Steve Goldberg was president of the sociology department at City College of New York (CCNY) from 1988 until his retirement (back when they knew how to do sociology). He is the author of a number of books, notably Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, When Wish Replaces Thought: Why So Much of What You Believe Is False, and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, all of which are must-haves.
Quid est veritas. “What is truth?” Even if detached from its religious roots, perhaps especially if detached from its religious roots, this is the most serious question a human being can ask. For if we do not have a comprehensible conception of what truth is, then we lack the foundation on which all statements must rest. While it is not the case that we presently speak only cacophony and write only nonsense, if our conceptions of certainty and uncertainty are murky, we then proceed with a disturbing absence of attachment of practice to justification.
And yet, for decades, indeed centuries, the accepted conception of truth has been one of skepticism, a denial that truth exists in more than a probabilistic manner. In this book William M. Briggs challenges this accepted wisdom with powerful arguments explained most cogently. With airtight, deep logic, he exposes weaknesses of probability, statistics, causality, modeling, deciding, communicating, and uncertainty—the whole kit and caboodle, “everything to do with evidence”.
This is no small claim and I approached Briggs’s work with some skepticism of my own. After all, our conceptions of probability, statistics, and the rest have seemed to work pretty well. Then I read Briggs’s book.
Much of the first part of this book, indeed the gist before Briggs gets to work on his positive insights, is refutation of our accepted concepts of probability statistics, evidence, chance. randomness, regression analysis, parameters, hypothesis testing, and a host of other concepts insufficiently questioned until now.
All this sets the stage for Briggs’s central point: All truths are known because of the conditions assumed. All probability, like all truth, is conditional. All truths that are known are known because of the conditions assumed.
Briggs brings to his work the widest range of relevant competencies. He has applied his extensive training and research to a wide range of analyses including cryptology, weather forecasting, prediction (and, perhaps most tellingly, the basic failure of prediction), and more generally, philosophy of science and epistemology.
Briggs’s central point is that truth exists, but in a world currently plagued by an over-certainty, which “is already at pandemic levels.” It is the failure to understand that all probability is conditional on evidence and resides in the mind, not in objects—probability has no ontological existence—that makes this pandemic possible.
In practice, and in all of science, conditional truths are far more relevant than are necessary truths. While thought could not proceed without necessary truths (P is P and not P is not-P), it is probability and conditional truth that is the launch pad for Briggs;s great many original thoughts and the arena that surrounds and binds them.
Uncertainty presupposes, and demonstrates, the existence of truth. Uncertainty must be about something. You cannot be uncertain about nothing. The something implied by uncertainty means that truth exists. Without truth there can be no probability. Since there is probability, there must be truth.
Despite this, probability, and more generally our conception of truth—indeed our conception of anything—must inevitably be anchored in a metaphysical ground. Our understanding of essence and our incomplete and often faulty knowledge of it make this inevitable
Probability is the central issue in this book. Beginning with the traditional definition of logic—the relationship between propositions, and with the separation of the logical from the empirical—Briggs emphasizes and exploits the fact that probability, too, concerns the relationship between propositions. “The rest,” he writes, “is mere detail.”
Probability is epistemologically conditional It can be epistemologically true, but it does not exist in ontological reality, but in the epistemology of the mind. Unlike the moon, or the stars, or human beings, probability does not have an existence in reality.
Mathematical proofs depend on premises and chains of premises; proofs found to be incorrect are nearly always found so not on the basis of miscalculation, but of the failure to take into account a necessary constraint. (It is interesting that proofs shown to be incorrect are virtually always demonstrated to be incorrect for this reason and not because their conclusions are incorrect. The conclusions are virtually always shown to be correct by a later proof.)
This book is full of subtle surprises. For example, it is almost universally assumed that deductive proofs are certain, while inductive arguments are uncertain. “But because we know indubitable propositions more surely than any other, induction produces greater certainty than deduction.”
As central as are Briggs’s methodological insights, equally crucial are their implications for decision making. Thus, for example, his suggestion that we eliminate hypothesis testing, which serves merely to affirm biases, would go far to improve the decisions resting on probability.
What I have written here is but a glance at the foundation on which Briggs’s edifice rests. The deepest satisfaction to the reader of Uncertainty resides in following Briggs’s thought and logic and the explanation they generate. Anyone who does so will find that this is a marvelous, marvelous book.
New York City, January 2016. Steven Goldberg, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, City College, City University of New York
This Foreword is permanently linked on Uncertainty’s homepage.