Scientific Observations & Math

Scientific Observations & Math

My last post was about science and newness. Modern science values new information more than existing information and rewards research that pushes forward into new territories. What unites new science in any field with the historical information that the new science rests on, is mathematics. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens, “mere observations, however, are not knowledge. In order to understand the universe, we need to connect observations into comprehensive theories. Earlier traditions usually formulated their observations into stories. Modern science uses mathematics.”
 
 
Mathematics are used to communicate observations because mathematics can be objective, precise, and evaluated for accuracy.  My experiences of reality and how I may interpret and communicate that reality is not likely to be the same as the way someone in New York City, Tokyo, or Kabul experiences, interprets, and communicates their immediate reality. However, if we chose to measure our worlds through data and agree on the scales to use, we can begin to bring our subjective experiences of reality into a unified and consistent framework. A lot of how we understand the world is subjective. For example, I run a lot and a lot of my friends run, so a three mile run sounds short to me. However, for someone who doesn’t run often and doesn’t have friends who run often, a three mile jog may as well be a 26 mile marathon. Mathematics escapes the subjective, goes beyond stories and narratives that we may develop from our subjective experiences. It ties our collective experiences together into something more objective. Mathematics allows us to go from stories to real theories.
 
 
That still doesn’t mean we all understand and interpret the numbers the same. In his recent book How to Make the World Add Up, Tim Harford shares an example of national statistics in the UK showing that the average rail car has only 100 passengers. However, in Harford’s experience, traveling at rush hour, the average rail car is completely packed with far more than 100 people. The statistics can be viewed through a different reference point, through the average passenger traveling at rush hour, or through the rail car traveling throughout the day. Without mathematics we could never describe this reality in a consistent and unified way. Our descriptions of the world would be based on narrative and story. Mathematics gives us a grounding through which we can understand the universe in a more comprehensive and generalizable manner.

Changing Your Views on a Group of People

An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.

 

Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.

 

I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.