This excerpt comes in Chapter 20, Science. First comes the Science Is Self-Correcting Fallacy, followed by the My Grant Was Funded Therefore My Theory Is True Fallacy, which is a cousin of the My Paper Was Peer Reviewed Therefore My Theory Is True Fallacy, which itself is a spawn of the ageless Experts Agree My Theory Is True Fallacy.
From there we move to scientism and scidolatry, with their many depressing effects.
All that having been discussed, and before we come to the Peer Review Fallacy (not excerpted here) we move to everyone’s favorite scientist after Bill Nye, the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson.
You may download a PDF of the entire first chapter (with Table of Contents).
Look To The Stars
Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson provided perhaps the best, or at least tersest, example of Type II scientism. “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” he said. That so? Let’s try replacing Science with other words. “The good thing about Philosophy is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” “The good thing about History is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”, “The good thing about Economics is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”, and “The good thing about Theology is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
Each of these propositions are just as true as Tyson’s original; which is to say, each is as meaningless or as confused.
Has every theory promulgated by Science, which is to say, by individual or groups of scientists, been true? As we learned above, obviously not. Therefore Science isn’t always true, and you’d best believe that. Has every theory put forth in Philosophy, History, etc. been true? Certainly not. Though some have. Is every economic model or theological conjecture been valuable? No. But some are. And so on.
Again, some will say “Science is self-correcting. That’s why it’s true.” If so, as we learned, it is an admission that it has things to correct; which is to say, Science knows it is often in error, and therefore what it puts forth should not always be believed in toto because what it says might very well be false and in need of correction. If you always believe Science, you will often believe what is false.
Again, Philosophy, History, etc. are self-correcting, too, and we know this in the same way we know Science is self-correcting. That is, we have seen in these fields errors identified, new evidence augmenting the old, new (or rediscovered) theories supplanting old ones, and so forth, just as happens in Science.
Perhaps Tyson, when confronted with these rebuttals, would reply, “What I really meant was Science was truer than any of those other things.”
True = True
But truth is truth: epistemically, no truth can be higher than another; all truths share the same logical status. Ontologically, truths can be ranked, such as in a moral or ethical sense. It’s true you should not murder your neighbor; it’s “truer” in an moral sense that you should not nuke a city for the fun of it. Sorting truth in that way admits Science is not the highest truth, because matters of ethics and morality belong to Philosophy, which is itself fed by History, Literature, Economics, and Art. Science can only say what is, Philosophy and Theology can say what you ought to do.
In From From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun said:
Ten succinct paragraphs of the Pensées [by Blase Pascal] state [the warning against scientism] with finality. Scientism is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be used on all forms of experience and, given time, will settle every issue. Again and again, the bright thought has occurred, “If we can only define our terms, if we can only find the basic unit, if we can spot the right ‘indicators,’ we can then measure and reason flawlessly, we shall have created one more science.” And nearly as often, the shout has been heard: “Eureka! We are scientists,” the new science being some portion of the desired Science of Man—history, sociology, psychology, archaeology, linguistics, and other more or less short-lived ologies…
The motives behind scientism are culturally significant. They have been mixed, as usual; genuine curiosity in search of truth; the rage for certainty and for unity; and the snobbish desire to earn the label scientist when that became a high social and intellectual rank. But these efforts, even though in vain, have not been without harm, to the inventors and to the world at large. The “findings” have inspired policies affecting daily life that were enforced with the same absolute assurance as earlier ones based on religion…The case of Karl Marx is typical. Infatuated with the kudos of science, he persuaded himself and his millions of followers in and out of the Soviet Union that he had at last formulated the mechanics of history and could predict the future scientifically.
Here is what Pascal in the Pensées said: “The vanity of the sciences.—Physical science will not console me for the ignorance of morality in the time of affliction. But the science of ethics will always console me for the ignorance of the physical sciences.”
And [Pascal was an early discoverer of the midwit meme, an observation that occurred to me only now and is not in book.]
The world is a good judge of things, for it is in natural ignorance, which is man’s true state. The sciences have two extremes which meet. The first is the pure natural ignorance in which all men find themselves at birth. The other extreme is that reached by great intellects, who, having run through all that men can know, find they know nothing, and come back again to that same ignorance from which they set out; but this is a learned ignorance which is conscious of itself. Those between the two, who have departed from natural ignorance and not been able to reach the other, have some smattering of this vain knowledge, and pretend to be wise. These trouble the world, and are bad judges of everything. The people and the wise constitute the world; these despise it, and are despised. They judge badly of everything, and the world judges rightly of them.
An example of the sort of person Pascal had in mind might be Russell Foster. He wrote in The Times Higher Education of the ordeal of being invited to cocktail parties as a scientist. “The season is once again upon us when we scientists are asked to leave the safe embrace of our laboratories and enter the complex social matrix of unfamiliar relations, friends of friends and obligatory conversations with complete strangers.” He wondered and he fretted how he could explain to these the near illiterates he would meet what he does for a living. He considered avoiding the subject and saving everybody the mental trauma of engaging his superior mind, but he rejected this as beneath his vast intelligence. He now has at the ready, he claims, this speech:
“Well,” I say, “as a scientist my occupation grapples with the fundamental nature of truth. It is worth reflecting that before the emergence of a robust scientific class in the 19th century, truth was defined by the whim of the ruling class. Indeed, we scientists wrested truth away from the claws of religious dogma and liberated humanity from the leaden hand of ignorance and, in the process, provided the evidenced-based infrastructure required for a truly democratic society — namely individual liberty and equality of opportunity. I suppose I’m just part of that meritocratic force that has defined our civilisation.”
After his speech, he says he does this: “At this point I pause for both gas exchange and dramatic effect.”
Fun guy. Tad arrogant, perhaps. But maybe this Foster really does know more than anybody else. Or perhaps not.
Scientists, while admitting their subjects are in need of self-correction, think rather too well of themselves. It is no wonder how scientism came about.
From here we move to the Peer Review Fallacy and its brothers.
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Categories: Book review