Rigour of scientific method is not for every decision in life

The well-known rationalist-atheist-humanist Babu Gogineni (BG) participated in Bigg Boss 2 Telugu reality show. The show starts with 16 members confined to a house without connection to the outside world. One person is eliminated from the house every week.  So, each week, participants nominate 1 or 2 people who they think should be eliminated from the house. Every weekend, the host of the show interacts with the participants and questions their decisions.

In one such week, BG nominates Y for elimination after hearing some bad things about Y from X. The host questioned BG saying - You don't believe in God, you need proof for that. How did you then believe Y's comments on X? What proof did you have? (paraphrased). In other words, the host is implying that when it comes to nomination decision, BG is being hypocritical by not employing the same standards of rigour that BG demands from those making supernatural claims.

Several versions of this argument are usually used as a criticism against those advocating scientific method. They go along the lines of - do you use the scientific method for every decision in life? What evidence did you use before deciding to love your parents/wife? If the answer is no, it follows that the science or evidence advocates cannot demand evidence from others in any aspect because the evidence advocates themselves are not using evidence in every decision of life.

In short, by illustrating the lack of applicability of scientific evidence to some aspects, they attempt to carve out space where evidence should not be applicable, and finally put all their superstitions in that space, insulating it from demands of evidence.

This line of argument is a misinterpretation and abuse of scientific method. Advocates of scientific method do not say that it should be followed for every single decision in life. The relevance of scientific method is well captured in the famous Carl Sagan's quote "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence", meaning that the rigour evidence required should be proportional to the claims being made.

Prof Gadagkar addresses this specific criticism of scientific method in his article on scientific temper. He says:

I am a Professor at the Indian Institute of Science. I have a Ph.D. in Science. I teach courses in science. I was the President of the Indian National Science Academy. So, by all accounts I am a scientist. But is that always true? Am I a scientist 24/7? Do I use the scientific methods for everything? The answer is a clear No. I do not use the scientific method when I decide what music I would like to listen to, when I decide which restaurant I should go for dinner or what colour shirt I should wear
On the instances when the scientific method is necessary, Prof Gadagkar writes
If we want to know whether smoking cigarettes increases the risk of cancer, we must use the scientific method, if we want to decide whether a little bit of red wine actually reduces the risk of heart disease, we must use the scientific method, if we want to decide to learn how to put a space craft on the moon, we need the scientific method and if we have to decide whether or not Indians practiced inter-planetary travel thousands of years ago, we must use the scientific method. It is perfectly alright for me to say I like Hindustani music more than Carnatik music without scientifically justifying it, but it is not alright for me to say that genetically modified (GM) crops are bad for us or indeed to say that GM crops are good for us.

We can expand Prof. Gadagkar's argument and say that the relevance of scientific method to a problem depends on three factors - the nature of the claim, the stakes involved, constraints of collecting evidence. The method of verification depends on these three factors.

1. Nature of the claim: The question requiring scientific rigour should be the one relating to what we call the material world and the concerned laws, especially the ones making causal claims. For instance, X as the cause of Y phenomenon in the material world (Apples fall due to gravity, Medicine cures ulcer) concerns the material world making causal claims and hence are in the domain of science. On the other hand, it is not needed to choose Carnatic Music over Hindustani or a blue shirt over a black shirt. These are just matters of taste that do not make any causational claims.

2. Stakes involved: The necessity to verify and the amount of rigour required to substantiate the claim also depends on the stakes involved.

For instance, if I ask the security guard for the directions to the washroom in a mall, I don't need to verify his answer. I just follow his directions. The stakes involved are low. In the worse case, I might not find or I get delayed.

But, if we are on a long journey without google maps, we usually cross-check the directions by asking multiple people. It's because the stakes are little higher here as we don't want to waste time and energy in getting lost!

It means that the demands of rigour increase with the stakes involved. 

3. Constraints of collecting evidence: Advocates of reason and evidence only demand to arrive at the best possible conclusions with the available evidence, and revising the conclusions in case if evidence to the contrary emerges. 

Real life demands decisions within a particular time frame. In such cases, people make decisions with the best possible evidence at that point in time, considering the constraints in collecting evidence. The decisions made on such limited evidence doesn't in any sense contradict the notion of "reason-based decision" as long as the best possible is used and interpreted in an appropriate manner.

For instance, if the above example of cross-checking security guard's instructions in the mall, it is enough if you cross-check with one or two persons. You cannot be held accountable for not cross-checking with the building approval plan.

Similarly, the people in the Bigg Boss House make decisions based on the limited access to evidence. They cannot be held accountable for not going through the recorded tapes before making a decision.

Method of verification

There are different ways of verifying a claim, each other with different standards of rigour, as per the context. Usually, the term scientific method is loosely used to refer to all these methods and hence the confusion. Some of these methods are

1. Cues: Richard Dawkins famously says - I know that my wife loves me from evidence - the little cues like blushing etc. It may not necessarily be evidence in the scientific sense but it's still evidence. Doing so is not contradictory to the spirit of scientific temper in any sense.

2. Trust: In some low stakes questions, with no other ways to verify the information, sometimes we tend to trust the source of information. In the shopping mall example above, we trust the security guard. Trusting people in such contexts without cross verification is in no way contradictory to the spirit of scientifc temper.

Babu Gogineni did the same in the Bigg Boss house when he used "trust" on the source of information as a factor in making the decision. Again, as discussed, this is not any way in contradiction to the reason-based decision, as the host claimed.

3. Internal consistency: In some cases, again depending on the stakes involved and the constraints in evidence collection, we check for internal consistency. 

Suppose if a person says that he was watching a movie in a movie theatre at 9:00 PM last night but sometime later he also says that he was playing football with his friends at 9:00 PM last night, he is contradicting himself. This itself is enough to disbelieve the person. One doesn't necessarily need to have been present along with the person last night at 9:00 PM to make a judgment about it. 

Hence, internal consistency is a valid measure to verify the claims. Again, doing so here is in no way contradictory to the spirit of reason based thinking.

4. Triangulation: Triangulation is cross-checking the information with others. In cases where replication of the event is not possible, triangulation is a good enough method to arrive at the conclusions. 

For instance, in murder cases, one can't obviously go back in time to see what exactly happens. We rely on the internal consistency of the evidence and triangulate it with other information. For instance, if the accused says that he was in a different town the day the crime happened, you would look for the travel tickets or hotel bookings etc to confirm this fact. 

Triangulation is thus a valid method to verify claims. Doing so is not contradictory to the spirit of reason-based thinking.

Babu Gogineni did the same in Bigg Boss house. Given that he cannot go back in time or access the video recording to cross-check the claims, he verified it with others.

The above four methods are for cases where the stakes are not high. The following method, which strictly is the scientific method is for high stake claims involving causal explanations of the natural phenomena.

4. Replication and Controlled trials: The standards of evidence are high in the case of "scientific questions". Mere anecdotes or feelings or hearsay as we used above for some cases are not considered enough in these cases.

Broadly speaking scientific claims are tested using replication or controlled trials.

Replication means repeating something. If someone claims something from an experiment, that experiment should show the same results when done at another time, another place by another person. It is usually used in science.

Controlled trials are used in medicine to test if the healing effect is due to only the medicine taken or due to some other factor.

When science advocates criticize those making unscientific claims about the natural world, they are criticizing people for answering high stakes questions using the lowest rigour of evidence, and sometimes without even evidence. Advocating scientific temper in such cases is in no way contradictory to the other cases involving low-stake questions where less rigorous methods are used.

Coming to Babu Gogineni's case where he made a decision to nominate Y for elimination based on information from X, his actions are in no way contradictory to his usual position that causal claims require the highest rigour of evidence. The question here, the decision to eliminate, was not about a causal explanation for natural phenomena. It was low stakes, and there were constraints on the information available (he couldn't go back in time or watch the video footage). Given this constraints, he used the best possible method, a combination of trust and triangulation, to arrive at the conclusion. This shouldn't hence be seen as contradictory to his usual advocacy for requiring proofs!

In summary

1. The evidence is not necessary for every decision of life - liking Hindustani music or Carnatic music. The necessity of evidence and the rigour depend on the nature of the question and the stakes involved.

2. There are different methods of verifying claims using reason. Usage of different methods for different contexts is not contradictory to the advocacy of reason based thinking.

3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Causal claims about the phenomena of the material world require the highest rigour of evidence.

4. One should make decisions based on the best possible evidence, using the best possible methods, as per the nature of the question and the stakes involved.

Given the wide reach of the programme like Bigg Boos, such remarks by the host, misinterpreting the advocacy for the need for reason, has widespread negative effects. Hope the host of Bigg Boss 2 and public figures, in general, realize this and will be careful in their public communication.