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Loyalty to the Truth and Science

Posted by Joseph Moore on January 22, 2014

PythagoreanTheorem1. Euclid, Process & Logic.

Many St. John’s College students find studying Euclid to be a life-changing experience, and for good reason. For many of us – nearly all of us, I’d guess – it’s the first time we’d experienced the power of a tight logical argument. It’s the first time we’ve had to face the possibility that one could intellectually KNOW something was true. Bracing, and disorienting.

After 12 years of schooling, during which regurgitation of spoon-fed ideas was the key to getting good grades and staying out of trouble, we meet some old Greek dude who doesn’t aim to get us to parrot what he says, but rather seems to think that we can be brought to see the truth in what he proposes.

And that’s not the half of it. Euclid also shows how we need to be clear on our assumptions and definitions in order to understand and enjoy the proofs. Further, he shows how we can take what we know, use it to examine what we don’t know, and ferret out the yet more truth.

This whole process was mind-boggling to us back in 1976, when we, the younger siblings of the hippies, the heirs to some supposed (anti?) intellectual freedom won by the flower children, were handed a 2500 year old text with claims to TRVTH. The nervous dizziness of this state is intoxicating; I can only imagine what it looks like to students today, the grandchildren of hippies, the children of the Greed is Good crowd, products of institutions untethered from the traditions that formed intellects since the Athenians argued in the streets. Does it even get through at all? Hope is a virtue.

Here, at last, was a template of how to investigate the world that was more than simple indoctrination. Here was a template that could be used to *challenge* that indoctrination!

Whoa.

Around the same time we were learning Euclid, we were reading some Aristotle in which he uses an approach fundamentally the same as Euclid’s. Aristotle also cautions against expecting more intellectual certainty than the subject matter admits, adding that great note of prudence and humility – once you leave the pure realm of mathematical ideas and muck around it the messy material world, it’s never going to be quite so tidy, and the conclusions never quite so tight.

But, alas! 18 year olds, schooled as we’d been schooled, found Socrates’ claim to only know that he did not know much more appealing, much less jarring, than Aristotle’s insatiable curiosity about what knowledge could be teased out of the world. It’s a lot easier to feign humility that it is to learn Aristotle. While St. John’s underclassman in my day included many enthusiastic fans of Euclid, few devoted Aristotelians could be found. I certainly wasn’t one. Perhaps others had a different experience.

What Euclid taught us, among other things, was the format of a method for attaining human knowledge, the way one asserts something one expects others to acknowledge: given these assumptions and these definitions, and following these logical steps, THIS IS TRUE.  Presented in this way, the only honorable and reasonable escape is to challenge the assumptions or the logic. For a serious person, this is a serious endeavor. If you love truth, this is where the rubber hits the road.

1500 years after Euclid and Aristotle, and after Empires had come and gone and peoples had supplanted peoples who had supplanted people, Aristotle and Euclid met the Gospel of John and the 19th Psalm.* The Truth is a person, Who created the heavens and the earth, which proclaim His glory. The cool logic of Euclid and the insatiable curiosity of Aristotle were reborn within an insatiable yearning for the Love of God, in Whom we and all of creation live and move and have our being. Now, instead of a few Greeks studying the world as a hobby, we have universities full of thousands upon thousands of Aristotelian logicians studying the world in order to understand God, with the blessing and support of the Church.**

2. The Legitimate Demands of Science on Our Loyalty and Assent

Science, insofar as it has any meaning at all, makes claims on our consent to its propositions based on our presumed loyalty to the truth. Loyalty to the truth can show up in surprising places. To admit that a beautiful theory can be destroyed by an ugly fact shows a noble humility before the truth – especially if it’s your theory that’s getting destroyed. Similarly, the treachery of denying the truth can pop up unexpectedly, especially where money, fame and career are involved. The challenge for us, presumed lovers of truth, is how do we sort them out?  How do we know to which claims and to what degree we owe allegiance?

Of course, this questions comes up because vague or formally incomplete assertions of truth are constantly made, and even  used as shibboleths to sort us out or shillelaghs to beat us with.

To be clear: properly defined and formally complete claims of science do have a claim on our assent based on our presumed loyalty to the truth.  The claim that ‘science has shown’ is a claim that we owe it to our integrity to acknowledge whatever it is that science has show, with the usual caveats that all scientific claims are conditional.

But what does it mean to say that science has shown us something?

For us laymen to assess a scientific proposition, we need to answer three questions:

A. Is the proposition clear?

B. Is it presented within a logical framework?

C. Is it important that I assent to it? (the often skipped mystery question!)

A. In order to compel my conditional assent (conditional because, as mentioned above, matters in the material world are never as tidy as mathematical ideas – we may have missed something), a scientific proposition has to be clear enough to be understood.

To use a non-controversial example: the Martian day is 24 hours and 40 minutes long. Good enough claim? Well, it turn out there are two ways to measure the length of a day – sidereal and solar – that do not give the same answer. The sidereal Martian day is 24 hours, 37 minutes and 22 seconds, +/- some (tiny) variations and allowing for some inaccuracies of measurement.  The solar Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds with the same caveats. Those claims are reasonably complete and clear.

B. “Science has shown” that these numbers are correct. What this means is that, using a variety of approaches, culminating with putting probes on the surface, astronomers and rocket scientists have calculated the length of the Martian day in both ways. And, the clincher: you couldn’t land things on Mars with the accuracy achieved in the last couple decades unless you knew the speed of rotation very accurately – outside the high polar regions, seconds of rotation equal miles of distance. So one would need to know how fast, exactly, Mars is spinning in order to drop that rover right on target – which they seem to be doing.

So, the context is adequate. The logical framework – how you would go about figuring this out and why you’d do it and how you would be sure you got it right (within acceptable margins) – makes sense. Note that this is from a layman’s perspective –  all I’m saying is that it’s clear to me that what they are doing and how they went about determining and verifying the result make sense. I have no reason to doubt this proposition. This is the best we can usually do, unless we have massive science chops and lots of time on our hands.

C. The length of the Martian day could hardly be less important to me. Accepting or disputing the findings are almost equally meaningless to me in all practical senses. But it’s cool! I’m geeking out over here!

More seriously, there are very few scientific propositions that require our assent as honest, truth loving human beings. Unless we sit on a science funding committees or need to evaluate some proposed course of action that depends on accepting certain scientific propositions, it just isn’t required for us to assent to anything. Humility would require us to say ‘I don’t know’, not that we assent because somebody in a lab coat tells us we have to. (Of course, science is great fun, and so we may study it for pleasure. If we do so, we may only be required to assent if we learn something true. But we’re not compelled by honor to consent to every thing some guy in a lab coat says is science.)

We should be gravely suspicious of demands that we assent to proposition made in the name of science when those propositions make no difference to our lives. Evolutionary biologists, I’m talking to you – nobody needs to assent to your assertions to prove their reasonableness. The most honest and reasonable answer for almost everybody is: I don’t know, and since it makes no difference in how I live my life, I’m not going to worry about it.  It’s complicated stuff, with very complicated arguments, and it doesn’t mean anything if somebody respectfully and with humility withholds their assent. No matter how beautiful and compelling an expert may find it, there’s really no reason or excuse for using people’s willingness to assent to Darwin as some sort of test of reasonableness. Those who do are simply uncultured bores.

To take a counter example: We are destroying the planet. The proposition is so unclear (and preposterous) that we can’t even get to step 2. Most important, we can conclusively presume that anyone proposing such a claim isn’t basing it on science – in other words, we don’t owe any allegiance to this claim.

3. Prudence & Judgement & Getting Backed Into a Corner.

The tricky part in the above is that we need a certain level of sophistication to judge how much credence we should put in a particular claim made in the name of science, or even whether a claim can even in theory be scientific, in the sense of requiring our honest assent. If we in fact valued science as a culture as much as we claim we do, science education in this country would have one goal: teaching the student how to form a reasonable judgement about just how much loyalty he owes to any particular claim that ‘science has shown.’

The first step in evaluating a claim in the name of science is asking myself, truthfully, do I have any business even having an opinion. Because, honestly, I don’t know anything about almost everything. If possible, let it go – unless you have some sort of duty judge.  I try to restrict myself to criticizing the claims on procedural and logical and even grammatical grounds – those things I do understand, and am fit to judge, and I feel called, as it were, to offer up contrary opinions to patent nonsense that serves only to drag the name of science through the mud and spook the cattle. Guys like Mike Flynn and William Briggs  are experts in their fields, and so rightly offer criticisms from their expertise.  Perhaps the rule should be: If you know enough to know it’s wrong, say so. Otherwise, pass no judgement. 

Prudence dictates that we say, more often than not, that we don’t know. Say it is claimed that a gene has been discovered that causes – pick something – depression. I, personally, would strongly doubt that to be true, yet, without further information, I’d just say I don’t know. My doubts have to do with a little bit of special knowledge (special only in the sense that it’s particular and highly specialized, not special in any Gnostic sense). Given the state of our knowledge of how genes work – we’re at little better than the ‘Gee whiz! Whoa!’ stage for the most part – and the lack of a clear, objective definition of exactly what we mean by depression, it seems highly suspect that such a claim would stand up to much scrutiny.  

But, hey, maybe. I don’t know.  My duty might be to caution others from recklessly assenting to this claim – but that’s about it. 

It’s also important to note a defining trait of real science in action: caution. Back in college, we did read some source papers for some of the greatest discoveries of the last century. I also read dozens of issues of Scientific American back before it was totally politicized. Real scientists, at least in the sample I read, choose to say what they’ve discovered in very reserved terms, letting the other scientists fill in the ‘if that’s true, then – EUREKA!’ proclamations. One can almost say categorically that any breathless claims suitable for a headline are false. Real science doesn’t work that way very often. 

Finally, never assent to attempts to corner you. I amuse myself, sometimes, by asking if a speaker or writer attempting to cow us with Science! could, for example, explain how it is he KNOWS the world rotates on its axis. How do we KNOW stars are billions of miles away? Or even how his refrigerator works. Because if he can’t explain how he knows those things, why should I trust him on even less well-understood claims? 

A common example: Darwin, more specifically, the theory of the origin of species by means of natural selection. The question should not be ‘do you believe in evolution?’ but rather ‘why is my assent on this question even important?’ I mean, who cares? Very few people have bothered to really try to understand Darwin, let alone Mendel and Watson and Crick and the human genome project – yet, somehow, that everybody professes the truth of Darwin is important? Why does it make any difference?  All the question really shows is the failure of the questioner to understand what is under discussion in this essay. 

Bottom line: we owe no allegiance to the guy in the lab coat, even less to his acolytes. We don’t have to have an opinion. We owe an allegiance to the truth, and, insofar as the rules of science have been followed and the claims are stated clearly and within the limits of science, that allegiance is owed (conditionally) to those claims as well. But that’s it. 

* a shout-out to Averroes for his part in arranging the introduction. Thanks!

** Mike Flynn points out that science thus understood is Art Appreciation, but by Robert Boyle’s time, science became more a way to dominate nature – and make money.

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One Response to “Loyalty to the Truth and Science”

  1. […] Here, we discuss how and to what extent science has a claim to our assent to its findings. And here, Feynman explains the obligations of scientists if they want other scientists to assent – by extension, those obligations to not lie to oneself or to one’s peers also apply to how scientists ought to behave toward us civilians. […]

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