The following essay was written during the spring of 2009.
Reliability, Predictability and Scientific Knowing
"I am not interested in what you think will work or what should work theoretically; build me a working model! "
This statement was repeated many times in the engineering career I had in the electronics industry prior to my teaching career. The owner and CEO of the company I worked for had a Ph D in Physics from Purdue University and had also served in the Navy. He had built the company up from nothing and the key to his success was that every product the company sold would work the first time, it was easy to use and it would be reliable for a long time. He knew all the reasons why something should work, but he was only interesting in spending time with the designs that were brought to him for approval that were actually working models. He wanted to see it, feel it, to actually interact with the equipment. There was a time for theoretical ideas but in the end he ultimately respected what was sensibly in front of him. He was a highly successful businessman and scientist. He still is to this day.
The engineering field is different from the sciences because of the requirement that at the end of the day there needs to be a working design. During the design phase you develop possibly ideas, you test them and in the end try to knit these ideas into a whole fabric. You don’t need to do a statistical analysis on the likelihood of your computer crashing or your automobile failing to start in the morning. If it happens with any level of regularity, you will cease using the unreliable item and replace it with something that works. If the company who manufactures the product fails to remedy the poor performance promptly, they quickly go out of business as customers refuse to purchase something that should work but in fact doesn’t.
The situation becomes much more complex when we leave the created world of the engineered product, a machine, and enter any scientific endeavor in which we are working with an aspect of the natural world. Many engineered products are designed to be a world unto itself. The engineer’s task is to create a space where the only laws that can occur are those that the engineer allows. All interactions are generally lawful interactions where a certain input always results in the same specific outcome. Would you want to drive a car that usually starts when you turn the key? How about a computer that sometimes writes left to right and other times right to left? Nothing annoys a user, or the creating engineer, more than a “bug”, an interaction where an unlawful element has crept back into the apparent world of complete control.
That sounds wonderful for machines, but what about living organisms, how about a dog or a rat? We don’t even to need to look at that level of complexity; how about a plant or a seed? What are all of the interactions or variables that control how a plant grows? We are now beginning to enter that aspect of the natural world where the predictability that is expected in the “machine world” begins to become less possible.
Since I have owned a house, I have done what most people do and keep a small garden. There is a small patch in the back where I grow a few vegetables. Early on I became a bit curious about biodynamic agriculture and began to put a few of the preparations on the garden and notice the effects. When I heard of the availability of biodynamic seeds, I wasn’t initially very interested. My belief was that it must be the biodynamic preparations that are important, to think the seeds would be important would be materialistic thinking, right? My curiosity in these seeds was still peaked and that spring I potted 3 different seed suppliers seeds, of 10 different varieties of plants. The first group was from an organic supplier the second where heirloom varieties from an organic seed exchange and he last where the biodynamic seeds. To be “fair”, all of them had the biodynamic preparation applied and all were watered at the same time and I mixed up the peat pots so that the labels were only visible when the individual pots were taken out of the flats. When it was time for transplanting, all of the pots were removed and the plants were placed into there three groups for examination. The differences were clear, visually apparent and not what I expected. For 9 of the 10 plants that I selected, the biodynamic plants were larger, had more leaves, were more upright and just appeared more robust that the other varieties. The one biodynamic plant that didn’t do better was the corn. The seed exchange, Native American variety breed locally for hundreds of years beat the biodynamic corn hands down. I recall that, Gunther Hauk, the Biodynamic gardener in Spring Valley at time, laughed about this when I told him of the results with the corn. “Of course” he said, and continued with something like, “this plant is native to North America and no German biodynamic corn was going to stand a chance against it!” If you saw the results that year, here was a clear difference. From there I could have gone on and done all types of tests to check for the yield of each crop, the mass of the plants, their resistance to various diseases or when they first yielded edible fare. At that point, I didn’t feel it was necessary to perform any further investigation. For the type of gardening that I was doing the impressions I had looking at the health and vitality of the three groups of seedlings in front of me spoke much more strongly that a series of charts and graphs proving what had happened. If a picture is worth a 1000 words, one look is worth 10,000 words. (I first read the second part of the previous sentence on a slip of paper from a fortune cookie.)
What I learned from this little experiment was important. As is any scientific endeavor, be open to getting results other than what you expect. What you see in front of you is usually more important than what you expect to happen. Not one type of seed will always be the best. Perhaps the Native Corn was stronger because it was “tuned’ to the particular area or environment in which I grew it. In fact, I had chosen the corn because it was local but did not anticipate any particular result. Having been trained as a mechanical engineer, you develop a deep appreciation and love for creating and experiencing how all of the pieces fit together in a lawful and expected manner. This is the gift of a materialistic worldview. Without such a view we wouldn’t have any of our present machines. However, there is an interesting distinction between a science based on objects (materialism) and one based on relationship or interaction (nature). The first focuses only on the product, the thing. All focus is used to see how we can create the conditions so that the desired object is present in front of us at the end of the day. How one gets there is often not so important. This can have interesting results for the environment and space around the “desired object”. If you have ever been near an old paper manufacturing plant for example, you might have experienced what I am driving at. In the past, the air of the town as well as the river were very adversely effected until regulations were created to require taking into account the environment around the plant. This brings us to the second approach, one based on interactions and relationships.
In this second approach it isn’t simply the end product that is focused on but every aspect of the process is made conscious. This approach finds that there are a much more complex set of interactions. The level of integration of the interactions or relationships can begin to approach the level of complexity found that is found in nature. Often it is not possible to test for every possibility. For example, if you have had to have some water analyzed for purity he level of “testing” that is possible came be quite overwhelming. Do you want to check for bacteria and parasites or heavy metals? How about agricultural runoff, fertilizers, industrial cleaning agents, trace levels of radiation? Usually the local water engineer will rely on his experience of what might be a problem locally and suggest just those particular tests. A balanced approach, the principle of working within the context of the local environment and then applying just those tests that might be of concern. Here, the complementary strengths of object-oriented and a relational orientation can now be seen as mutually beneficial.
Over the past few months I have noted a new pattern in the questions and comments that follow the lectures I give on phenomena based science at Waldorf School communities and other interested groups. That past fall and early winter, every single questions and answer session continued at least one comment similar to the following: The comment usually began by relating an appreciation to the implications to of a phenomenological approach to science. This was followed by a frustration with the classical statistical method in which each of these people were trained and either presently or recently employed in. All of these comments were coming from people associated with the medical field and particularly the feed of medication and pharmaceuticals. They were trained chemists, physiologists, statisticians and specialists. Most of these people had Masters degrees or Ph D’s in their field of expertise. All of them stated that the statistical method for proving the efficacy of drugs, the field that they themselves were, or had been until recently, actively involved in, was no longer effective. Most of them used even stronger language to suggest that the testing had become compromised by a desired outcome that ignored side effects, over stated the efficacy and often relied on data that was tainted. In short, no one was really paying attention to the whole reason for developing the medication in the first place, the health of the patient and instead the sole goal was to show statistical correlations (even if minimal) between specific symptoms and particular substances without significant regard to other possible effects. One person focusing on the statistical side of the field mentioned to me, “if you take any specific symptom you can likely cite a study somewhere that shows a statistically significant correlation to any drug that has been tested for that symptom.”
It was sad to hear such frustration and despondency from such talented and obviously dedicated people. Yes, there are keen interest and sincere desire to know more about a more integrated approach to science, one that focused on the relationships and interactions was equally as strong, only his time in a positive sense. The possibilities of integrating both a classical or object based approach with a phenomenological or relational and integrated approach is potentially very exciting. A classical approach must be limited because it is looking for a singular causal material quality that can be eliminated by another singular curative material solution. A phenomena based approach is constantly looking for relationships and therefore is looking to understand not a singular but rather a relational group of interactions. One could of course make the claim that all good classical science must be a part of a phenomena based approach sine no phenomena are ever discarded. While this is correct, I have tried to make the distinction between theses two approaches based more on the hidden worldview underlying them and not on the investigative approach to phenomena (perhaps defined differently in each worldview) that they share in common.
I am reminded of the work of Alfred Wegener, the German scientist who first articulated a fairly detailed description of the possibility of Continental Drift in 1915 as the means by which our present landmasses have come into being and change overtime. Wegener’s approach was completely unusual for his time (and likely ours as well) in that rather than staying in one area of specialization, he tried to synthesize many different phenomena from many different fields of science. He was initially inspired in his thinking by observing the process of isostacy, the process whereby the earth rises or rebounds after glaciers recede or melt, during two successive trips to Greenland in the 1906 and 1912. Wegener thought if the earth can move up and down, why not side to side. He then proceeded to investigate many different phenomena relating to the apparent similarity of the eastern coastlines of North and South America with those at similar latitudes of Europe and Africa. Wegener investigated the similar geology of these regions, the common flora and fauna. Even the older fossil records had much in common. In short Wegener dedicated the next 15 years of his life trying to show that all these common phenomena pointed to the fact that the contents must indeed move. During his lifetime, his work was generally rejected, ridiculed and unaccepted. It took almost 40 years time until a number of the specialized scientists, generally in geology, could no longer ignore the observations and relationships that Wegener had pointed out as well. This was helped along by the significant number of new observations that arose from the regular use of the submarine during and after WWII. By the late 50’s and early 60’s the world was ready to consider a more open view. Perhaps we are now ready for this more open view or approach to science in other fields as well. After all, all of the best scientists have always been working in this way anyway!
Perhaps this is best summed up in the words of Wegener himself. In the 4th edition (he was to write 5 befor his death) of his book, The Origin of Continents and Oceans, Wegner once again found it necessary to defend his work and advocate for a new more open approach to science. Constantly criticized for crossing the clear lines of specialization that existed at his time (and ours?) he penned the following phrase:
"Scientists still do not appear to understand sufficiently that all earth sciences must contribute evidence toward unveiling the state of our planet in earlier times, and that the truth of the matter can only be reached by combing all this evidence. . . It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine 'truth' here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability. Further, we have to be prepared always for the possibility that each new discovery, no matter what science furnishes it, may modify the conclusions we draw." (Alfred Wegener: The Origins of Continents and Oceans; 4th edition)
Footnote: It is worth noting that when Rudolf Steiner was asked by some of the teachers of the first Waldorf School What should we be teaching? one of his responses was that in high school they should be exposed to some of the new thinking that is going on at this time. Steiner saw that a materialistic worldview was beginning to loosen up. One of his suggestions to the high school teachers was that the students in the Waldorf School should become familiar with the work of Alfred Wegener! (And what would be the appropriate ways of thinking that are being developed today that will still be valuable for students in schools 100 years from now? Perhaps one answer could be taken up in another article in the future.)