Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reflections on a Closed Box

Having closed the lid on the box project, so to speak, I thought it’d be worth reflecting on it a bit further “as a group”. I found many of your short writing assignments on this subject quite perceptive and interesting; so I’ll let you do most of the work.
When the box project was first assigned, I was unsure about why it was relevant to the course. . . .
Not too surprising! I expect that the whole project seemed rather trivial. Who cares what’s in some cardboard box — what’s my motivation to solve this puzzle!? It seems to me that this is often a feature of workaday science. This is a point that Thomas Kuhn stressed in his discussions of “Normal Science”: a lot of scientific work focusses on solving puzzles that arise within scientific paradigms/theories — e.g., how does this biosynthetic pathway work? what fundamental particles are there? Addressing these puzzles isn’t really part of any grand project of confirming or disconfirming the theory (the sort of thing that Popper had in mind); indeed it might look trivial or uninteresting to outsiders. 
[The project] touched upon induction, creativity, description, observation, the social aspect of science, explanation, and realism versus anti-realism.
Speaking of realism/anti-realism, a number of you connected on this connection:
I was also wondering how it could have been possible in anyway to observe what is in the box without opening it. . . . Prior to this course and the box project, if I were asked if I can observe what is inside of a closed box without actually opening the box, I would have responded with a strong, “no, duh”.
We often think of science as having all the answers or always coming up with new methods to examine things, but occasionally science has to settle on methods that are less than ideal in order to make any inferences as all. This, obviously, means our certainty is greatly reduced, which is likely why realism faces so many criticisms. The largest point this project made, however, is that the truth may not always be able to be realized by science. . . . We may be able to provide evidence upon piece of evidence and we may be able to be confident in what we think is true, but we may never truly know. I think this point hit home especially hard when both groups realized we weren’t going to open the box. We were all disappointed, because we wanted to know what was inside. We wanted to know if we were right. I think this is the desire of all science, but it is an ultimately unrealized desire. 
After the presentations I feel as though I may take a more anti-realism approach to the project, since we never opened the box to confirm its contents. I now feel that our findings on what we believe to be inside the box are really only examples of how the world might be, rather than how the world is, since there are items in the box that may be unobservable (not observable even with a scientific instrument). . . . I think that this project helped to illustrates the frustrations that come with science. It was said at the end of the presentations that in science "you don't get to open a box at the end of the day and find out if you're right" and I think thats very true. Personally I am still very frustrated that I do not have confirmation as to what the items in the box are, but I guess thats just part of science. Science is about making observations, performing tests, making guesses, providing support for your ideas and allowing others to criticize your findings.
Or here’s a slightly different perspective: perhaps science does often reach the truth — perhaps we are sometimes able to reach out and grasp fundamental, vast, tiny, elusive, and important features of reality — but we have no independent way of checking this. How could we? Any check would just presumably use science. There’s nothing analogous in science to opening the box and checking whether you have it right. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be very confident (as you no doubt are) that we do have it right. . . .

Some of you remarked on social aspects illustrated by the project:
The thing I found most interesting about the box project was that both groups relied on the most technologically advanced piece of evidence (x-ray images) as their main source of knowledge and did not go beyond this after it was utilized.  Many scientists function this way and want the most expensive kit or the most advanced technology to perform their experiments.  It made me think that sometimes going back to the basics and not relying so heavily on technology and zooming out to grasp the bigger picture may be useful at times in science.  Also, it may provide useful information at a lower cost.  For example, no one thought to measure the objects in the box after they had the x-ray images; this is a practical and easy test that would have provided a lot of useful information.  
I agree. Scientists are people and motivated by all manner of non-rational considerations including what the latest and greatest equipment is, possession of which might bring increased status (via the “Oooh: new and shiny!” effect). One of you also pointed out the tenuous role of competition as a motivator:
. . . Another influence in science that can be seen as “positive” is the impact of competing scientific groups. For example, the two competing groups for this project pushed each other to do more and more comprehensive tests in order to out do the other group, which helped fuel the overall evidence gathering of the collective of both groups. Unfortunately, science can get to the point where it is only based on this idea of competition. Some scientists may only work hard in order to be better than other scientists rather than actually try and develop theories to help improve society. Something similar to this would be if one of the two box project groups was only focused on gaining the gift certificate to cherry alley. There is an incentive which is great since it gives us an additional reason to pursue science, but some scientists may decide to only work to the level that they think the other scientists will work to and no to their actual full potential, inhibiting the world from gaining the fullest amount of benefits from its brightest minds.
One of the fascinating issues that we haven’t explicitly addressed is the role that such social factors play in science. French has a really nice pair of chapters on this issue that I encourage you to read (you know: over winter break). It strikes me that when, for example, Faviola Gianotti (a spokesperson for the ATLAS project at CERN on the video I posted last week) says that “It’s not us who decide if [the Higgs Boson is] there or not — it’s nature,” she may be overstating things somewhat. While we can certainly agree that either nature contains or doesn’t contain the Higgs Boson (as conceived by the Standard Model), but ultimately it is us who decide whether nature decides such and such! 

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