Founder

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar

Editor

Prabhakar Nanawaty

Suman Oak

Building Scientific Temper: My Experiences

Thinking about the modern scientific method became a part of my learning when I turned 18 and had started studies in an engineering college. Reading books like ‘Sense and Nonsense in Psychology’ by HJ Eysenck and ‘Fads and Fallacies in The Name of Science’ about pseudo-scientific claims and their exposure by Martin Gardner

whetted my appetite for more. Such books taught me a great deal about what it means to possess a scientific temper when one has to deal with many day to day questions. Whenever occasions arose over the past 60 years I have presented the scientific point of view to help to get at the truth. Here are a few of the more dramatic incidences.

A Predicting Pendulum

It is about 9.00 am and a dozen of us scientists are sitting around a table for breakfast. This is a small town in West Germany (ca1965), and because our institute works from 7.30 am to 5.00 pm, this assembling for breakfast was used for chit-chatting on everything under the sun. One fine day, a colleague announced,” I have found out that my wife, who is expecting, will bear a son. It is a fantastic method:’Just hold your finger ring as a pendulum over the expectant mother’s tummy. It will swing by itself. If the swing is a line, it will be a boy. If a circle, it will be a girl.’ Ours is a boy “

Some were delighted at this novel method, some were skeptical.” You see, the vibrations from the embryo travel into the atmosphere, are picked up by the noble metal that gold is, and these vibrations are different for man and woman.” explained our colleague who had done his master of science in the UK. Quite a few questions arose: Will holding the pendulum in a tripod work? (No.) Does the pendulum swing no matter who holds it?(With some persons, it does not). When is longish oval movement exactly a circle or a straight line? (No easy to be sure) Can we measure these vibrations? Do not know!) How do we know whether this is really true; being right has a 50% chance!

Having worked as a researcher for over 7 years, I happened to know a method of testing the validity of prediction. When I said that a small experiment can be conducted in less than an hour to find out, all were curious and more than willing to help conduct it. Here is the gist:

  1. Blindfold the person ( to avoid bias) holding the pendulum and present several times  a woman’s hand and  a man’s hand at random under the ring
  2. Note down the swing result: line=man, circle=woman. We will get some answers right (woman’s hand getting a circle) and some wrong. Let A denote the number of right and B the wrong answers.
  3. To know for sure that the difference between A and B is not just by chance, use a formula. (A-B)x(A-B)/(A+B) This will  be greater than 4 if the difference is real. Let us call this as Formula Four
  4.  At least 60 readings are needed and A as well as B must be greater than 5 for the formula to work correctly.

We made 60 trials and got A=36 and B=24. The right answers were a good 60%! But the Formula Four showed the result as 2.67 [(36-24)(36-24)/(36+24)=144/60=2.67] So, the conclusion was”The pendulum cannot predict.” This lead to a lot of consternation!  The formula, which no one knew or understood, was the main culprit! When explained that this is a simplified version of the statistical test ‘chi square’ applied when the variable follows a poisson or a binomial distribution, and the number 4 keeps the probability of getting a chance result to less than 5 %, it was accepted.  The predictor colleague then confessed that he and his wife were also not clear about when the swing was a line or a circle.They had repeated the trials several times and since the lines seem to be more than circles, they concluded that it will be a boy!

Have you noticed that we have checked not the ‘theory’ of vibrations etc here, but only the actual predictions? Usually, this way of verifying is easier and equally valid. But then how to explain the swinging of the pendulum? The true explanation is simple: some people are more suggestible while some are not. This can be tested. The person to be tested  stands with his/her back to the wall and a pencil is held to touch a paper on a horizontal pad kept on his/her head. He/she is told in monotone continuously that he is moving—moving—-moving. Those with high suggestibility will find a large circle drawn on the paper! When the person holding a pendulum sees a woman’s hand, the pendulum starts moving like a circle! That is why blindfolding was needed.

Apparently, even scientists cannot apply scientific temper when the questions are outside their field. How about in their own field?This is Not Scientific!

A team of three was working on a research project (ca 1989) with me as their leader. The results of the experiment were somewhat confusing, and had suggested that a correlation analysis be performed to find the relationship between 4 factors as causes and the 5th variable as the effect. The results of analysis were against the expectation of Mr. B, who exclaimed,” But this is NOT SCIENTIFIC. We know we do not have enough data for such analysis.” Mr. B was a master of science from an university in the UK, Dr. N had a doctorate in physics and Mr. A was a mechanical engineer who had topped in his university. How come these persons felt that the method used was not scientific? The reason is awkward, to say the least! Our system of education teaches about inductive and deductive logic to students of arts, not of science. And the science books and teaching of those times did not have science projects that help students understand the process of science. To add to the oddity of this situation, I was only a graduate in textile technology, which is only a little of engineering and a little of science! How should I respond to this accusation? Scientific spirit does not permit any one to say,”I am THE Guru, accept my word.” Nor does it permit hierarchy” I am the boss, no arguments.” My response therefore was,”Please explain what is scientific – define what is science.” Deep silence followed! We agreed to meet next day after each of them had enough time to think about this question.

What is Science

Luckily for me I happened to have an answer for this vexing question that had stumped many of science graduates of our times. Around 1963, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai had established Community Science Centre at Ahmedabad  to ‘build scientific temper’ , to spread thinking about things using the methods of science. The start was with school children 12-14 years in age and I had become a volunteer to help them understand and use the methods of science. I distinctly remember an experiment where the rise of water in capillary tubes was to be studied. The children could easily formulate a ‘law’,” The smaller the diameter of the capillary tube, the higher is the rise of water.” When a question was raised,” How much will the height be if the diameter is told to you?” A girl considered this question seriously for a few minutes and answered, “Science has not found an answer to this question yet.” An excellent understanding of the process of science had begun!

At this Science Centre we were told a story of a child lost in a wood near a township. Wanting to keep warm, he went about collecting materials to burn and make a small camp fire to keep him warm. He observed that ‘cylindrical things burn’. So, in his next round he picked up cylindrical glass bottles also. But these did not burn. So he thought, ”wooden things burn’ and so did not collect newspapers lying around when he went for his next round. Ultimately, he found that “all dry items made from plants and trees burn.’

This process of observing relevant data, generalising from these observations and making a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis by putting it to use, and modifying it till all data is explained by the hypothesis is the scientific method. As long as new data which do not confirm with the current hypothesis is found, the hypothesis continues to be ‘true’ i.e. useful to do something desired and is called a law (of nature).

The team of three and I met the next day. Not surprisingly, none of the three could define ‘science’. Then I narrated an incident where the great Albert Einstein was asked ‘What is science?” He is reported to have said,” That is a difficult question to reply. Observe a scientist at work and then you will know what science is!” And then I told them about y experience at the Community Science Centre. After I narrated the ‘boy in the wood’ science story, we all agreed that the correlation analysis was also properly scientific! [We also noted that the errors associated with the estimates of the dependent variable would be relatively larger because of the data were insufficient for as reliable an analysis as is normally expected.]

Well, if persons qualified in science find it difficult to be scientific minded, we can imagine what happens with the ‘common person’!

Scientific Temper: Large Gap

We often come across statements like: ‘If a cat crosses your path when you are going out to do some work, that work will not be done.’ ‘Wednesday is my bad day of the week.’ ‘You are a Leo: some thing bad will happen to you today.’ ‘Do not cut nails on Saturdays.’ ‘Do not sleep with your feet pointing South.’  “Cow’s milk is better because it increases intelligence, buffalo’s milk does not.’ and the list can go on and on.

Advices like on nails and sleeping direction cannot be tested since they indicate no cause and effect! Leo, the lion, needs to be tackled differently, as shown later: because such statements are a result of some systematic study. But the rest and their kind can be tested; let us see how.

Cat Crossing

First define ‘work’ and ‘not done’. If i am going out

a)    to buy 3 vegetables and do not get 1 of them, is the work done or not done?

b)    to meet a person who calls and says come tomorrow’ is the work done or not done?

c)     I meet him but he does not fully do as I expected, is the work done or not done?

Once these definitions are clear, we patiently accumulate 60 instances of cat crossing (for myself and my friends; and cat of any colour will do!), determine the number of ‘work done’ A and ‘work not done’ B and then apply Formula Four. I will bet 1:100 that the result will show that cat crossing is immaterial to success in work to be undertaken!

Bad Wednesday

When my chemist friend first told me that all the accidents he suffered from took place on Wednesday, my response was,” that is your lucky day! You survived each and every one of them!!” For such statements, we cannot conduct an experiment, but can analyse past data. We decided exactly what will constitute and accident at work as a chemist and then looked up data for past the 4-5 years. Of the total 48 accidents, 13 were on Wednesday and the remaining 5 working days had from 5 to 9 accidents.So, we took Friday which had 5 accidents and applied Formula Four. (13-5)913-5)/(13+5) =64/18 =less than 4. Wednesday is no different from other work days!

Cows and Buffalos

Let us conduct an experiment with two groups of persons; one to be given cow’s milk and the other buffalo’s milk. These two groups are constituted as follows: each has 40 persons, equal number of men and women, age groups same, general health same etc. As a measure of intelligence we consider IQ, the Intelligence Quotient by administering the standard tests for estimating the IQ of each member of each group. Then we give

the Group Cow persons 2 glasses of cow’s milk (500ml) every day for one full year  and give Group Buff 2 glasses of buffalo milk (500ml) every day for the same year. Then we test the IQ again for each of these 80 persons from the two groups.

  • Since the two groups are matched, the average IQ of each group before the experiment would be expected to be the nearly the same. This can be ascertained.
  • If cow’s milk increases intelligence, then the average IQ of Group Cow after experimental year should be higher than before the experiment. Suppose these average values are 98 and 102 respectively. Has the IQ really increased?
  • We use Formula Four for testing the ‘hypothesis’ that cow’s milk increases IQ. Consider 40 values of the difference (IQa-IQb) for each person of Group Cow, where a’’ stands for after the experiment and ‘b’ for before the experiment. Ideally, each of these 40 values should be positive because IQa is expected to be higher than IQb. In reality, we will find some numbers like this: 25 positive and 15 negative Then, the result of Formula Four will be 100/40= less than 4. Conclusion: evidence is not enough to say that the IQ has really increased by drinking cow’s milk.
  • Now, what is the case if similar testing is one for the 40 ‘before and after’ pairs of Group Buff ? That test would also show that the IQ has not increased, provided the hypothesis that buffalo’s milk does not increase intelligence is true.
  • The Control Group Buff becomes very useful if the Group Cow were to show an increase  in IQ. If a similar increase were to be shown for the Group Buff, then the hypothesis that ‘cow’s milk is better for intelligence’ gets disproved.

A variable like IQ it does not take integer values like 1,2,3 —-IQ can be also like 103.76. Accidents do not happen as 1.37, these are integer numbers always. When it comes to child birth, it is either boy or girl: and same for work done, it is either YES or NO. For integers and for yes/no kind, one uses the Formula Four for testing whether the difference between two averages is real or just due to natural variability. {When testing two averages of continuous variables like IQ of a person, for example the average IQ of Group Cow with that of Group Buff before the experiment begins, one needs a formula that depends on first computing the variability of the samples. Therefore, I have avoided telling people about doing such testing. Formula four suffices in most cases.}

Let us now turn to testing any result of a system that sounds scientific but may not be really so.

Is Astrology a Science?

When we talk about the prediction of ‘bad things’ for a Leo person, we are not looking just at a statement; there exists a full fledged system behind this statement. An elaborate system for deciding the position of stars at the time and place of birth of a person and then predicting events in the life of that person based on the ‘horoscope’ showing the positions of stars at birth. Hundreds of books have been written on this system, thousands of experts use it to tell millions of persons their destiny! But can we consider these predictions as true -i.e. something on which we will depend for deciding what to do? Here, too, the best way is to test the validity of prediction than to argue logically about the ‘theory’ that ‘position of stars at birth affect individual human fate’.

In 2008, three well known scientists from Pune, Maharashtra, India – an astronomer, a statistician and a leader of anti-superstitions movement – threw a widely publicized challenge publicly to astrologers all over India. “ We will provide you with 40 pairs of authentic horoscopes, where one of the pair is for a normal child, and the other is for a mental retarded child. You have to identify which is which: if the results are 70% or more right (28 or more from 40), we will agree that astrology is a science.” The very announcement caused a huge furore among the astrologers: ‘Just forty samples to conclude?’ ‘No one asks such a question to us-they come for questions like marriage, service, legal cases etc.’ This is like asking doctors to identify whether the blood sample is a man’s or woman’s from a pair!’ However, over a few months, 27 astrologers took up the challenge. The average score of these 27 was 17.5. NONE could guess 70% right and the results were so declared publicly. Do you think people of Pune stopped believing in astrology?

A well known Pune astrologer holds annual Astrology Conference in Pune. He, too, was unhappy about the result. When I approached him, he conveyed that he has 2500 authentic horoscopes and corresponding data on life history of the persons. I agreed with him that testing only one item of prediction may not be considered good enough by astrologers. I then suggested that we together do some good work on a few items that are daily asked, like the date of marriage, the date of getting a job, the number of children, course of education etc. Each of these is a verifiable statement (unlike “Your horoscope shows dhana-yoga -getting money – for this week.) Given the admitted fact that this ‘science’ is not very precise, we agreed that ‘the date’ should be ‘the month’, and the predicted answer will be considered ‘right’ if the actual month is either one month before or one month after. Only 100 horoscopes would be enough to draw a graph of ‘predicted versus actual’ for each item. If this graph shows all points falling on a straight line with angle 45 degrees passing through 0-0 as origin, it will be a perfect prediction. Obviously, such perfection is not expected. So, we work out correlation and if the coefficient of correlation is r=0.9 or above (r=1.00 = perfect), it would mean more than 80% right predictions. If the scatter around the line is large, and the r value is say even 0.8, it means only 64% is explained by prediction -not good enough. This astrologer agreed to provide the horoscopes and send the same set of 100 authentic horoscopes from his collection to say 10 selected ‘good’ astrologers to give their predictions on each of the 4 identified items. He agreed in principle; but could not find time to do this work for over 8 months after nearly monthly reminders. In 2015, after over 6 years, I am still waiting for those 100 horoscopes!

Unfortunately for all of us, there not only exist many such pseudo-scientific systems, but they are also patronized by a very large clientele not exposed to scientific temper. Palmistry, numerology, tarot readings, crystal gazing, roadside parrots picking your future card, and many more such for telling your future. Experience of my own and of many other scientifically bent individuals shows that no amount of scientific evidence will convince a ‘believer’. Very few believers seem to leave their belief via logic or scientific proof. Those who do abandon such a belief, seem to have done so because they have been disillusioned owing to some major failure(s) faced by them personally. After all, human mind is weak enough to seek support and solace, given that the future is invariably uncertain. So, such pseudo scientific systems, based on pretty sounding but non-disprovable theory, continue to survive and even grow in spite of the great strides taken by science and technology. In fact, such progress has made things worst: we here horoscope ‘predictions’ on television channels, and computers spew out your horoscope given the time and place of your birth.(Based on scientific astronomical computations, the star positions are correct; but the time of birth is neither clearly defined nor can be recorded exactly  Do FIVE minutes matter.)

Even more unfortunately, there exist medical systems that have not yet been subjected to the methods of science: homeopathy, twelve tissue remedies, chromotherapy, naturopathy, ayurveda, unani, cow urine therapy, and many more. Here, too, one need not question the ‘theory’ evoked, however irrational it may look. One needs to test whether the remedies work: if they do, our purpose is served. Rarely will you find that any of the remedies recommended by any of these ‘alternative medicine’ practitioners has been proven through controlled experiment of the kind we used above for testing whether cow’s milk increases intelligence. However, it is worth understanding why these systems survive and flourish.

  1.  Anecdotal evidence of a remedy having helped spreads by word of mouth and is used by many. Failures are either not reported or are ignored by giving some reason, other than the diagnosis and remedy, for the failure.
  2. In most cases of ‘cure’, the effect known as the ‘placebo’ takes place. For example: Give a true medicine tablet to one group suffering from headache, and a similar looking tablet of no medicinal value to another matched group – the control group -similarly suffering from headache. Even in the control group, 70% are likely to report that ‘headache has gone’! Placebo effect! Only if the true medicine group shows much higher proportion of headache gone,then can that medicine be considered to have truly reduced headache.

In practical terms, even though most of the remedies from alternative medical systems are NOT PROVEN scientifically, it does not mean that they never work! Many really do work and prove useful, especially to patients with mild and chronic dis-eases. A person with built-in scientific temper will realize that the risk involved in taking such medicines is low; and if there is either no effect or some bad effect, he/she can stop taking the medicine. But to rely on such up-proven remedies when one is down with a serious, acute illness is hazardous. When I was 16-17 years old, our 53 year old neighbour refused to take an antibiotic when he was down with typhoid; because he was a strong believer in homeopathy. We cremated him after 31 days. If one experiences a heart attack, better not try any ayurvedic remedy. If it is IBS – Inflamed Bowels Syndrome – an ayurvedic treatment is more likely to help than modern drugs.

Conclusions

Building a scientific temper for ourselves means that we equip ourselves to apply the method of science to questions in all walks of life. It also means helping others to see things in the light of the methods of science. The scientific method consists of observing relevant data, seeking generalisation on cause and effect relationship, testing this

generalized rule or hypothesis in practice by experiments or analysis, and accepting only those hypotheses as laws that are found useful in practice.

Scientists are trained in their own fields of study and work to apply the method of science. But when it comes to applying the scientific method to questions that arise in day to day life, the science graduates are not necessarily better equipped. We have seen that one formulae helps in answering many questions reasonably accurately. This simple can be every one’s repertoire for building the scientific temper for self use.

 

ashokgarde@hotmail.com

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.