In which we start simple, stay simple, come to Plateau Easy, and the readers begins to wonder why he bothers, which he discovers at the end to his puzzlement.
Get In Line
You have a bunch of guys and want to see which of them is fastest in a four-mile run. How do you scientifically do this?
Right: have those guys make the four-mile run and see who comes in fastest, who is second fastest, and so on. Suppose guy Man One had the fastest time.
Now the most difficult scientific question: which man is best?
Maybe it doesn’t seem such a difficult question to you. But let’s think. We wanted the best, which means we had a definition of best in mind. That definition is right there: fastest in a four-mile run. Which doesn’t necessarily mean fastest in the 100-yard dash, or fastest in a marathon. It means only what it says, and nothing more: fastest in a four-mile run.
Indeed, that is how we conduct these contests. A day and time are set, and the men run. Some men who wanted to run might not be able to make it for various reasons. Others might have performed better had they not eaten bad shrimp the night before. The man who won might have got lucky in that the weather and road conditions were in the sweet spot for him.
There are endless reasons for why the eventual order of the race result comes to be as it is. Yet still the man who won, won. That is what we defined as best. This race—today. And in these conditions.
But maybe we don’t want to know just about today, but “any old” day. Yes, Man One won today, but would he win again tomorrow, or next week? The conditions of the next race—who stood next to who at the beginning, the exact running surface, then wind, sun, humidity, and on and on, all factors which could play a role in the result—would be different. What they favor or hinder our man?
If we do not know who would win again, then we have uncertainty, and if we have uncertainty, we can use a model to represent, and maybe even quantify, that uncertainty. We might include in that model aspects of the conditions we think are causing these men to do better or worse. Or we could leave that business out altogether and only use prior results. The men in turn could use the model, if it included those conditions, to perhaps improve themselves, by adjusting how they run.
Now suppose I am interested in the four-mile run, and you in the 100-yard dash. So what is best differs for the two of us. Therefore the results of races and model of the uncertainty of which man is best would also be different. It would be a different model for each definition of “best”.
Well, you knew all this. Like I said, that’s how real sports are conducted.
The Modest Analogy
This is also how models in science are judged. Each is a man running in a race. I do not mean the model of uncertainty of which man is best. I mean, each man represents a rival model of the same observable part of Reality. The men are all the different models of the same observable part of Reality.
Take “climate change”. There are several rival (in a weak sense) models of “climate change”. Which is best? Depends on what you mean by best. Maybe one of these model is best at guessing the global average temperature (which is itself another model, but never mind). Maybe another is best at predicting sea-surface temperatures (same critique). And so on, for all the meanings of “best”.
(The weak sense is because the people making the models all collaborate and share bits of the models. None are sui generis.)
Since these models are always making new projections, i.e. entering new races, we don’t know in advance which will be best, but we can make models of their performance. We’d have a different model of uncertain future performance for every definition of “best”, just like men in races.
In other words, we’d have performance models of Reality models, which predict what other models (like of global average temperature) say. (The GAT models themselves rely on changing and uncertain measurements, which is another layer of modeling. It’s models, all the way down.)
With me so far?
The Great Tie In
If you think I’m going to carp about the nesting of models, as important as that is, you are wrong. We’ll do that another day. We’re here to discuss best.
Best is entirely subjective, in a sense. This is not a fault, it is The Way Things Are. After all, who’s to say the 4 mile run is superior to the 100-yard dash? Well, it is superior if what needs to be done is a race four miles long. At that point, best is purely objective. We start with the subjective, or at least extra-race arguments, and move toward the objective. Same thing with science models.
All obvious as can be, no?
Now suppose Man Seven is your favorite. His time was not the fastest. You’ve been following Man Seven for years. You are a fan. Man Seven is fond of saying, “I am running to save the planet, which is my spiritual goal.” I don’t mean he donates the proceeds of his performance to some “green” group or anything like that. I mean just what the man says: he equates fidgeting his fleet feet with planet saving. An entirely subjective view!
And you, dear reader, love the man for this. You share his subjective view of best. His time in the race therefore fades into unimportance. What’s important is that he ran the race to save the planet. Never mind how. That’s not important. That you (and he) believe it is.
That means even though Man Seven lost the race, he is still best. Since you (and he) know that others have a different view of best, one based on time, you would smile if your man was also best in time, but this only a nice addition. That the man was in the race, and for the reason he said was all important.
Objectively, then, at the end of the race you judge Man Seven best, regardless of his time. All of Man Seven’s fans do. Which is an entirely rational thing to do, given their shared definition of best.
If you have followed sports at all, debates like this happen all the time. Team X is really best, even if they had a lower score, because of this-and-that quality. Well, and that is true, if best means “this-and-that quality”. And it is false if best means higher score.
You, dear reader, see, at least partly, where this is going. Models in science are judged the same way as men in races. That a “climate change” model has as it purpose “saving the planet” is enough to excuse any number of sins of that model, sins relative to other definitions of best—like being able to predict temperature.
So what we really have, or should have, are debates over what is best. Just like sports cannot answer that, neither can science say what is best. That definition comes from outside.
That much I trust you could see coming from the beginning. Which doesn’t make this post especially interesting. But there’s more.
The Stunning Reveal
Man Seven’s reason is an explanation of the race’s. It explains not the outcome in times, because time is not important to Man Seven. Time is not best. What is important for Man Seven, and his fans, is saving the planet.
Whatever it is about the race itself, that which in the race lends itself to saving the planet, the elan of runners in the race, say, or their spirit aligned with Gaia’s. The emerald brilliance of their Green Piety. Whatever.
Now this spirit, or whatever it is, cannot be measured. Oh, somebody can develop a scored questionnaire, like “From one to ten how much to you love the planet”, or some such nonsense, but this is absurd. It is not measuring the thing itself, whatever that thing is. It is, at best, a far-removed proxy from the thing. At worst, it’s standard academic gibberish, yet another attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.
And it is unquantifiable, this explanation.
That’s not a deficit per se. Because the explanation is a complete explanation. At least it is to Man Seven and his fans. The reason for the race and its workings are expounded with thoroughness. The race is given full and complete meaning. I stress that this is a conditional truth to Man Seven and his fans. We are not making light of it.
This becomes, at long last, Science, when Man Seven announces he is an academic. He says his theory is not only true for himself and his fans, it is not only conditionally true given his definition of best, it is just-plain true. It is true for everyone, because of that explanation and because what is best, to him, must be best for you.
Understand, Man Seven maintains he is saying something about Reality. It’s just that he can’t measure that something. But he knows what he says must be true, because he has an excellent explanation for that something.
How can he prove his theory in the old fashioned way of making a prediction and testing it against Reality? He cannot. He knows, as well as you and I, that testing is out of the question. He is not dodging this testing, because he agrees it is impossible.
He wants you to believe his theory based on the strength of his explanation.
Well, and this is Science. For we are now (after our gravity and models and other posts) finally ready to tackle David Deutsch’s argument in favor of Many Worlds. Deutsch is Man Seven. He wants to save the universes (plural), and not just the planet.
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