Thursday, 26 April 2007

The Science of Traps


Well I have been absent a while but now intend to keep this blog up regularly. I have tried a number of blogs previously and have finally found the underlying theme here, of "No Double Standards", has much mileage, at least for me to generate posts! So surely the basic question is, if I want to identify examples of double standards and how to avoid them, what are the alternatives? The main one is a single standard applied unequivocally and impartially (hence the impartialism in the URL). I want to start to explore this concept today.


The world we inhabit is full of traps we learn from an early age to avoid, sometimes by being temporarily caught and hurt by one (if it was permanent then you are likely not here to read this post!). These traps are numerous and of many types and kinds. If one lived in the jungle, one would have to learn to deal with dangers of too much or too little sun (and warmth), not enough or too much water, avoiding predators, evading man-made animal traps, what plants are edible, which ones are poisonous, the same goes for snakes and many other creatures. Living in our modern world, there many other kinds of traps we learn avoid and many that we generally don't even notice when we are doing so. You don't often think, if at all, what it would be like to put our hand in the fire, you already know, but when you were very young burning your hand was a potential trap, one we probably all have experienced once and most only once. There are many other types of traps including many mental traps, ways of thinking that can trap us and lead us to behave contrary to our wishes but to satisfy others, to name but one outcome. Whilst I am painting the concept of 'trap' in very broad strokes, one can still reasonably ask is there anyway to systematically understand this concept?


There a number of approaches to understanding what science is: its methods, institutions, knowledge, practitioners, practices and products but here I want to look at science with a different emphasis.

There are many different aspects of nature, terrains if you will, that we have explored and can continue to discover and explore. Each of these terrains requires a certain set of skills often very different from one to another, as different as, say, the skills of a hunter are from a banker. One needs to learn about and acquire the relevant set of tools appropriate to the terrain, develop the skills needed to apply these tools to navigate the terrain and learn to identify and avoid the specific traps that exist in that terrain, traps including misuse of the tools and techniques that could could cause mistakes, let alone hurt and harm (the voyager's reputation if nothing else). This terrain concept is a metaphor for the different disciplines of science: cosmology, geology, quantum physics, molecular biology, macro-economics, quantitative finance, cognitive psychology, zoology and the many other disciplines that are called science and whose practitioners are generically called scientists. This metaphor is used in deliberate contrast to the usual hierarchical views with physics at the bottom (or the the top). (I have nothing against hierarchies, it is just not useful to make the point I want to make here).

Historically and, indeed, in the present there are other voyagers of these terrains (albeit the topography is regarded as somewhat differently sometimes) who we (and mostly they) would not call scientists. So what is it that makes certain voyagers scientists and the others not? This is not an attempt to deal with the demarcation problem between science and pseudo-science but rather to identify, and then only partially, what unifies these practitioners and practices in all the variety of disciplines that make up science.

Let us consider science as an umbrella term, the question then becomes what is it about the umbrella that enables it to cover all these terrains? Clearly although tools and techniques developed in one terrain can be applied sometimes with and sometimes without modification in other terrains, this is not universally so. At this point, you probably want to abstract from all these notional tools and techniques to the 'scientific method' but here I want to look at the traps that any skillful practitioner endeavours to identify and avoid. Indeed many scientific institutions are partly set up to help with this process: the standard for submitting a paper for publication, the peer-review referee process, the critical response of others as letters in those same journals, meta-studies and quite a few more. There seems to be a common notion we can emphasize by calling this 'trap avoidance'. Everyone (within the science community anyway) acknowledges that doing science requires being critical of one's own and others' work - that is looking for traps that have been missed by others and working out how to deal with them, if that is possible. Of course, some traps are very specific to the terrain being navigated but others seem to be quite generic, as the evidence of universals such as the peer review process itself shows.

A Science of Traps

Another thing that has occurred as a result of these scientific practices is applying them, recursively if you will, to itself, so that tools and techniques can become new terrains themselves be explored and improved upon. Of course, the same goes for traps and the ways which we can make errors and make mistakes leads us to be better understand how to eliminate errors and minimise mistakes. Branches of statistics and mathematics, some philosophy of science, cognitive psychology spring immediately to mind. We could continue with our previous metaphors and say these are the science(s) of traps. Underlying this science of traps is important, yet minimal, assumption that there is always the possibility of making mistakes and the best way to know this is to assume that they are possible and look for them rather than assume - as many other non-scientific approaches do - that mistakes are impossible or can be ignored and certainty is absolutely attainable. Such other approaches have to assume much more with many accompanying problems...

A better standard?

Now we can return to our original question of what would a single standard be like? I argue that it would be one that takes advantage of this science of traps, one that could show us how to eliminate errors and minimise mistakes when exploring nature or indeed anything. Such a standard should use the best of what is available and not to ignore known and avoidable errors nor proceed in a way which is likely to allow unknown mistakes to creep rather than minimise them. This is both part of what it means to be "best" as well as what the standard itself is. That is if one is not endeavouring to eliminate errors either oneself and/or when shown so by others - a form of negligence or worse - and if one is not trying to avoid unforeseen mistakes and ignoring them when shown by others - a form of being reckless - then one is not doing one's best. If there is a single standard it surely has to involve this concept of 'best', since anything else is more likely to lead to false conclusions than doing this. With hindsight and new discoveries one might still produce some false conclusions, but if one has at that time striven to eliminate errors and minimise mistakes then that is the best that one could have done then. Such a standard is therefore clearly dynamic and evolving since it is by definition almost, self-correcting and self-improving . The best gets better over time - when this standard is consistently applied.


While one could now say that this 'standard' is best understood and systematised by science, indeed one could call it part of if not the 'scientific standard', the metaphors above are meant to show that this standard is continuous with what we have learnt and do on a day to day basis, wherever we live now and have lived in the past. Why should it be the case that one needs to know a certain level of mathematics, logic or statistics or be interested and develop some skills in certain subjects to be able to use the tools produced by the science of traps. One does not need to know Maxwell's equations to operate a TV, nor should one have to know statistics to know when to be aware of mistakes of the mind. Nonetheless some inclination and skills are required - how many of our parents or grandparents know how to operate a video recorder? This brings me to the other intention behind this blog, that I am using this to argue you do not need to an expert to be able to use most, if not all, of the tools of the science of traps to apply a single standard to yourself and others. The goal, naive as you may think it is, is that if more more people were able to use single and avoid double standards, then the world would be a better place than it is now.