Problems with Interpreting Observations

Recently, I’ve been reading An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (Silver Anniversary Edition). It’s a fascinating book, with insights on almost every page. Here’s the author’s thoughts on the problems of interpreting observations:

Whenever we observe a state that is both conspicuous and improbable, we are faced with a quandary. Do we believe our observation or do we invoke some special hypothesis?

Conservatism is introduced into the scientific investigation by the very assumption that observations must be consistent with present theories. An observation is more likely to be discarded as “erroneous” if it is out of consonance with theory. … The complete substitution of theory for observation is, of course, not scientific. Even worse is going through the motions of observing, but discarding as “spurious” every observation that does not fit theory.

This, then, is the problem. Raw, detailed observation of the world is just too rich a diet for science. No two situations are exactly alike unless we make them so. Every license plate we see is a miracle

“A statue is a situation which can be recognized if it occurs again.” But no state will ever occur again if we don’t lump many states into one “state.” Thus, in order to learn at all, we must forego some potential discrimination of states, some possibility of learning everything.

Science does not, and cannot, deal with miracles. Science deals only with repetitive events. Each science has to have characteristic ways of lumping the states of the systems it observes, in order to generate repetition. How does it lump? Not in arbitrary ways, but in ways determined by its past experience — ways that “work” for that science. Gradually, as the science matures, the “brain” is traded for the “eye,” until it becomes almost impossible to break a scientific paradigm (a traditional way of lumping) with mere empirical observations.

Now, if the issues outlined in the above quote are a problem for the hard sciences, they are a disaster in fuzzier disciplines like history, economics, and politics. They also have implications for business. Most of the time, you will find, that there is no widespread agreement among your co-workers on the state you are facing. And, if you all do agree, it’s probably just that your viewpoints are not really independent, not that you are all correct.

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