Part 3: The Emergence of Truth in Natural Sciences


No paradigm-shifting research paper ever got published without reviews by respected and experienced peers in the field. If the paper is in publication and circulation, the reviewers (80% of the time) agreed that the research methodology was thorough and the findings were good progress in understanding the case study. The reviewers had reached consensus.

From my previous post , the natural progression of research in natural sciences can be summarised as follows:

1) An unusual phenomenon in Nature causes speculation and theory about its true material character, origins or mechanisms.

2) Decisive experiments play a key role in characterising and measuring the phenomenon.

3) Consensus on the results of experiments must be reached. This is where science becomes a logical and sociological process.

Why bother to get to the point of consensus? And do we reach such an academic destination too easily?  One consideration is that it may be generally pragmatic to reach consensus and move forward with new research.  Alternatively, naive realism also works in reaching consensus.  This means that we let our brain win at recognising initial patterns in the data, and don’t over think it. “It is there in nature.  It’s not in my head, it’s not in your head.  That is really happening in the data and the way we’ve characterised it in nature.”

Consensus is also reached because other matters are more important. It’s the  apathetic shrug off of, “I don’t care about this research, so I’ll save the thought space and accept it as is.”
Scientists do damn expensive work! They cannot afford to play unanimous and controversy always rallies an audience. Where there is backing in intellect or research funding, the result is usually progress in understanding via more work done on more specimens, in more localities, with fancier equipment. Research is an industry with pretty direct feedbacks and financial opportunities if the topic is hot.

But perhaps scientists know their insignificant blip of importance in the universe. Perhaps consensus is reached, because, well, provisional truth is quite alright with us…

After edit: Thank you to Professor Gustaffson,  for the  he created in explaining the nature of science and the emergence of truth. 


Part 2: The Emergence of Truth in Natural Sciences – lecture notes on Prof Gustafsson’s seminar

This piece follows on from Prologue to Provisional Truth The lecture was titled The Emergence of Truth in Natural Sciences.

Prof Bengt Gustafsson was invited to deliver his talk by the Academy of Science South Africa. (Online press release here). Here are the basic takeaways from the talk which Prof Gustafsson structured so beautifully:

Science is both philosophical and sociological, a human activity, designed. The evolution of this thing we do can be thought of as follows:

1) Our five senses, help inform ,through detailed observation, about some kind of pattern/ system/ symmetry/ rhythm in nature around us.  If it just human nature to create the pattern for our own mind or if it actually exists in the universe without our observations validating it, is an existential question which the philosophers can ponder on over a cup of Earl Grey.

2) The initial fellows of ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Persia who observed things in great detail, be it in the sky or in an ant colony, developed instruments to measure what they observed. Tools developed were thermometers for a touch-observed temperature change; scales to measure mass against some set standard mass; pH scales to measure acidity of solutions. Goniometers to measure crystals’ interfacial angles.  You get the idea.

Measurement culture is a field of thought experimentation which I myself know too little about. According to one of my supervisors, a physics lecturer at UCT jostled past her one day, and simply asked something akin to, “Is one a number? Is it whole?”. Measurement culture asks those kinds of questions. For now, we just care that from our sensory observations, humans developed instruments to formalise and organise these observations. Benjamin Thomson was the father of all things measurement and organisation.

3) Humans then applied numbers to these instruments, to serve as levels for measurement. Herein lies the concept of calibrations and the practice of organising our observations, to make them comparable to other early scientists’ data. We scientists assume that measuring something creates truth. We scientists know that measuring something repeatedly creates more truth. The distance between truth and falsehood is ever changing along a continuum. Measurements must be reproducible.

Looking at points 1, 2, and 3, Prof Gustafsson concluded, “The non-triviality of things are shown by the history of which the science follows from.”

Science is philosophical and sociological: A Human Activity

Georges Lemaitre, a Catholic Jesuit priest and astronomer, noticed a central locus for all the vectors of outward-moving bodies in the galaxy. He birthed the idea of the Big Bang theory.

This seminal piece of scientific work, and most other notable ones in history, show a background in speculation – a first step to developing and sustaining a scientific question. Secondly, the works brought about a scientific theory. However, in any piece of scientific work, decisive experiments are paramount. Once they are conducted, we can enter the sociological component of science. Opportunities for this are during group seminars, at a conference. They even exist for you in front of the TV watching a NatGeo documentary.  It’s the time when our colleagues or family members beside us begin to say, “Oh yes….yes that does seem to be true that the big bang existed, or that elephants and dassies are related, etc”. This  dialogue in a word is consensus.

Another example I would like to share of consensus, in the field of geology, is what I like to call Geo-logic.

Person one: Are those right-way-up structures? I sure see those foresets suggesting that.

Person two: Nah, I disagree. This bed has been overturned.

Person three: I see right way up structures and this bed is not overturned. Look at the bedding planes and the foreset tangential to it.

Two out of three is good enough for me but how much consensus is enough to call it geo-truth?

It is great when consensus is reached on a problem. Some provisional truth is proclaimed. In my next post, I’ll finish off on what Prof Gustafsson put to us for mull over, pertaining to how and why we might reach consensus.

Yours in geoscience!


Part 1: Prologue to Provisional Truth

An existential crisis: What am I actually doing? What defines this as Science?

It was critical, I believe, for my development as a geoscientist-in-training to go through these motions during 2014. It was my first year of doing a Masters degree by dissertation in Geochemistry.

Desperate for understanding, bewildered by geo-jargon, yours truly noticed a very nondescript flyer on campus which advertised a special lecture. It would proceed in the University of Cape Town’s Engineering Faculty later that week.    “The Emergence of Provisional Truth in Natural Sciences,” given by a natural phenomenon within the speaker’s own right.  He is an astronomer-physicist-philosopher triple gift to society.

Before I outline the brilliant lecture, I’d like to give a prologue (confession) into it.

Fact: Publicity via global news networks occurs during the birth of scientific discoveries. This new knowledge demonstrates a deeper understanding of our place in the hominid scheme/solar system/universe [insert your field of interest here]. This is important, yes, so we stick it all over science blogs and in the science and tech slot on CNN. It makes people excited about science. You get to find out about brand new phenomena!  Good for Tinder date small talk (or is that just me?).

Fact: Discoveries happen by happy accident.

Opinion: Do not go into scientific training if you are seeking only to be a discoverer. Ah, the vivid wisdom and clarity of hindsight. There’s a rigorous and tortuous path to follow before one can even begin to use a bunch of learned intellectual tools on a project which purely for scientific exploration.  Projects like those are boons, and are typically available from PhD level and beyond.

Before PhD = achievement unlocked , where the opportunities and scientific mindset coexist at a period in one’s lifetime, one must undergo an existential science crisis.

How can one make a discovery when one is ignorant to 1) what one is looking at, and 2) how one explains it in a structured, understandable way? This is where the human/social nature of science comes in [post 2].

As I help out in petrography and mineralogy pracs with second year students, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Science is a very human and social exercise. Science is not equal to guaranteed discoveries. I’ll digress with this anecdote: During a practical wherein the students look at minerals under a microscope, one particular scholar didn’t yet know how to evaluate the stability of a garnet grain. There were one or two embayed edges, but more or less, it seemed to be a happy, well-formed grain.

She had not yet discovered for herself, that SHE was the one who had to draw the lines in her mind’s eye around the garnet grain, to an approximate shape. The information about the garnet grain was not going to JUMP out at her from some cerebral cortex firework. She expected this, however, and berated herself by thinking that she was supposed to be seeing something more than the grain she was seeing. This is not a healthy mindset in which to conduct science. Unaware of the way to equip one’s mind for science, one can spin into an existential science TIZZ.

SO, how? HOW to Science? What IS science?

Forget about the professor locked in the “ivory tower” punching away at calculations toward guaranteed discovery. No. In the Natural Sciences, it’s something quite different.