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About Method - Or About What to Do When It Fails

03-29-2024 | By Wojciech Pacuła | Issue 132

For a man who still retains spontaneity, truth will always remain a great word, at the sound of which the heart beats more vividly.

W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the history of philosophy

I don't know if you have noticed, but since the beginning of High Fidelity, we have tried to operate according to principles developed in the industry and modified by us. Every test is an empirical study by listening. This is because we assume that the human ear is the best, most accurate and most sensitive measuring instrument. Classical measurements are the basis, but at some point they must give way to listening, because they do not capture all the complexity of what we perceive as music. A test is therefore an experiment, an experience that must be governed by its own rules.

One of them, for example, may be accepting that it is a listening test, that is, we study the sound by comparing it to a reference and, further down the line, to the sound of other top products, products in a given price range and, finally, to live sound. Another one, that we change only one product in the reference system. And another, finally, that we have a fixed mode of listening, including the length of samples, we assume the parameters we are looking for, and so on. With time, we improve our craft, by which, I believe, we are more and more precise in our evaluations.

In science, the scientific method is the base on which layers are laid, resulting in discoveries and solutions consistent with the prevailing scientific discourse. It's what keeps airplanes from falling, websites working and shipments from any online store arriving on time. The scientific method, understood in general, as a working principle, is the basis of the modern world. Not just the modern one, after all, it has been known since antiquity. But it is a fact that starting with the industrial revolution in the 19th century it has gained special importance.

The Copernicus Science Center has posted an article on its website entitled Scientific method - what is that?. Answering this question, Prof. Magdalena Fikus, PhD, biophysicist, popularizer of science, co-founder of the Science Festival

in Warsaw, said: "It has generally been accepted that this is a way of researching and formulating a true description of a phenomenon," adding, however: "There is no single established recipe for using the scientific method (...). Their implementation requires intelligence, creativity and great imagination."

The problem of the modern world is the undermining of findings made through properly conducted research by an anonymous crowd on the Internet, posing as experts and calling for this or that. It is already known that a large part of it is simply a marketing effort on the one hand, and a proto-war effort to destabilize a country on the other. Both cases use a lie dressed up in such a way as to pretend to be the truth. This is a huge problem. And, after all, there is also the phenomenon of childishness, through which, psychologists say, arguments and facts count less and less, and drives and emotions win, to use the introduction to the article The Disease of Childishness by Grażyna Morek.

However, the scientific method is not a recipe for everything, and treated dogmatically, it can lead to mistakes. I don't need to remind you that traditional university audio knowledge in many areas does not coincide with what we discover by listening to individual components and accessories. Correct in principle, it ultimately turns out to be wrong, because it dogmatically clings to data and knowledge acquired in isolation from the actual realization of theoretical models, and by obsessively denying phenomena that escape simple descriptions and that reach for the new.

If we stuck to traditional arrangements we would still judge audio products by their standard measurements, developed seventy years ago and more. These are important measurements, good measurements. But far from sufficient, even residual as they say little about the actual sound of the device. And even less about how it modifies the sound affecting how we perceive music, how we react to it emotionally and intellectually. Still, by the Academics, so to speak, they are dogmatic, and considered the only possible and—unfortunately!—sufficient.

By the way, this is not a problem only in our industry. Let me remind you, that Darwin, a brilliant researcher, but only a man, argued in his works that the female is a "willful fool." In his work On the Origin of Species, he wrote that in almost all species, males are active, dominant and passionate, while females—with few exceptions—are passive, submissive and frigid. This view also projected onto humans. Today we know that he was wrong, that an error of perspective crept into his scientific method, that is, the times in which he lived. He wrote, in a word, nonsense incompatible not only with common sense, but above all with contemporary scientific findings on the subject, while conforming to the "spirit of the age."

So there is a problem with the scientific method, and quite a big one. On the one hand, it should be protected from people carrying their agenda against the interests of all of us (think sowers of fear and fraudsters), and on the other hand, it should be tested again and again, faced with uncomfortable questions and, if necessary, modified. Only, and this is the other side of it, that scientists are incredibly downright conservative and acrimoniously exclusionary towards views other than their own or commonly held in the fields they practice. And on top of that, surprisingly often they are wrong.

One of the most fierce critics of the scientific method was Paul Feyerabend, recently recalled in—to stay with the same weekly - Polityka. A philosophy lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley, called a provocateur, iconoclast, free-thinker and even - by the Science magazine—the greatest enemy of science, the author of the dissertation Against Method asked what makes science different from magic, whether it is the only path to truth and whether the pursuit of truth does not strip us of our individuality and intellect (Polityka No. 6, 31.01-6.02.2024, pp. 56-58).

In the aforementioned dissertation, he argued that there is no single scientific method that leads to truth. Moreover, he argued that limiting science to the researcher's chosen methodology is wrong and leads nowhere. Matteo Collodel, Ph.D. in philosophy, an interviewee of Tomasz Targansky, says in the referenced article that the aforementioned book shows that "scientific theories—including the greatest ones—are often incompatible with 'experience' in the broadest sense," and moreover, "are sometimes inconsistent and counterintuitive."

And it's intuition I'm talking about. Although I started "scientifically," actually, by praising scientific methodology, I immediately went on to point out the inconsistency of this view with experience, thus arriving at the "king of methodological anarchism," which said outright that modern science is following the wrong path. At least when it comes to the ways of doing it. But the most important word here is "intuition."

I am far from dismissing scientific achievements, built up over years, layer by layer, if only because they usually work. Airplanes fly, e-mails reach their addressees, and loudspeakers convert electrical signals into sound waves. These are the facts among which we live. What I am saying, however, is that where more sublime modes of creation go—and audio is a great example of this—methods that might be said to be "scientific" surprisingly often fail.

That's why I've paid much attention to intuition in my tests over the years. What do I understand by this term? I mean a decision chain, a train of thought as a result of which I get answers to questions that I would not get by following strictly the testing regime. I try strenuously to preserve the methodology I have developed, but I notice that over time it is transforming into something at the intersection of the two approaches—scientific and intuitive. I will say more: I am beginning to catch myself that this intuition ceases to be esoteric for me, and becomes a "hard fact."

But I also understand it a little differently than we are used to. I do not see it as an "extrasensory" experience, it is not metaphysics to me. In the sense that I understand it as something that arises from my experience, not only realized, but also that over which I have no control and that I don't even realize. In which, if I understand it correctly and without false modesty, I would follow the best audio manufacturers, often engineers, PhDs and professors, building top audio in the world using all their scientific background, but modified by empirical experience, in short, listening.

It's like with "premonition." There is an apparent regularity in the history of literature: literature can "predict" certain events, situations etc. much earlier than even the best political and economic analysts. And now—this is nothing supernatural abut it, but rather the result of the unheard-of sensitivity of artists, who act like an ultra-sensitive "membrane," turning the small, difficult to grasp data from life into a picture which we call "premonition."

This is also how I understand intuition—as a set of actions that the brain performs on the conscious and unconscious levels, informing us of the results of its work. However, since these results are not "certain" in the light of the scientific method, we most often doubt their validity. Often, moreover, these doubts are legitimate. Because when an intuition is based on a small set of data, so to speak, then the result of its work is quite general. The more data it has to "process," the better we are at logically tying facts together, the more experience we have, in a word—the more we have "in our heads," the more precise its results are.

Therefore, I trust my intuition for listening directions more boldly than I did before. And with time I rely on it more and more. I treat it as an additional, but nevertheless important tool, because it often gives a quick answer to such questions as: "Is it worth it?", "What class are we talking about?" or "What's missing here?" to cite the first ones that just came to mind. Now I know that by going against it I might miss something. The methodology allows you to stay "vigilant" regardless of the circumstances, and produces results that are within the margin of probability regarding the outcome of the tests. This is important. But it is intuition that shows me what is really important in a product and what I should pay attention to.

Jan Hartman, as Wikipedia refers to him: a Polish philosopher of Jewish origin, bioethicist, professor of the humanities, publisher, publicist, politician, and full professor at Jagiellonian University, speaking in his latest book, appropriately titled Zmierzch filozofii, about the causes of the decline of philosophy's authority in the modern world at one point invokes the positivists and the separation they forced at the turn of the 20th century on the scientific world, including philosophy.

For here they separated from each other two ways of viewing the world: the scientific, or empirical, and the extrasensory, or metaphysical. And by "extrasensory," they meant that which cannot be proven in a "scientific" way, i.e. by method. So they reserved to science the conclusive place, and what cannot be practiced in this way, they sent back to religion. Hartman writes:

The public has allowed itself to be persuaded that there is a "surrounding reality" that science deals with, and, moreover, something "higher" that science does not have access to, unlike faith, art or other "spirituality."  What all this means and why—this is what the social elite do not bother with. Just like in the 17th century physics professors they say that physics learns the laws of nature, but the question of where they came from physics cannot answer. (p. 34)

Therefore, it may finally be time to trust yourself and your intuition. It's time to start talking about audio in a complete, not in a partial and therefore untrue way.

WOJCIECH PACUŁA, Editor in Chief


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