Here’s a meme-photo-quote that caught my eye:
If you are not a scientist, and you disagree with scientists about science, it’s actually not a disagreement. You’re just wrong. Science is not truth. Science is finding the truth. When science changes its opinion, it didn’t lie to you. It learned more.
— by Robert Peeples
I’d say science is about improving our understanding of the truth about how the world works.
Synthetic theories – i.e. empirical conjectures – are all subject to revision, which may be necessitated by observations of new evidence.
For example, a tribe that has always lived near the equator may believe that it’s impossible to walk on water. That’s the best theory they’ve come up with so far. However, if they venture far enough north or south, they will encounter frozen rivers and lakes. When they make these observations, they will need to revise their best theory regarding the possibility of walking on water.
Also, in addition to Synthetic theories, there are Analytic theories and Normative theories. Analytic theories have to do with topics such as mathematics and formal logic. They are theories about what is valid and what is not valid. Note that one can logically draw a valid conclusion (i.e. make a valid deduction) that is simply wrong because it is based on pre-suppositions that are wrong. For example, if you start with a pre-supposition that is wrong – e.g. All human beings will live forever. – you can make deductions from that premise that are valid but not true.
For example, here’s a logical argument that is valid but wrong:
Major Premise: All human beings will live forever.
Minor Premise: Fred Beshears is a human being.
Conclusion: Fred Beshears will live forever.
There’s a simple reason why this argument is wrong even though it’s valid: The major premise is simply not true.
(BTW: some day, in the distant future, humans may “solve” the problem of death. But, as of now, all human beings eventual die.)
So, when one is talking about mathematics and formal logic, it’s important to know the difference between logical validity and empirical truth. This is not to say that math and logic are unimportant. They are both very important and useful. The point is that it is important to know the difference between Synthetic Theories (i.e. conjectures about how the world works) and Analytic Theories (i.e. our understanding of validity). It is also useful to know how Analytic Theories can be used in conjunction with Synthetic Theories and experimentation.
Finally, there are Normative Theories. These theories have to do with ethical questions. They are about how the world ought to be. To formulate policies, expert policy makers have to synthesize Normative Theories with Synthetic Theories and Analytic Theories. For more on how expert policy makers think about these three kinds of theory, see my blog post on Metascience and Politics.
Also note that the natural sciences (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, and Biology) deal mostly with how the world works. Some say that the social sciences (e.g. Sociology, Economics, and Political Science) should also stick to dealing with how the world works. However, social scientists are often called upon to formulate social policies that are supposed to make the world a better place. In other words, social scientists are often called upon to come up with policies that have a major normative component.
Some social philosophers – e.g. John Dewey – hold that we should have a democracy, which means that non-scientists will be asked to vote on social policies that may be highly complex (which they do, indirectly, when they vote on candidates).
Back in the 1920s, Dewey and Walter Lippmann debated the question of whether or not social policies ought to be formulated by experts alone. In essence, that was Lippmann’s position – he thought we should leave complex decision making to the experts, which was seen by some as being anti-democratic. On the other hand, Dewey made a strong argument in favor of democracy. In part, he argued that the public should weigh in on complex policy matters, especially since these policies have a lot to do with normative questions.
Some philosophers hold that we cannot “get ought from is.” David Hume, for example, insisted that we cannot get “ought” (i.e. how the world should be) from “is” (i.e. how the world works) alone. He thought that to answer normative questions, we had to go beyond just Synthetic and Analytic Theories.
Therefore, to formulate complex social policies, we need to go beyond Synthetic and Analytic Theories; we have to make Normative judgements. In my opinion, we want those normative judgements to be well informed by science and the analytic disciplines such as mathematics and formal logic. It would also be great if the general public was better at critical thinking. That skill would help them make better informed normative judgements when they enter the voting booth.
It would be interesting to hear what Robert Peeples has to say about the Dewey-Lippmann debate.
What do you think?
Where are the comments? Anyways, science isn’t like a tablet sent by god. Science changes as we learn more. And different interpretations exist for a thing.
Interesting read. Thank you for sharing.
Be careful here. Capitalist controlled info called science, is dangerous. It masquerades as science, but the overwhelming interest is profit, or power.
Look into the scientific research under fascist Germany. Yipes! Trustworthy ethics panels that are safe from corporate big money influence is desperately needed.
There’s an important distinction to be made here.
There are institutions and organizations that work to produce scientific theories, to test those theories, and to publish their findings. Then there are the theories themselves as represented by words, mathematics, logical expressions, etc.
As you correctly indicate, the institutions and organizations can have interests that are less than honorable. In other words, they may well be corrupt.
One could go a bit further to analyze how the ideology of an institution or a country (e.g. Nazi Germany) can corrupt organizations (and people who work for organizations). And, this corruption can lead to false or misleading publications.
If we go back before “science” became a thing, we had the Church, which wanted to maintain its religious ideology and the teachings that went along with it (e.g. the theory that the Earth was at the center of the solar system).
The story of how science developed to throw off the domination of the Church is an important one. And, we can expect to find historical accounts of our era that depict how ideologies such as Capitalism, Fascism, and Communism have corrupted the work of science.
In my view, however, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, we need to look for ways to emancipate science from the clutches of corrupting ideologies, just as previous generations worked to liberate science from the clutches of the Church.
Applying the Blind Men and the Elephant Parable to Critical Thinking
Fred M. Beshears
4 January 2022
Metascience and Politics: An inquiry into the Conceptual Language of Political Science
by Fred M. Beshears
5 November 2021
This is about a book by A. James Gregor – Metascience and Politics: an inquiry into the Conceptual Language of Political Science.
His book is all about how political scientists and other social sciences could (and should) use analytic philosophy to formulate their scientific theories and policies. In making the case for analytic philosophy, he distinguishes between Synthetic Theories, Analytic Theories, and Normative Theories.
The Dewey-Lippmann Debate
Fred M. Beshears
20 June 2021
Here are some references on an debate between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann. Since it took place back in the 1920s, it’s an old debate, but it’s still important because it frames a basic issue for journalists and news media outlets – are we primarily here to write for experts or for ordinary citizens. Many social science majors are also familiar with this debate since it frames some basic issues about democracy – e.g. to what extent should the state be governed by experts and to what extent should we expect ordinary citizens to understand complex issues well enough to weigh in on important decisions. It’s also a debate that re-emerges as new technology (e.g. Facebook) and new political realities emerge (e.g. Trump’s win in 2016 and his continued influence over the Republican party despite his loss in 2020).
Anatol Rapoport’s Rules: Why Being Fair To Your Opponent Matters
Fred M. Beshears
30 June 2020
Anatol Rapoport provides the following rules to help us resist the urge to paint an unfair caricature of an opponent’s position.
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
If you are not a scientist quote
by Robert Peeples
6 January 2022