystical force that enables practitioners of the science cult to discover truth? We call it probability. If it sounds implausible that probability is a source of power potent enough to move mountains, consider Las Vegas, a sprawling city in the middle of a desert. If this overgrown city doesn’t persuade you that probability is a powerful force, then odds are that you’ve never played a game of chance. In Las Vegas, the house always bets on probability, and it always wins. I mean, it’s true that once in a while luck smiles on some hapless soul who happens to place a bet on the table where lightning is about to strike. But at the end of the night, who is raking in the most chips? The house.

You know who else? Science. Because science always bets on probability too.

Las Vegas, the city that probability built
Las Vegas is the city that probability built, but probability gave us a lot more than just Las Vegas. Thank you probability for giving us some of my favorite things: vaccines, antibiotics, birth control, anesthesia, and hygiene.

Just like casinos, science doesn’t win every bet, of course. Sometimes science is wrong — for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because of human bias, or because we fail to publish our least interesting results. Sometimes it’s because of fraudsters attempting to deceive us, or because we can’t strictly adhere to the best practices of science. Sometimes it’s even just because a butterfly flapped its wings. But as long as we keep at it, science is self-correcting. Eventually, the things with the highest probability of being true will always rise to the top.

Runes discovered by powerful “mathematicians.” The runes are believed to describe the mystical properties of the elusive P-value, which is revered by priests and priestesses of the science cult. They say that the mysterious P-value holds the secret to discovering truth.

Granted, that’s not the same thing as science just telling us what’s true. As any first-semester science student will emphatically tell you, science doesn’t prove things. It’s more cryptic than that. Science only tells us the probability that a particular hypothesis is false within the specific context of a single experiment. This probability — the mystical P-value — is more accurate if we’ve strictly adhered to the requirements of the experimental rites. But even if we make errors, as time marches on, and with the repeated application of the scientific method, our misconceptions dissipate, and eventually truth is revealed.

At a time when most belief systems are losing adherents, science still claims the devotion of millions of practicing believers — including me, despite its reliance on feeble human brains. Personally, I consider myself a disciple to science. I tithe to it. I sing it hymns of praise. I revere its dogmas, and I preach them to my students year after year. I’ve given my life to it. I have to. It’s a powerful subjective truth that has consistently brought goodness to humankind, and it will continue to do so only as long as we believe in it enough to fund it, to adhere to its rituals, and to act on the knowledge it gives us.

4 thoughts on “Is science real?”

  1. Amen! The book sounds great. I am looking forward to taking the time to read your links as well. Hopefully this will make sense: Once I got into a ridiculous debate with a professor about faith, having just read Alma 32 in the Book of Mormon, and how much it is like the scientific method. There was obviously no persuading her , she having been raised Catholic and taught that faith is some person telling you something and you absolutely do not. question it (her explanation.) To me, it seemed merely a hypothesis to be tested. Even then I could acknowledge the purely individual subjectivity of finding “proof” in a spiritual pursuit. Interestingly, it is this experience that has helped me to not be “afraid” of whatever the scientific realm discovers, or be afraid of the ways it might seem to conflict with what I currently understand, spiritually, physically, etc. I am very poor at expressing my thoughts. Bottom line: I am super interested in reading this book.


    1. No, you are very good at articulating your thoughts! I will have to check out your blog. 🙂

      I think that I can kind of understand your professor’s point-of-view, though. In science, we have the power of probability that drives the whole thing, and probability can be empirically measured in the material world. It’s also reproducible from one scientist to the next, and from one instrument to the next. The Alma 32 experiment cannot be measured in the material world, and it relies only on a highly subjective lens for interpretation. Given the degree of human bias, it could be argued that it’s a highly unreliable experimental approach.

      That said, the Alma 32 experiment is for you and you alone. If it brings you joy, then you go girl!


      1. Yes exactly. I was worried that wouldn’t be clear. I totally agree- it is entirely subjective and only works for the individual-Not very scientific. But it makes me curious to read the book,. The cholera example could (and would by some) be construed as a providentially gofted idea and I can’t see how that is more amazing or far fetched than a brain that has evolved to having an imagination that would lead to such knowledge without any prior experience or evidence . And don’t misunderstand me- I’m not making a claim as to which scenario is more probable or true. Perhaps his is addressed In the book. My point was that experience helped me not be afraid of various explanations. In a time in my life when I was having a sort of spiritual conversion, and having listened for so long to people who struggled with evolution AND those who dismissed spiritual pursuits as vain superstition- it gave me a shift in my perspective in a way that made me less fearful and more curious. I was excited about it, and anything that seems conflicting didn’t lead me to panic. I’m curious to read more about the idea that our fallible,
        Vain, imaginative brains are evidence of their evolution and becomes the reason we can progress scientifically, with resprodcable, consistent outcomes that lead to things ike eradicating dieseases and building complex machines. That is super cool. (Also your explanation of science and probability via Las Vegas etc is just so good for my little brain.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. Now that I’m re-reading your comment in the full light of day, I am realizing that my reply totally missed your point. I should not comment on things in the middle of the night. (I was up late working on a review session for my students.) I love your openness to the unknown.

        You should totally read the book! But, you won’t find the cholera example in there. You also won’t find the orbitals or the probability stuff. I guess the only thing in my “review” that comes from the book was the information about the cognitive revolution and the Peugeot example. Everything else came from my study of chemistry, epidemiology, and statistics. (I guess it would be more accurate to characterize my “review” as a “response.”) But still, you should definitely read the book, and then I want to hear what your thoughts are!


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