In response to something ridiculous in the Times this morning that I’m not even going to link to, I am obliged to explain again what science is and what truth looks like. Scientists want to know the truth, they want to find ways of getting nearer to it and of being fairly confident that they have in fact found it.
Basically what scientists do is to say, look, I have gathered this data in a way that I shall explain carefully, and present as clearly as possible. Based on previously accepted conclusions and original interpretations of the data I tentatively suggest that we may deduce the following. Tell me what I’ve missed or why I’m wrong. Then they will assess the extent to which their knowledge has been increased and will consider the new questions that are brought to light by it.
If any of these steps is missing you should at least suspect that what you are seeing is not science, and is not part of a genuine search for truth. Anyone who does not encourage their results to be repeated or challenged is probably not doing science. Anyone who does not provide all the data, its sources, and an explanation of the techniques used for the gathering and analysis of that data, or who does not detail the reasoning process by which anything concluded or deduced from the results is arrived at, is probably not doing science. Anyone who appeals to his own authority, or who throws around words like ‘obviously’, or who attacks real or imagined critics personally, is almost certainly not doing science. Anyone who shows that they do not how to reason is definitely not doing science, and probably does not know what truth means either.
Most people are not interested in the truth; they simply want to affirm their own beliefs in a way that will satisfy them. This mostly involves not analysing them, but if forced to, because they are confronted with someone who does not share them, the purpose of their argumentation is to score some sort of rhetorical victory by getting the opponent to admit that they are right, not to find the truth. In the search for truth the only opponent is unreason, recognisable by its love of dogma and compulsion, and the arbitrariness of much of what it believes.
In the end it usually doesn’t matter all that much. Psychologically, belief is much more important than knowledge, and socially it tends to be much more useful. But there are times when everyone needs to recognise whether an argument is or is not valid, and how a proposition is being defended, in order to make decisions or to avoid being fooled. And it is painfully clear that they cannot.
Look at the way bacterially-enriched yoghourt is advertised on the television, or the generally horror of government-owned newspapers, as contrasted with the deep suspicion of private television stations, or the way people have learnt to call the BNP rightwing, or the acceptance of income tax as consonant with natural justice, and of ‘tax havens’ as fundamentally unjust. Just a random list of things that we should think about more, the first that came to my mind. Then try to work out whether swine flu and global warming are or are not going to kill us all, or whether it was such a good idea to vote for Obama. It’s all terribly hard. And we know the answers already, don’t we?
There is no greater truth than the beauty of a rose, hence the photo.