The Gadfly Bytes -- May 15, 2017
WHY SHOULD WE TRUST THE SCIENTISTS?
("Is Science Just Another Dogma" Revised)
For any statement whatever in the body of science, we know what it would be like for that statement to be false. (I exclude "formal" statements: e.g., definitions, logical rules and tautologies, which lack external empirical reference – a technical point which I won't elaborate here). It is thus possible, in principle, to describe a refutation of a scientific claim. In other words, scientific statements, hypotheses and theories are falsifiable – not "false," but falsifiable. The distinction is crucial.
To put it another way, for an hypothesis, prediction or confirmation to have scientific meaning, one must be prepared to say, "expect to find such-and-such empirical conditions in the world, to the exclusion of other describable conditions." If you find these expected conditions, your statement has been proven true of this particular "real nature," and not some "fanciful nature." For example, Galileo determined that a free-falling object falls at a distance of d = ½ gt2 (with "d" for distance, "t" for time, and "g" for a gravitational constant at the Earth's surface). Not 1/4g or 1/3g, but 1/2g. And not time cubed, or time to the 2.5 power, but time squared. In other words, that simple equation describes one sort of nature to the exclusion of an infinitude of other "natures" described by different formulas. But experimentation and observation has proven that Galileo's formula applies to the "nature" we live in. In short, the free-fall formula is falsifiable. We can easily describe how it might be false but have determined experimentally that it is true.
Similarly, in Eddington's famous 1919 eclipse experiment, Einstein's theory of relativity predicted that star near the eclipse would appear in a precisely defined location, and not in any other location in the night sky (a falsification). And sure enough, it appeared where predicted by the relativity theory. Confirmation!
In contrast, dogmas give us unfalsifiable assertions. Once in a debate with an evangelical minister, I asked: "Why should I believe that the Bible is the inerrant truth, and that I must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved?" He replied, "just you wait – when you die and face your maker, then you will find out." Of course, that challenge was utterly unfalsifiable to anyone alive, which is to say, to anyone at all. Similarly, economic dogmas, which are "theory rich," have an "explanation" (after the fact) for every and any developments in the national economy. And if one theory in the economist's kit of tools won't work, he has another that will. What such an economist cannot do is describe a turn in the economy that would disprove his dogma. In short, unfalsifiable assertions, because they describe every possible world, describe nothing unique about the world we live in, which is to say that they "describe" nothing at all.
(The Falsifiability rule has been challenged by many reputable philosophers of science. My blunt reply: they are correct, but so what? Falsifiability remains as a robust and essential, albeit imperfect, criterion, as I explain in this supplementary note).
An important implication of the falsifiability rule, is what Charles Peirce called "Falliblism." Because every scientific statement is falsifiable, we must be forever open to the possibility (however remote) that some new observation or experiment will prove it wrong. The "falliblist" says, in effect, that "while I have strong beliefs, I am forever prepared to change these beliefs if confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary."
We have often heard that "science has been proven to be
wrong in the past." True enough! But what has discovered and
corrected scientific error? Science of course. Again, as a human
institution, science is imperfect – which is to say, "fallible." But science
is far and away the best remedy for the imperfections of science.
The Order of Scientific Inquiry Proceeds from Evidence to Conclusion.
In science, as in jury trials, the outcome remains in doubt until all the evidence has been examined and evaluated. Evidence is assembled, hypotheses and theories are tentatively formed, and from all this, events and conditions (all "falsifiable") are predicted. Only if the predictions "pan out," are the hypothesis and theory confirmed, whereupon science progresses once again.
In contrast, dogmatists take the position of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland – "verdict first, trial afterwards." The caption of a New Yorker cartoon that I have used for years in my classes summarizes that "method" perfectly: "That is the gist of my position, now go out and get some evidence to base it on." This is the strategy of the preacher, the advertiser, and the political propagandist. The doctrine, or the client's product, or the party policy are all sacrosanct – not to be questioned. Beneath this exalted and unalterable truth, a scaffold of concocted "evidence" and argumentation must be assembled. This is the methodology of "creationism," of the Tobacco Institute, of the Global Climate Coalition (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and of the Supreme Court decision of December 12, 2000, Bush v. Gore.
And, of course, it is a "methodology" that is
unfalsifiable – no amount of evidence to the contrary will budge these
advocates from their pre-ordained conclusions. Witness the behavior and
utterances of "climate change deniers."
In Science, as with Jury Trials, the Burden of Proof is on the Affirmative.
We've all heard it in political and religious debates: "Prove me wrong." It a cry of despair. A belief, innocent of supporting evidence, is proclaimed to be true, absent a compelling argument in the negative. (Logicians call this "the ad ignorantum fallacy.")
This tactic of placing the burden of proof on the negative is inadmissible in courts of law, where the burden must fall on the prosecution (to prove affirmative guilt) rather than on the defense (to negatively prove "not guilty").
Common sense shows us the wisdom of placing the burden of proof upon the affirmative. For example, no one has found any evidence of Noah's ark on Mt. Ararat. "So prove to me that it isn't there and never was!" Of course we can't. Is this sufficient reason to believe the Bible story, and that this mountain is the place in question? Similarly for stories about Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and UFO abductions. "Prove me wrong!" Well I can't, but so what?
The rule of "burden of proof on the affirmative" is a splendid device for de-cluttering the mind of intellectual rubbish. One might approach the world with the attitude of believing everything not disproved or, on the other hand, believing nothing unless proved. The latter, the approach of the scientist, is a far more reliable guide to truth, not to mention the management of one's practical affairs.
George Santayana had it just right: "Skepticism is the
chastity of the intellect."
Science is Universal.
The foregoing list of distinguishing qualities of science indicates, I trust, that science is "not just another dogma." This fact is demonstrated by the universal appeal and application of science. Scientists from around the world readily communicate with each other, as scientists, regardless of their political, religious and cultural differences.. Science is an institution and tradition which, while not without subjective elements (e.g. creative "hunches" and imaginative theories), attains an objectivity through its constant commerce with nature, and through the discipline of its methodology which ruthlessly culls out theories and hypotheses that fail the test of confirmation. Science is not perfect – no human institution is. Nor does science encompass all human knowledge, for there is much more to be learned from the arts, from literature, from moral reflection and practice, and from living in the company of fellow human beings in a well-ordered society. But science is supremely good at what it does – discovering the nature of physical, biological, and social reality, and articulating that reality in abstract and general laws and theories.
All Americans affirm science every time they boot up a computer, start a car or make a phone call. These everyday activities take place only through the successful application of thousands of scientific laws and theories. When the evangelical preacher stands before a TV camera to denounce evolution, or Donald Trump to debunk global warming as "unsound science," they both know that the device that is pointing at them will send their image and words to millions "out there." Thus they implicitly affirm the validity of physics, chemistry, advanced mathematics and computer science, even as they deny biology and atmospheric science.
You are presumably reading this essay on the internet. Therefore, numerous scientifically proven natural laws regarding the electro-magnetic spectrum, the properties of semi-conductors, theories of circuitry, and much more, are all true. The scientists and engineers (applied scientists) have all successfully done their jobs.
I defy you to supply a non-scientific explanation as to how your are able to pick this piece off the internet and read it on your computer screen.
Faith? A miracle? The Grace of God? Good luck with that!
The downgrading of science is quite agreeable to the religious right, of course. But also to the corporations that own Trump and the "Tea Party" Republicans in the White House. And as the pesticide and tobacco cases vividly demonstrated in the past, and the global warming issue reminds us today, scientific research and discovery can be very threatening to the corporate bottom line. A scientifically educated and sophisticated public would appreciate the significance of that research and discovery, and would see through the sophistry of corporate public relations. That same public, under a democratic system, would select leaders that act in behalf of all citizens, act to preserve the natural environment that is our ultimate source and sustenance, and act to the benefit of future generations. Accordingly, those corporate elites whose concerns are confined to their own self interest have no stake in a public that thinks critically and is scientifically informed. Sadly, the American public today gives those elites little cause for concern.
Nonetheless, the science deniers should be gravely concerned.
If the Trump administration and its successors continue to defund scientific research and education, and if a ruling American political party continues to deny and disparage science, preferring dogma and "false facts," then science will not "go away." More likely, the United States will cease to be a significant world power.
The once-outstanding American research universities will no longer attract talented young students from the United States and abroad, and these institution will no longer produce leading-edge research and innovations. However, science will continue to flourish elsewhere, where it will be cherished and generously supported: in China, in the Pacific Rim, in western Europe, and yes, in Russia.
Continuing the Whitehead quotation that began this piece:
Not all your heroism, not all your social charm, not all your wit, not all your victories on land or at sea can move back the finger of fate. Today we maintain ourselves. Tomorrow science will have moved forwards yet one more step, and there will be no appeal from the judgment which will then be pronounced on the uneducated. ("The Aims of Education")