In critical rationalism, irrationalism, skepticism on 26/08/2011 at 2:39 pm

People accept without reflection the ideas, fads, styles, and tastes of their times. Everyone is subject to this problem, even those that harp on this problem.

Why do we dismiss the stories printed in the National Enquirer and accept the articles printed in Scientific American? Is the difference in the presentation? Are we clued in to the problems in trusting the National Enquirer after seeing the sensationalistic headlines and poor typesetting?

We’re just going about begging the question, since we are using the guilty verdict as part of the prosecution. It sounds like a matter of taste to prefer Scientific American for its excellent formatting. What are we to make of the discovery by the National Inquirer of the John Edwards scandal?

I hope that it is noncontroversial to assert that the truth of a message isn’t determined by the style of the message conveyed. That said, the presentation of the content is sometimes just as important as the content, especially when time and energy are to be conserved.

We often use these quick assessments of style, rather than the substance, in our day-to-day lives. I don’t pay attention to the street preacher: he acts like a lunatic. I admit, this quick decision to sort between the true and the false on the style of presentation runs into all sorts of problems. It could be said that I’m employing ‘common sense’, that when someone sounds like they are barking mad, I see no reason to think to the contrary. The converse is true as well, but not as severe: if someone appears to be honest, I will treat his claims in good faith, but many people are sincere, yet provide contradictory claims. I’m wary of lunacy, but I’m equally wary of sincerity.

I want things that are instinctive and inscrutable, simple, elegant and intuitive. I have, you might say, my own personal religion: I’ll separate the wheat from the chaff by my ‘inner light’ of reason.

An enormous number of people are fascinated with what I would consider nonsense of the highest order — miracles, karma, ghosts, reincarnation, etc. These same people are often uninterested in the (at least to me) fascinating things published in scientific journals. My ability to defend this preference of the discovery of Tiktaalik over belief in angels is weaker than I would like. I would be hard-pressed to come up with some nontechnical reasons for preferring the work done at the LHC that would convince a skeptic, especially when confronted by a witty sociologist arguing the contrary.

We are almost always encountering novel situations, and we try to apply our past knowledge to these cases in such a way as to minimize our mistakes. It would be a mistake to think that we can apply this ‘common sense’ to to domain of science, for these situations must involve things we do not know. Just as ‘common sense’ is pushed outside its limits when addressing apparent cases of magic, ‘common sense’ ends when science begins.

Science is dealing with the limits of our common sense, the limits of our heuristics. The concepts of relativity and quantum mechanics are as barking mad as the street preacher. So, why adopt science?

There’s been a historical answer to this question: accept science on its success. Science works, bitches, or something of the sort. Its success justifies its use. We can’t all be cowboys; we cannot start from Year Zero; we must accept some things because someone we trust says so; we must adopt the traditions of the scientific culture. Because they work.

Yet, if I adopt this kind of tradition, I succumb to the most embarrassing kind of scientism. I am accepting what scientists tell me because they say so, on faith. George Orwell pointed out that the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of the Church. Today, we believe in the authority of Science.

I can point to the material comforts, but these technological and social developments belong more to technology than science, so I can’t go down that route, especially when arguing for scientific disciplines I know nothing about, or only in the most rudimentary way. I can’t give ostensive examples to support my case. The world in which we live, the very small, the very large, is incomprehensible to us, even the experts, for they do not know the real details outside their fields.

While in the Middle Ages there was a comprehensible world-view, today, ever since the overthrow of the clockwork world of Newton, we are left with an ever-changing scientific authority. One day we are supposed to support one theory, the next day another theory comes along to supersede it. If there’s a long lag between a scientific revolution, that’s no comfort, since it’s just a matter of time before the revolution comes. A day, a year, or a century, it’s bound to happen.

Since there is no comprehensive picture to the world, no strong foundation, there is no fact reported by scientists that will surprise us for very long. The order is disorder, making nothing unbelievable to those outside of that area of science.

All we can do is to accept other people’s word on the matter, even though a portion of all scientific articles published in reputable journals are fabricated.

Newton’s theory, perhaps one of the greatest theories ever conceived, was at one time thought to be definitive and irrevocable. The Einsteinian revolution tells us that once something has been verified, no matter how many times, it does not become definitive and irrevocable. On the one hand, no number of confirming instances can tell us if our theories are true, for the truth, if we should discover it, will have to fight for its life amongst a series of lies; we cannot tell apart the truth from fiction. On the other hand, we are supposed to acquiesce to science, lies and all. What are we to do? In a sense, we are more naive than those in the Middle Ages, for we can be made to believe almost anything the scientist tell us.

There was a time when information was a resource. Now, ever since the printing press, there has been an information explosion. What started off as a liberation has lead to a torrential storm of chaos, of conflicting sources and facts, sometimes from the same institutions. Yet, once you decide to reject the scientific tradition, what traditions should we trust?

To recap: we’ve started off with the tradition of ‘the inner light’ of reason, yet this wasn’t very good at determining if something is true or false, only palatable to some inner standard; we next move to the tradition of science, yet this tradition is ever-changing, never on firm foundations; we’re left with no tradition at all. Once we think one tradition is as good as another, we’ve become relativists. Something’s wrong here.

I conjecture that there is a tradition that works. Instead of the tradition to accept scientific authority, it is the tradition to criticize scientific authority. To generalize this, one might say that it is the tradition to criticize all traditions. I don’t reject the street preacher because of the presentation, because he sounds like a lunatic; I reject him because of the content, because his claims do not stand up to criticism.

A weaker tradition, for those that are unable to criticize a tradition, is to adopt a system or tradition provisionally as long as it has withstood criticism. Some people love to be iconoclasts; most people just don’t have the time to investigate all sorts of paranormal or scientific claims. I’m willing to put my trust in the experts, such as James Randi, that spend their time testing the claims of psychics.

I propose that the power of science is not accepting the body of knowledge obtained by science on authority, but accepting something like the methodological rule of intersubjective criticism of proposals, conjectures, statements, and divorcing oneself from their proposals, conjectures, and statements. One than can decide to provisionally adopt the proposals that have survived intersubjective criticism.

Do these conjectures solve the problem they intend to solve? Is the conjecture self-coherent? Does it cohere to uncontroversial background assumptions? If the conjectures predict states of affairs, are there possible states of affairs that are incompatible with their predictions? If so, do the predictions clash with the state of affairs? On another level, is the problem a real problem, or is it a pseudoproblem? There are other possible questions you can ask. Can you think of any?

Of course, the problem remains, only in a disguised form. What are experts, really? Haven’t we just moved the question of who to trust just one more step back, away from the tradition of street preachers, away from the tradition of scientists, to the tradition of expert skeptics? How can we tell who are these expert skeptics? I would like to think that most experts have tried most of the available options; they know what doesn’t work, not what does work, and are critical of most claims. This includes scientists that are critical of their colleague’s conjectures, as well as interested laymen. But how do I know this? I don’t know when I’ve found a good answer.

  1. “They’re blinding you with Science”:


  2. I’ve been interested in a similar subject along the lines of van Fraassen, after all, why do we accept theories to begin with? I’ve found that instrumentalism always has an interesting response, one in which the success of science actually works since it’s only focused on prediction. In terms of realism, I am unmoved by the success of science explaining itself, since there were so many failures of science in predictions (anyone remember the ether?). However, acceptance of any sort I think stems from the lack of justifiable dissent. The idea being that for dissent to be justified, there must be some sort of evidential backing to it beyond Popper’s Disastrous Induction. Our theories may be false, but they are yet to be falsified, which elicits some degree of trust in its abilities to at least be accurate.

    Yet even this type of trust, which is similar to your “withstanding criticism” seems to in some ways rely upon an absence of evidence as a reason for acceptance. But, then again, what else do we have in terms of trust? We tend to trust people until they betray us, so maybe that’s just what trust means.

    But this is just conjecture on my part, I’m really out of my depths here in this territory of philosophy.

    • James,

      I think we accept theories out of necessity. Many are innate or dispositional theories, others are cultural or engineering-related, and a small number are scientific. The dispositional and cultural theories are, at most, either spandrels or presently successful predictors: they’re tools, either for our use, or for use by ‘selfish genes’ either inside or outside the individual.

      Scientific theories, however, are functionally different. One goal of using scientific theories is, so I conjecture, to give increasingly broader and deeper explanations for phenomena. Past failures of scientific theories then speak nothing of the overarching goals of science, since these explanations need not be true. Realism is a goal, and may in fact be an impossible goal, for nature is forever hidden behind a veil, but giving up on such a goal would be to abdicate the function of scientific theories.

      On ‘evidential backing’: I don’t think it exists. I agree with Miller and van Fraassen that anything not excluded from consideration is rationally permitted. No probability assignments to theories; no positive evidence. We are lucky, though, that the set of viable alternative theories is extremely small.

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