Anyone who has been following this series knows that I read a lot of books. Every now and then one catches my attention that is relevant to understanding how we might make better decisions – at least better decisions in how we interact with the physical world.

On my latest trip to the library, I found one such book on the new arrivals shelves. The title really caught my eye, Just a Theory with the sub-title, “Exploring the Nature of Science” by Moti Ben-Ari. In several previous columns, I have taken to task people who dismiss serious endeavors with a breezy, “Well, that’s all right in theory…” or worse, “That’s just a theory!” Either statement implies that the real situation is different than however you happen to be thinking about it. Generally the speaker has no real idea of what constitutes a theory.

Many very intelligent people have tried to understand knowledge and how we extract useful information from observations in the physical world. The Wikipedia article on Karl Popper would be a good place to get a quick feeling for some of the issues. But the new book covers much more than the single entry.

The author starts off by saying his book is for a general audience and that he only included a few equations because they are pretty to look at, not because he discusses them from a technical point of view. In fact, he not only doesn’t discuss them, he doesn’t even define the mathematical symbols used, some of which are definitely not in a non-technical person’s vocabulary. Most of the text is written in a light vein with humorous asides. In between chapters, he has placed little vignettes of famous scientists’ lives.

He starts off by diagramming the process that most people (even some scientists) think leads to new theories. He calls this the “naive inductive-deductive method.” Essentially this is the idea that from observations, one proceeds to extract facts which by induction leads to theories. The theories in turn via deduction lead to predictions for more experimentation and comparison with the universe. This is a neat scenario and might even happen sometimes. But as the author points out, it is flawed from the beginning. We cannot observe everything. There is just too much stuff. We select what we observe and that selection is highly conditioned by what we already think.

Quite literally, what you see is determined by what you expect to see. Any scientist approaching a new problem brings along a concept of the universe and how it works. Observations are automatically compared to that internal model for verification. For instance, a person who had never driven in an automobile is more frightened by a ride through town than a person who knows and understands the traffic patterns. This came home to me strongly when my wife was driving a rental car in Ireland while I sat in the passenger seat and read a map. When I looked up and saw a truck coming straight for me, my foot automatically went for the brake and I reached for the steering wheel. Of course they were both on the other side of the car, and the truck was minding its own business. The disorientation was due to my faulty mental model of which side the traffic would drive on.

What distinguishes truly great contributions is transcending known paradigms to fit new data into a new construct. (If you think that having a paradigm means you have 20 cents, then you probably should not be reading this.)

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.