Empirical science is ancient beyond imagining, for it is nothing more than the modern version of exploring to find out what is there.
Don’t you do it after checking in to the hotel in a city new to you? Go out on the streets and see what is going on, where things are? How people dress, what there is to do?
The featured image that depicts the death of Captain James Cook, painted by Johan Joseph Zoffany (1733-1810) in 1795, hangs in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Zoffany was a prominent 18th century painter active mainly in England. His works hang in the National Gallery, London, the Tate, and the Royal Collection.
Cook, a brilliant sailor and chart maker, was was appointed commander of the Royal Society first scientific expedition to the Pacific in 1768, at age 40, commissioned by the Admiralty to convey gentlemen of the society to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun. From there he was to find so called Terra Australis, imagined by philosophers, but found instead New Zealand and Australia, making maps and charts good enough for a modern sailor to navigate by. The society members collected such massive amounts of new materials, the voyage stimulated subsequent ones including that of Darwin.
Cook led two more equally remarkable voyages of discovery, and died during a brief fracas over the theft of small boat. He was slain by the Polynesians on the beach at Kealakekua, the scene depicted by Zoffany.
Empiricism is One of the Three Sciences
I have written about the three sciences in medicine, and highlighted there the work of Karl Popper, my guide. Of the three, empiricism is most obvious and familiar yet, under it all, mysterious. It is so because it lies at the point where humankind transform sense experience into facts, the latter irreducible units of knowledge separate from subjective bias. All these words, ‘knowledge’, ‘subjective’, ‘bias’, especially ‘facts’, ring in antique tones. They have been points of dispute for ages and remain so, yet are at the root of all we have about knowing things.
I cannot teach these matters as a philosopher, merely a working physician and clinical investigator. That is one reason why, if you read it, my prior article on the three sciences differs from this one. I had put empiricism third, then, and treated it more briefly than either invention or discovery. Today I would not have done that, so the older article illustrates some – I hope – deepening of my understanding.
Empiricism Supports All Other Science
It Permits Imaginative Science
One cannot invent or theorize out of ignorance. That is why I could not invent a better altimeter for a jet plane but might invent a new test for kidney stone risk; why I could not imagine how trees communicate but could imagine about how kidney cells modulate urine calcium excretion. The two imaginative sciences arise out of familiarity with the facts of the real world. Ignorant imagining is futile. That is why Aristotle, more brilliant than perhaps anyone presently living, was helpless to imagine how humans died from infectious disease, for example, or how stars like the sun shine, or how to make a refrigerator.
It Gives Us Facts We Use for Almost Everything
How many people live in Illinois? How many form kidney stones? Do prices of bread vary with average income neighborhood by neighborhood? How bad is traffic on I-94 this afternoon? These are facts about now.
Given things right now, will we have snow tomorrow? Do ocean currents foretell a cool Summer? Can we predict birth rates from sales of engagement rings? These are facts about now that have some predictive potential.
Medicine uses both. How high is body temperature, pulse rate, blood oxygen tension? Given what we see right now, how likely is this patient to survive the night, the day, the week? If someone has these symptoms and these laboratory results, how likely is it he/she has primary hyperparathyroidism?
Empiricism Creates the Texture of the World
We live in facts far more than in immediate experience.
Sure, I can see what is going on around me, in the house, outside, at work, at dinner. But I live, as all of you do, in a river of facts coming by all the time, in newspapers, on the web, from friends, gossip. Empiricism is the engine that converts reality into reliable facts, measurements and counts, that get written down – in computers actually – for use forever.
It was always this way, but not so formal. I read where before railroads came, settlers in Texas would wait for letters to find out facts about those left behind back East. And I noticed how fact filled letters were, about births and deaths, marriages, businesses, behaviors. Everybody who rode by this or that isolated farm was questioned, if they would stop a while, about what was happening here or there.
Empiricism is Reliable
Of course ‘not so formal’ meant not so reliable, and that is a big distinction. Scientists must make their measurements so others can do the same and see if the numbers match. In this innocent phrase lurks profound philosophical depths, the very make and mark of what we mean by fact. Put simply, the real world is the one of our five senses. A person sees or hears this or that, and that is clear to her, or him. But someone else may see or hear otherwise. What science offers is a way around the dilemma of subjectivity.
Empiricism is Objective
All of us sense the world and tell people about it. Scientists make measurements we call objective because others can strictly falsify them. For example: ‘There are 23 ravens in this field (properly designated in space) today’ is not falsifiable tomorrow, or even today – because ravens fly. Whereas, ‘among 23 ravens, average wingspan is 34 inches as measured from tip to tip under such and so conditions of the bird, and within well enough demarcated varieties of raven’ is – once filled out with the details hinted at – falsifiable by any other raven biology expert.
Perhaps more familiar here, ‘the average interval between recurrent kidney stones among women with idiopathic calcium oxalate stone disease, between ages 20 and 30, is such and such’. The more closely the subjects are demarcated, the more falsifiable the statement, and the more useful as a scientific fact.
Problems We Can Face
But this very example shows you the crucial requirement. How do we assemble the group of such women? It cannot be from this clinic or that clinic – too high a risk of selection bias: neighborhood, city, and a long list of other traits we use to define a population. If it is to apply to this kind of person generally, a sample must be obtained from the entire population about which one wishes to make the statement about intervals between stones: is it the whole world, the US, one state, one city, one county, one neighborhood? Falsification can only be rigorous within the universe of the sample.
The Crucial Test
Even more. Given, let us say, a US county, how are we sure the sample represents all women with idiopathic calcium stone disease living there? Is it all of them? If not, is it a random sample?
The test is always simple. Can another scientist come into the county, in principle, and falsify what the first scientist states? What would that take? If it cannot be done IN PRINCIPLE, details of cost, trouble all put aside, we do not have reliable empirical science.
The tapestry of empirical science is a dense weave, many knots per square inch, hard to make – and a long time in the making of it. The closer the match can be made between this scientist and that scientist, the more falsifiable, therefore the more objective the measurement – and the more useful.
The opposite of objective is subjective, meaning you think it is this way, but others have nor been able to agree or not. Useless for science.
Why Do I Insist on Falsifying?
Because I belive Karl Popper is right. To find the same is bonny, but someone new – younger, smarter, better armed with new measurements and techniques – can always say no. To find not the same, to falsify what has been found, is forever: It means the measurement put forth is not true in general.
It does not mean the first scientist was wrong, or dishonest. Assuming integrity, and reasonably similar methods and skills, disagreements must arise from how samples were selected, which means the generality of the statement – about the wing span of ravens, for example – has only a limited truth value. It is true in such and so cases, but not in others.
Yes is yes for now,
but No is always waiting,
No is now and No is then –
No is the forever thing.
Most Empiricists are Sedentary
It is true that the great explorers arouse awe and wonder, but most sit quietly in their labs or at their computers. In medicine, they search for genes, molecules, cells, RNA, bacterial species, small things of huge and bewildering variety in small places. They do not wear climbing boots, or spacesuits, or descend into the great chasms at the bottoms of the sea.
Some Empiricists do not Even Collect Data
Measured once, there forever.
Piles of excellent empirical data exist and wise, if physically more torpid scientists, simply help themselves to it and do their own statistics. That is fair, and I do not fault them. But I cannot feel for them that sense of awe and wonder the real ones arouse in me. They are champions, those who go out and get the data in the first place – brave, adventurous, and noble.
It tells the general story about empiricism with especial reference to modern disease biology, not so abstract as practical. You will leave with a proper sense for what empirical science is, who does it, and what it is good for. Later videos about invention and discovery depend on it. Even later, I mean to show what it has contributed to our present understanding of idiopathic calcium stone formers, so if you learn something about it now there is a present awaiting you later on.
If you have not as yet seen the first video, do it now. It sets things in place, and makes this one easier to enjoy.