Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Belief in theory moves mountains

Theory moves mountains s

Long before a piece of evidence is found for a theory, its postulators need to have faith in it, or at least entertain the possibility of its truth before they have the data to back it up. The first test(s) of a theory may well seem to disprove it, which in the absence of faith ought to be the end of it. However, even a simple, but sufficiently potent, idea carries the potential for “incomprehensible complexity” (see E. O. Wilson’s WWW Conference talk) and therefore also for an incomprehensible complexity in confronting it with evidence. Testing needs to be commensurately advanced relative to the theory for it to lead to either support for or conflict with it.

Many a beautiful theory may well lie dead as a result of an ugly fact (see Thomas Huxley), while the fact is simply not in correspondence with it, as a result of the grotesquely naïve view that a theory-fact mismatch always points the finger of blame at theory. Evidence is as much prone to error as the postulation of theories and all that one can hope to achieve in science is evidence-theory consistency. The absence of such understanding and a lack of faith in a fledgling theory are as damaging to science as is a disregard for data.

Science needs faith as much as religion does, for it to be capable of feats like landing a vehicle on Mars, propelling a human into space, setting off on a ship due west from Portugal in the anticipation of reaching land or building the dome of the cathedral in Florence. In all these cases, theory preceded evidential support and there was significant risk associated with failure, ranging from a huge waste of resources and careers being on the line to death. This is not to say that science and religion are the same, but simply to underline the fact that faith is needed in the practice of advancing science as much as it is for internalizing the doctrines of a religion (more on the role of evidence in the two cases another time :). While scientists (including myself) may rightly point to the fact that a theory ultimately needs to be matched up with reliable evidence for it to persist, I would like to argue that this in no way detracts from my claim that faith is fundamentally necessary for the practice of scientific enquiry and resulting advances, since evidence may often be decades away from theory (see Higgs’ theory postulated in 1964 and supported by evidence in 2012 – 48 years later!).

You may wonder, “Why are you bringing this topic up today?” The answer is simple – my besties PM and JMGR and I have been working on a theory that we postulated almost two years ago (and in a general form with PM five years ago) and it was in these last days that we have found the strongest evidence for it. Along the way we have been faced with a string of failures that could have meant the end of it and that would have resulted in us never discovering the groundbreaking results that now reward us for our persistence. I thank them both for their support!

[UPDATE (27/09/2012)]: I have just received a great message from my bestie, RR, who – unlike me: a peripheral tinkerer – is a real scientist (at Caltech, no less!) and who told me that I was “perfectly on mark with paragraph 3" :) Thanks for the nihil obstat, RR!