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The Scientific Method is a Virus

Created on March 10, 2019, 5:08 p.m.

Where does the scientific method come from? Is it just an artifact of the history of science? A formalization of the process by which science has been done for hundreds of years? Or perhaps it's simply the best method we've discovered so far for producing reliable experimental results? Or, maybe there is something more fundamental and intrinsic to it - maybe there is some aspect to it which makes it by definition the best way of discovering truth in this world?

Or, perhaps the scientific method actually has nothing to do with "science" at all - perhaps it is something much more human. Because, even if the field of "science" had never existed, humans would most likely still be using a kind of informal version of the scientific method in their every-day lives. Given our needs (I want some bread), we propose hypothesis based on our best current understanding of the world (there is bread at the shops), often using induction (there was bread at the shops before), gather evidence from our experiences (the shelves for the bread are empty), and revise our mental models based on what we encounter (there is no bread at the shops - it's sold-out). Of course, we don't always follow the complete rigor of the scientific method as practiced by professionals, and not all our hypothesis go investigated (the bread could have been moved to another aisle), but in general, our interactions with the world are still built around the same structure of hypothesis (based on prior beliefs), induction, evidence, and revision.

So perhaps the scientific method is more of a human thing? And science itself is just an extension of some natural human mode of functioning. I think this view gets us a bit closer to an intuitive understanding of where the scientific method comes from, but there is another way to view it which I think provides a much deeper insight into why it is the way it is - the view that the scientific method is a virus.

Or more specifically - that the scientific method is a meme - an idea which hosts itself in humans, and spreads itself between them. An ideological virus - an idea which self-perpetuates itself by its own design.

The reasoning goes something like this: If we consider the scientific method as a belief system whose goal is essentially to minimize surprise for those who follow it, then, those who follow it most closely are on average, most likely to survive. To be more specific, the scientific method represents a systematic way of thinking and acting to try to build mental models which are as accurate as possible in their predictive powers. And, when people have accurate predictive powers, they are surprised less often, and by smaller amounts. This is effective because humans don't like being surprised - being surprised isn't good for their survival.

To put it another way, for simple animals with basic, repeatable interactions in the world, having a hard-coded mental model of how things behave is maybe enough - but for humans, which interact in a confusing and vast world full of new and difficult to understand phenomenon it isn't. Instead humans have evolved a framework for building mental models - a method which can fit mental models to new environments and situations never seen before quickly and easily. And, this framework itself is the meme which has prevailed and evolved through survival of the fittest to become what we now call the scientific method. Humans, and societies which embraced this style of thinking were more adaptable, had a better understanding of cause and effect, and survived longer. When the crops didn't grow because they were planted in the wrong kind of soil, there were those who tried to understand the cause and fix it, and those who simply died.

In this way, it appears the scientific method comes from the nature of the world itself - it's a belief system optimized to minimize surprise and maximize predictive power in the hosts it finds, given the particular universe it exists within.

And, I think this is special - because it is not the same case for many other popular belief systems which exist in the world - even those which are also viral in their nature. For example, we can look at many of the religious belief systems in the world today, which have historically included certain beliefs which are similarly viral in nature, even if much more "obviously" so:

The idea that it is necessary to spread your belief system to others, or that people with alternative belief systems should be persecuted or even killed. The idea that following a different belief system will cause one to suffer in hell for eternity. The idea that if you observe something that appears to contradict your belief system you must not change your belief system but instead keep "faith" in it. Even the idea that it is important to have lots of children and protect your family can be viewed as viral in nature.

Irregardless of the rightness or wrongness of any of these particular beliefs, it is certainly clear they all contribute to the self-perpetuation of the systems which contain them. And, like all memes, it isn't that such beliefs are maliciously included in such belief systems "by design", but more likely that these beliefs exist in an almost tautological sense - these beliefs exist because belief systems which contain such beliefs are exactly those which are most likely to survive and spread.

And from this perspective it is almost incredible a belief system such as the scientific method has survived through all these years and is so popular across much of the world - yes it is viral in some way, but it does not employ any cheap tricks in its virility, and makes no special appeals to human psychology beyond the longing to not be caught out.

In the middle ages for example, a belief system's survival rate among a population most likely had very little to do with how much surprise it produced, and much more to do with how much alignment it had with the belief system of the king or other powerful religious figures at the time - and a belief system which went against this consensus, no matter how accurate at predicting the future, would (in addition to its host) probably not survive very long.

But perhaps now, given the world's relative stability, these sort of situations are less common, and a simple belief system based around reducing surprise has began to win out over memetic viral tricks. Besides - absolutist belief systems have their downsides - it can be difficult and uncomfortable to reconcile an absolutist belief system built 2000 years ago with the events that happen in the modern world. After a while, it starts to get tiring to keep coming to the shops, expecting there to be bread, and always finding the shelves empty, no matter how you try to re-interpret and re-shape things.

So maybe the scientific method is this - not a kind of all-powerful method intrinsic in uncovering all truth in the world - nor like an item on a menu of belief systems which sits equally alongside any other - but a special kind of belief system centered around its host's ability to build powerful and accurate predictive models of the universe it lives in, to try and reduce the amount of surprise experienced, to live longer, happier, less confusing lives. And, although it's still clearly a virus, perhaps, unlike many viruses, it has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with its hosts.

(Or maybe that is just what someone who is badly infected would say...)

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