Science and proof III

Dan had a comment on the “science and proof II” posting that I think is of general interest that requires a fresh posting. He asks:

“Okay, do you have a quick explanation for why falsification is not the distinction between science and religion?

On a day to day level, it works for me. If someone says there exist leprechauns, but they are invisible, and leave no trace in our world, I know that the statement can not be proven wrong so it is not worth arguing against. But if someone says that species evolve from other species, it is conceivable that it could be proven wrong, so it is worth taking seriously. And if enough people try to disprove it and fail, that is good evidence that it might have explanatory power.”

Dan’s point is a good one. At a simple level, falsificationism sounds plausible. The theory that “All swans are white” can be seemingly falsified by the appearance of aa single black swan. Falsification’s appeal stems from the fact that we seem to be able to make a clean distinction between an observation and a theory.

But that distinction becomes blurred when you start looking at the kinds of things that scientists research, because then observations are no longer simple sensory perceptions. The statement “electrons exist” is not a simple observational one but requires us to use a vast array of theories from a range of disciplines in order to interpret the readings of the measuring insruments. So if the “observation” disagrees with the theory being examined, it is not clear where to place the blame. Is it on the theory being tested, or on one of the theories underlying the observations?

So in reality one is always comparing one set of theories with another set of theories and there is no rule that *forces* you to make a particular choice, although good taste and judgment and standard practices may lead the scientific community to a consensus decision.

The other problem with using falsification is that no theory has ever explained everything in its domain. There are always unsolved problems and contradictory results. Trying to reconcile these discrepancies serve as the basis for much research. If we applied the falsification rule strictly, then every theory we have would be falsified.

These are the kinds of things that caused falsificationism to stumble and fall.

Incidentally, even the swan example is not as simple as it looks. Defenders of the white swan theory can retain their belief by arguing that what constitutes a swan is not precisely defined and that the black creature was not really a swan, and other arguments like that. We may dismiss those arguments as silly and self-serving but they are not logically ruled out.

Warning! Shameless plug coming up!

All these issues are discussed in my book “Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs”, published by Phi Delta Kappan Foundation in 2000.

High self-esteem does not lead to high student achievement

After wasting space on Michelle Malkin last week, the Plain Dealer redeemed itself on Monday, January 31 with an intriguing op-ed piece by Roy F. Baumeister on the misguided attempts to cure various social ills by boosting the self-esteem of the people responsible for those ills. This was based on the theory that low self-esteem people resorted to violence, for example, in order to feel better about themselves. Thus it was believed that if we can raise their self-esteem, they will stop being violent.

A 1996 paper in Psychological Review by Baumeister and co-workers debunked that hypothesis by showing that violent individuals, groups, and even nations actually already think highly of themselves, and resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. Promoting high self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful.

Baumeister (who used to be a Professor of Psychology at Case until just a few years ago) now finds similar results in the research literature for student educational achievement. Inflated high self-esteem not only does not result in better academic achievement, it can sometimes even lower it.

These conclusions should be taken very seriously by educators, many of whom have put great stock in raising the self-esteem of under-achieving students as a strategy to boost their performance. The Education Trust reported in a 2001 study that children in high-poverty schools are given few assignments, that even those are of low-quality, and are then given As for work that would merit Cs and Ds elsewhere, all in a misguided effort to improve their self-esteem
In my own work with professional-development programs, an earnest and well-meaning teacher once told me of her frustration with attempts to improve students’ self-esteem in her exclusively black school district. After teaching a section of the mathematics course, she would give her students a practice test. She would then grade the tests and hand them back to the students, along with the answer key, and discuss the test. The “real� test, which was exactly the same as the practice test, was then given, with the students being aware beforehand that this was going to be done. The teacher told me that she adopted this strategy so that the students would score well on her tests and thus experience a boost in their self-esteem. Yet she was frustrated that her students still did badly on the test.

It is not hard to understand why the math teacher’s students were not putting in any effort to just memorize the answers to the practice test and reproduce them on the real test. It was because the “real� test was not a real test of anything meaningful. The task was so trivially simple as to be insulting.

This does not apply to just underachieving students at lower grade levels. Just yesterday a faculty member in the School of Engineering here at Case (which has ambitious, hard-working, and high achieving students) was expressing puzzlement because in order to get more class participation he would ask very easy questions but no one was volunteering to answer them.

But from the point of view of the students, this response is perfectly rational. If the question is obviously easy, then no kudos accrue to a student for answering it correctly. But if you do volunteer an answer and get it wrong, then you appear stupid in the eyes of your peers. So the safest course is to avoid answering.

The research on motivation suggests that students (and people in general) respond best not to praise and blame, but to neutral feedback that gives them a realistic sense of what they can do and what they need to do to improve. They also respond best to moderate levels of challenge. If the assignments are too hard, then they get frustrated. If they are too easy, then there is no sense of achievement in doing them. The challenge for any teacher is to gauge the right levels of challenge, provide appropriate support, and give informative and prescriptive feedback.

Baumeister’s work confirms that trying to raise self-esteem is not the way to go. While high self-esteem does provide some minor benefits (it feels good and supports initiative), he suggests that we might get better results by focusing more on self-control and self-discipline. It is a message that should be taken seriously.


1. Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?�, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, May 2003, vol. 4, No. 1, 1-44
2. Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem�, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33
3. Kati Haycock, Craig Jerald, and Sandra Huang, “Closing the Gap: Done in a Decade,� Education Trust: Thinking K–16 5, no. 2 (Spring 2001)
4. Kati Haycock, “Closing the Achievement Gap,� Educational Leadership, March 2001, 6–11.

Synthetic rage II

The fact that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not receive any nominations in the major categories for Academy Awards (it did receive nominations for makeup, cinematography, and original score) has created a fresh gusher of synthetic rage.

The inevitable press conferences are being held with the usual suspects denouncing this omission as indicators of the evil-mindedness of people in the film industry (“There’s no question that bigotry and prejudice rank among the liberal elite of Hollywoodâ€? – Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition) and alleging that this was another example of how Christians are under siege in the US (“It is well known that the Hollywood community has been anti-Christian for many years.â€? -Tim Wildmon, American Family Association), which is a curious charge to make in what is arguably the most overtly Christian country in the world, where its leaders (particularly the current president) often make public professions of their faith.

People, people, people, let’s get a grip. We are talking about the Oscars, for goodness’ sake, that annual orgy of self-congratulation by the film world, where success is as much dependent on talent and quality as it is on politicking, schmoozing, money, advertising, reputation, and boot-licking and back-stabbing skills. Why would anyone other than those actually involved in the making of a film much care whether it won awards or not?

And where were all these protesters some years ago when the obviously best film of ALL time, one that featured religion, political intrigue, the Sermon on the Mount, crucifixions, stonings, Roman soldiers, and a Pontius Pilate with a speech impediment, was not nominated for an Oscar in even a single category? Yes, I am talking about Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The many admirers of this landmark film bore this travesty of justice with equanimity. We did not feign outrage. We did not hold press conferences to protest. We were stoic, knowing that history would give Life of Brian the recognition it deserved long after pretenders to greatness like Citizen Kane had faded into obscurity. We are still waiting patiently…

Synthetic rage

I am mad! I am just furious!! So angry that I am tempted to use words like ‘tarnation!� and “consarn it!!!� Why, I feel so upset that I…

No, it’s no use. I just cannot sustain artificially created anger. And yet it amazes me that this ability seems to come easily to third-tier pundits who live in a permanent state of low-threshold fury, where the slightest provocation is enough to send them over the edge, ranting at their favorite targets.

The latest example of this comes from Michelle Malkin, to whom the Plain Dealer allocates precious space on its editorial page on January 27, 2005 to vent a thousand words of indignation at the Department of Homeland Security because it had recently sent a permanent resident (aka ‘green card’) approval form to Eugueni Kniazev, who had been killed in the World Trade Center attack.

So Ms. Malkin is outraged by what amounts to (drum roll, please) a governmental bureaucratic mistake. She hides the silliness of her concerns with the familiar pre-emptive tactic that is now used to silence any opponent: i.e., the recipient was killed during the September 11 attacks and anything said or done in their name is automatically exempt from criticism.

She takes this particular incident and that where two of the 9/11 hijackers were given flight school approval, to extrapolate into a reality-free zone and conclude that this means that the DHS is hopelessly incompetent and probably allowing vast numbers of people into the country to freely carry out more attacks.

She also invokes the grief of the family of Mr. Kniazev, raging on their behalf at the insensitive DHS for subjecting them to this reminder of their dead relative.

In the real world occupied by the rest of us, we know that correcting faulty information in the computers of big organizations is a frustrating and often futile exercise. Families of deceased people get mail for them for a long time afterwards, from the institutions they were affiliated with to marketers of credit cards, phone companies and the like, so one more mailing from some government agency is hardly likely to cause a fresh wave of overwhelming grief.

So what might actually lie behind Ms. Malkin’s fury? It becomes less mysterious if one is aware that Ms. Malkin is the author of a recent book approving the internment of all Japanese-Americans (including children) during World War II and has been on the minor-league punditry circuit arguing for racial, religious, and nationality profiling to be taken now against all people of Middle Eastern origins and of the Islamic faith.

Ms. Malkin manufactures synthetic rage over the action of some hapless (but hardly evil) clerk at the DHS in order to support and advocate actions that should cause genuine outrage. Indignation-fueled rhetoric is being used to either hide vacuity or to promote agendas that cannot stand close scrutiny. Judging by the talking heads on political talk (or more appropriately “yell�) shows, it seems like a strategy that can be translated into a lucrative career.

So excuse me while I go and practice getting angry some more. It can’t be that hard if the likes of Ms. Malkin can do it…

Patronizing students

Sometimes it seems to me that there is no half-baked idea that originates anywhere in the known universe that does not quickly find influential adherents anxious to institutionalize it in Ohio.

Barely has the dust settled on the push to include Intelligent Design into Ohio’s science standards than we now have Marion state senator Larry A. Mumpers introducing Ohio Senate Bill 24 in order to “prohibit instructors at public or private universities from “persistentlyâ€? discussing controversial issues in class or from using their classes to push political, ideological, religious or anti-religious views.â€? (Sorry, no link to this quote from the subscriber only Columbus Dispatch news item by Kathy Lynn Gray on 1/27/2005.)

This is bound to raise the free-speech, academic freedom debate in all its full-blown glory and I am not going to revisit that. But one statement by Senator Mumford jumped out at me. He feels that college students need this kind of legal protection because “These are young minds that haven’t had a chance to form their own opinions.�

Such words can only be uttered by someone who has never really listened to adolescents and young adults or tried to persuade them to change their minds. Does he really think that young people have not already formed strong opinions about things?

The education literature is full of research on how people’s minds are resistant to new ideas. Students cling to Aristotelian ideas of motion, and harbor serious misconceptions about the seasons and the phases of the moon, even though they may have been taught the standard views many times in the course of their education.

And this happens in the area of physics, where students do not even have a commitment to retaining their old ideas, or are often unaware of what those ideas are until asked to explicitly articulate them. Imagine how hard it would be to change their minds about politics and religion, which are much closer to the surface of their consciousness.

Many a professor (including myself) has been aghast at discovering that all their careful lectures and arguments have had little impact on what students really believe, even though the students may be highly adept at reproducing the professor’s views on exams.

This kind of comment betrays at best a naivete, and at worst a contempt, for the ability of college students to think for themselves and resist indoctrination by their teachers. But this is not going to prevent politicians like Senator Mumpers from going ahead in their condescending efforts to “protect� students.

Get ready for the legal battle…

Problems with censorship

An amusing news item from the BBC website illustrates a real difficulty with censorship.

A devout Baptist couple who bought a Doris Day DVD from a supermarket were shocked to find a sex film instead.


“It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film, it certainly pulled no punches,” Mr Leigh-Browne said.

“My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

“The film became progressively more graphic, there was no plot to it, it was just sex.”

Alan and his wife Anne, 60, a retired teacher, complained to Safeway the next day and all copies of The Pajama Game were removed from the store.


What was interesting about this news item was that at the first sign of sex in the film this couple, despite being described as devout Baptists, did not stop watching but kept viewing right through to the end. Although they say they were “very shocked�, they clearly did not feel that they had compromised their souls by seeing this film.

This highlights a practical problem for would-be moralists and censors. In order to keep the world “pure” for the rest of us, they have to believe that they themselves will be uncorrupted by the things they have to view to check for content suitability. But how do we decide a priori who will or won’t be corrupted by this kind of experience? I can understand not allowing children to have free access to certain kinds of material, but how do we choose among adults? I have the feeling that most people, if asked, would say that they can watch such a video without being “harmed”, whether they would freely choose to do so or not.

Also, the news item said the couple complained to Safeway but did not say they actually returned the DVD…

Science and proof II

In his comment on my earlier posting on “Science and Proof”, Kurtiss Hare raises an interesting point about the value of religion and what kind of validity criteria I was referring to, so I thought I would elaborate.

When it comes to the *value* of belief structures to an individual, then there are really no external criteria that can be imposed. For example, for someone who has experienced a personal tragedy, a belief in God and a divine purpose for life may be of far more value than all the science in the world.

The point I was trying to muddle through to about science is that it is not being “proven true” that gives scientific theories their credibility, but the fact that they seem to work well, are reliable, and can be used to make predictions.

The probability argument that Kurtiss raises is interesting but has two directions in which it can be taken. The first (which I think is the one he makes) is that the fact that very few planes crash means that the probability of that particular application of the scientific theories (i.e., arriving safely) is high.

But does that translate into a high probability of the underlying scientific theories being true? No, because if you you want to assign a “truth probability” to a scientific theory then you have to compare (for any given theory) the number of predictions that are confirmed to the total number of predictions that are conceivable. Since for any non-trivial theory the number of possible predictions is infinite, the truth probability for *any* theory (however “good”) turns out to be zero!

This seems paradoxical but philosophers of science have not been able to get around it.

Science and Proof

On a plane earlier this week, I was seated next to a very nice woman and we struck up a conversation that quickly turned to religion. She was a Biblical literalist who belonged to an evangelical Christian church. In the course of comparing the scientific and religious approaches to describing the world, she made the claim that the theories of evolution and the big bang had not been “proven” and that thus they were articles of faith, just like any religious dogma.

This is a familiar argument to anyone (like me) who has been involved in the whole brou-ha-ha about whether “intelligent design” should be taught alongside Darwinian natural selection in science classes, and it reveals a common misperception about the nature of science.

This view is not held just by religious people, it is widespread. In the first class in my course on the history and philosophy of science, I ask students how they would distinguish science from non-science and invariably they begin by saying that science consists of things that have been proven true.

But nothing, even the most robust of theories, is “proven to be true” in science. But does that mean they are pure articles of faith, on a par with religious beliefs? Surely not. Newton’s laws and the laws of hydrodynamics have not been proven true either, but the woman and I both boarded the airplane confident that the those laws would hold and that we had a very high chance of arriving safely at our destination. Are there any religious beliefs to which we would trust our lives as confidently?

Clearly, the fact that the laws of science are not proven true does not diminish their worth and validity. Thus their credibility must be based on something other than simple proof. But most teaching of science, at any level, pays little attention to this important feature of scientific knowledge. And so the public policy discussions on issues like intelligent design rarely get beyond a fairly simplistic level.

Too bad.

And then there were two (entries)…

Thanks, Vincenzo and Jeremy, for the words of encouragement. I must say the fact that people actually read the blog (and took the trouble to comment) is quite an incentive to post more and post better.

But to follow up on Jeremy’s thought, I have decided that ultimately the blog (for me at least) is going to be a place-holder for those ideas and thoughts that I have to get off my chest but which are not ready for prime-time (i.e., publication as a book or articles). I am sure we all have such ideas. triggered by events in our lives, that occupy our thoughts for awhile and may even obsess about briefly, but which slowly disappear from our consciousness. I alwasy regret losing that initial flame of passion and concern. Just writing it down in a personal journal seemed a little pointless to me. The blog might be the place for them. Jeremy is right – we cannot predict what others might find interesting. Trying to do so is a good strategy for getting published but it does distort the message. The blog alows you to just say what you think and see what happens. (Thanks for the bloglinescom tip!)

I see that Vincenzo is using his blog to supplement his lectures. I use the web in my own courses but I used to use the Physics department’s own website template and now use Blackboard to create a course website. I am wondering about the possible advantages of using the blog over Blackboard. Vincenzo, why did you choose this method?

A final practical question. When I wanted to reply to Vincenzo and Jeremy, clicking on jms8 took me to Jeremy’s blog but vincenzo.liberatore did not work. It also seemed like to send private replies to people who comment on my blog, I need to use my normal mail utility and insert their addresses by hand. Is that how it works or is there something more streamlined that I am not seeing?

I am posting this publicly but will send copies privately as well.

My own blog!

Well, here we go into the (by now) fairly well charted waters of blogdom. While I regularly read quite a few blogs written by other people, the thought of starting my own was rather forbidding for several reasons.

The first was the sheer time and effort involved to keep posting fresh entries that might draw readers.

The second was that some of the best blogs I read were by people who seemed to either have sources of information that were not readily accessible to me (such as Josh Marshall) or who had the time (like Atrios) to scour the web for interesting nuggets that were missed or ignored by the mainstream media or wrote so wittily and cleverly (like James Wolcott) that my entries would be lame by comparison.

The third was that although I have many interests and have opinions on them, there are clearly people who have deeper knowledge in each of the areas that I am interested in. So what could I contribute that could not be found anywhere else?

Well, I figure the only way to find out is to venture in and see where it all goes. So this entry is the equivalent of slowly dipping my toes in the water. Hmm, not bad so far…