You Want Facts? Ask Science, Not Pundits

Everybody wants to know what the truth is, or do they? If you ask a person they will say they want to know what is fact and what is fiction but in practice almost nobody behaves as if this is the case. People live life ignoring mountains of evidence that contradict existing beliefs and gulping down transparently bad evidence that confirms their existing beliefs.

Have a question about guns? Conservatives go directly to far-Right “news” sources like Fox News, One America News Network, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, or a similar source to find talking points to parrot off. Liberals go to MSNBC, the Huffington Post, or Salon to do the same. No sane person could mistake these for sources that put facts before politics, yet they are where the most confident and vocal of the Left and Right get their information.

Empirical questions demand empirical evidence, not punditry and demagoguery.

If you want to know the facts on Transgender people go to the academic literature, not the Daily Caller. If you want to want to know if nuclear power is dangerous go to the academic literature, not Greenpeace. If you want to know if human-driven climate change is really happening go to the academic literature, not Watts Up with That . If you want to know if vaccines cause autism or if GMOs are safe go to the academic literature, not Natural News. If you want to know if the Earth’s age and whether or not there was a global flood roughly 6,000 years ago go to the academic literature, not the Bible. If you want to know if evolution occurred go to the academic literature, not your preacher.

Nobody is asking you do just buy what any individual scientist or academic is saying. But at minimum you need to start with the best raw information you can to form your opinion, and that is almost invariably going to be the academic literature. I know that the loons and ideologues whose beliefs will be crushed by the facts want you to think that academia is just a big liberal conspiracy, but like any conspiracy, the likelihood of such a grand scheme working as perfectly and effectively as it would have to to be true has a monumentally low probability of occurring.

Of course scientists can and have been wrong. But they are never disproved by internet warriors devouring alt-Right hate-fapping mantras, they are disproved by other scientists. The collective scientific endeavor leads to fierce competitiveness between scientists and this competitiveness leads scientists to mercilessly weed out frauds.

The Wakefield (1998) study falsely linking MMR vaccines to autism wasn’t caught by righteous laypersons with an eye on the eggheads, it was other scientists that disproved it. The fake “Piltdown Man” fossils discovered in 1912 weren’t spotted by perspicacious “creation scientists,” it was other real scientists testing them with fluorine chemistry experiments. The idea of humorism was disproved and replaced with germ theory not by concerned laypersons, it was done by chemists and scientists like Louis Pasteur. Similar examples are aplenty.

It is even becoming more absurd of an idea for laypersons to be so hubristic as to believe they know more than the scientists. This is because of the level of specialization that is occurring in science. As a result of the sheer volume of information discovered on any given subject, every field is dividing and splintering into sub-fields because in order to properly know all the information on a subject you must focus almost all your time effort on a sliver of it. This isn’t to say there are no scientists synthesizing and looking at the trees as a forest, there are. But nobody is going to know anywhere near as much about individual trees as the specialists dedicating all their time to them.

After refusing to accept an armchair scientist’s YouTube video or blog post as evidence, demanding that they provide academic evidence instead, they often accuse me of scientism. This is a last ditch ad hominem attack that isn’t true. I don’t believe scientific information is the only valuable information. Painting is valuable, music is valuable, transcendent experiences are valuable. It is just that when making a fact claim, citing your personal experience is absolutely useless and doesn’t get us any closer to knowing what is true.

Yes, I am familiar with the critiques philosophers of science such as Thomas Khun and Paul Karl Feyerabend have stated about science. They raised legitimate questions, but their proposals were no more perfect than the ones they were attacking.

Feyerabend correctly stated that the practice of science involves the pre-existing beliefs and biases of the scientists involved and is thus not a strictly pure objective project. But while Feyerabend’s “epistemological anarchism” may sound like the revolutionary solution, it is just another audacious system that creates more problems than it solves, just like wanting to completely abolish capitalism for communism.

Karl Popper brought these problems that can arise in science up years earlier, and he proposed a simply yet effective solution; stop trying to prove something 100% through induction because it cannot be done. Popper’s solution was much more elegant and than Feyerabend’s. I can’t prove we aren’t brains in a vat, I can’t prove unicorns don’t exist, but when we only have to deal in probabilities and absolutes, being pretty sure I’m not a brain in a vat is good enough. Feyerabend’s ideas may be conducive of creativity, but they verge on making it impossible to build on existing genuine knowledge; it almost precludes us from doing as Newton said and standing on the shoulders of giants.

Of course scientists shouldn’t be afraid of being audacious and creative. But all they need to do is be rigorous and transparent in their methods and they will suffer little persecution. The people who suffer (completely warranted) persecution are Creationism “scientists,” anti-vaxxer “scientists,” climate “skeptics,” and others who are motivated not by scientific creativity but instead by confirmation bias, and it shows in their transparently abysmal methods.

Feyerabend just ends up like an over-stepping response to logical positivism similar to romanticism against reason of the 19th century. Yes, some of the positivists and Enlightenment thinkers went overboard in believing they would soon have access to the complete universal laws of the cosmos, or that we can have an airtight path of inductive reasoning and confirmation. But, while the counter-movements indeed pointed out legitimate shortcomings of those ideas, they almost always overstepped to a drastically more ridiculous degree in the other direction.

Thus, Feyerabend’s call to “let one’s inclinations go against reason in any circumstances, for science may profit” is not actually a very good idea. Letting one’s inclinations go against reason is how we got the Dark Ages.

Philosopher of Science Peter Godfrey-Smith points out the weakness of Feyerabend’s position with an analogy:

The policy of catching trains that are scheduled to take you where you plan to go is a policy that may go wrong. The train might crash. Or if you caught a different train, you might meet the love of your life on the way. All that is possible, but no rational person regards these mere possibilities as sufficient to discredit the rule that it is best to take trains that are scheduled to go where you want to go.

What is the solution to avoiding scientism? Avoid absolutes. Richard Dawkins does; he, as one of the most famous “new atheists” himself said on a scale of 1 (I know god exists) to 7 (I know god doesn’t exist) he is a 6 because he acknowledges you cannot 100% disprove a negative. The problem occurs when people who agree that chalking something up to leprechauns, sprites, and water nymphs is absurd, yet think other proposed magical causes like god, angels, prayers, and demons are legitimate proposals.

The scientific method is absolutely the best method yet devised to learn the most reliable information about the real world (even if we don’t have direct access to it). You don’t have to engage in scientism to assert that. To avoid scientism or absolutes, simply get an understanding of Bayesian probability.

Categories Climate Change, Science

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