Field of Science

Rumours of the end of theory are greatly exaggerated

There was a suggestion that the use of theory is at an end, based on an uncited report from Google. There have been a number of rebuttals and comments scattered around, including here; but what I want to say here is that this has historical precedents that have to be watched closely.

The proposal is that by using enough statistical correlations, theory is no longer required. And in support it is pointed out that Google can now translate between natural languages, and serve up targeted advertisements merely by looking at the words one uses in pages and where one looks on the web, and the number of times certain words are used in close proximity. In other words, let's go back to the serendipitous discovery techniques that held before the renaissance created the notions of underlying theory on which one can base future projections.

What a step backwards! It is exactly the mindset that was in operation during the Dark Ages, when knowledge seemed to be the accumulation of facts without much in the way of innovation, since a new invention needs some notion of predicted behaviour based on a, possibly intuitive, understanding of what is happening. Development was slow because it relied on the accidental discovery of phenomena in particular circumstances, like the smelting of iron, or the making of paper. There will always be a place for accidental observations (like the discovery of penicillin), but we no longer rely solely on them.

Theories are the foundation of modern scientific thought and are what have brought the engineering successes over the last 300 years. They will also be necessary to make progress in medical fields, and eventually, ethical fields, too. We must not lose them.

Folly in business

US businesses are now taking advice from psychics! According to an article in Newsweek ( some are now paying $10,000 per month to keep one on call.

The good news, I think, is that most of those foolish enough to waste money on this are too embarrassed to let their names be published. According to Newsweek “… almost all [the clients] who spoke to Newsweek … requested anonymity out of concern for their reputations.”

Of course this is hardly the only way that businesses pay for unproven advice. A good deal of management consultancy is equally unproven if a good deal more logical (and I write as a management consultant). But it’s one thing to seek advice from someone with knowledge and experience of your field; quite another to ask someone qualified only by ignorance and beliefs that defy reason.

This is another US trend that we can do without.

My thanks to Marketing Fray, the blog of Copernicus Marketing, for alerting me to this nonsense.

The psychology of practical geometry

A recent study shows that students’ estimates of the steepness of a hill depend on who they’re with. When they had a friend nearby students rated a hill 10-15 % less steep than when alone. And, according to new Scientist, “The longer the friends had known each other and the warmer their relationship, the less steep the hill appeared.”

Indeed, even thinking about a friend made the hill appear up to 20 per cent less steep (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.011 (unpublished) ).

Now isn’t that nice? Maybe we’re nicer people than the newspapers often suggest.

This result can probably be explained in many ways but, to me, it suggests an interesting general principle.

I suggest that the students are not making a pure geometric estimate here. They are also estimating how they’d feel after climbing the hill. These feelings depend on who they climbed it with – and friends make any experience better. They reflect this by giving lower estimates of steepness.

Now it’s obvious that humans are not so much rational beings as reasoning animals so perhaps this is a general phenomenon. That is, that in approaching every cognitive task we project (often unconsciously) our feelings about the issue as well as dealing with it directly. Indeed there’s good evidence that in perceptual tasks the amygdala does exactly that.

This explains the violent reaction that we sometimes get from the religious when we challenge their beliefs. Of course, it’s not just the religious that have strong beliefs but they are the people most likely to be wedded to beliefs that are contrary to reason.