Them’s Fighting Words!

Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability. [emphasis original]

Harry Kroto

Suppose you heard Kroto make that statement in a bar.  Would you think he was showing his alcohol?

I would.  I would not mark him as drunk yet.  Far from it.  But I would think him at the point where he is no longer speaking precisely.   Especially that phrase, “with any degree of reliability”.

Any degree?

Really?

Perhaps you would not think such a sloppy statement worth fighting over, but Kroto’s statement — which was made at a meeting of Nobel laureates, rather than in a bar — has stirred up a minor kerfuffle. On Monday, Andrew Brown attacked the statement in a blog post that was published in The Guardian newspaper.  Ironically, Brown’s attack was, on the face of it, even sloppier than Kroto’s statement. Indeed, all but comical.

Brown’s attack riled up the wrong people, for it elicited responses from the 800 pound gorilla of science blogging, PZ Meyers (116 million blog hits and counting), and from the sharply analytic Jerry Coyne.  As of this morning, there are over 1000 combined comments on Brown’s, Meyers’, and Coyne’s blogs.  Not bad, considering the issues here are largely matters in epistemology and the philosophy of science.

Certainly, Kroto’s statement upset Brown.  He begins his post by slyly suggesting Kroto deserves to be lumped together with “an enthusiastic Nazi, a Stalinist, a eugenicist, or even a believer in ESP”.

Huh?

Kroto deserves all that for stating that science is our only reliable means of establishing truths, eh?  I got the impression from reading his post that Brown is a bit of a buffoon.

At any rate, I’m of the opinion that Kroto was getting at something, albeit in a clumsy way.   One of the problems with his statement is that all of us establish truths, and most of us do so every day.  Not too long ago, I established the truth my mail had arrived today.  I did that by first looking in my mailbox and discovering some mail.  I then reasoned the mail came today, instead of yesterday, because I could recall emptying my mailbox yesterday.

Now, some people would call what I did, “science”.  But calling that “science” is to so broadly redefine science that we would need to start calling several species of animals “scientists” — because they can observe and reason at least as well as I did to establish the truth that my mail had come today.

Of course, Kroto might mean something when he calls science a “philosophical construct”.  And perhaps he would say my reasoning about my mail did not involve any philosophical constructs.  But we would need to know what Kroto means by “philosophical construct” to discuss that here.

I think the sciences have provided us with several methods of establishing reliable facts and hypotheses.  But it does not appear to be the only method of establishing reliable facts, unless every human, polar bear, wolf, lion, wombat, etc on the planet is properly called a “scientist”.

At any rate, that’s my off the cuff take on it.  There’s a lot more that could be said about the debate.  But I”d rather turn the conversation over to you now by asking what you make of Kroto’s statement?

16 thoughts on “Them’s Fighting Words!

  1. Well, it’s hard to make an affirmative statement that no one will take issue with. I don’t have a problem with what Kroto said, have said it similarly on my blog and will continue to. I believe it is true.

    I’m not really moved that much by the argument that animals would be considered scientists because they, too, use observation to obtain knowledge, anymore than when I see them following “rules” of conduct within their groups I think of them as ethicists.

    So apart from the scientific method, what else could we use? Intuition and religious faith reveal truths, according to many folks. Whatever.

    For me it probably has more to do with separating objective truths from subjective truths. Science wouldn’t help us much with that latter.

    • What I mean by my perhaps poorly chosen reference to animals is: If we define “science” too broadly, the word becomes useless. For instance: If we define science so broadly that it includes every means of establishing reliable truths, then there is no difference between doing physics and scoring a sixth grade spelling test — because in both cases you are establishing reliable truths.

      Of course, it’s a free country. We can define science any way we want. We can even choose to define the term in ways that render it worthless. But why would we want to?

  2. If I’m understanding the terms correctly, the mail example would not fit the statement because philosophical constructs are used to create theories for things that are not readily visible. From the sounds of it, it’s like a starting point to get the “real” answer.

    Gathering all the information possible, a person might create a philosophical construct that states that the universe started with a big bang. With the construct in place, people would continue to attempt to prove, disprove, or refine the construct.

    Or, you could create a philosophical construct that says the universe was created by some old magical white dude. With this construct in place and impossible to prove, no further thinking on the subject is necessary and the likelihood of determining the TRUTH with any degree of reliability is zero.

    Or, I have no idea at all what I’m talking about. =)

    • I don’t know, Alan. If I myself were going to speculate on the meaning of Kroto’s “philosophical construct”, I would not choose to define it as more or less synonymous with “hypothesis” — as you appear to have done. There are other possible meanings for the phrase that would make more sense to me — if to no one else.

      But, really, that phrase has me scratching my head. No definition I can come up with for it really makes sense of how Kroto appears to be using the phrase. The more I examine his use of words there, the more I wonder if Kroto was indeed drinking when he prepared his speech to the Nobel laureates?

  3. Paul, I think it’s a matter of degree. I understand your mailbox argument — recognizing the mail came doesn’t make you a scientist. However, there are humans whose reasoning power is so fragile that they make a polar bear seem like a scientist. For example, the people quoted in this recent post by the Cognitive Dissenter:

    http://cognitivedissenter.com/?p=3606

    But I concede that Kroto had probably been drinking.

  4. Oh dear, why do you make me do this, Paul?

    Is science the only way of establishing truth with any degree of reliability? If we define truth as “those statements which are in accordance with established facts” and fact as “indisputable and verifiable descriptions of objective reality,” my answer is yes. This is due to the fact that no other approaches have, thus far, established any reliable truths in spite of trying.

    Your above example is not establishing a truth for several reasons, namely human memory is only slightly more reliable than any given photo on the internet. Human perception and memory are the weak links in establishing reliable truths. You may falsely recall emptying your mailbox on the previous day. If you then notice the mail carrier deliver mail later in the day, will you still cling to your premise that the mail has already arrived for the day, or would you suppose the mail was delivered twice? You can tentatively test your own memory by checking to see if someone else’s mailbox has mail (although this is illegal) or watching the video from a surveillance camera you set up for this purpose some years ago. You are establishing (necessary though it is) a reconstructive model of your perceptions and explanations to simple observation and it is neither reliable nor necessarily true. There are currently no other methods which establish any reliable truths.

    The primary flaw in your reasoning is the assertion that your independent observations (or those of any other organism) are reliable; they are not.

    • You make some very good points, Jared, and I largely agree with you. But I tend to disagree with how the language is being used. I regret I didn’t make it clear enough that was the point of my post. You see, everyone else — Meyers, Coyne, and the 1000 commentators — had already covered the important issues. So I felt left with the trivial matter of questioning Kroto’s choice of words.

      For instance, I find it strange to speak of “reliability’ in ways that seem to imply something is not at all reliable unless it is 100% reliable. If Kroto had said something along the lines that science is by far the most reliable means we currently have of establishing truths, I would have nothing to write about — except to say that I agree with him.

      I think a problem here is that my post is not all that clear. Possibly because I was a bit groggy when I wrote it at three in the morning.

      • Not necessarily 100% reliability, but reliability of accuracy above baseline noise. His phrasing also seems to indicate (to me, at least) bit more nuance than you are assuming. He explicitly states “to any degree of reliability” implying that other methods can provide some reliability, but far from the accuracy provided by scientific investigation.

        I think the response of others to this statement has altered your perception of it a bit; I’m came in rather blind to it, so perhaps I lack context or your perception was tarnished by the interpretation of others. Kroto has done and said some off-the-wall things, but I don’t think this is really one of them.

      • You may very well be right that my perception of what Kroto says has been skewed by the comments I’ve read on it. Also, I think it would be interesting to read his speech and see the context for his comment. But so far as I know, there is only a video of it, and my speakers are currently malfunctioning. Bottom line: If we agree to interpret his remarks as you’ve suggested then I have no real issue with them.

  5. Truth is, always has been, always will be, elusive. In many cases truth is a collective agreement which may collapse in a generation. It has its moment of service, hopefully it moves on into the dustbin of history as it loses its usefulness.

    I fear that in many cases conservatives do not serve truth well in their worship of the past.

    I find the rigor of science hopeful. There are the constraints of the scientific method, I have witnessed the vetting and argument over new scientific findings and arguments. A relative truth is often sifted out through this process.

    There is no absolute truth owing to the ephemeral, transitory nature of truth.

    Embrace truth for a moment. In the next moment, question its faithfulness.

  6. This comment will reveal just how simple my mind is. Brace yourself Paul. A couple of nights ago we went for a walk and came upon a shrew. This was an exciting first for me. I had never seen a live shrew before. It ran into the middle of the path and stayed there, seemingly frozen. We thought it’s behavior was odd. Why did it not run away as we approached?

    We crouched down and noticed a tiny puddle forming directly underneath the frozen shrew. We concluded it was peeing.

    Why was it peeing? Mike said we’d scared the shit out of it. But that’s neither here nor there. Do you want the Kroto-nian answer or a Brown-ian one? I suspect the former will be more accurate and reflect the reality, but the latter will possibly be more entertaining.

    (Am I showing my alcohol? I’m only on my first beer.)

    • CD, I’ve been reading both your blog and many of your comments on other people’s blogs for several months now. Therefore, I regret the need to inform you that, in my opinion, the cumulative weight of evidence does not lend support to your meager hypothesis that you are a simple minded person. So sorry!

      Now, I’m going to risk revealing my amazing superpower to crush the entertainment out of any comment, no matter how charming, by treating yours way too seriously for your mood this evening.

      I think what you’ve got there in your example is an observation and a question, followed by a speculation or conjecture. The behavior of the shrew is your observation. Why it didn’t run away as you approached is your question. And because it was peeing is your speculation. I would not call it “science”, but it does have a few elements of science. That is, observation and inquiry are obviously things found in science. So, to some extent, is cautious or well grounded speculation. But for it to be science, you would need to add much more, such as a prediction and a body of evidence confirming or denying your prediction.

      The reason I bring all that up is because there is an hypothesis that scientific reasoning has its evolutionary origins in tracking animals — which, to a limited extent, you were doing. At any rate, I’m geek enough to think your example illustrates how naturally observing animals — which is part of tracking them — involves skills useful in science.

      How’s that for over-analyzing something? Do I win a beer?

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