Questions answered on the role of evidence

A while back the blogger Ken Perrott asked of me a series of questions on the role of evidence and its relation to the what makes acceptable belief. The following are the answers I promised I would eventually get to when final assignments were in and exams were over.

Q: Do you accept the key role of interaction with reality and validation of any conclusions against reality?

(I have confirmed with Ken that by “reality” he means the mind-independent world. He and I share this definition.)

A: Yes, we should be testing hypotheses according the best methods we have available. Yes, this testing plays a key role in verification. 

The question is, overall, a little unclear, so let me clearly affirm the hypothetico-deductive method as very useful in scientific investigation.

Q: Do you accept that this should be a social process open to critique from colleagues?

A: Yes. I also accept this is an excellent way for curtailing errors, and for public confidence. However, I do not accept this critique is a truth-making property.

What do I mean by that? I mean that just because something is passed by a community who were involved at critiquing it does not mean the truth of that something is guaranteed.

Now, why do I say that? First, its an informal fallacy, specifically called an appeal to authority. The truth of any opinion, hypothesis, model, theory, explanation, etc., is unrelated to a persons beliefs about it, no matter who that person is or how qualified they are. Second, authorities – even peer-reviewed papers – in the history of science have later been found to have passed or believed conclusions that were wrong.

Q: Do you accept that logic/argument alone is worthless without validation?

(I’m not sure what the question is getting at here. What does “logic/argument” refer to precisely? And worthless for what exactly? As a basis for living? As a basis for research? One should expect different tests for different purposes. I’m going to take a gamble and respond to the following interpretation, “Do you accept that logical arguments are worthless without validation?”)

A: Logical arguments are already valid. Think about it – if they weren’t valid they’d be illogical arguments. 

We can validate the premises of an argument with several methods, including the discovery of physical-evidence, our store of past experiences, scientific testing, etc. 

Before these premises are validated, are logical arguments worthless? No, I don’t think so. Ken continually goes on about how in science we can test our theories “against reality.” So if he admits that science proceeds on uncertainty, it’s curious as to why he’d require a premise from an argument be validated as true for certain before the argument is considered worth anything. 

Here are some other reasons why a premise is worthwhile even if it is not validated. (1) Unvalidated premises can provide a conceptual basis to formulate hypotheses. (2) Unvalidated premises can be held provisionally until such time as they receive evidentiary support. This means scientific thought and speculation can proceed in advance of time-consuming lab work or expensive testing procedures. (3) Provisional premises can provide conclusions which can be used as premises in a “second-level” logical arguments which can be tested. (4) (i) If logical arguments were truly worthless without evidentiary validation we should never believe in high-level theoretical entities (such as quarks, black holes, or an early inflationary period in the history of the universe), which are in-principle unable to be empirically detected. (ii) Even low-level theoretical entities (such as ice-age glaciers and dinosaurs) would be ruled out as unbelievable if all premises in logical arguments had to be validated with certainty before they were worth anything – like believing. 

The Point?

Now, exactly what the point was by asking me these questions is unknown to me. Why Ken should want to know my opinion is quite odd. Almost as odd as why he felt the need to ask these particular question in the first place, when I have (with the possible exception of the third question) never explicitly or implicitly (to my knowledge at least) denied these things. The context in which these questions emerged was Ken’s blog “Theological intrusions into science,” which made out it was responding to my article “Are logical arguments evidence?” (In fact, it was not a response to my article. It was a response to one paragraph of my article – and a paragraph not vital to the purpose of that article. It began by misstating of my position and went on to waffle about appropriate belief forming methodology. I have detailed his misreading of that article in the comments to “Are logical arguments evidence?”.) From this I suspect that Ken holds the mistaken belief that I “denigrate the value of evidence and validation.” Which is completely wrong.

Ken guards jealously the methods of scientific discovery and proclaims science as a superior way of knowing to any other. He also takes a special interest in those who appear to be, in his opinion, anti-science. But I’m not in any way anti-science. This, I hope, is demonstrated by my forthright answers to his questions above. And neither are others that Ken claims are anti-science for that matter. A possible caveat.

If disagreeing with, or reserving judgment on, certain scientific beliefs that Ken and others who agree with him is being “anti-science”, then I guess I am according to that definition. But if thats the case, I would respectfully suggest that it is Ken who is actually closer to being anti-science. Why? Several reasons, but here is the main one:

In order for science to succeed it requires free enquiry and should allow others the freedom to question or reserve definitive judgments. Some of the greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. When Ken and many of his regular commenters shout down those honest enough to say, “I don’t know if thats really the case,” or bold enough to say “I have a critique of this hypothesis,” and “I think this different hypothesis should be considered thoughtfully,” then he is curtailing or discouraging free enquiry, which is much closer to being anti-science.

Its ironic that the defender so easily becomes the destroyer of what he originally sought to protect.

1 reply
  1. John Pickering
    John Pickering says:

    Thanks Stuart – this is interesting. I too have struggled with Ken reading between the lines. As a scientist I hold to many unverified (and unverifiable) premises which make science possible. For example, I hold by faith that the physical laws that operated in my lab (actually patients) were the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow, and that they are the same at least anywhere on earth.

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