October 27, 2010

Paul the Octopus

THOUGH BLASÉ ABOUT THE WORLD CUP 2010, I WAS FASCINATED WITH PAUL ?the octopus, “the eight-armed oracle” at the Oberhausen Sea Life Aquarium in Germany that predicted eight out of eight World Cup matches, including Spain’s victory over Holland in the final. Before each game two boxes, with a mussel in each, were placed in Paul’s tank. Each box had the flag of whichever two nations were to compete. Paul, the “psychic cephalopod,” chose the flag of the team that did, eventually, win. And he did it 100 percent of the time.
Of course, had he had only one chance and gotten it right, or two chances and gotten them both right, he would still have had a perfect score. Had he done it 47 out of 50 times, Paul would have been even more impressive, even though he’d be below 100 percent, which shows just how tricky statistics can be. After all, whom would you rather trust: someone who gets it right one out of one time (100 percent), or 47 out of 50 (only 94 percent)?
2010 1534 page27Paul, though, shows not just a problem with statistics but a problem with science as well. Suppose I propose a scientific theory and claim that, if my theory is correct, y is going to turn green. Well, y turns green, and it does so (like Paul’s predictions) 100 percent of the time. My theory is correct, right?
Not necessarily: y could turn green for reasons that have nothing to do with the ?theory. Other theories could have made the exact predictions. Some philosophers argue, in fact, that correct predictions never prove a theory right, but, simply, show that it has yet to be falsified.
Take the statement “If A is true, then B is true.” If A really is true, then B must be as well. That’s deduction, pure and simple. However, in the same statement, “If A is true, then B is true,” and B turns out to be true, that doesn’t mean that A is. A might not be true, but even if it is, its truth might have nothing to do with B.
This problem, dubbed the “underdetermination of theory by evidence,” means that for any given set of observations, more than one theory can be compatible with the evidence. Competing, even contradictory, theories can explain data. In short, accurate predictions don’t make a theory correct.
The history of science is littered with theories that, regardless of their accurate predictions, were later dumped. What guarantees, then, that just as past scientific theories have been falsified, today’s sacred scientific cows couldn’t be tomorrow’s hamburger meat?
In the late 1800s a young student named Max Planck was advised by professors not to study physics because, they said, pretty much everything about physics was understood. Within the early years of the 1900s, however, three of the most fundamental aspects of physics—determinism, continuity, and separability—were superseded by quantum physics. And though quantum physics makes amazingly accurate predictions, and is crucial to so much technology, who knows its fate?
“The theories we currently hold to be true,” said Stephen Goldman, a professor at Lehigh University, “are as likely to be falsified in the next 100 years as the theories that we look back on as having been falsified in the last hundred years.”
How crucial, then, that we be careful not to tie our interpretation of Scripture to science. During the time of Galileo and Kepler, for example, the church used the Bible to justify error based on a science (i.e., Aristotle) that no one takes seriously now. Today, meanwhile, many Christians interpreting the Bible, particularly Genesis 1 and 2, through the lens of evolution are making the same blunder. Only in the latter case, they’re interpreting the Bible through a scientific theory that blatantly contradicts the Bible’s most basic teaching—something that Aristotle’s science, at least the part accepted by the church, never did.
If we’re not going to tie our theology to Paul the octopus, despite his accurate predictions, then how foolish is it to tie it to science as well? 

Regrettably, Paul the Octopus died on October 26, 2010 at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, probably, in part, from the notoriety he received by being profiled in Goldstein’s column.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. This piece was published October 21, 2010.