Science Is Only A Matter Of Culture, A Different Way Of Knowing?

Makeup isn’t always for women
Since it’s Easter, it’s high time we confronted a devastating argument against science. Hold onto your test tubes, fellow beings, your faith is about to be shaken.

Isn’t it true that you, dear reader, believe in Science? That your belief in its powers is ardent? That you wouldn’t think of doubting it?

That you can’t see any reason why Science is wrong; indeed, you can only see reasons why it is right? Why, you could defend Science, the practice of science, it many sects and -ologies, and the scientific method all day, all night, all into the next day, and so on almost inexhaustibly.

Well, all this is a matter of simple observation about your behavior. But your attitude, the depth of your belief, you must admit, is largely driven by your culture. It was your parents, was it not, that first imbued in you the worshipful admiration you have in Science? And this was reinforced constantly by a succession of teachers, friends, jobs, and even sources of entertainment. You were saturated in Science whether you liked it or not.

Just think: use your reason. People not born into Science don’t share your belief in it. Those folks bred in Papua New Guinea, to use one of hundreds of examples, do not share your prejudices, are not under the spell of Science.

Put your mind to this: these people live and die, just as we Science worshippers do. They eat, marry, have children, they go about their daily lives. They have dreams, aspirations, desires, conflicts; they have culture; they know. The only difference between them and us is that they were raised without our superstitions in Science.

They, and many like them, are closer to Nature. Their spirituality, their religion, is more beautiful and surely far less stressful. They have more respect and understanding of the world around them—the earth is not a thing to dissect, but a thing to admire. The number and character of differences in beliefs between them and us are not really important, at least not here. What is is that these differences exist and are large in magnitude and many in number. That is the eye-popping fact to consider.

Papua New Guineans have no innate drive toward Science. To be sure, they have heard of it. Our missionaries have reached their shores and told them of Science’s wonders. But they reason, and reason correctly, that they were living just fine without it and therefore they don’t need it. This must be true, because these people have been living there fine for thousands of years without the benefit of Science. They even claim their lives are better. Except for a handful of isolated converts, they stick to what they know.

Because this is all true, it should cause you to reconsider your unquestioning attitude toward Science. If your belief is largely a matter of the culture into which you were born and given that other peoples born into other cultures believe differently, it is therefore possible that your beliefs are wrong and those other peoples’ are right.

Really, it is you who is acting unreasonably, unthinkingly. Don’t be a slave to your accident of birth! If you really were an independent thinker, you would see the logic behind these other Ways Of Life and abandon Science.

Happy Easter, everyone. He is risen.

Update I guess I’m not surprised that I must announce that Ye Olde Statistician wins the bet with himself. See his comments on that subject below. The argument in this post is pretty bad, isn’t it? So how do we account for its frequent reappearance? On the other hand, I notice a lot of people have used Science to proclaim Science’s superiority. Back to basics!


  1. The terms “knowledge” and “science” are polysemic. Thus, an argument that uses one or more of these terms is an example of an equivocation. By logical rule, one cannot draw a conclusion from an equivocation. For example, one cannot draw the conclusion that “It is you who is acting unreasonably, unthinkingly” from the premise that “Science is only a matter of culture, a different way of knowing.”

    For avoidance of the equivocation fallacy, “science” and “knowledge” need monosemic definitions. A solution to this problem that satisfies the requirements of logic (but perhaps not the requirements of religion) is to define both terms as the mutual information between a pair of state-spaces wherein the states in one of these state-spaces are observed and the states in the other are inferred. Under this definition, scientific researchers are in the business of creating mutual information. We support them because in having this information we gain a degree of control over our world.

  2. Ron C.

    When Jared Diamond was in Papua New Guinea, the chief asked him:

    “How is that that your people have all the “cargo” and my people have nothing?” Diamond wrote his tome, “Guns, Germs and Steel” to answer that question.” (Hint: it is not because the chief and his people were lazy or stupid.)

  3. Shecky R

    Science (and voodoo, and Santeria, and Christianity) is a different way of believing… there are NO ways of knowing.

  4. Scotian

    I assume that this is a parody of new age mysticism. It is only lacking the ley lines and Bigfoot. If not, has Briggs finally lost it and is planning a return to nature? Can he give up his beloved Manhattan?

    “They even claim their lives are better.” That must be why they want the cargo (re Ron).

  5. max

    Scottian, there are always some discontents with the way things are. Simply because some of the inhabitant of New Guinea joined cargo cults is no reason to assume that all New Guineans are discontented with their lot. Note that in Scientistic countries there are always cults popping up with the answers science doesn’t provide – Satanism, modern Wicca, EST, past life regression, the People’s Temple, Communism, spiritualism, and so forth – but that doesn’t mean the inhabitants of Scientistic countries in general don’t believe their lives are better than those of the heathens who worship false gods instead of Science.

  6. Scotian

    What is a “Scientistic country”? This all reminds me of the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”. I have the DVD and part of the added features give the reality as a stark contrast to the fantasy of the movie. The movie presented the way the “back to nature” new age infused wanted to image such a life was like and how contented those who led this life were. The reality of the main actor’s life showed that the exact opposite was true. This is not to downplay the often tragic consequences of culture shock but enough of the noble savage nonsense. It is a common literary technique to highlight the deficiencies of one’s own culture by comparing it to the supposed advantages of another. The problem is that too many people take it seriously and thus my question to Briggs.

  7. Jim S

    What distinguishes scientific knowledge from other “forms of knowing” is that it can be tested and replicated by anyone, anytime, anywhere. And, of course, as Popper pointed out, knowledge which can under no circumstances be proven to be false, fails to meet the demarcation of knowledge, scientific or otherwise.

    It’s ain’t that complicated.

  8. There are now two very different perceptions of what “science” means. To one group of which most skeptics belong, “science” is a methodology. Therefore unless you use this methodology it “ain’t science”. To this group, peer review doesn’t determine science but is instead should be a way of ensuring those calling themselves “scientists” use the scientific method.

    In the other camp are those who see “science” as being a more fluid or nebulous term referring to the work of a group who self-identify themselves as “scientists”. In this group, people see science as a community effort of people who set their own standards and as a community determine determine what is an isn’t “science”. In this group the scientific method is not so much a necessary condition as a “nice to have” and instead, the necessary condition is that work is “peer reviewed” by the community of “science”.

    These are two very different and even contradictory viewpoints which come into conflict particularly on the climate. Because with a system like the earth’s climate it simply is not possible to do a “scientific test”. As such the “skeptic science” group reject much of what is produced as failing to achieve the standards they consider to be “science”.

    In contrast, the other group see “peer review” as the method of achieving standards — but conveniently, they seem to reject anything from the skeptic science group.

  9. Re: “climate science” and the meaning of “science”

    The word “science” comes to us from the Latin “scientia” meaning “demonstrable knowledge.” This meaning survives in the English word “science” but this word has acquired the additional meaning of “the process that is operated by people calling themselves ‘scientists’.” Thus, “science” is polysemic with the result that an argument which incorporates it is an equivocation unless the word is disambiguated.

    Most people don’t know it to be logically illegitimate to draw a conclusion from an equivocation. IPCC-affiliated climatologists exploit this ignorance by implying that non-falsifiable conclusions are “scientific” because they are the product of the process that is operated by people calling themselves “scientists.” This is the source of the widespread misimpression that the IPCC’s conclusions are scientific and that people who disagree with these conclusions are science “deniers.”

  10. Jeff Wood

    “Primitive” people started off as scientists, or we would not be here.

    How else do you discover what foods to eat and what to avoid (and when) except by the scientific approach of experiment.

    Folk had wound-cleaning poultices before penicillin was discovered.

    At a certain point, curiosity dies or is crushed – was there not a Chinese emperor who had his fleet burned and the shipwrights buried alive.

    Actually, when one considers the animosity against honest scientists in a certain branch of Science, are we getting to that point again?

  11. anona

    @Jim S

    “knowledge which can under no circumstances be proven to be false, fails to meet the demarcation of knowledge”

    Jim, how do you know that? Is this claim about the nature of knowledge falsifiable? If the claim is falsifiable, what does it imply? If this claim is not falsifiable, what does it imply?

    Lastly, if you don’t *know* this about the nature of knowledge, what is the relevance of your post?

    As you say, it ain’t that complicated.

  12. max

    A Scientistic country is a country in which the plurality of the inhabitants follow Sciencism, or one which has adopted Sciencism as an official belief. The US is a Sciencistic country because it has adopted Sciencism as an official belief (thanks to Obama, Science bless Him, who has moved the US out of it’s backward belief that facts were more important than Science), while Germany is a Sciencistic country because the plurality of Germans follow the one true belief system, Scienticism.

  13. Thank you Max G for using big words–I’ve enlarged my vocabulary by looking up polysemic (also given as polysemous). The polysemic aspect of science occurs only because people who know little of science (like Al Gore, Obama and other warmists), who haven’t been PRACTICING scientists, try to say what it means. If you’ve been a hard scientist (I exclude the oxymoronic “social sciences”) you know, as Fr. Jaki pronounced in “Limits of a Limitless Science”, that science requires quantitative verification (or disproof), as, for example, the perhelion advance test of General Relativity, the Lamb Shift test of quantum electrodynamics, etc.

  14. max

    @ Terry Oldberg,

    Is my Latin that rusty? I could have sworn scientia’s meaning was the more generic “knowledge or skill”, and while agnitio (knowing through seeing) would be a better single word fit for “demonstrable knowledge” some variation of experiri conscientia would be a more likely Latin source for what you are arguing is science.

  15. and to the point of Briggs’ post. The myth of the noble savage has been with us since Rousseau and can be disproved by noting that cultural migration is a one-way street… You see savages become civilized, but rarely the reverse. (And I expect this comment to draw some flack.)

  16. Max:

    A Google search on “scientia” and “demonstrable knowledge” produces a number of allegations that “scientia” means “demonstrable knowledge” including one by Karl Popper. According to Popper: “Mankind had obtained knowledge – divine scientia or episteme, and not merely doxa, human opinion.” According to a second source: “The known writings of Aristotle may be divided into three main groups” of which one is “an inquiry into the meaning of knowledge itself, that is, ‘true’ or ‘demonstrable’ knowledge (scientia);” According to a third source: “Stout concentrates on the distinction between “opinio” (justified belief) and “scientia” (demonstrable knowledge).”

  17. anona:

    If, by “knowledge” we mean “scientia” then knowledge is falsifiable.

  18. Bob Kurland:

    I’m the culprit for using “polysemic.” It comes in handy in illustrating applications of the equivocation fallacy such as those of Gore and Obama. Many practicing hard scientists employ this fallacy in making arguments about global warming, including leaders of the National Academy of Sciences, American Chemical Society, Royal Society and American Physical Society. Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics and former U.S. Secretary of Energy uses the equivocation fallacy in making arguments about global warming. The president’s science advisor, a physicist and Harvard professor does the same. I’m astonished by this behavior as it suggests that none of these distinguished scientists know what they are doing at a fundamental level but that they have done so is on the record.

  19. Sorry Terry (and Max G)…another senior moment… but it was a good comment, and I agree wholeheartedly with your application to “scientists” renowned and non-scientists, also renowned perverting what science is about. By the way, is it now politically correct to sanction perversions of science, nay embrace them? And can we form a “perverse science pride” fellowship?

  20. Bob Kurland:

    You’d have to say that perversions of science are politically correct on the political left. Perhaps a desire to milk leftist politicians for grant money accounts for applications of the equivocation fallacy on the part of some of the high ranking physical scientists more than incompetency. Regardless of the cause, it seem to me that it is time to clean out the pseudo-scientists.

  21. Scotian

    “A Scientistic country is a country in which the plurality of the inhabitants follow Sciencism, or one which has adopted Sciencism as an official belief.” This doesn’t really help. Do you mean scientism? Also, although many countries have official religions, flags, anthems and so on, I have never seen a declaration of sciencism (or scientism). The claim of plurality would also imply some sort of vote or census and I doubt if any such question has ever be asked.

  22. Jim S

    You’ve completely lost me anona. I can’t even imagine what point you are trying to make.

  23. feraltek

    We’re so immersed in our own cultural framework that we can’t easily view other frameworks except through the looking glass of our own. The fish doesn’t know it lives in water.

    An apple doesn’t have mass. Mass is just a cultural construct. Time doesn’t really exist. Our measurements called seconds, days, years are another set of cultural constructs. Distance – there’s no such thing.

    Arabic numerals – they borrowed them and passed them on, but their meaning to themselves must have been very different than their meaning to us in the west. We saw they have an extension into calculus – they didn’t. How many cultures using numbers can conceive of the square root of minus one.

  24. anona

    @Jim S

    Let me try a couple of different angles.

    First, on what basis do you believe that “knowledge which can under no circumstances be proven to be false, fails to meet the demarcation of knowledge” is a true claim about the nature of knowledge? Is it a rational basis, or mere wishful thinking?

    Second, you may also want to consider whether Briggs’ argument in the post above is actually a sound argument against the validity of Scientific knowledge. As a corollary, you can then work out the implications for analogous arguments made against the validity of non-Scientific (e.g. Religious) knowledge.

    And just for the record, the following claim of yours does not pass the smell test either: “What distinguishes scientific knowledge from other “forms of knowing” is that it can be tested and replicated by anyone, anytime, anywhere.” A simple example will suffice. It is a scientific and quite easily demonstrable fact known to me that there are birds chirping in the tree outside my window as I write this comment. Can you test and replicate this fact from wherever you happen to be when you read this comment? I didn’t think so. Do you then exclude common facts from “scientific knowledge” ?

  25. The Realist

    Belief in a higher power is a coping mechanism to deal with awareness of the human condition.

  26. Ye Olde Statisician

    Lieber Zeit, Herr Dr. Briggs! Have you not learned that few these days understand satire and analogy? I’m going to place a bet (with myself, so I can’t lose!) that you have simply taken a passage about Christianity in New Guinea and done a simple word-replacement.

    Other readers ought to know that “other ways of knowing” is a term of art in the Academic Left, as in “Womyn’s way of knowing” in the deconstruction of white, patriarchal science. Very droll.
    + + +
    What distinguishes scientific knowledge from other “forms of knowing” is that it can be tested and replicated by anyone, anytime, anywhere.

    Well, by anyone who has a large hadron supercollider or some such thing.

    + + +
    “doxa” is not “opinion”. Aristotle’s three-way division of knowledge was into episteme, pistis, and doxa: [certain] knowledge, [educated] opinion, [personal] experience/faith. In Latin, scientia, opinio, and fides. Whereas scientia is achieved by demonstration (hence: QED) and is most clearly illustrated in mathematics, opinio is achieved by the dialectic: one sets up the best possible arguments for each side of a disputatio, weighs the merits, and determines the best conclusion, often a synthesis but possibly the thesis or the antithesis. That is, opinio always meant an “educated opinion.” (Fides, otgh, was the result of personal experience and encounter and could neither be demonstrated nor determined to others.)

    Popper, being a mathematician, intended to deny the label of scientia to modern science and reduce it to opinio, which he did by preaching the primacy of modus tollens. His was an understandable reaction to the excesses of positivism.

    (Amusingly, Popper cited evolution as an example of “nonscience” whose findings could not be falsified. For this, he was taken to the woodshed and forced to an auto da fe.)

    Of course, the medievals long knew that evidentia naturalis was inferior to evidentia potissimus and that induction was always weaker than deduction. A thousand experiences of green grass, they wrote, does not preclude the possibility of one day encountering yellow grass. So that while we may learn by experience [and experiment] what we learn is not as certain as what we learn by pure reason, as in mathematics. Hence: physics, mathematics, and metaphysics as the three great domains.

  27. Paul W

    “Belief in a higher power is a coping mechanism to deal with awareness of the human condition.”

    Would love to see the proof of this. If you have that proof please have it published and peer reviewed and have the tests replicated so the millions of people who believe can move on. In other news…He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

  28. Scotian

    “(Amusingly, Popper cited evolution as an example of “nonscience” whose findings could not be falsified. For this, he was taken to the woodshed and forced to an auto da fe.)”. You see Sheri, it is visceral. There are many who are so obsessed and upset by evolution, and in particular natural selection, that they lose no opportunity to drag it into the discussion, no matter how laboured the point might be.

  29. Possibly Briggs, Ron C and Ye Old Statistician wish to warn us that actors such as Obama, his Secretary of State, his former Secretary of Energy, his Science Advisor, his Environmental Protection Agency and the leaders of numerous prestigious scientific societies, among others, are leading us toward poverty similar to that of Papua New Guinea by observing the appearance of the scientific method of investigation but not the reality of it. In doing so, these actors have created a kind of “cargo cult” with great power to do us harm.

  30. max

    M. Oldberg:
    1) in the only instance I can find where Popper seems to have used the word ‘scientia’ (The Problem of Historicism), Popper uses it to refer to knowledge in general and classifies ‘demonstrable knowledge’ is a subset of the scientia. Popper wrote in German and he used words like “forschung” which can be translated to “science” in English, however this isn’t an exact translation and ‘forschung’ might better translate to “research” in English. A Google search can easily be confused by many people talking about Popper and using terms like ‘scientia’ and ‘demonstrable knowledge’.
    2) Aristotle, like most Greeks, was very poor at Latin and I seriously doubt he used the word ‘scientia’. While there are Latin versions of Aristotle’s works, I don’t have any, reading how a late medieval scholar chose to translate the Arabic version of a Greek work into Latin has little interest for me as I have no shortage of babblefish style translation artifacts to work on already. Aristotle would have used ‘episteme’ to denote “demonstrable knowledge”, not ‘scientia’ but that doesn’t help much because Aristotle’s ‘episteme’ was pretty much confined to mathamatics.
    3) Stout actually does use the word ‘scientia’ for ‘demonstrable knowledge’ as opposed to “opinio” for ‘justified belief’, however those are his own divisions and not intrinsic to the words themselves. A good read though, and being as he is an American, his Flight from Authority can be read in the original without fear of translation artifacts. I don’t agree with Stout’s history, but it is an excellent read and thought evoking.

    Mind you, I haven’t read much Latin the past 5 years and ‘scientia’ may translate well into “demonstrable knowledge”, but the sense I have of the word is that it translates into the more general ‘knowledge or skill”.

  31. Rich

    I got here today after catching up with xkcd. Wasn’t much of a leap.

  32. Ron C.

    Here’s another thought:

    The purpose of scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. That, more than anything else, is what science is all about. But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thought and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself

    Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  33. Droll.

    What is lacking in all analyses of this sort is a proper hierarchy: one must be loyal to the truth *first* – then, that loyalty makes one loyal to and very protective of science, as the privileged, dialectical (in the Thomist/Aristotelian sense, and most definitely not in the Hegelian/Marxist sense) method of understanding the physical world.

    It is that loyalty to the truth that causes the lover of science to be more appalled at its misuse by its supposed friends than by any attack by its supposed enemies: Sagan and deGrasse Tyson are worse enemies of science properly understood than any number of Creationists, because they have donned the sacred lab coat of Science! and then turned a blind eye to truth when it’s inconvenient to their ‘narrative’. They are no better than the folks in the various Studies Studies departments, the real sworn enemies of science, with whom they share funding sources.

  34. Ye Olde Statisician

    how a late medieval scholar chose to translate the Arabic version of a Greek work into Latin

    Actually, by that time the jihad had faltered and the Latins had regained access to Greek originals in Byzantine territories like Sicily and Constantinople itself: Jacques of Venice and William of Moerbeke being examples. They corrected many of the errors that had crept into the Syriac->Arabic thread of translations.

    There are many who are so obsessed and upset by evolution, and in particular natural selection, that they lose no opportunity to drag it into the discussion, no matter how laboured the point might be.

    Nah, it’s not that. I have no more problem with evolution (which is a fact) or natural selection (which is a theory) than I do with falling bodies and impetus, or with heat and phlogiston. My amusement stems from the constant reiteration of Popper’s “falsifiability” mantra by folks who don’t seem to know what his program was and who nonetheless hold fast to a theory that can be falsified only in the imagination with outre examples like “a pre-Cambrian rabbit.” That QED is only really found at the end of mathematical proofs has always meant that the physics has always been less certain than mathematics. Hence, Descartes’ program of mathematizing physics: so that natural philosophy would be as certain as mathematics. That’s why the Scientific Revolution privileged mathematics as the language for scientific discourse, as in Newton’s equations, Maxwell’s equations, Darwin’s equations, et al.

  35. Ron C.

    More on Popper from Jeffrey Glassman

    Popper was a philosopher, not a scientist. He modeled science as an outsider looking in, and came to the wrong conclusion, confusing the essences of science, logic, and definitions. The short form of Popper’s fallacious model is that he first discounted the critical nature of definitions, then conceived of science as a discipline that models the real world with what are called universal generalizations in logic. If that were true, his conclusion about a disproof would have been valid.

    As subsequent philosophers analyzed his thesis, to disprove that all crows are black one needs to provide an experiment showing how a white crow can’t exist. Popper’s model is not how science operates in theory or in practice. Science asserts logical statements, Hypothesis implies Conclusion, and the conclusion comes with odds. All crows are black by definition, not by model. If science came up with a DNA definition of the crow, the model would be if you have a crow, the odds are x:1 that it is black.

  36. Often arguments attempting to refute falsifiability are of an ad hominem form that links falsifiability to Popper, refutes Popper’s philosophy and claims in doing so to refute falsifiability. To refute Popper’s philosophy is not, however, to refute falsifiability.

  37. Ron C.

    How about this?

    The power of science is valid prediction. Any theory or model that successfully predicts events yet to happen has scientific power. The realization of predictions replaces the notion of falsification (to falsify is actually a function of logic, rather than observation).

    As we all know the climate models have yet to be proven valid, as they do not make predictions that happen in the real world. OTH some weather models do have scientific power.

  38. The Realist

    “Would love to see the proof of this. If you have that proof please have it published and peer reviewed and have the tests replicated so the millions of people who believe can move on. In other news…He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

    Sky fairy believers asking for ‘proof’.
    Just LOL.

  39. Paul W

    “Sky fairy believers asking for ‘proof’.”

    I’ll take that as you don’t have proof of your original statement then? I don’t see how your comments about sky fairies helps prove your argument. It’s snotty though and in some circles that’s enough I guess.

  40. kuhnkat

    Jim S:

    “What distinguishes scientific knowledge from other “forms of knowing” is that it can be tested and replicated by anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

    Have you or anyone you know tried to replicate the “knowledge” of high energy physics, evolution, the big bang, Agw… lately???

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