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In That Case, You'd Be Seriously Lost (2020-04-13)

Photograph of a compass designed for drawing ellipses held in the collection of the history of science museum in geneva, switzerland. Photograph of a compass designed for drawing ellipses held in the collection of the history of science museum in geneva, switzerland.
Photograph of a compass designed for drawing ellipses held in the collection of the history of science museum in geneva, switzerland. Image courtesy of wikimedia commons, original photograph by Rama, april 2018.

A recent orienteering event, in which people compete to see who can navigate to various checkpoints in the least time using a map and compass, reminded me again of an essay by Jim Baggott, published last year on aeon. In itself, Baggot's essay is not about orienteering at all. In fact, as its title tells us, "Post-Empirical Science Is An Oxymoron, And It Is Dangerous," Baggot is defending real science, knowledge developed via systematically collected, repeatable observations. Empirical science is not the only way to learn, but so far it has proved to be the best system of learning that permits self-correction and retention of what is true to the best of the human ability to understand. Please note that "empirical science" as defined here is anything but limited to whatever people who think they are white call science. The basis is systematically collected, repeatable observations. That can be achieved with or without fancy laboratories, and passed on with or without the currently creaking research publication system, which is creaking because of efforts to make it more amenable to rentierism, not the nonsense parroted by so-called "post-modernists" and "post-structuralists."

Nonsense post-structuralists and post-modernists may be parroting, but their words are far from harmless. They are key weapons in the arsenal of those who want very much to reassert authoritarianism in all its possible guises, and there are two areas the proponents of authoritarianism always attack first: women's rights, and empirical science. So Jim Baggot is fighting the good fight in this essay, he is actively working against what is a very dangerous form of woolly thinking at best, at worst something far more sinister. He has so much good to say, that his selection of bizarre, weak, and therefore catastrophically bad examples is mystifying. It comes close to completely self-defeating, as I observed in a comment thread about Baggot's essay that got completely derailed debating those distracting pseudo-examples instead of the key point he was supposed to making, as given in the title.

The first self-defeating example starts out well, in that he focuses on the notion that humans know more about how the physical world works than we did before, because of science. The hedge he has made here is a perfectly fair one. There is not even a broad consensus about what other worlds there are, if any, besides the physical world. Then he tries to argue that scientific progress is why "we" have "smartphones" and the ancient greek philosophers did not. This comes across as an almost complete non sequitur, which is unfortunate, because what Baggot is getting at – I think, based on the principle of reading charitably – is that more empirical knowledge about how the physical world works had to be built up between the time of the ancient greek philosophers and now to be able to conceive of and build smartphones. That is plainly true. But as set out, readers can easily get railroaded off into arguing about whether smartphones are really a scientific advance or something else. This is a hard knot to unravel, because for the most part Baggot does not attempt to unpack the various moral judgements that tend to tag along with the terms "scientific advance" and "scientific progress." It is also true after all, that being able and willing to make smartphones is not in itself inherently good.

The other completely distracting example is that of using a GPS application on a smartphone to navigate with. Now, as it happens, there are neat bits tied up with this example, not least that it is one of the few potential daily life tasks that require the application of Einstien's theories of relativity. He is probably trying to be funny when he comments that without the application of Einstein's theories, "after a couple of days you'd have a hard time working out where on Earth you are." Except no, no you wouldn't. That's why we still have paper maps, road signage, and such wonderful social options as asking other people to help us navigate instead. I am not trying to strawman here, or make an updated version of the critique of writing that Plato attributed to Socrates in a dialogue set out in and preserved in writing, as it happens. The point is, the conditions under which Einstein's theories apply on Earth are very few, and the GPS example is one of the even smaller number of these that we may interact with ourselves. The "empirical science" bit that it could show, if Baggot had approached it this way, is how our own observations of errors in navigation from using a GPS application could allow us to accurately determine that not enough satellites were detectable by our GPS receiver for it to be useful so we had best switch to another way of navigating.

In other words, I think a much stronger argument for empirical science is its basis in an accessible and repeatable criterion for putting together cause and effect accurately. Any of us, once we are clear on the difference between deduction, reasoning from a general principle to make sense of observations, and induction, reasoning out a general principle from many observations, we're good to go. We all learn these things by necessity, even if we never learn to label what we're doing with such fancy words, because that's how we figure out the basics of our daily lives. When we watch toddlers chucking blocks repeatedly or pouring out juice or whatever, at least some of the time those kids are literally just seeing what will happen, because they don't know. They are performing simple experiments. Those are the sorts of observations that in time build up into our adult knowledge of the physical world, a knowledge that we can apply to work together with one another on all manner of things for all manner of purposes. Whatever else happens, that key technique of experimenting and paying attention to the outcome, and then trying to make sure that what we observed is actually causation not correlation, that is an extraordinary mental multitool that happens to show in particular relief in the case of empirical science. And that mental multitool is a key element of our bullshit detection systems, and we need those for more than just science.

With all that said then, what about the people who are honestly concerned that the notion of there being a single, absolute truth is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense that itself can be abused to support authoritarianism, among other ways of being most of us would like to discourage. Well, the funny thing about this claim is, empirical science is in agreement with it. In science, there is not a single, absolute truth forever. We are human beings whose experience and knowledge is inevitably limited by our specific place and time. That's why empirical science doesn't have a point at which all the scientists throw up their hands and go, "Well, that's it, there's nothing left to learn." Occasionally very influential scientists have suggested something similar, usually along the lines that all the major puzzles have been solved and now it is down to decimal places. That however, is not empirical science. It may be an expression of more or less understandable exhaustion or bafflement, but it is not empirical science. What empirical science does say, is that the longer a given explanation holds up under scrutiny and experiment, the more we can simply accept it as the truth, though it may not be the absolute truth. Here we can go back to Baggot's discussion of gravitational theories, where Isaac Newton's theory is all we need in our everyday lives for the most part, but it cannot be extended to conditions where Einstein's theories apply. That doesn't make Newton's theory false, that makes it limited, as Baggot lays out quite well.

Some versions proponents of post-structuralism and post-modernism want to claim that if there is no absolute truth for ever and always, there is no truth at all. The ones who take that tack usually don't take too much longer to begin trying to persuade anyone who will listen to them that this means that any moral or ethical arguments are therefore not only merely contingent, but absolutely contingent. These are the people who try to argue that a person can consent to abuse, and therefore be rightfully abused. But this is nonsense, because we can observe the actual impact on the person who is suffering abuse, and see that they are being harmed. We have evidence available to us that people suffering abuse can be persuaded, at least for awhile, that they somehow deserve or chose what they are suffering, and that this persuasion cannot be equated with a person making a free choice at all. This goes back of course to my earlier point about bullshit detection, and that remarkable mental multitool we develop from our earliest days. This was of course what Baggot was getting at. Alas for his distracting examples! (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23