Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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On Post Modernism and Scientific Certainty.

November 8, 2010

A friend writes:

I think we are all postmodernists in the sense that we are critical and don't accept absolutes. You talked about the "laws" of science. They are only hypothetical, tentative. Heisenberg. John Dewey talked about "warranted assertibility." Some ideas are better than others. But still, we can measure things, [even though] the measuring instruments aren't exact and the things we are measuring are moving.

My reply:

I am not a post-modernist, in that I firmly believe that there are numerous scientific laws that are "practically certain," though they are in principle not "absolute." If a scientific law can be affirmed with 99.99% confidence, I take that to mean "practically certain."

All scientific assertion, to be meaningful, must be falsifiable. I.e., implicit in a scientific assertion must be a clear understanding of what the world would be like if the assertion were not true. For example, Galileo's equation for a free-falling object: distance = 1/2gravity x time squared. Not 1/3 or 1/4 or any other fraction x gravity, and not time cubed, or to the 1.5 power. In short, not any of an infinite number of alternative equations which would prove his equation false.

Similarly, Eddington's eclipse experiment confirmed Einstein's equation, E=mc
2 Had the star near the eclipse appeared anywhere other than where it appeared, Einstein's equation would have been proven false. But it appeared exactly where the equation predicted that it would. Also evolution, which would be false if the fossil record, comparative DNA analysis, animal husbandry, comparative anatomy, etc., were different from what they are.

The falsifiability criterion carries an important implication: what C. S. Peirce called "falliblism:" namely, that for any assertion (including all scientific assertions) to be meaningful, it must be logically possible for the assertion to be proven wrong. And if a meaningful assertion must be falsifiable, then no meaningful assertion is absolute.

But the difference between practical certainty and logical certainty (absolute) can at times be so infinitesimal, that it can be ignored.

For example, consider this generalization: "decapitation is always fatal." (Falsification: the old English "Ballad of Ann Boleyn:" "With 'er 'ed underneath 'er arm, she walks the bloody Tower.") We know what it would be like for the assertion to be false and all future decapitations can not be included in the "always," but I would stake my own life on it's being true -- on my never encountering some bloke walking around with his severed head underneath his arm.

The "practically certain" truth of thousands of scientific laws is confirmed daily through the successful operation of technology. If Ohm's Law were different by one percent from what it is known to be, this computer would not boot up. If Newton's Laws of motion or Kepler's Laws of celestial mechanics were wrong by a fraction of one percent, the Apollo missions would have failed, and synchronous orbit communications satellites could not be put in place. Engineers and inventors routinely assume these thousands of natural laws which, were they any different, would result in their gadgets not working.

Now that's a kind of "pragmatic warranted assertability" that John Dewey would endorse. It's one thing to talk in high abstractions about "falliblism" and the rejection of absolutism, but quite another when bring it all down to the raw specifics of ordinary experience. There we might find that possibility of falsifying some scientific laws as 0.0001%. I see no reason for not calling such a law "certain."

Yet post modernists, as I understand them (or at least some of their naive camp-followers), are quite content to proclaim that science is just another belief system, no better or worse than any of the others. Cf. the ongoing debate over global warming.

Well, I beg to differ: Science is not "just another dogma," as I argue in my essay, "Is Science Just Another Dogma? (See especially the section "Scientific Assertions are Fallible and Falsifiable")

Now much of PoMo's subjectivism and relativism ("the meaning of the text is its interpretation, nothing more") has merit regarding such non-scientific endeavors as literary criticism, metaphysics, ethics, economics, etc. But to extend this subjectivism and relativism to the "hard sciences" seems to me to be a clear commission of the fallacy of false generalization.

To quote the late physicist Richard Feynman, "reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature can not be fooled." Well, today public relations is taking precedence over reality. And no amount of corporate PR, media control, and political bribery can add a single drop of petroleum in the ground to forestall "peak oil," nor can it alter the laws of atmospheric physics and chemistry which foretell catastrophe if we fail to heed our scientists and change our policies.

Which explains, perhaps, why I am so impatient with and critical of those who devalue the accumulated body of hard science -- politicians, corporate PR hacks, and of course, post-modernists.

. . . .

On a personal note:  I have endured a lifetime of science-denying nonsense from my Mormon relatives, to be followed by more of the same in my last academic appointment. (See my "Yes Virginia, there is a real world"). Retirement gave me no respite, for now I have to contend with libertarian friends who insist that global warming is a hoax, and thus that the entire world-wide cohort of atmospheric scientists are involved in a vast conspiracy in order to get government research grants. And, of course, I am constantly reminded that I live in a country, half the population of which refuses to believe in evolution.

Some post-modernists give aid and comfort to this nonsense, which, admittedly, gets me "riled up."

On reflection, I suspect that I wrote this rant more for my benefit than yours. It was clear and explicit response to the anti-science and anti-rationalism that is rampant in our society today. I suspect that some of that rant may end up in my chapter on Science in Conscience of a Progressive.

That said, I do agree, as you say, that "the postmodernists do point out many of the nuances of problems, such as with prisons, mental institutions, race and gender, that other philosophies miss." But these are moral issues, quite apart from the attack on science.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .