Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Science and reason

with 10 comments

As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:

One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. [1]e).

This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.

He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.

Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):

A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):

  1. The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)

  2. There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.

  3. The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.

  4. A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.

  5. Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.

(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)

One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.

For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.

It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)


Written by michaeleriksson

January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Dear Mr Eriksson,
    The question is – should we believe in scientific data or should we believe is them only if you can accept them by reason? I claim that you should trust the data, in particular if “reason” is provided by a complete outsider. The risk is very great that reason provided by an outsider is completely wrong.

    Scientific data censored by reason makes science something that is no longer objective, at least within medicine which is the field in which I am active and in which this discussion has taken place. Then science has become subjective which indeed may be diluted by private interests and interpretations.

    In case of homeopathy I believe still believe that its value should be judged by scientific studies, and not by reasoning. This is no different from evaluating other remedies in medicine. In fact, there are other treatments today that we don´t know how they wor. We just know that they do work, and that is what counts for the patients (although not for all scientists).

    Robert Hahn

    January 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm

  2. I would pose a different question: Should we blindly believe in scientific data? This question I would answer with a resounding “no”. If data and reason do not match up, one or both of them is faulty. To automatically assume that the data is correct is just as bad as automatically assuming that reason is correct. Notably, “scientific data” does not mean e.g. “an indisputably true observation”—merely “data which has been gathered using scientific methods”.

    The difference between science and pseudo-science is largely that the former uses both data and reason, and is not satisfied until these have been brought into harmony through better measurements, refined reasoning, … Pseudo-scientists,OTOH, pick either data or reason, depending on which supports their idea and denounce the other as incorrect without critical examination.

    Importantly, it is not a matter of censoring data, but of evaluating data and trying to find sources of errors so that low-quality data does not pollute the basis for conclusions—and so that future data gathering yields higher quality results. Private interests are not a relevant argument against reason, because they are a pollutant which is contrary to reason.

    Of course, homeopathy should be judged by scientific studies—and not by e.g. anekdotal evidence. To exclude reasoning and a critical examination of the results, however, would make it a pseudo-science. Yes, of course, homeopathy should be tested in the same way as regular medicine—but if you feel that the rules today are harder for homeopathy, the conclusion would have to be that medical research in general is too soft

    Finally, there are not other treatments that we know work—there are treatements that we know work. We also know with near certainty, based on scientific studies, that homeopathy does not work outside of the placebo-effect, a better “human touch”, etc. While I have no objection to you explicitly claiming the opposite, I must emphatically ask you to not use formulations where the alleged effectiveness of homeopathy is brought in by “Trojan horses”.


    January 17, 2011 at 10:39 am

  3. It is not that I understand your point, it is merely that I don´t agree. Let us say, for instance, that somebody claimed 300 years ago that living (“TV”) pictures can be sent in the air, or that you can make a phonecall to someone in another part of the world. That would be ruled out as absolutely impossible. That was “reason” 300 years ago. Yet it was wrong. By taking Mr. Erikssons arguments, the possibility be discarded even if there was scientific evidence that (“TV”) pictures can be sent in the air, only because it does not make sense. If we believe that it would be meaningless to perform research in the field because the whole idea would be discarded anyway. To let reason rule over data makes science a believer/subjective issue rather than the truth. That is what I don´t like.

    Robert Hahn

    January 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    • Well, that example does not really describe what I say above and elsewhere. Most importantly, TV should absolutely not be discarded if there is actual evidence for it. This evidence, however, should be put to strict tests. It would not be enough for The Amazing Nostradomus to demonstrate TV in his tent—the demonstration must also be reproducible under controlled conditions and by other people.Note that I, in my previous comment, explicitly say “To automatically assume that the data is correct is just as bad as automatically assuming that reason is correct.”—the one is as bad as the other. Blindly accepting data/observation is highly unscientific and will lead us astray, with a range from a small misestimation in professional research to belief in Uri Geller. Blindly accepting reason without careful observation will do the same. I note that those who use reason the most (mathematicians and the like) are usually very, very keenly aware of this—having had their share of subtle, yet devasting, mistakes.

      In a bigger view, we must not confuse reason with a superficial off-hand estimate (notwithstanding my examples in the post): Reason is not merely saying that this-or-that works, but also plays in when understanding how and why something works, and even statements about the “if” can go quite deep in reasoning. To take a slightly less simple example, assume that we have established primitive telephony, we know that this works by (as one of several steps) transmitting electrons through a copper wire—and now someone claims that the he can still use the exact same telephones without the wire and with the telephones miles apart (and without having made any other modifications than removing the wire). This would either imply that knowledge about how telephones work was grossly incorrect or that the claim is faulty (likely even fraudulent). Even the educated layman would be highly justified in suspecting (not, obviously, knowing) the latter and in demanding very solid evidence.

      In particular, the claim that TV was impossible would not (necessarily) have been based in reason at all—but merely in lack of imagination. It would, thus, be wrong to blame reason for this misestimate.Proper reasoning might have lead to a statement like “There are no mechanisms known to me that would allow this. Until I see proof or an explanation of a new mechanism, I will remain highly sceptical.” or something ruling the implementation out with contemperaneous technology. (Does not the same claim about poor imagination apply to why Homeopathy allegedly works? To some degree, but with at least two critical differences: 1. Over two centuries hundreds of people have in vain tried to find an explanation, and the amount of effort invested with no result points to the lack of a mechanism in a very different manner from a “top-of-head” estimate. 2. There is a choice between “unknown explanation” and “does not work” which is not available in the case of TV.)


      January 17, 2011 at 7:48 pm

      • You say above that TV should not be discarded if there is evidence for it, but that is not the way you have argued. You have argued that reason should test the evidence, and that the evidence should be disregarded if your reasoning tells you that the evidence is wrong. And you say that reasoning should be given an even greater role in science in the future, i.e. censoring of data and evidence should be set free. I can give numerous examples from my own practice in which the use of logic reasoning has led doctors in a totally erroneous directions for years and centuries, until some smart person has begun to question the issue. There are yet other areas where reasoning (which is easily influenced by private interests, pride, preferences, importance in society, and financial incentives) is left to rule over data, with bad and dangerous consequences for sick patients. This is a more lengthy story, but I feel that it is motivated here. Therefore, I will give it on my own WordPress blog either this weekend or the next, depending on when I can set aside time for the task.

        Robert Hahn

        January 19, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      • No. Again: If reason and observation lead to incompatible conclusions, then one or both is wrong. The next step is to find out which, to improve reasoning, make better experiments, …

        If we put Homeopathy to this test, improve our reasoning, make better experiments, whatnot, then the resolution is that the experiments that indicated an effect loses to the improved experiments that do not and the reasoning that a. fails to find a mechanims b. explains anekdotal evidence and the results for poorer experiments by other means—e.g. the well-tested and universally accepted placebo-effect. To extrapolate from this case and say that I want to ignore observation is a severe distortion of my message.

        Otherwise, there may be an issue of communication involved: My “reason” is not necessarily the same as your “reasoning”. Note that it not just a matter of saying “X seems plausible, and from X we would likely have Y.”, but also of critically examining the logic, looking for alternate explanations, mistakes and biases, etc.: “X seems plausible. Let us do an experiment to test whether X. Meanwhile X could lead to Y1, Y2, Y3, … Let us set up tests to investigate these too. Hm, Y3 would be beneficial for me—possibly, I should get a second opinion. X could not lead to Z, so while we are at it, let us do a test for Z too to see if we can falsify X.”. Notably, reason demands that the answer to arrive at is not assumed in advance—and to bend the arguments to fit an answer based on a personal agenda is not reason.


        January 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm

  4. You bring up homeopathy as a kind of favorite example. To take that line, there are about 200 double-blind randomized studies evaluating the effect of homeopathy, and most of them are accepted by scientists as being very good quality (i.e. as good as they can get). The double-blind randomized study is the most reliable set-up for investigating the efficacy of a drug, and quite standardized within the medical industry. With 200 such studies, homeopathy is quite well investigated, actually better than most other treatments used to treat sick patients.

    The truth is embedded in these data. The truth is NOT safely embedded in your mind just because reason change with time, background, education, and (surely) by competing interests and prejudices. Just take my example with the TV – what would be discarded as impossible yesterday might be quite possible tomorrow. Even if you saw a TV work 500 years ago you would probably discard it as witch-craft, just like you discard the evidence (=the data) today just because you don´t understand the mechanisms involved.

    Therefore, consult the data if you want the truth, and don´t read other people´s judgements because you have no idea how prejudiced they are and what economic or other incentives they have for providing you with they view you get.

    Robert Hahn

    January 19, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    • Homeopathy is your favourite example—I bring it up because it, as a consequence, has been the topic of several previous discussions between us.

      Your claim about the studies concerning homeopathy is misleading and there are far too many sources and analyses (including several large meta-analyses that have critically evaluated the quality of previous research) of various kinds that state that the scientific consensus is “does not work” for your repeated attempts to reject them to be plausible. One can fool some of the people some of the time (as the saying goes), possibly even most of the people most of the time—but not all of the people all of the time. It is simply not plausible that as good as every non-homeopath evaluator or source of information would be bought by the medical industry (or otherwise lack in credibility). If it where just Pfizer who claimed it, you would have a case. If it were just half the relevant source, you could possibly still be right. If it were three-quarters, there would be some chance. However, it is a near-unanimous rejection that we find among a great variety of sources with different backgrounds.

      Again you make assumptions about what reason is that are incorrect and do not match the message I bring to the table. Again you bring up the TV example in a highly misleading manner, which I have already refuted above.(Apart from the fact that merely calling something witch-craft is not the same as discarding it. Witch-craft is a non-scientific explanation, but it would not amount to denial for someone who actually believed in it.)

      Finally, data is not enough for a variety of already mentioned reasons and a sole focus on data is not in anyway compatible with scientific thinking and methods—even apart from the fact that the hard data speaks against homeopathy.


      January 19, 2011 at 11:35 pm

  5. […] homeopathy works or various aspects of the argumentation and evidence in the issue—be it with Robert Hahn or someone else. (Separate posts on specific sub-issues may still occur, however.) Instead, I will […]

  6. […] of why simplistic reasoning and lack of critical thinking is a danger. See e.g. a previous post on science and reason, my website category on thinking, or any number of my posts on feminism or the politically correct. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s