Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scientific Method

If you went to school, you should remember enough to know the elements of scientific method:  that one develops a hypothesis; one performs experiments; one observes; and one draws conclusions.  It's a great deal more complicated than that, but as the simplification satisfied the needs for your education, the simplification satisfies the needs for this post.

All me to explain that I am not a scientist.  If some gentle reader has some idea that I am about to write a post about the intricacies of science, and how it is managed, that gentle reader should be flying a kite instead of reading this.  I don't apologize for not being a scientist; I'm not a plumber, or a politician, or a prostitute - and since I feel the world has enough scientists, plumbers, politicians and prostitutes to accurately represent those fields, I don't feel any sacred duty has been placed upon me.  There's something truly criminal in the expectation that we must all be experts in the pure subject before we shall be allowed to talk about any peripheral angle of that subject.  I cannot place a toilet in my bathroom - but I know what a toilet is used for, and my lack of expertise in toilet installation is immaterial to my defining shit.  There will be a great many more essays written upon modern technologies in this series, and I wish it understood that I will be writing upon none of them as a field expert.  Willy nilly, I am a writer.  If you will read this, you will be reading a writer.  There are journals available should you wish an expert opinion.

So I shall not be examining the intricacies of the hypothesis development, nor experimental procedure, nor the modern accepted definitions of deduction vs. induction.  Here, I shall discuss the associations between the scientific method and Dungeons and Dragons.

Belief, as anyone knows, can alter observation.  Now and then, having met a person with opinions vastly different than my own, it is a mystery that we can both have lived on the same planet.  Take any Flame War of your choice - how much do these things really matter?  For all the history upon which we are able to reckon, human beings have been prepared to execute en masse other human beings for the sake of nothing other than belief.  If the reader doubts that "intelligent design" belief can cause  "intelligent design" crusaders to posit the existence of dinosaurs 4000 years ago, the reader should remember how fathers disfigure their daughters or how we kill one another over the matter of color.  Belief, as ridiculous as it gets, is very powerful.  You may be in a position of proven knowledge; you may be prepared to argue that position - but remember that if you are in the wrong room when you argue that position, you may very well not get out alive.

That is why the practical success of scientific methodology has with great difficulty encouraged the world to throw out prejudice in favor of proof.  "We" don't like your proof.  "We" don't want your proof.  So best you take that proof right on down the road before I pick up that pitchfork with an aim to do something with it.

The question shall therefore always arise, "what is proof?"  Between those ready to disregard the experiment; and those ready to modify the experiment to prove what they wish; and those too dumb stupid to grasp what the experiment demonstrated - there is a gigantic rift between what we can call "belief" and what we can imaginatively call "truth."

However, the genius of the scientific method is not that a particular experiment will "prove" anything.  No scientist of merit will argue that.  A particular experiment is only what that experiment is at that particular moment ... and nothing more.  When the press jumps up and down with excitement when a scientist has gotten some result or other, declaring that this "proves" blah blah blah, it is certainly not with words provided by the scientist.  It is, in a word, bullshit ... but it sells papers to nitwits who know little or nothing about science.  Scientists pay no attention, except to be annoyed.  They simply sit down and perform the experiment again.

The interesting thing about science, as opposed to belief, is the manner in which multiple cultures performing scientific experiments arrive at the same conclusions.  There are multiple examples of two scientists tackling a particular subject, both arriving at the same conclusion, and both rushing to write that conclusion so that it can be read (and the experiment repeated) by other scientists.  There are also multiple examples of a scientist producing a conclusion, receiving NO interest in return, and dying in obscurity only to have his conclusions vidicated a generation later.

This never, ever happens with belief.

Gautama sat under a tree, so they say, for 49 days and produced Buddhism.  Although there were hundreds of thousands of other - what shall we call it, introspective philosophers?  Although these others examined the same questions about misery and purpose, no other produced Gautama's exact results.  Every competitor - and there were A LOT of competitors in 6th century BCE India - had a slightly modified idea, a slightly unique angle on the question.  It would be as if multiple discovers of the gas oxygen all found that the weight of the oxygen molecule varied depending upon who had discovered it.

Note that, although isolated cultures have independently develop technologies, no other culture anywhere in the world independently developed Buddhism.  All Buddhist practices spawn from a single source ... which is a funny thing for this reason:  all Buddhism, like all religions everywhere, have divided and subdivided into hundreds of individualistic heresies, none of which quite preach the same thing.  If religion, or belief, has the clarity of truth, why is it that with each generation this clarity must then be modified by yet another introspective philosopher?  Why is it every church, temple, mosque and so on preaches its own cultural brand of truth?

There is no scientific method that corrals belief.  In truth, no one can successfully preach their brand of belief to you - you, gentle reader, will modify it even if you adopt what they say and join their practices.  You may never speak of your peculiar modification - but you will modify it just the same.  Some hardcore Christians will remember that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and will be confortable visiting prostitutes, and some hardcore Christians will remember that Mary WAS a prostitute, and eschew it because Mary gave it up.  Still others will argue about what kind of prostitute Mary was, and base upon that which kind of prostitutes they will visit.  Such as it is with belief.

No amount of belief, however, will change the number of hydrogen atoms that a single oxygen atom will mate with.  If aliens arrive upon this world from the other side of the galaxy, they will know precisely this number.  They will have an expression for "number" that will fit with our expression.  There is nothing that any amount of belief can change about that.

Belief doesn't care.  The structure of belief does not include "new ideas" in its engineering, except that when new ideas threaten belief, ignore it.  It's a very simple, practical solution.  It doesn't require an hypothesis, or any time wasted on experimentation, nor any expertise in observing.  We leap directly to the conclusion we want, ignore everything else, shout down everything else, kill everything else - then get on with our merry, self-satisfied lives.

Ah, Dungeons and Dragons.  Is there any evidentiary proof?

I would say, for most of the community, no.  No, not really.  Most argue vociferously that there is no "right" game and that there is no "right" method of play.  A few still take a position of some kind - but the position is necessarily vague and emotionally constructed.  It is a belief, and as such, the speaker usually proclaims the value of belief.  After all, its a simple, self-justifying position to take.  I have taken it myself, at least once on video.  Thus goes the song: "I'm just giving my opinions."  My, don't we all know how that shuts down the competition.  You, O Reader, cannot argue with my opinions except with your opinions, and since all opinions are equal, you must take your opinions down the road.  Q.E.D.

I confess a laziness on my part.  It is far harder to give reason or provide argument for doing what we do, or for why we don't do some other thing.  How shall I explain that I play AD&D as opposed to some other edition?  How many words would it take before the reader surrendered in despair, long before the reader grasped my position?  We all know from experience as little children that there comes a point where you just ... stop ... arguing.  When you're a little child, you use your fist at that point.  When you are an adult, you walk away.  You stop listening.

Rarely, do you experiment with some one else's belief.

Why then do we spend so much time and effort pontificating upon our beliefs?  What do we expect to accomplish?  Why write a blog about how I deal with weather, or the background of characters, or the mapping of the world?  Surely, you the reader have already decided what you shall do about those things, and anything I have to say will have little effect upon you.

We read for interest.  We read to fill our day.  We read about this game because we like the game, and reading about it produces little hits of dopamine that brings us pleasure ... even if we despise the exact content of what we are reading.  We are not scientists.

A scientist will read a position paper in his or her field and question the validity of the research.  Everyone else will read a position paper, essay or advertisement and question its source.  Do I believe in that person, we will think.  Do we like that person?

We do not seriously consider the material.  We know we don't believe the material.  If we believed in that material, it would already be ours.  More often than not, if we like the person, it is because it sounds as though that person believes what we believe.  We HATE people who do not believe what we believe.

The technology of the scientific method has steadfastly overcome this very human and crippling trait.  It has solved many of the world's real problems, despite the belief systems of the world's residents.

Deep inside D&D, I am certain, there ARE right ways to play.  There are right ways to for DMs to treat players, and right ways for players to manage their characters, and right boundaries of play to observe and right behaviors that should be adopted at the table.  I write this blog month after month with the intent of arguing what I believe are the right ways.  I encourage disagreement on the subject material, because this blog is my experiment.  This is practical when the disagreement is founded upon experience or conjecture; it isn't very practical when the disagreement is founded on prejudice and pride.

This isn't a perfect world, and human experiments are hopelessly ruined on account of unforeseen variables.  Still, we try.  We explain the experiment; we run through the manner in which variables manifest; and we struggle to enclose the environment in order to manage the experiment as best we can.  If we learn something that can be described to others, and if others can reproduce the results in another experiment they conduct on their own, then we move a little bit ahead of where we were yesterday.

What we don't worry about is how long this takes.  We don't mind that the conclusion will not arrive in our lifetime.  Wanting a conclusion right now is a religious thing.

1 comment:

Johnny said...

Well said and very thoughtful. I imagine a bell-curve, with believers killing non-believers on one extreme and non-believers killing believers on the other. I think that reflects reality, with varying degrees of hate in between. I have worked this into D&D as well, with a chaotic assembly on one side and an Institution of Inquisition on the other.