Science is like Pac Man

Science is like Pac Man July 9, 2020


In case you are too young to have encountered Pac Man, it was an early computer game in which the player is a chomping mouth rushing through a maze, eating fruits and evading ghosts. The rewards and hazards are in front and can be selected or avoided by taking a different path. The successes are behind in the form of a mountain of scored food and a route safely cleared of ghosts.

It’s a perfect analogy for Science.

The maze is the universe, the gobbling mouth represents scientists, the fruits are mysteries to solve, the ghosts are threats to avoid, the crossroads enable directions to be chosen based on beliefs, and the score is discovered information (commonly called ‘knowledge’).

Humans started out on this planet with only the instincts and folklore of our forebears: with next to no knowledge. Everything we encountered was an opportunity to investigate, “Is that fruit poisonous or edible?” The wary survived long enough to pass on their cautious behavior to their offspring. This ‘game’ continues today.

Gradually, we have amassed knowledge until we now have a mountain of it. It has enabled us to walk on the moon, to eradicate smallpox and to build the world wide web.

The best thing about this analogy is it distinguishes between beliefs and knowledge.

Knowledge does not require active consideration. It is evidential and unfalsified: we know what will happen if we jump off a roof. But beliefs require constant reiteration, nightly prayers, to stave off doubts about unfounded claims. Beliefs are about choosing which way to go at a crossroad, in the absence of sufficient information.

Beliefs are forward-looking speculations about dubious propositions, while knowledge is accumulated information from historic discoveries: the safe track negotiated behind us. It’s the difference between, “My horse will win” and “My horse won”.

There’s only one caveat. Occasionally, there is a disagreement, and a steward’s enquiry has to be invoked. This happened when Newton’s explanatory model of how the solar system works was found not to apply to the orbit of Mercury. Einstein’s model is a little better. However, until the next dispute happens, we live as if our current knowledge is true.

There’s a word for that: fallibilism.

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