On Hunting Unicorns

When I was in high school and very much in the crackpot stage of my life, I used to be a big follower of cryptozoology; the study, and attempt to prove the existence of, creatures only described in the folkloric record. (Note that I say “study” here in the same sense that a serial killer might say that “murder is the study of human death” in a schlocky police procedural.) Whenever somebody would ask me why I thought flying deer or unicorns existed, I’d simply ask them to prove me wrong: hOw dO YoU KnOw tHeRe aReN’T AnY? dId yOu lOoK EvErYwHeRe aNd nOt fInD OnE?

When I got older and “wiser”, I realized my follyhad unicorns existed, we would have simply either shot them all to death or genetically modified them for optimal horn production to the extent that we’d only be left with large bony masses and an atrophied horse body attached to them. But colt meeting Colt notwithstanding, believing in unicorns (or cryptid of your choice) tends to be tricky to deal with both philosophically and scientifically, and in this entry I’ll try to show you why.

unicorn2 copy

You see, scientists are in general cranky old codgers, and this grouchiness manifests itself through an all-pervading negativity when it comes to the discussion of scientific pursuits. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a scientist call another scientists work some variant of the word garbage, I’d have enough metal to run Smith & Wesson out of business.) And, like anything made by cranky old codgers, this negativity has been philosophically formalized into what can be summarized briefly as “you’re wrong, we just don’t know how yet”.* In that sense, scientists instinctively value beliefs that are (nominally) easy to disprove, which makes believing in the existence of unicorns tricky business.

*Incidentally, this is precisely why scientists call the claims of science “theories”; no matter how correct or proved these claims may be, we’re only one unicorn away from having people throw trash at us from the auditorium back seats during our university colloquium.

To illustrate, imagine we’re in some stodgy Viennese café in the early 1900’s and two philosophers with opposite claims about unicorns are trying to convince us of their viewpoint; Philosopher 1 claims that no unicorns exist, while Philosopher 2 states that at least one unicorn exists somewhere on Earth. If we are the same kind of grouch that I discussed before, we would set about attempting to show which claim is “less wrong” by attempting to disprove one claim or the other.

However, notice the difference in effort to do so; to refute Philosopher 1, we’d only need to hunt (or hire someone to find for us) one unicorn to completely blow his claim out of the water. To refute Philosopher 2, we’d need to scour every single part of the Earth to make sure that unicorns aren’t hiding out in some remote unreachable corner of the planet.* Sure, finding a single unicorn would be a herculean challenge for any hunter, but it is far more challenging to survey the ends of the Earth to make sure that there aren’t any.

*Spoiler alert: Yes, that includes the ocean.

unicorn1

From the perspective of optimizing the amount of time we spend drinking coffee and making unpleasant faces at passerby, it is far more convenient to entertain the notion that no unicorns exist; simply because it’s far easier to disprove it. And if you notice carefully, it turns out that claims that refer to a universal truth (i.e. there are no unicorns/everything is unicorns) in general are far, far easier to disprove than claims that are their direct refusal—namely, that at least one unicorn exists/at least one thing isn’t a unicorn. These types of claims are usually referred to as existential, in the sense that they claim that a specific thing exists (or doesn’t), and this “oppositeness” always holds; the refutation of a universal claim is always an existential claim, and vice-versa. If we were particularly pretentious—and if we’re in a Viennese coffee shop in the early 1900’s, that’s extremely likely—we might even call it something like the “no unicorns principle”:

No Unicorns Principle: Claims that are universal have more philosophically scientific worth than those that are existential.

If you look at the different theories in physics that have popped up throughout human history, you’ll find they share something in common; their claims are almost always universal, like the claim made by Philosopher 1, in the sense that they make statements like “everything is ████ ” or “everything of this type behaves according to █████ “. Perhaps more strikingly, you’ll find that there are far fewer theories regarding the existence of things in the vein of what Philosopher 2 proposed; statements like “there is at least one object that behaves according to ████ ” or “there is a ████ ” are fairly sparse in the history of science.

This is, in the context of my previous arguments, no coincidence. That innate grumpiness in scientists has manifested itself as the historical tendency that almost all of our physical theories are of the universal type, and statements about the existence of weird objects in our universe are almost always made as a direct consequence of their prediction in universal theories (and even then we get into big fights about them). It is for that reason that most of our experimental efforts are focused on finding specific things, since it is through this method that we go about disproving all theories that don’t predict these things’ existence. And when it comes to hunting these unicorns, you better make sure you bring a big gun.

On Greek Goddesses and Flying Furniture

During my last trip back home to Puerto Rico, I struck up a conversation with a friendly bartender I met in Old San Juan on the topic of achieving emotional stability. They mentioned that they believed in the ability to sporadically channel “emotional energy” from the moon, and that they relied on this to keep themselves stable through an unenviably long & rough patch of their life. Far from treating this as the ramblings of a person detached from realityas many scientists would doI was deeply sympathetic; regardless of how non-scientific that belief was, it certainly felt real to them, and they may not have come out of that stretch of bad times (which many of my compatriots have been sharing) without it. So as the nocturnal hub-bub of the old city sank back into the cobblestone, and I into my Trinidad Sour, I wondered; to what extent should we scientists attempt to point out and chastise nonsensical, potentially harmful beliefs, and to what extent should we avoid using science as a one-size-fits-all appeal to authority while refuting people’s emotionally valuable belief systems? To that end, I will pull the classic “physicist thinks he can solve everything” trick in this entry to try and find meaningful “operating conditions” and restrictions for non-scientific phenomena, using arguments less within the scope of science itself than in an often-ignored field of philosophy.

The first question to consider is, what is a science? This can be answered simply by a cursory stroll to your nearest dictionary; a science is a branch of study whose conclusions derive from consistently testable physical phenomena. We know Newton’s laws are laws because we don’t spontaneously see people fall upwards; every time we drop our exes’ furniture out of our apartment window, we can reliably count on hearing a loud thud on the street a couple of seconds later. If we did see couches sporadically flying upwards and sometimes falling downwards, science as we know it would be in a hell of a lot of trouble.

As a result, our definition of science hinges on repeated assessments of the behavior of things, and scientific laws & theorems must be validated by these experiments time and time again in order to be properly considered as such. But there are bound to be flukes, for example; the only thing more unbounded than the universe is the capacity for human error, and it is only a matter of time before someone tries dropping a couch over an open manhole, fails to hear a thud, and concludes that gravity isn’t real because their couch has found a new home in the upper atmosphere.

Couch 1

This is why any modern scientific enterprise, be it physical or biological, relies on statistics (cue screams). The existence of the Higgs boson, for example, is concluded entirely from statistics; based on the data they’ve observed, there is a chance of less than 1 in 1 million that the data they measured consistent with the existence of this particle is associated with experimental noise (or femtoscale flying couches). The process through which medical treatments become approved for public use is also statistical; it is foreseeable that someone with a currently undiscovered genetic anomaly will die from the use of Tylenol, but that certainly doesn’t disqualify it from being a worthwhile medical treatment nor should you update your will every time you take one. Scientific flukes are always expected; just not too many.

So where do beliefs fit into all this? Most science communicators are quick to discard religion and other such belief systems post-haste, while “believers” will always point to their deities (or themselves) as supreme authorities over all matters scientific or not. So where does science hold reign and what lies outside its domain?

In order to clarify this, we should first classify belief systems into two categories:

  1. Scientific belief systems: A belief system in which all statements are consistent with current scientific laws/theorems.
  2. Non-scientific belief systems: A belief system in which some statements are not consistent with current scientific laws/theorems.

Using these definitions, it’s quite clear that scientific belief systems have no trouble with scientific results, because they come to the same conclusions regarding testable physical behavior. It doesn’t really matter whether you think the invisible hand of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is pulling your exes’ couch onto the pavement or if you think it’s because of impossibly tiny strings, all that matters is that you wind up getting the equations of general relativityand a broken couch on the pavementeither way.

But arguably, such belief systems are fairly scarce; perhaps the largest appeal of belief systems is precisely the fact that they “overcome” science, and so our attention should be focused firmly on the non-scientific kind, and particularly on the restrictions that experimental (scientific) tests would “impose” on these. In particular, what would a “scientifically plausible” set of non-scientific beliefs look like?

The best way to illustrate such a “plausible” non-scientific belief system is by example. Consider a group of a million believers and non-believers who are afflicted by a well-understood disease that has been scientifically shown in laboratory experiments to kill approximately 50% of people who suffer from it. However, some people in this group believe that the Greek goddess of health Iaso will rescue and cure a select group (0.1% of the total afflicted) who are exceptionally “righteous” that would have died otherwise.

Plague 1Plague 2

Using computer simulations*, we can test two different scenarios of this plague; one in which Iaso doesn’t exist, and one in which Iaso does exist and her behavior was correctly predicted by her believers. If we’re only measuring the number of people who survive/die, here’s the numbers in one simulated run of this plague for each case.

*See here for the simple algorithm: you can copy/paste it here and run it yourself!

% dead % survived % total
Iaso doesn’t exist 49.9724% 50.0276% 100%
Iaso intervenes 50.0081% 49.9919% 100%

Look at that; more people died in the case where Iaso rescued some of the doomed than in the case where Iaso didn’t exist! And, more importantly, the difference between both cases in this “study” is almost indistinguishable!

The key reason we can observe something like this happen is due to the fact that the plague kills approximately 50% of the afflicted; we don’t expect to see exactly 50,000 people die in a group of a million afflicted people, but we do expect the actual number to be so close to 50,000 that it may as well be that. And there is a good mathematical reason for why the Iaso-intervening plague killed more people than in the godless case; the amount of people Iaso explicitly saved (which is the evidence for non-scientific phenomena) is contained entirely inside the statistical uncertainty of our scientific prediction for the kill rate of this plague. In this situation, the existence of a Greek healing goddess (or deity of your choice) going around healing people doesn’t necessarily contradict scientific theories, because its effect is quantitatively negligible in comparison to the effects predicted by scientific theories. If the effect was large enough, though, we’d certainly see it pop up in the statistics, and scientists would be able to start sniffing around for new physics. We can use all of this to establish a statement on belief systems of this type:

Statement 1: Physical effects of non-scientific belief systems that disagree with scientific theorems must be statistically trivial.

However, the astuteness of scientists places a further constraint; you see, a keen experimentalist who is also an Iasic believer may attempt to find evidence of Iaso’s meddling, and specifically look at the survival rates of those he knows are exceptionally righteous. Such a scientist will note that that these “righteous” always keep surviving this plague, note the Iasic belief above as a testable hypothesis, and create a scientific law proving the existence of Iaso (or at least the immunity of those who are exceptionally righteous in Iasic religion to this plague). This would place the Iasic belief in the domain of scientific belief systems, so Iaso’s behavior would have to be at least a little bit erratic or inconsistent in order to avoid scientific characterization. In short,

Statement 2: Physical effects of non-scientific belief systems cannot be verifiably consistent.

For the example above, either Iaso has to be sufficiently unpredictable in saving the doomed to avoid consistent testable observation of her cures, or the criteria by which she saves people (righteousness) has to be sufficiently uncharacterizable as to be unable to be controlled for in a scientific experiment. In some sense, Iaso “must work in mysterious ways”.

Does this spell out some sort of argument to bury non-scientific belief systems? Of course not! In my opinion, it does quite the opposite; this clearly delineates the limitations of science to disprove a “sufficiently modest” belief system that predicts physical phenomena which disagree with scientific theories. Simultaneously however, non-scientific belief systems have to be very careful about predicting physical phenomena, lest we scientists swoop in and start stealing their thunder (or proving them wrong). So though you may certainly find that science has something to say about the existence of flying couches, you won’t find me complaining too much about you feeding off of that moon energy. Peace out!