January 1, 2014

"'First accumulate a mass of Facts: and then construct a Theory.' That, I believe, is the true Scientific Method."

"I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and began to accumulate Facts."
A smooth grassy slope, bounded, at the upper end, by venerable ruins half buried in ivy, at the lower, by a stream seen through arching trees—a dozen gaily-dressed people, seated in little groups here and there—some open hampers—the debris of a picnic—such were the Facts accumulated by the Scientific Researcher. And now, what deep, far-reaching Theory was he to construct from them? The Researcher found himself at fault. Yet stay! One Fact had escaped his notice. While all the rest were grouped in twos and in threes, Arthur was alone: while all tongues were talking, his was silent: while all faces were gay, his was gloomy and despondent. Here was a Fact indeed! The Researcher felt that a Theory must be constructed without delay.
A passage in Lewis Carroll's "Silvie and Bruno," located today, by me, commenting in the comments thread to my first second third post of the year — "What does the penguin think?" — after I am challenged for using the Oxford English Dictionary.

What's going on in that passage? The full text of the book appears at the first link, and here's the Wikipedia article:
The novel has two main plots; one set in the real world at the time the book was published (the Victorian era), the other in the fantasy world of Fairyland. While the latter plot is a fairy tale with many nonsense elements and poems, similar to Carroll's Alice books, the story set in Victorian Britain is a social novel, with its characters discussing various concepts and aspects of religion, society, philosophy and morality.
The Wikipedia article refers us to the short story "On Exactitude in Science" by Jorge Luis Borges:
The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had "the scale of a mile to the mile." One of Carroll's characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that "we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

The Borges story, credited fictionally as a quotation from "Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658", imagines an empire where the science of cartography becomes so exact that only a map on the same scale as the empire itself will suffice. "[S]ucceeding Generations… came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome... In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar..."
ADDED: Here is video of Borges reading the story. He's the audio track, and the visuals are interesting. Via BoingBoing, which links to the text in English here, in case you find it hard to understand the Spanish.


40 comments:

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

Any discussion of this topic that does not include references to Karl Popper relevant writings, is like discussing the history of Pop Music and failing to mention the Beatles.

Ann Althouse said...

You're criticizing a blog post about Lewis Carroll for not bringing in Karl Popper. How is this post in any way parallel to purporting to write "the history of" some topic?

If you have something you'd like to say, why don't you just say it? Don't criticize me for not dealing with something interesting that you connect to the subject. Bring more value to the discussion. Why are you tearing down instead of building up?

I don't get that attitude at all.

Mary Beth said...

Penguins were the third post.

Ann Althouse said...

I know! Can't believe I had 2 other things before I got to the penguins. Clearly, what the penguins think would have been the best way to begin the year.

traditionalguy said...

I blame Google Earth Street View. They took the 1 mile scale equals 1 mile map idea and they did it up right. But when I entered "Karl Popper" in Google Earth it shows the Orville Redenbacher Factory in Ohio. I suspect NSA is meddling with us like they did with Osama Benladen's hideout.

Facts are precious. Reporting facts is a war requiring two good lawyers.

Ann Althouse said...

There are no penguins in "Sylvie and Bruno," but there are birds:

"Ah, well!" the Gardener said with a kind of groan. "Things change so, here. Whenever I look again, it's sure to be something different! Yet I does my duty! I gets up wriggle-early at five—"

"If I was oo," said Bruno, "I wouldn't wriggle so early. It's as bad as being a worm!" he added, in an undertone to Sylvie.

"But you shouldn't be lazy in the morning, Bruno," said Sylvie. "Remember, it's the early bird that picks up the worm!"

"It may, if it likes!" Bruno said with a slight yawn. "I don't like eating worms, one bit. I always stop in bed till the early bird has picked them up!"

Krumhorn said...

And then there are the so-called climatologists who start with a theory and find whatever facts they can to support the theory. When the facts are insufficient, they fabricate them.

Such is the debasement of science at the hands of the lefties, just as they have debased every other institution, to suit their needs.

- Krumhorn

Ann Althouse said...

"I blame Google Earth Street View. They took the 1 mile scale equals 1 mile map idea and they did it up right."

I know (and the embedded video knows). What was impossible and absurd to Carroll and Borges became the norm, completely manageable on an iPad or other handheld device.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

Ann Althouse said...

You're criticizing a blog post about Lewis Carroll for not bringing in Karl Popper.


Well, if you get to state what it is you think I did, then I guess you win the argument, no?

Here is what I actually did.

By a fair reading, these related threads, whether you realize/intend it or not, are actually talking about 'what constitutes science'.

In that vein, you, for some reason, chose to continue the original thread with a proposition from Carroll (First accumulate a mass of Facts: and then construct a Theory.' That, I believe, is the true Scientific Method.).

Let's call that 'bringing up The Mamas and the Papas' in a history of Pop Music thread. OK, but far from the last word.

I was merely alerting everyone that if this subject matter does not eventually bring in Karl Popper (the Beatles, continuing the analogy), then it will never get to what Science really is. He is pretty much the final word here.

Maybe you don't care, though. That's fine. Your blog.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I know the Borges. It belongs to a small collection (maybe six or seven) of little fragments purporting to be from various historical sources. None is longer than a handful of lines; IIRC this one is a single paragraph.

The work as a whole might possibly be called a "short story." (There aren't really many other categories for it, as it's fiction and not verse.) But the vignette of the 1:1 map is part of the collection, not a story in its own right. Some of its meaning derives from its proximity to other things in the collection. It's not an independent work; it's an excerpt.

Terry said...

The map with the scale suggested by Carroll can be a metaphor for the idea that we never think about the real world 'out there', but about an image of the world created in our minds. That might explain "someonehastosayit"'s reference to Popper.

Jim said...

Was Karl Popper the guy from Mr. Popper's penguins?

RazorSharpSundries said...

Karl Popper plays harmonikey w/ Blues Traveler. No discussion of the Blues is relevant w/out bring up this fact. Also when traveling the blues the scale of the map one uses should be 1 mile to 1 mile as well.

Terry said...

I believe (but I am not certain) that Popper promoted the idea that although we know the world we live in is, at its foundation, an interpretation of sense information organized by the mind, we nevertheless can determine absolute truths about the phenomenon that produce that sense information. The mind, without resorting to metaphysics, can comprehend absolute reality in a meaningful way.
But maybe I am wrong.

Ann Althouse said...

"Maybe you don't care, though. That's fine. Your blog."

Oh, bullshit. You sound like a big old snob. If you think there's an important Karl-Popper-related point to be made, just say what it is? You've expended so much effort already. You're doing argument by name-dropping and not even revealing your argument. You're perversely dragging down the name of Karl Popper by withholding the argument and using the name-drop as a substitute and implying that people who don't say what you already seem to know are inferior. It's just sounds insufferably snobby. Or like an intellectual bluff. I call your bluff! Make your point and enlighten everyone or remain the presumptive jackass.

Ann Althouse said...

Meanwhile, Lewis Carroll is totally charming and delightful and your apparent jackassery has dragged down the conversation, beginning with the first comment.

That's doubly annoying. Here was something wonderful, to be savored and enjoyed, and you dart right in and say What About Karl Popper?

That ruined the mood!

Ann Althouse said...

""Oh, yes! The Banquet comes first, of course. People never enjoy Abstract Science, you know, when they're ravenous with hunger. And then there's the Fancy-Dress-Ball. Oh, there'll be lots of entertainment!""

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

My very first post on the thread that started this all, was Karl Popper's insight.

If you knew anything about the things you choose to post about, you would have known that.

And that's the point I am making. You come up with a topic, in this case 'what is science?', you fire up a quick search on your Kindle, and pass off essentially whatever search result strikes your fancy, in this case Lewis Carroll, and regardless of whether it moves the ball down the field.

Instead, try adding some light to the discussion, as I did with my paraphrase of Popper - who is the last word on the subject.

So there, I have answered your Popper 'dare' by informing you that my very first comment, on the originating thread, should have been easily recognized as a paraphrase of Popper's insight.

At least to those with the wits to see it. And, I didn't even need a Kindle search function to come up with it. Imagine that.

Paul Zrimsek said...

The guy from Blues Traveler probably knows more about the scientific method than the philosophical bigshot of the same name-- in the sense of knowing fewer things that ain't so.

Christy said...

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Clearly Dodgson was anticipating the development of fractal geometry and its application to map making on an ever more precise scale. For however can we model climate unless we understand coastlines and the one mile scale is just too gross, too gross, too gross. Then look to the disciplines of, NO! NO! not disciplines. I want to talk of isoclines and will not talk of the auto-correct choices. Isoclines, now whatever was I about to say? Oh, well. I shall drink my Earl Grey and eat my Christmas fudge and try to recall.

"Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" -- Climate Science motto.

El Pollo Raylan said...

From a once popular college chemistry text:

There are two ways of proposing a new theory in science, and Bohr's work illustrates the less obvious one. One way is to amass such an amount of data that the new theory becomes obvious and self-evident to any observer. The theory then is almost a summary of the data. This is essentially the way Dalton reasoned from 'combining weights' to atoms. The other way is to make a bold new assertion that initially does not seem to follow from the data, and then to demonstrate that the consequences of this assertion, when worked out, explain many observations. With this method, a theorist says, 'You may not see why, yet, but please suspend judgement on my hypothesis until I show you what I can do with it.' Bohr's theory is of this type.
~R. Dickerson

The two "methods" are related to deductive and inductive reasoning.

For a glimpse of what Bohr did, see here

Christy said...

El Pollo Raylan, not so different from Gödel's completeness theorem is it?

El Pollo Raylan said...

Christy said...
El Pollo Raylan, not so different from Gödel's completeness theorem is it?

I'm not very familiar with Gödel's work, but I'll take your word for it.

mikesixes said...

Nobody has to say what someonehastosayit says.

Sam L. said...

It is so much more effective to start with the theory and find facts to support them, or make up "facts" to support them. It's the Modern (or Moderne) way!

William said...

Popper proposed a complete and thorough history of western reasoning, but gave the project up when his outline came to contain more volumes than were in the British Museum. He thought there would not be sufficent shelves in Great Britain for his completed work. Travelers to country estates are sometime taken aback to find one of his volumes used as kindling for the fireplaces in those stately homes.

Ann Althouse said...

"My very first post on the thread that started this all, was Karl Popper's insight. If you knew anything about the things you choose to post about, you would have known that."

My first post after yours was the answer: You made up a topic that was supposed to be under discussion for the purpose of telling me I didn't do "it" right. It was your "it." That's what a straw man argument is.

"And that's the point I am making. You come up with a topic, in this case 'what is science?'"

No, I did not define the topic you are trying to define. You can be reminded of a topic you'd like to enlarge into and do that, preferably with friendliness and respect, but you chose to act like it was my topic and be contemptuous about my failure to approach that topic of yours the way you think is necessary.

"… you fire up a quick search on your Kindle, and pass off essentially whatever search result strikes your fancy, in this case Lewis Carroll, and regardless of whether it moves the ball down the field."

That's inaccurate. I used the OED in the other post to search for the definition of "scientific method," and encountering a Lewis Carroll quote I found charming, I chose to break it out into a separate, free-standing post.

"Instead, try adding some light to the discussion, as I did with my paraphrase of Popper - who is the last word on the subject."

You didn't add light. You chose to be an asshole about it. And you're adding to the assholery by saying that there's already been a last word on the subject you thought should have been a subject here instead of the one I chose. Asserting that someone is the "last word" is simply the appeal to authority. I told you to say what the argument you wanted to make was, but you preferred the appeal to authority, standing alone. That's not even interesting. It comes across as supercilious and doesn't help anyone.

"So there, I have answered your Popper 'dare' by informing you that my very first comment, on the originating thread, should have been easily recognized as a paraphrase of Popper's insight."

But I told you why there was no analogy. I never purported to do anything parallel. You made it up and you've doubled down on what I called out as jackasssery.

"At least to those with the wits to see it. And, I didn't even need a Kindle search function to come up with it. Imagine that."

Tripled down.

Ann Althouse said...

Back in the first year of this blog, I enabled commenting and then turned it off. (Later, obviously, I put it back on.) When I put it off back then, it was because I was so bothered by commenters who'd profess to be aghast that I'd written X and not Y.

It is the comment format I find most irritating. It comes in many forms, including people who just say "I can't believe we're talking about X and no one has said Y." Just say Y! There's no reason to take a swipe at everyone else for not having said Y yet.

Back in 2004, I had not yet developed a tough skin, and I was really troubled every time commenters demanded that I focus on and denounce the war in Iraq. I mean, if I wrote about the latest episode of "American Idol," people would come in and express contempt that I would pay attention to something frivolous when people were dying over there.

There was this idea — only from some and I should have just deleted them when they got repetitions and done a post rejecting the idea — that a blogger — or at least a law professor blogger — had to blog about things in order of importance. So heavier topics would always drive out light, amusing, charming things.

That's what this Karl Popper v. Lewis Carroll thing is. How can you post about what Lewis Carroll wrote about the scientific method when you haven't yet addressed Karl Popper?

I know. I still need a tougher skin. But saying this now is how I build up that skin.

Ann Althouse said...

I just read my last comment out loud, and Meade came over and gave me this nod, which I totally got, because he had the same association that I had about this "What about Karl Popper?" It was "What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?" Know what I'm talking about and why the head nod said that?

Meade also took issue with "So there, I have answered your Popper 'dare' by informing you that my very first comment, on the originating thread, should have been easily recognized as a paraphrase of Popper's insight." That commenter, whatever his name is — Popper Pooper — thinks he was starting the discussion on something called the "originating thread." The post originates the thread. The thread follows on the post. It's fine to branch off in interesting ways and bring in related topics, but show some respect for the blogger who opened the door to a room where there would be the company of others who will see what you are writing because they frequent the blog.

Ann Althouse said...

I assume Popper Pooper took a lot of philosophy courses and now he feels like posing as superior, but it's so off-putting. If you're trying to make a bridge to people who haven't spent a semester reading something that you have, reach out in a positive way. I've studied law for more than 30 years, and I write here every day, often on legal subjects, often speaking to people who haven't studied law. Look at how I try to do that on my law posts. If I took the jackass approach you do, no one would be reading my blog. Think about what it takes to make a shared space enjoyable and alive.

Henry said...

He is pretty much the final word here.

Glad that's settled. And here I was all ready to namedrop La Science et l'Hypothèse by Henri Poincaré.

* * *

One of Carroll's characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that "we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

Thus Google Glass.

Terry said...

I don't think pooper-popper has taken a lot of philosophy classes.

El Pollo Raylan said...

Karl Popper didn't invent the scientific method as we know it, but he may have expressed or distilled it the best. The idea of falsifiable hypothesis goes back at least to Bacon in the 17th century.

A very readable polemic which stirs all these pot elements together (and introduces a few more) is by John Platt, first published in 1964 called Strong Inference.

Highlights:

In its separate elements, strong inference is just the simple and old-fashioned method of inductive inference that goes back to Francis Bacon. The steps are familiar to every college student and are practiced, off and on, by every scientist. The difference comes in their systematic application. Strong inference consists of applying the following steps to every problem in science, formally and explicitly and regularly:

1. Devising alternative hypotheses;
2. Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly is possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;
3. Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result;
4. Recycling the procedure, making subhypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain, and so on.


Platt also reminded us in that essay of a weakness raised by the erstwhile Badger geologist, T.C. Chamberlin:

Chamberlin says our trouble is that when we make a single hypothesis, we become attached to it.

I tried to relate that to AGW here.

Rick M said...

Ann, I appreciate the way you have illuminated the Popper Pooper mentality. Great and enjoyable reading!

Popper Pooper is a Party Pooper.

El Pollo Raylan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Pollo Raylan said...

I find it interesting that Karl Popper was displeased by Niels Bohr's methods -- at least according to the great Wiki in the sky.

Dr Weevil said...

Not everyone thinks Karl Popper "the final word" on scientific method. David Stove, for one, had some very harsh things to say about him and his followers, most notably in Karl Popper and the Jazz Age, later reprinted in one of his books. More on Stove here.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

See what interesting discussion my post eventually brought about?

If we had followed Ann, we would still be lost down some rabbit hole.

Rick M said...

"Not everyone thinks Karl Popper "the final word" on scientific method. David Stove, for one, had some very harsh things to say about him and his followers, most notably in Karl Popper and the Jazz Age, later reprinted in one of his books. More on Stove here."
---------------
Exactly! How anyone could bring Karl Popper into a discussion without mentioning Stove is beyond me. It's like discussing pop and failing to mention Squirt.

El Pollo Raylan said...

If we had followed Ann, we would still be lost down some rabbit hole.

LOL!