Science Is a Collection of Projects, Not a Collection of Beliefs

Read a textbook, and you’ll be confronted by a set of beliefs about the world.

(If it’s a half-decent textbook, it will give justifications for those beliefs, and they will be true, putting you well on the way to knowledge.)

The same is true of most science popularization. In either case, you’ll be instructed that a certain set of statements about the world (or about math, or anything else) are true.

If most of your experience with science comes from popularizations and textbooks, you might think that all of science is like this. In particular, you might think of scientific controversies as matters of contrasting beliefs. Some scientists “believe in” supersymmetry, some don’t. Some “believe in” string theory, some don’t. Some “believe in” a multiverse, some don’t.

In practice, though, only settled science takes the form of beliefs. The rest, science as it is actually practiced, is better understood as a collection of projects.

Scientists spend most of their time working on projects. (Well, or procrastinating in my case.) Those projects, not our beliefs about the world, are how we influence other scientists, because projects build off each other. Any time we successfully do a calculation or make a measurement, we’re opening up new calculations and measurements for others to do. We all need to keep working and publishing, so anything that gives people something concrete to do is going to be influential.

The beliefs that matter come later. They come once projects have been so successful, and so widespread, that their success itself is evidence for beliefs. They’re the beliefs that serve as foundational assumptions for future projects. If you’re going to worry that some scientists are behaving unscientifically, these are the sorts of beliefs you want to worry about. Even then, things are often constrained by viable projects: in many fields, you can’t have a textbook without problem sets.

Far too many people seem to miss this distinction. I’ve seen philosophers focus on scientists’ public statements instead of their projects when trying to understand the implications of their science. I’ve seen bloggers and journalists who mostly describe conflicts of beliefs, what scientists expect and hope to be true rather than what they actually work on.

Do scientists have beliefs about controversial topics? Absolutely. Do those beliefs influence what they work on? Sure. But only so far as there’s actually something there to work on.

That’s why you see quite a few high-profile physicists endorsing some form of multiverse, but barely any actual journal articles about it. The belief in a multiverse may or may not be true, but regardless, there just isn’t much that one can do with the idea right now, and it’s what scientists are doing, not what they believe, that constitutes the health of science.

Different fields seem to understand this to different extents. I’m reminded of a story I heard in grad school, of two dueling psychologists. One of them believed that conversation was inherently cooperative, and showed that, unless unusually stressed or busy, people would put in the effort to understand the other person’s perspective. The other believed that conversation was inherently egocentric, and showed that, the more you stressed or busy people are, the more they assume that everyone else has the same perspective they do.

Strip off the “beliefs”, and these two worked on the exact same thing, with the same results. With their beliefs included, though, they were bitter rivals who bristled if their grad students so much as mentioned the other scientist.

We need to avoid this kind of mistake. The skills we have, the kind of work we do, these are important, these are part of science. The way we talk about it to reporters, the ideas we champion when we debate, those are sidelines. They have some influence, dragging people one way or another. But they’re not what science is, because on the front lines, science is about projects, not beliefs.

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12 thoughts on “Science Is a Collection of Projects, Not a Collection of Beliefs

  1. Lubos Motl

    Scientific research may be a bunch of projects but their motivation is the desire to find and establish new beliefs.

    Also, many would surely oppose your usage of beliefs instead of what science normally prefers instead of them, facts. Except that these people are often incorrectly assuming that all things in science are known with 100% and total certainty. That’s not the case which is why the result of science indeed is a collection of different levels of belief about different questions.

    A scientist can’t be just some excavator that simply adds new meters to some tunnel or project or bunch of soil and has no idea what’s happening more than 5 meters away from him, the excavator. The excavation in science actually requires to know much of the previous path that has already been excavated and this is why (legitimate) scientists really must have a better knowledge – and therefore more valuable opinions – about the older things they are elaborating upon.

    An overwhelming majority of the “conflicts of beliefs” are simply manifestations of one side’s ignorance about the existing knowledge – about the facts if one exaggerates just a little bit.

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  2. Giotis

    I find it difficult to decouple them; we are so intimately/intricately related to our system of beliefs that in practice we are defined by it.

    This system is not a fixed restrictive background though, it’s a dynamical component of our personality; we evolve with it day by day, it feeds us and we feed it back.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      From the inside? I agree. As scientists, what we believe informs what we work on to an extent that can’t easily be separated.

      From the outside, though? As observers of science, I think we can do better. In particular, I think we can be careful, when considering a particular belief, to see whether (and how) it actually affects the practice of science. That practice is what we should be worried about: not what scientists choose to speak on publicly, but what they actually find worth working on.

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      1. ohwilleke

        This does put the science journalist in a bit of a dilemma, of course. Journalists can’t very well report upon what scientists choose to speak on only in the privacy of their own offices with their graduate students and co-investigators. They are pretty much, by definition, limited to what scientists choose to speak on publicly.

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        1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

          The distinction I’m drawing isn’t public vs private speech, it’s speech vs action. It’s fairly easy to tell what ideas we’re acting on, because we publish!

          Now, I get that a lot of the time journalists don’t have the background to read journal papers, they have to trust scientists on some level. But the goal should always be to understand the scientist’s work, not their opinions, and I feel like that often gets left by the wayside.

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    1. ohwilleke

      The much harder job is to avoid protecting your beliefs and to instead go where the evidence leads you (which is what I misread your comment to say the first time I read it).

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, I was actually just punning on “project” and “beliefs.” I wasn’t trying to make a point. 😮

        There seems, to me, a circularity. Beliefs lead to projects testing those beliefs; project results lead to new, usually more certain, beliefs.

        Which leads to more projects…

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  3. ohwilleke

    I think the word “projects” has connotations that pretty strongly create an image of someone doing an experiment in a laboratory, even though it does have a wide meaning that does capture a great deal of what scientists do. And, to be sure, the are scientists that do experiments in laboratories (sometimes very big and expensive ones). But, the laboratory image that “projects” can evoke doesn’t really capture what you do, or what a lot of people who are professional physicists do.

    There may not be that many multiverse papers out there, but journals are awash in papers that hypothesize conjectural alternatives to the GR/SM status quo (or just conjectural theoretical constructs intended to someday inform real physics), with a dozen or two major kinds of conjectural alternatives (e.g. F(R) gravity, supersymmetry, LQG, warm dark matter, seesaw mechanisms for neutrino mass) each generating myriad papers exploring the idea in different variations and particulars by its own community of investigators.

    Many specific examples or aspects of those conjectures aren’t believed to be descriptions of reality even by the authors of those papers. For example, Milgrom never believed for a minute that his original MOND theory was anything more than a toy model, because he was well aware that it violated observed aspects of general relativity when applied outside its domain of applicability.

    Similarly, even though you devote a lot of time to studying N=4 super Yang-Mills theory, I suspect that you don’t think that this, in unadorned fashion, is an exact and accurate description of quantum gravity in Nature. You’re studying it to gain insights into the math on the hunch (O.K., something quite a bit more scientific and well motivated than a mere hunch) that the math of Nature’s quantum gravity will involve tools that can more easily be understood in this idealized theoretical construct, on the long game hope that someday, you and your colleagues will have put enough mathematical tools in the garage that we will be capable of actually formulating and applying Nature’s quantum gravity in mathematical terms even that this probably lacks some of the idealized aspects of N=4 super Yang-Mills theory that make it more tractable mathematically.

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    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      I should probably clarify that my main reason for studying N=4 isn’t quantum gravity, it’s developing better tools for gauge theories. There are people who think of N=4 as a lead to gain insight about gravity (Nima for one) but it’s a more distant aim and I at least do better focusing a bit more near-term.

      That said, yeah, it’s important to remember that “projects” in theoretical physics aren’t experiments, and don’t have the same relation to reality. Rather, they’re concrete calculations. That said, there’s still a meaningful notion of “success”. If you’re a phenomenologist, you rule models out as experimental data comes in, and if you’re a pure theorist you stop working on ideas that don’t let you calculate anything.

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