Scientific Truths Are Not Better Truths Than Just-Plain Truths

One of the key fallacies of scientism, in the sense of being the most destructive to common sense and personal wellbeing, is to suppose that any theory put forth in the name of science is therefore true, or certain enough to believe as true. The posited theory is, after all, scientific and, so scientism says, there is no better recommendation to truth than this.

This fallacy is field dependent, cropping up in some areas much more frequently than in others. It is rare, though still frequent enough in a mild sense, to find the speculations of chemists being refuted each new generation. But it is common as daylight to find the hypotheses put forth by sociologists, economists, and psychologists refuted not a generation after they are published, but often in the next issue of the same journal.

For example, the Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson’s reviews the bad science and scientism behind the recent spate of experimentation “proving” conservatives are dumber/more inflexible/less compassionate/etc. than liberals, theories which are collected in Chris Mooney’s hagiography to scientism, The Republican Brain. (We began a collection of these studies here; please contribute. Also see Mike Flynn’s take on this.)

The studies rely on the principle that has informed the social sciences for more than a generation: If a researcher with a Ph.D. can corral enough undergraduates into a campus classroom and, by giving them a little bit of money or a class credit, get them to do something—fill out a questionnaire, let’s say, or pretend they’re in a specific real-world situation that the researcher has thought up—the young scholars will (unconsciously!) yield general truths about the human animal; scientific truths.

Although he didn’t intend it, Ferguson shows us another fallacy, which is that, in virtue of their being generated by scientists, that “scientific” truths are better than other kinds of truths, say metaphysical or logical truths. Stating it so plainly makes it obvious that if a truth is a truth, then it is a truth, and a truth is not more “truthy” because it comes from a scientist than a truth which comes from (say) a theologian.

The main problem with this summary is that often scientists use the word truth to mean “a belief which is probably but not 100% certainly, no-matter-what true.” That later creature is not a truth at all; it is a conjecture and nothing more. A conjecture which is “almost” true, or “for all practical purposes” true, is still a conjecture and not a truth. A truth is only true when it always is, when it can be deduced, when it arises as the end result of a valid argument. That is, conjectures when they are conjectures are not truths, but conjectures might become truth as new evidence arises.

Physicists make the mistake of confusing truth and conjecture just as often as sociologists and psychologists, only the physicists’ conjectures more often turn out to be truths as that new evidence arrives, so their error is of less consequence. Note that it is an error (a fallacy) to say, given evidence less than deductive, that a conjecture is a truth. The error will turn out to be more or less harmful depending on to what use the conjecture is put. If one is betting that a protein will fold a hypothesized way, one has turned a conjecture into a forecast, which is a term that acknowledges a conjecture is less than a truth.

If the conjecture turns out true, because of new evidence from an experiment, then the conjecture turns into a truth and gains are made. If the conjecture turns out false, we again know this based on new evidence, and loses are suffered. The loses are of particular interest: these are less the closer the conjecture is to the truth. Which is why the loses are greater in the soft sciences: their conjectures are much more often farther from truth.

One reason for the difference is that physicists more often than sociologists test their conjectures against reality. Another reason is that the evidence for a conjecture for the hard sciences is not just statistical, as it often is for soft-science conjectures. And any conjecture which relies primarily on statistics—given, that is, how statistics is practiced today—should not be trusted.

I’ll insert my usual plea that soft scientists act more like their hard (knock) brothers. Do not just assemble a one-time shot of data and compute some statistical model and tell us how well that model fits your data, and then assume because this fit is “good” that therefore your conjectures are true. This is formally a fallacy and is the weakest kind of evidence there is, but (almost universally) the only kind which is offered.

Instead do two things: (1) find very effort to discover evidence which refutes your conjecture (and then tell us abou it). And (2) as hard scientists (often) do, make predictions of data you have never before seen. If you do both these things, then you can ask us to believe your conjectures. Otherwise, keep quiet.

————————————————————————————

Thanks to the many readers who pointed me to Ferguson’s article, including Mike Flynn and Doug Magowan.

Comments

Scientific Truths Are Not Better Truths Than Just-Plain Truths — 19 Comments

  1. A supporting quote from Scripps Institute’s late great John Isaacs:

    “I have much greater faith in simple observations and untrammeled thinking than I have in sophisticated observation and simplistic thinking! And I have much greater confidence that man’s relationship to the sea and its resources will be enhanced by thoughtful and observant people closely involved and broadly acquainted with the sea- scientist and non-scientists alike- than by frantic responses to public hysteria or by the pontification of the scientific hierarchy.”

  2. I enjoyed Ferguson’s article that you linked to, but I noticed that he does not call it scientism as you do. He details the abuses and corruption of science but does not claim that there are higher truths unreachable by the scientific method. The only statement that I disliked was his “the usual hillbilly denials of evolution and global warming” phrase. I guess it is always easier to see the flaws in your own field of study (interest). But back to my scientism rant, maybe if you could give me an example of truth that was inaccessible by science or mathematics but approachable by a non-scientific method I would be placated. No statements about esthetic appreciation please.

  3. Then there is the “truth” that is true in a tightly constrained self consistent context of objective evidence. If properly constructed, it remains true even if the context is expanded. If it becomes false in the expanded context, then we know either the construction of the original “truth” was in error or the tightly constrained self consistent context was not as self consistent as thought or both. At least it is clear that we had made a mistake.

    Actually, all truths are true in their tightly constrained objective context. There is no such thing as a truth that is true in all contexts for all time because “truth” is an evaluation of a given proposition with respect to the context of what is known. It cannot relate to what is not known or that which cannot be known.

    For example, the proposition 2+2=4 is true only in the context of a specific meaning of 2, +, =, and 4. As long as you are in that context it is true. Go outside that context, it is irrelevant. Also, for example, push the measure of a particular “truth” to a sufficient number of significant digits, it becomes inconsistent with it self. In this way, all measures of “truths” have, as part of their context, an error bar on the value. Sometimes good enough is as good as it gets is a truth we will have to live with.

  4. Re: the Weekly Standard piece, I saw a lot of confusion about the difference between random selection and random assignment, and the goals of basic research. Seriously, does someone pay guys every time you incorrectly claim that a published paper says it has uncovered a universal truth??? Also a lot of ad hominem attacks.

    But I missed the part about scientism.

  5. “Theodor Adorno and his fellow sociologists developed the F scale—“F” for fascism—to identify the “authoritarian personality” that so often gave rise to political and cultural conservatism.”

    I always find statements like that hilarious. Benito Moussolini was a communist who developed Fascisim as the Italian version of Marxism, He thought the Russian Communist version of Marxism, didnt apply to italy. Fascism is just Communism lite. Calling Fascism conservative is risible.

  6. William Sears: would “murdering people is wrong” count as an example of a “truth” that is inaccessible to math?

    Briggs: the very last paragraph of your posts sums it all up nicely. If you’re in the business of curve fitting, a class in data compression should be mandatory. It would be a good way to show people how fitting a curve isn’t any different than compressing an image. The only way to know your model isn’t just compressing the data at hand is to test it against unseen data.

  7. Will,

    Your statement is a tautology. You will have to expand it to meet my criteria.

  8. William sears: how about “killing another human being without their content and without provocation is wrong”?

    Picking up a young child from school and then brutally murdering her is something I consider wrong, bad, vile, etc… Executing the person who killed the child Is something that i consider to be okay. I am trying to capture those two things in my statement above.

  9. Will,

    I am not going to take the bait. I do believe however that you are proving a point that I made in a previous post. That charges of scientism invariably degenerate into an attempt to place areas of personal interest beyond the bounds of scientific criticism through the use of emotional images. Many, Hayek for one, have noted that society’s laws and taboos are not arrived at through purely rational means, but this is a far cry from stating that the process can not be scientifically studied. The comparison is made to biological evolution. Life has not evolved through a process of laboratory creation but it is understood through scientific study, not through an emotional appeal to higher truths arrived at by a non-scientific method.

  10. Hi Briggs,

    You need to clarify your definition of scientism. You use the term two different ways and you need to settle on one or the other. (Three, if you count its use as a pejorative.)

    Is your definition of scientism more like to accept the assumption that: the sole test of all knowledge is experiment? Where scientism is the belief that the scientific method should be used to vet all knowledge, not just natural laws?

    Or is your definition more like equating scientism with cargo cult science? Where the process of acquiring knowledge is only pro forma the scientific method?

    And you keep using the words “fallacy” and “truth” in discussing science. You aim too high. (It makes consensus harder.) The key words are “consistency” and “knowledge”. For example, the scientific method uses abduction, a fallacious but consistent argument. Another example, Newton’s Laws are not actually true statements about reality, yet they represent knowledge.

  11. Truth and fact are different expressions of the same thing, yet how often do we read “the facts have changed”? I know that the term fact is often stretched to mean “that which is claimed to be true”, or “what I perceive to be true”, but I see no reason not to use the precise words “claim” or “believe” instead. Facts cannot change, they either exist or do not.

    I delight in the subtle nuances of written English; a word for everything, and everything has a word to express or describe it. We seem to be living in Wonderland, where the immortal line “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” can be faintly heard, as we hear or read what is purported to be “fact”.

  12. Sceptics just call this sort of stuff Junk Science. I’m not sure if Scientism is exactly the right label here. If you’ve got an idealogical or political axe to grind then you’re going to wade through a lot of junk science until you’re left with a filtered list of papers that mesh up with your belief system.

  13. Pingback: Screw Religion! Go With God | Veterans Today « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  14. Natural science examines the metrical properties of physical bodies. It can tell us how fast and along what trajectory a body will accelerate if you push it out of a plane traveling at a certain speed and altitude. Natural science cannot tell us whether or not to push a person out of the plane. If it can’t be expressed in “inches, ounces, ohms, or hours,” it ain’t natural science.

    And yeah, that includes social “science.” It takes more than wearing a white lab coat and sprinkling the magic language of physics into one’s discourse to make something a “science.”

  15. William Sears: just because something can be studied scientifically doesn’t mean it is apt to scientific study. I can also paint a room with a hammer as long as you don’t expect paint to mean consistently cover a room with color.

    Evolution is a great example. Science really can’t explain evolution in any formal sense– it’s not predictable. It kind of just works, and only some of the time (I.e. dodo birds). Someone can explain the idea, but there is no formula or proof for it. I think many people, myself include, accept the notion because it seems to make sense.

  16. Would it be too much effort for these reserchers to have a modeling and a validation data set to see if the model could predict if unmodelled republicans were stupider than liberals , using the same criterion as used to develop the model?

  17. Ah, Scientific Truth, and the scientists (as well as others) who know nothing about Science, though each may know a great deal about a particular discipline within what is commonly called science.

    The Scientific Method does not get to Truth. It does not even attempt it, unless proving that a statement (i.e., a theory) is false can somehow be construed as Truth. The Scientific Method is about disproving things – conjectures or theories, usually. A theory that seems plausible and withstands attempts to disprove it is strong and is accepted as useful, for now.

    It would be accurate to say that “all scientific theories are wrong (false)”, though some are closer to Truth than others. Think about it: the scientific theory of the flat earth; the well-accepted theory that all celestial bodies (including the sun) revolved about the Earth; Newton’s Laws of Mechanics; Special Relativity. All disproved. Each superceded by a newer theory that did a better job of predicting the outcome of experiments: observations.

    While Science does not even pretend to deal with The Truth, it does strive to move closer by disproving theories and replacing them with theories that are more robust, i.e., closer to The Truth. It is human arrogance (hubris, if you will) to imagine that our puny intelligence, fed by our wretchedly poor senses, can ever grasp Truth.

    We can, of course, comprehend and find use for theories (or laws) that approximate The Truth, as long as we are cautious about their limited applicability. All our technology – from the ability to hit something with a thrown rock up to and beyond genetic splicing – is based on application of useful approximations.

    The sun rose this morning (or rather, the planet spun to an orientation wherein the side that contained my house faced the sun). That is a mundane, banal fact about the past, not some Scientific Truth. “The Science” is never settled for, when something is settled it is past, ceases to be science, and descends into mundane, historic fact. The planet warmed – that is a banal fact. Why it warmed is Science and may never be settled. Even something as ordinary as “why does a match burst into flame?” is not fully settled, though explanations (theories) are very damn good at predicting outcomes. Predictions about the future (where Science is really interesting) can never be settled – it is about the future, after all. The history of Science is littered with wrong predictions.

    Anyone who claims otherwise is not acting as a scientist but as something else (perhaps a prophet or theologian) when he claims to have The Truth or to know the Settled Science. He is, at best, a polemicist with a PhD.

    For more, study the works of Karl Popper.

  18. @Ye Olde Statistican

    What about light? Not some kind of body, so by your definition not part of he natural sciences.

    @Will

    Evolution can be used to make predictions. Breed some kind of animal or plant for a specific new niche by eliminating the animals that do not cope, and you will end up with an animal adapted to that new niche. At some point the animals will turn into a new species, i.e. they will not breed true with other animals, in particular with the ones of the kind they descended from. The prediction is that this proces will work, producing a new species adapted to that niche. And it is allowed for humans to do the selection, as the mechanism used in animals to evolve is the same mechanism used by Nature.