Tagged: Scientific method

Motivation, Boredom, and Problem Solving

shatteredIn the New York Times Stone column, James Blachowicz of Loyola challenges the assumption that the scientific method is uniquely distinguishable from other ways of thinking and problem solving we regularly employ. In his example, he lays out how writing poetry involves some kind of alignment of words that conform to the requirements of the poem. Whether actively aware of the process or not, the poet is solving constraint satisfaction problems concerning formal requirements like meter and structure, linguistic problems like parts-of-speech and grammar, semantic problems concerning meaning, and pragmatic problems like referential extension and symbolism. Scientists do the same kinds of things in fitting a theory to data. And, in Blachowicz’s analysis, there is no special distinction between scientific method and other creative methods like the composition of poetry.

We can easily see how this extends to ideas like musical composition and, indeed, extends with even more constraints that range from formal through to possibly the neuropsychology of sound. I say “possibly” because there remains uncertainty on how much nurture versus nature is involved in the brain’s reaction to sounds and music.

In terms of a computational model of this creative process, if we presume that there is an objective function that governs possible fits to the given problem constraints, then we can clearly optimize towards a maximum fit. For many of the constraints there are, however, discrete parameterizations (which part of speech? which word?) that are not like curve fitting to scientific data. In fairness, discrete parameters occur there, too, especially in meta-analyses of broad theoretical possibilities (Quantum loop gravity vs. string theory? What will we tell the children?) The discrete parameterizations blow up the search space with their combinatorics, demonstrating on the one hand why we are so damned amazing, and on the other hand why a controlled randomization method like evolutionary epistemology’s blind search and selective retention gives us potential traction in the face of this curse of dimensionality. The blind search is likely weakened for active human engagement, though. Certainly the poet or the scientist would agree; they are using learned skills, maybe some intellectual talent of unknown origin, and experience on how to traverse the wells of improbability in finding the best fit for the problem. This certainly resembles pre-training in deep learning, though on a much more pervasive scale, including feedback from categorical model optimization into the generative basis model.

But does this extend outwards to other ways in which we form ideas? We certainly know that motivated reasoning is involved in key aspects of our belief formation, which plays strongly into how we solve these constraint problems. We tend to actively look for confirmations and avoid disconfirmations of fit. We positively bias recency of information, or repeated exposures, and tend to only reconsider in much slower cycles.

Also, as the constraints of certain problem domains become, in turn, extensions that can result in change—where there is a dynamic interplay between belief and success—the fixity of the search space itself is no longer guaranteed. Broad human goals like the search for meaning are an example of that. In come complex human factors, like how boredom correlates with motivation and ideological extremism (overview, here, journal article, here).

This latter data point concerning boredom crosses from mere bias that might preclude certain parts of a search space into motivation that focuses it, and that optimizes for novelty seeking and other behaviors.

Methodical Play

imageMy fourteen-year-old interviewed a physicist yesterday. I had the privilege of being home over the weekend and listened in; my travel schedule has lately been brutal, with the only saving grace being moments like right now en route to Chicago when I can collapse into reading and writing for a few whitenoise-washed moments. And the physicist who was once his grandfather said some remarkable things:

  • Physics consists of empirical layers of untruth
  • The scientific method is never used as formulated
  • Schools, while valuable, won’t teach how to be a scientist
  • The institutions of physics don’t support the creativity required to be a scientist

Yet there was no sense of anger or disillusionment in these statements, just a framing of the distinctions between the modern social model surrounding what scientists do and the complex reality of how they really do their work.

The positives were that play is both the essential ingredient and the missing determinant of the real “scientific method.” Mess around, try to explain, mess around some more. And what is all that play getting this remarkable octogenarian? Possible insights into the unification of electromagnetism and the strong nuclear force. The interview journey passed from alignment of quarks to the beams of neutron stars, igniting the imaginations of all the minds on the call.

But if there is no real large-scale method to this madness, what might we conclude about the rationality of the process of science? I would advocate that the algorithmic model of inference is perhaps the best (and least biased) way of approaching the issue of scientific method. By constantly reshuffling the available parameters and testing the compressibility of models, play is indistinguishable from science when the play pivots on best explanation. An hypothesis is a short range consequence of play, not a prerequisite.

So play and play some more, and enlighten the world. That’s the lesson of an 81-year-old for a a young, inquisitive mind.