Sunday, August 16, 2009

Leif's Science and Society Paper #2 written in the fall semester 2007

Leif Garretson
Science and Society paper #2

When considering the scientific validity of a hypothesis we must examine it for a few key characteristics. These characteristics are things which are either empirical in nature and which can be definitely demonstrated to be true or false, or they are constantly changing to accommodate new data. This difference or criterion was best summarized by Karl Popper when he said, “ One can sum up all of this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability. In the simplest of terms this means that if the theory cannot be definitively proven to be either true or untrue its is not scientifically valid.

Popper came to this conclusion after analyzing the theories of his contemporaries such as Einstein and Adler. In the case of Adler the conclusions he drew could not be clearly proven to be correct or false. His theories of human motivations could be so flexible as to be congruous with any human behavior. No matter what he witnessed it always made sense within the tenants of his theory and there was no conceivable human behavior, actual or hypothetical, which could conclusively demonstrate him to be wrong. No matter what happened Adler could explain it within the framework of his model. Popper would claim that this is not true science but pseudo-science as it cannot be falsified by any event.

By contrast truly scientific theories could be proven false if certain events were to take place. For example, we take for granted that gravity exists and will act on all bodies, pulling them towards the earth unless some other force acts to prevent this. However, if hypothetically we were to witness an object levitating in mid air without the assistance of some other force, we might be forced to reconsider the validity of the theory of gravity. Regarding gravity, Popper gives great credit to Einstein and his predictions about gravity and light as they were bold, risky and could have clearly been proven to be false if he was wrong.

In Einstein’s case, he claimed that strong gravity wells such as our sun could actually bend light by changing the path of incoming photons. When he made this claim there was no easy way to demonstrate this but later a scientist named Eddington discovered that if you photographed constellations around a solar eclipse and then compared those photographs to those of the same constellations at night without the sun's gravitational field in the way you could measure the distances and prove or disprove Einstein’s theory. In this case Einstein was correct but had Eddington’s work not demonstrated this phenomenon Einstein’s theory would have been falsified. The fact that this possibility of falsification exists for Einstein’s Theory but does not for Adler is the criterion which, at least to Karl Popper, separates science from pseudo-science.

Popper describes such pseudo-scientific theories as being derived from ad-hoc hypotheses. Ad-hoc is defined as, “Formed, arranged, or done for one particular purpose only.” Such hypotheses are so malleable as to be beyond reproach and thus are impossible to truly prove or disprove. Pseudo-scientists with Ad-hoc hypotheses can always amend the hypothesis to account for any data which seems incongruous with the original model. One such example is Ptolemy and his geocentric model of the solar system. His hypothesis was sound until it was falsified by the existence of retrograde motion. However, instead of abandoning the theory he added the rather ad-hoc hypothetical model of epicenters to explain the unexplainable. The truth about these epicenters could not be clearly proven or falsified for hundreds of years.

This brings us to the topic of James McConnell and his theory of the chemical transference of memory. McConnell conducted experiments on Planarian worms involving training them to respond to bursts of light by first using Pavlovian conditioning involving a corresponding electric shock. He first trained worms to scrunch up when stimulated with a burst of light they had come to associate with being shocked. This, in and of itself, is unremarkable, but when things got interesting is when he began cutting the worms in half. Because Planarian worms regenerate you can cut one in half and get two [living] worms. One half retains the brain and one does not.

One would assume that if memory is stored in the brain that only the half with the brain would remain trained to respond to the bursts of light and the other half would not respond. This, however, was not the case and warranted further study. He followed this experiment by feeding the untrained cannibalistic worms the flesh of trained worms. He then reported that worms that ingested the meat of trained worms were 50% more likely to respond to the bursts of light.

Critics and contemporaries of McConnell were unable to replicate his results. This is often a red flag for any theory as it’s repeatability is of key importance to its credibility. McConnell would claim that it is a case of "golden hands" as he simply has more experience in training worms than anyone else. This is further challenged by the fact that other possible explanations are offered, such as the presence of slime trails from previously conditioned worms passing information on rather than chemical memory.

Here it is difficult to say if his further experiments are merely ad-hoc or are legitimate examinations of potential alternatives. Initially scrubbing the troughs and removing the slime produces no results. He concludes that the worms don’t like the scrubbed troughs, which seems very ad-hoc. Popper would surely liken this to Adler’s explaining away of anything that did not seem to be immediately in sync with the base model. McConnell attempts to eliminate this variable by using naive or untrained worms to pre-slime the troughs so that he can test cannibal worms for chemical transference of memory without them being affected by either the slime trail of the trained nor a hostile environment.

Still, all of this remains rather inconclusive. McConnell’s experiments are never successfully repeated by others, nor can they be conclusively demonstrated to be false. This very fact would, according to Popper, make this pseudo-science.

Again, the criterion of scientific status is whether it is falsifiable? In this case it is at least conclusively not. Is it refutable? It also cannot be conclusively refuted. And lastly, is it testable? While McConnell himself claims to have successfully tested the theory, the fact that it has not been repeatable by any others greatly strains its validity as a truly scientific hypothesis, as opposed to a mere guess with ad-hoc explanations to account for anything inconsistent between the predictions and the data.

Leif liked the intellectual exercise of philosophy and the challenge of argument, but he didn't really like to write his analyses. He would much rather have passed an oral exam through a spirited discourse. Our academic system isn't set up for much of that, and when he got it, it loved it.

He didn't send either of these papers from his Science and Society class to me and I didn't see them until recently among this computer files. He didn't find them as significant personally as the final exam in his other class, the one he sent to me and eventually left on the "desktop" of his laptop computer the night he died.

Leif claimed many times to be ruled by reason, but I think he failed to allow himself to see how often reason is colored by, even directed by, emotion.

The photo was taken in the living room of our old stone house, probably sometime around December 2003. He is wearing his leather motorcycle cap and jacket.

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