Problems in Scientific Thinking (Michael Shermer, 1997)

NOTE: The following is taken from the book, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, pp. 46-48. It is the first section of the 3rd Chapter entitled, How Thinking Goes Wrong: 25 Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things:


1. Theory Influences Observations
About the human quest to understand the physical world, physicist and Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg concluded, “What we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” In quantum mechanics, this notion has been formalized as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum action: “a probability function does not prescribe a certain event but describes a continuum of possible events until a measurement interferes with the isolation of the system and a single event is actualized” (in Weaver 1987, p. 412). The Copenhagen interpretation eliminates the one-to-one correlation between theory and reality. The theory in part constructs the reality. Reality exists independent of I the observer, of course, but our perceptions of reality are influenced by the J theories framing our examination of it. Thus, philosophers call science theory laden.

Theory influences what I experience! Theory influences how I interpret what I experience. Observation is Theory-laden.
Theory influences what I experience! Theory influences how I interpret what I experience. Observation is Theory-laden.

That theory shapes perceptions of reality is true not only for quantum physics but also for all observations of the world. When Columbus arrived in the New World, he had a theory that he was in Asia and proceeded to perceive the New World as such. Cinnamon was a valuable Asian spice, and the first New World shrub that smelled like cinnamon was declared to be it. When he encountered the aromatic gumbo-limbo tree of the West Indies, Columbus concluded it was an Asian species similar to the mastic tree of the Mediterranean. A New World nut was matched with Marco Polo’s description of a coconut. Columbus’s surgeon even declared, based on some Caribbean roots his men uncovered, that he had found Chinese rhubarb. A theory of Asia produced observations of Asia, even though Columbus was half a world away. Such is the power of theory.

Facts: no such thing as pure observation; theory influences observation – 'theory-ladenness'
Facts: no such thing as pure observation; theory influences observation – ‘theory-ladenness’

2. The Observer Changes the Observed
Physicist John Archibald Wheeler noted, “Even to observe so minuscule an object as an electron, [a physicist] must shatter the glass. He must reach in. He must install his chosen measuring equipment…. Moreover, the measurement changes the state of the electron. The universe will never afterward be the same” (in Weaver 1987, p. 427). In other words, the act of studying an event can change it. Social scientists often encounter this phenomenon. Anthropologists know that when they study a tribe, the behavior of the members may be altered by the fact they are being observed by an outsider. Subjects in a psychology experiment may alter their behavior if they know what experimental hypotheses are being tested. This is why; psychologists use blind and double-blind controls. Lack of such controls is often found in tests of paranormal powers and is one of the classic ways that thinking goes wrong in the pseudosciences. Science tries to minimize and acknowledge the effects of the observation on the behavior of the observed; pseudoscience does not.

The Observer Changes the Observed0 The Observer Changes the Observed1

3. Equipment Constructs Results
The equipment used in an experiment often determines the results. The size of our telescopes, for example, has shaped and reshaped our theories about the size of the universe. In the twentieth century, Edwin Hubble’s 60- and 100-inch telescopes on Mt. Wilson in southern California for the first time provided enough seeing power for astronomers to distinguish individual stars in other galaxies, thus proving that those fuzzy objects called nebulas that we thought were in our own galaxy were actually separate galaxies. In the nineteenth century, craniometry defined intelligence as brain size and instruments were designed that measured it as such; today intelligence is defined by facility with certain developmental tasks and is measured by another instrument, the IQ test. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington illustrated the problem with this clever analogy:


Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:
(1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
(2) All sea-creatures have gills.
In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observations.

Equipment Constructs Results or Why Evidence for Prophetic Dreams is Hard to Come By
Equipment Constructs Results or Why Evidence for Prophetic Dreams is Hard to Come By

An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge, and is not part of the kingdom of fishes which has been defined as the theme of ichthyological knowledge. In short, what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” (1958, p. 16)
Likewise, what my telescope can’t see isn’t there, and what my test can’t measure isn’t intelligence. Obviously, galaxies and intelligence exist, but how we measure and understand them is highly influenced by our equipment.

Why People Believe Weird Things
Why People Believe Weird Things

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