2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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CEO and Managing Director, Intellectual Ventures; Co-Author (with Bill Gates), The Road Ahead; Author, Modernist Cuisine

The Scientific Method—An Explanation For Explanations

Humans are a story telling species. Throughout history we have told stories to each other and ourselves as one of the ways to understand the world around us. Every culture has its creation myth for how the universe came to be, but the stories do not stop at the big picture view; other stories discuss every aspect of the world around us. We humans are chatterboxes and we just can't resist telling a story about just about everything.

However compelling and entertaining these stories may be, they fall short of being explanations because in the end all they are is stories. For every story you can tell a different variation, or a different ending, without giving reason to choose between them. If you are skeptical or try to test the veracity of these stories you'll typically find most such stories wanting. One approach to this is forbid skeptical inquiry, branding it as heresy. This meme is so compelling that it was independently developed by cultures around the globes; it is the origin of religion—a set of stories about the world that must be accepted on faith, and never questioned.

Somewhere along the line a very different meme got started. Instead of forbidding inquiry into stories about the world people tried the other extreme of encouraging continual questioning. Stories about aspect of the world can be questioned skeptically, and tested with observations and experiments. If the story survives the tests then provisionally at least one can accept it as something more than a mere story; it is a theory that has real explanatory power. It will never be more than a provisional explanation—we can never let down our skeptical guard—but these provisional explanations can be very useful. We call this process of making and vetting stories the scientific method.

For me, the scientific method is the ultimate elegant explanation. Indeed it is the ultimate foundation for anything worthy of the name "explanation". It makes no sense to talk about explanations without having a process for deciding which are right and which are wrong, and in a broad sense that is what the scientific method is about. All of the other wonderful explanations celebrated here owe their origin and credibility to the process by which they are verified—the scientific method.

This seems quite obvious to us now, but it took many thousands of years for people to develop the scientific method to a point where they could use it to build useful theories about the world. It was not, a priori, obvious that such a method would work. At one extreme, creation myths discuss the origin of the universe, and for thousands of years one could take the position that this will never be more than a story—how can humans ever figure out something that complicated and distant in space and time? It would be a bold bet to say that people reasoning with the scientific method could solve that puzzle.

Well, it has taken us a while but by now enormous amounts are known about the composition of stars and galaxies and how the universe came to be. There are still gaps in our knowledge (and our skepticism will never stop), but we've made a lot of progress on cosmology and many other problems. Indeed we know more about the composition of distant stars than many questions about things here on earth. The scientific method has not conquered all great questions - other issues remain illusive, but the spirit of the scientific method is that one does shrink from the unknown. It is OK to say that we have no useful story for everything we are curious about, and we comfort ourselves that at some point in the future new explanations will fill the gaps in our current knowledge, as often raise new questions that highlight new gaps.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of the scientific method. Human culture contains much more than science—but science is the part that actually works—the rest is just stories. The rationally based inquiry the scientific method enables is what has given us science and technology and vastly different lifestyles than those of our hunter-gatherers ancestors. In some sense it is analogous to evolution. The sum of millions of small mutations separate us from single celled like blue-green algae. Each had to survive the test of selection and work better than the previous state in the sense of biological fitness. Human knowledge is the accumulation of millions of stories-that-work, each of which had to survive the test of the scientific method, matching observation and experiment more than the predecessors. Both evolution and science have taken us a long way, but looking forward it is clear that science will take us much farther.