On the derangements of science (#193)

This is a link post for https://criticalrationalism.substack.com/p/on-the-derangements-of-science

Some think of science as a cold, inhuman, and logical practice of dealing with the “facts of reality”. Meanwhile, some “believe in science” and think of it somewhat akin to the final word of God.

Both those views are wrong, and for similar reasons: they share a fundamental misconception about science and knowledge-creation.

The idea that truth is manifest—that people can discover it by observing reality “as it is”—is false.

Observation isn’t a source of knowledge. 

For a long time, it was believed that the Earth was at the center of the Universe and that the Sun and the other planets revolved around it.

Then in the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus, who is widely recognized as the man who caused the Scientific Revolution, forever changed the way humans viewed the world. His thesis was that the Earth moves around the Sun.

But how did Copernicus go out and observe what came to be this “fact of reality”? Why did it take so long for someone to understand where the Earth stood with respect to the sun and other planets if all one has to do in order to understand the world is “observe”?

In reality, Copernicus made a guess. He took a leap of imagination. Creativity is as crucial an element in science as it is in art and every other human endeavor. Without it, we would be just another species that left traces of what it was, not what it created.

Art and science are very much alike in this way. Science is not cold and devoid of emotion. It is not a way of assembling the facts and making calculations all day. Indeed, the act of making tedious calculations is a part of the scientist’s life. But so are some mundane tasks of the artist’s.

All knowledge-creation, from scientific to moral, happens in the same way. And it does not begin with observation. It begins with a problem. Then a guess is made at solving the problem. And that guess is then criticized or tested against reality.

This is the purpose of observation: to criticize. It is to testify against a theory (or guess). Not to verify, but to falsify. For no amount of repeated observations can logically verify a theory. But you only need one instance of evidence contradicting your theory to refute it or at least render it problematic. No matter how many white swans you see, you cannot prove that “All swans are white”. But with the evidence of a single black swan, you can refute the theory that “All swans are white”.

Observation is crucial in the growth of scientific knowledge. But it isn’t significant in the same way as it traditionally has been thought of by empiricists or inductivists. The empiricist thinks one can get a hold of the facts by simply observing nature, ridding oneself of any theories or biases. The inductivist thinks that repeated observations increase one’s certitude.

These are both ways of attributing authority to observation. And, as we’ll see, they are as dangerous to progress and civilization as was the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

In actuality, the creation of knowledge begins with a problem and a conjecture—typically a bold one. Observation is then interpreted in the light of some theory. Without some theory in hand, the observation could not possibly bear any fruit.

When all but one theory is criticized and falsified by observation and experiment, we adopt that theory as our current best explanation on the matter. This knowledge is not factual. It contains error. It is conjectural in nature. It shouldn’t be considered the final word or the “fact of reality”. Newton’s theory was overturned by Einstein’s general relativity after centuries of being unchallenged. Newton’s theory never was a “fact of reality”. Nor is Einstein’s. We shouldn’t expect Einstein’s theory to hold true in another 200 years (if the enemies of civilization don’t get their way). Scientists are constantly looking to refute Einstein’s theory—as they should with any theory, for that is the ultimate fate of all theories: their falsification.

All theories are error-laden, and all people—including scientists—are fallible. In our modern world, it is troubling to see the title “science” serving as a cloak, underneath which is dogmatism. What started off as an escape from authority is now tending towards the very kind of thing it escaped from. “Believe the science,” they say.

The idea that we should defer the responsibility for making the decisions of our society to a few scientists who have an apparent authority on what’s true is tyranny. Authoritarianism in science is heavily ironic. “Belief in science” is an oxymoron, not a creed.

As my friend pointed out to me recently, there’s authoritarianism in science, and then there’s scientistic authoritarianism. Those who say, “If you disagree with X policy/course of action, you’re against science!” fall into this category.

The idea that mistakes might not be made by the right kind of person (i.e., who has gone through the right training or holds particular views or whatever) is mistaken. It is leaving knowledge to authority. A recipe for tyranny. A dangerous trap.

Mistakes are inevitable. They are like the rung of the ladder that isn’t meant to be rested upon. But only meant to support one’s foot long enough to enable a person to put the other foot somewhat higher. Mistakes ought to be intentionally identified and corrected. But for this, one must admit the possibility of making mistakes. One must accept there is a problem to solve.

Thanks to Logan Chipkin for his edits on this piece.

Image credit: Amaro Koberle.

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