Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thinking's Hard, Let's Shout at Each Other

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.


Vincent said...
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Vincent said...

I'm trying to grasp your idealistic conception of science. “Anything which does not performs the prescribed rituals is not science?”

If this is true, it is true for religions as well; but there is more than one religion. Is there only one science, I wonder?

What about politics? Can we say that if any of a prescribed set of steps is missing, it is probably not politics? No, because in politics it's generally accepted that anything goes: however untruthful or corrupt the politicians are, they still practise politics.

Same with the various priests and congregations: however unworthy or dubious their behaviour, an outsider will acknowledge they are still practising religion. An insider---member of a particular sect---will deny that any practices outside that sect constitute true religion.

Are you saying there is no genuine search for truth that is not science? Then science is your religious sect.

CIngram said...


There are different kinds of truth, or different objects which are known as truth, (as I have said in other posts on the subject). Science is a method, which uses processes based on reason to discover facts whose objective reality can then be tested. As such, yes, there is only one science, because there is only one method, although there are many disciplines.

In the same way, my politics may not be yours, or the next chap's, but if we seek power, or seek to organise aspects of society, or support and defend others who are doing these things, in accordance with a set of beliefs about how society should operate, then I think we can say we are doing politics. We could say something similar about religion.

And yes, there is a political truth, and a religious truth, and an aesthetic truth (which the photograph was intended to acknowledge) and a dramatic truth, but there are times when only objective truth will do. Bridges do not stay up because the engineer believes they will, but because he has taken the trouble to understand the nature of the materials and forms with which he works; that is he has used the appropriate method to discover the right kind of truth. On the other hand, the is beautiful and useful more or less in the measure that people believe it to be so.

I used to be a mathematician, years ago, and it gives an absolutist rationalism to your way of thinking. Mathematics has both great beauty and absolute truth. The beauty is hard for many people to see, but it is an article of faith for mathematicians, and mathematical truth is absolute because the disciplne itself defines the conditions that a truth must meet. (It also happens to be extremely useful, but that is not a direct or necessary consequence of its internal coherence.) These are finite and can be completely tested. Theology also defines its own truth which can also be absolute within the limits of its own terms of reference.

What provoked yesterday's rant, and what often annoys me, is not that I do not accept as worthy of condideration anything that cannot be proved by the scientific method (which would leave me without most of what makes life worthwhile) but that one type of truth is often presented as another, obscuring the nature and possible importance of both.

Your final question suggests that you do think there can be a genuine search for truth that does not involve rational inquiry (which is what I mean by science). If this is so, how do you know that what you have found is true?

I thank you for taken me more seriously than I deserve. Otherwise I would not have asked myself the questions you have raised.

Vincent said...

I try to distance myself from Western cultural imperialism in matters of truth; putting on the putative hat of a Rastafarian, an African tribesman or an Australian aborigine; not in a spirit of rational enquiry but something more mystical and intuitive.

Also in this regard, Bernard Shaw's Preface to his Back to Methuselah is most instructive and as relevant today as when it was written in 1921. I wish he could have lived to read Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker, for I don't think that book has advanced the debate beyond Shaw. He admires Darwin but criticises Darwinians and neo-Darwinians for an atheism quite contrary to the spirit of Charles Darwin. He has his own take on Lamarck too.

Whether or not science has advanced since Shaw wrote the piece is irrelevant, for he appeals to our sense of eternal verities.

Like you, he's scathing about popular irrationality, but his scorn extends to scientists such as Weisman whose experiments on inheritance of acquired traits involved chopping tails off generations of rats to see if any would be born tailless.