Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back from a short hiatus with Frank Herbert

Due to various happenings in my personal life, I have not posted for almost a week and a half. I hope to keep such long stretches without posting to a minimum, but sometimes the personal and professional life intrudes to an unhappy extent. What must be done must be done.

Some of you will have read Frank Herbert's exceptional Dune books. Now, I know you're wondering what the deuce Frank Herbert has to do with a blog on the philosophy of science. Well, I think Mr. Herbert had to have been a student of science himself, at least in a well-informed lay capacity. He makes occasional reference to certain scientific facts that many people are not aware of and which are not generally taught to students outside of science.

More importantly, though, Frank Herbert had a clear grasp on the vulnerabilities of knowledge to the filters through which people necessarily obtain it. An very short story from Heretics of Dune shows this amply and is directly relevant to the topic of this blog. Here's the story:

"There was a man who sat each day looking out through a narrow vertical opening where a single board had been removed from a tall wooden fence. Each day a wild ass of the desert passed outside the fence and across the narrow opening - first the nose, then the head, the forelegs, the long brown back, the hindlegs, and lastly the tail. One day, the man leped to his feet with the light of discovery in his eyes and he shouted for all who could here him: 'It is obvious! The nose causes the tail!'"

To anyone familiar with the concept of a donkey, this story is ridiculous. Others have expressed this idea with other parables and examples, but the point remains - what we can learn from science depends on the filters through which we view the results of an experiment. Imagine how the view of the donkey would change if the fence were built differently and it was, instead, a horizontal slit through which the man viewed the donkey. What conclusions might he come to? Would the same constraints on the interpretation of the data apply?

In the story, the man makes several errors of judgment in evaluating the experimental outcome. The question for us is how many of those same errors we might make because we do not understand how our filters affect our interpretations. This question is really the key question behind this blog. This blog is about exploring what we can already infer from the scientific conclusions made thus far and about seeing and removing the filters that have been and are still being applied to the results of scientific experiments.

What orthodoxies trap us in the past? What long-held views prevent new ideas from getting their due? What filters of which we are not conscious prevent us from seeing the bigger picture? That, dear readers, is what this blog is all about. It is about boldly seeking those filters and equally boldly destroying them. I hope you will stay along for the ride.

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