Flat White

Science ain’t all that

24 July 2018

7:56 AM

24 July 2018

7:56 AM

Hey, I like science just as much as the next guy. But I recognise that science has its limits. While science may be useful, it cannot discover truth, and so cannot answer that most basic philosophical question of how we ought to live. Needless to say, politics is an expression of society’s answer to this most basic philosophical question.

Yet in spite of science’s limits, it tends to be treated as the supreme arbiter of important social questions, the final court of appeal – “science says it, I believe it, that settles it”. But science, in reality, is an irrational exercise, an irrational feeling around in the darkness. It cannot “prove” anything. But such is the predominance of the ideology of scientism that, for example, the contested question of climate change can be confidently declared by many to be a settled matter.

Science, you see, rests on two formal fallacies, namely the fallacy of induction and the fallacy of affirming the consequent. This means that science is, strictly speaking, irrational. But you would never know it given the authority and status it has assumed in society, venerated as the ultimate means of arriving at and settling on the truth.

Let us start with the fallacy of induction. Science largely seeks to pronounce generalisations from particulars. But it is folly to think this type of reasoning can provide us with any true statements, any universal laws. All swans are white, right? We’d have to say Yes. The scientist diligently engages in observations – sees one swan, two swans, ten swans, a hundred swans, a thousand swans, has never met any of his peers who has seen anything other than white swans – and declares with finality, making a general universal law from the evidence of the particular examples examined, “All swans are white.” This is scientific. This is settled knowledge. The consensus is in. And then they discover Australia.

Bertrand Russell had this to say:

All inductive arguments in the last resort reduce themselves to the following form: “If this is true, that is true: now that is true, therefore this is true.” This argument is, of course, formally fallacious. Suppose I were to say: “If bread is a stone and stones are nourishing, then this bread will nourish me; now this bread does nourish me; therefore it is a stone, and stones are nourishing.” If I were to advance such an argument, I should certainly be thought foolish, yet it would not be fundamentally different from the argument upon which all scientific laws are based.


The fallacy of affirming the consequent, which Russell alludes to above, is rendered syllogistically in the following manner: “If p, then q. q; therefore, p.” Put another way, if John walks into the room with a bloody nose, then it is because Peter punched him in the face. John walks into the room with a bloody nose. Therefore, Peter punched him in the face. This is, of course, logically fallacious. It does not necessarily follow that John’s bloody nose is the result of Peter punching him. There are other possible explanations to account for this observation. John may have tripped and fallen over. He may have not been paying attention and walked into a post. There are any number of other possible explanations to account for John’s bloody nose.

Understanding this, self-conscious scientists have recognised the limits of the scientific method. Albert Einstein, speaking about our knowledge of the universe, admitted, “We know nothing about it at all … The real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.” British philosopher Karl Popper wrote: “We know that our scientific theories always remain hypotheses … In science there is no knowledge, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth.” And philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend explained the limits of science thusly:

On closer analysis we even find that science knows no ‘bare facts’ at all but that the ‘facts’ that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way and are, therefore, essentially ideational. This being the case, the history of science will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as the ideas it contains, and these ideas in turn will be as complex, chaotic, full of mistakes, and entertaining as are the minds of those that invented them.

You see, all that science is is the consensus amongst the scientific community at a particular time. In fact, so confident are scientists about their ability to discover the truth that they announce that the validity of science precisely rests on its being falsifiable! They say this with pride, you know – that they expect any minute to be contradicted and have their settled science scuttled and shown to have been hogwash all along – and that this is precisely the reason why science is authoritative.

Is this not how Thomas Kuhn described the history of science in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – that science goes through a continuous process of change; of adopting a conceptual framework, establishing that framework as settled orthodoxy, resisting challenges to the prevailing view, going through a scientific revolution, and then coming to accept the paradigm shift? Kind of like what Gandhi said, eh? “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

The confidence with which climate-change enthusiasts advance their position belies the lack of warrant for it. The variables surrounding climate are such that they simply do not lend themselves to exactitude let alone finality. This is especially so when extrapolating back to the unobserved past or into the unobservable future.

From my humble (but more self-aware and therefore more realistic) perspective, the historical record seems to show that the Medieval Warm Period was warmer than today’s apparent climate warmth. Of course I cannot prove this, but it seems reasonable to conclude that the ascription of climate change to an anthropogenic cause is unwarranted, given that industrialisation, and the attendant increase in carbon output, came after the so-called Medieval Warm Period. Therefore, climate change cannot be reasonably ascribed to an anthropogenic cause.

So, we know that all swans are not white. Does that mean that all crows are black? If we use the scientific method, yes. But if we use reason, then we know that we cannot make universal truth claims employing inductive reasoning, since such claims require omniscience, which is incompatible with finitude; the same is the case with affirming the consequent. We certainly cannot speak with certainty about the causes of climate change.

Science is useful, but it must be taken with a grain of salt. It cannot discover truth, because its reasoning process is fallacious, that is, the conclusions arrived at do not necessarily follow from their premises. Science is useful only for manipulation, seeming to produce the results we want, without being able to explain why, only offering (falsifiable) hypotheses.

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