Required Reading

“True wisdom comes from knowing that you know nothing.” – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

I was thinking of things completely unrelated to the sport and science of cycling when I began to read this article. The article on the Physics Today website tries to discern between belief and knowledge. The author Helen Quinn is a theoretical particle physicist at Stanford so she’s kind of smart. She also was the president of the American Physical Society in 2004.

I always knew that in science, you never really know anything. You get a hypothesis and try to prove it wrong. You prove it right by excluding all else. As Sherlock Holmes has said, “Once you have eliminated everything that is impossible, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

So that begs the question in science, “How do you distinguish between what you believe is true and what you know is true?” Given all the interpretations going on at the LNDD and then the mouthing off by Dick Pound, this seems a good time and place for a lesson for watching what you say. Therefore, Dr. Quinn’s article is now required reading for anyone interested in Floyd Landis, carbon isotopes, T/E ratios, etc.

For most people a belief is an article of faith, a hypothesis or a theory is not much different from a guess, and as for knowledge—well, that is not very different from a belief, except that most people are much more certain of what they believe than of what they know.

Interesting but surely, good scientists know what they know and what they don’t. Right? I mean Dick Pound and the LNDD sound like they are sure of their testing and the interpretation of their tests.

Any good scientist has a conscious range of knowing, from established fact to hunch. We continually reevaluate the status of ideas along that continuum. We serve science poorly when we either over- or underclaim the confidence with which we know something. One of the things that makes us scientists is our intricate examination of knowledge—our understanding of what we know, of how we know it, of what evidence supports it, and of the limits of that evidence.

Hmmm. Mr. Pound it might be worth a trip to Stanford.

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4 Responses to Required Reading

  1. […] you haven’t found this link on Trust But Verify or at Endless Cycle, you should definitely take the time to read Helen Quinn’s article Belief and knowledge […]

  2. Daniel M says:

    By the way, Mr. Jim, did you know that Bill and Ted were paraphrasing Socrates?

    – Rant

  3. Russ says:

    Great Article by Helen Quinn. What she did not make clear is that frequently
    what we “know’ scientifically, after eliminating what is impossible (re S.Holmes),
    still stands on some basic assumptions that may or may not be stated. These
    assumptions also may even be arbitrary in some cases, in order (usually) to
    make the theory or model work or fit the emperical data (or even, ideas) best.

  4. pelotonjim says:

    Yes I did Rant. In fact the correct paraphrase was Socrates. Never thought Bill, Ted, and Dr Quinn would be all quoted together!

    Russ, correct. Dr. Quinn alludes to your observation when explaining that we continue to modify “knowns” such as Newton’s law etc as we come to know and understand more.

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