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Friday, July 29, 2011

What is the scientific process?

The Island 29/07/2011

By Carlo Fonseka

Like all living things on earth, we humans (members of the species Homo sapiens) strive to survive and to reproduce ourselves in this world. Not knowing whence we came, whither we are hurrying or why, we find ourselves engaged in trying to avoid suffering and pursuing happiness. To succeed in this endeavour we have to interact with our environment. The brain is the organ that mediates our interactions with the world. The brain is equipped with the capacity to perceive and judge what happens in the world from a causal perspective, that is to say, to judge the way in which one thing gives rise to, or causes another. Our endeavours to avoid suffering and to pursue happiness will succeed only to the extent that the judgments we make with our brain about cause and effect relationships are true, correct and accurate. i.e. reliable.

Empirical Approach

Our judgments are based on our perceptions which themselves depend on what the world appears to be to our sense organs such as our eyes and ears. We have learnt from experience that our eyes and ears do not always give us reliable information about the world. Because of the fallibility of our senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch) experience has taught us that our judgments based on perceptions must be validated by the exercise of our critical intelligence i.e. our faculty of reason. By this method –sensory experience guided by rational analysis – humanity has acquired knowledge about the world which has helped us to avoid premature death, to reduce suffering and to enjoy the experience of living in the world. A little thought suffices to a show that wherever and whenever human beings have acquired reliable knowledge about some aspect of the natural world, they had, first of all, made some observations about it. Next, they had figured out some cause-and-effect explanation for the observations. Finally, they had looked to see whether the explanation is confirmed by their experience of living. If the validity of the explanation is repeatedly confirmed on many occasions in one or more ways, the explanation (hypothesis) comes to assume the status of ‘a theory’. Thus what began with observation and was confirmed by further observation ended as a theory. Theories embody our knowledge of the world based on the facts of our experience. We may call this the empirical approach to the nature of the world. It is the essential scientific process. There may be other approaches to knowledge such as divine revelation as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. However, the empirical, logical, rational process is the one that has given humankind the most reliable knowledge about the world which has enabled us to prevent premature death, eliminate avoidable suffering and enjoy life on earth.

It was Karl Popper who pointed out that all theories are equally conjectural because for any finite set of observations there can be an infinite number of explanatory theories. Therefore mathematically the probability of any one of them being ‘true’ is zero. Although scientific theories are not wholly true and may even be false, the scientific process itself is rational because scientific theories can be improved in the light of further empirical evidence. In practice if not in theory many people who freely use computers, televisions and airplanes regard the scientific process as the most effective and reliable method available to humankind to acquire knowledge about the world in which we have to live and die.


Let us now apply the above considerations to the problem of the Rajarata Chronic Kidney Disease (RCKD) of unknown cause. If newspaper reports are correct, the Kelaniya Group of Scientists led by Prof. Nalin de Silva claim to have figured out that the cause of RCKD is arsenic. As I understand it, to make their important claim acceptable to those who regard empirical natural science as I have described it above, three conditions have to be fulfiled. They are the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be fulfiled before their claim that they KNOW that arsenic is indeed the cause of RCKD becomes scientifically valid.

First: Arsenic must really be the cause of RCKD

Second: They must be sure that arsenic is the cause of RCKD

Third: They must have the right to be sure that arsenic is the cause of RCKD

As they believe, arsenic may indeed be the cause of RCKD. But their belief by itself is not enough to validate their claim that they know it is the cause. A second condition must be satisfied before their belief can aspire towards the status of knowledge. Why so? Because had they just guessed from a sense of inner conviction with or without divine help that arsenic is the cause of RCKD and their guess turns out to be correct, they cannot validly claim that they had true knowledge of it. For them to claim to have had knowledge of it, they had to be sure of it on the basis of some verifiable evidence, such as having observed arsenic in samples of water and rice. Even their subjective certainty, however, though necessary, in not sufficient for them to validly claim that they know that arsenic is the cause of RCKD. Why not? Because their sureness or certainty may be based on circumstances that do not entitle them to be sure. For one thing, being human beings like the rest of us, they are liable like the rest of us not only to err, but are also susceptible to illusions, hallucinations and delusions. So their subjective certainty may be based on un-checkable, unverifiable evidence. Therefore it is necessary for them to satisfy the third condition before their claim to knowledge becomes a valid one and that is the right to be sure of the reliability of the evidence.


To sum up: in order to claim that they know that arsenic is the cause of RCKD acceptable to the modern scientific outlook, not only must their belief that arsenic is the cause of RCKD be true; they must also be sure that it is true; and most importantly they must have the right to be sure that it is true. In the modern scientific process the right to be sure is earned in various ways, depending on the matter in question. In the case of RCKD, the essential validation of their claim to knowledge that arsenic is the cause of RCKD is that the reliability of their methodology and accuracy of their observations on which their claim is based should be capable of being verified by competent others. i.e. publicly verified. Why should that be so? Because what is not verifiable by others will become a matter of disagreement and whenever there is unsettleable disagreement, we reach a dead end. This may lead to a fight to the death based on different epistemological approaches to reality which should be avoided in the name of humanity. If the matter is a trivial one like fire-walking or hanging on hooks, the disagreeing parties can agree to disagree and go their separate ways. However if the matter in question has public policy implications, publicly uncheckable ‘truths’ are potentially dangerous. For even matters which are on the edge of private lunacy, can become matters on the edge of public policy.