Monday, July 11, 2011

Vox Day: Science can’t explain everything!

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You know, it would lend a whole lot more credibility to Vox Day’s constant anti-science haranguing if his frequent attacks against actual scientists, notably Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, weren’t so consistently filled with the sort of idiocy found in his latest post. Last week, PZ debunked some philosopher’s kvetching over a scientist’s claim that “[s]cience is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability”. The idea, as is self-evident, is that if we want to know whether a given claim or phenomenon is accurate to reality, then science – ie. the scientific method, critical analysis of evidence, logical conclusions drawn, etc. – is the only real way we have of arriving at any sort of a decent conclusion that can hopefully withstand further scrutiny.

After all, when you boil science down to its fundamental basic, every person in the world engages in scientific thinking in one way or another. Whenever you’ve felt that a claim was untrue and then questioned its source for more information, or you’ve experienced something bizarre and then searched for an explanation, or came across any sort of logical problem and tried to solve it, then you’ve used scientific thinking to achieve your ends. Sure, it’s not exactly the sort of rigorous (and customarily mind-bogglingly complex) “science” as practiced by actual scientists in labs and such, but the basic principle is the same: critical scrutiny to arrive at a truthful explanation. In the end, that’s really all science is at its bottommost foundation.

You can’t know whether a given claim or phenomenon is truthful without employing some sort of scientific thinking. That’s all that the aforementioned scientist’s claim (the one the aforementioned philosopher griped about) that “[s]cience is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability” means.

So, of course, leave it to cranks like Vox Day to distort it, and then valiantly debunk said caricature of the original claim (all the while crowing about how stupid that poopyhead, PZ, is, of course):

I am aware certain Pharyngulans and anklebiters are dubious about the legitimacy of the intellectual contempt in which I hold one PZ Myers. They appear to genuinely believe that the Fowl Atheist is not only capable of holding his own in debate with me, but that he has only been avoiding any such encounter because his argumentative skills are so much superior to mine that it would somehow pollute them to actually put them to use.*

One quick little point, here: PZ has never claimed that the reason he refuses to debate Vox Day is because it would be too easy for him. (Or, at least, not that I have seen; if I am wrong, do correct me.) Rather, he has repeatedly stated that the reason he won’t share a stage with cranks like Vox Day (and the innumerable Creationists vying to argue with him) is twofold: A) It gives the cranks unmerited legitimacy to be seen on equal grounds with him, but also B) mostly because he simply doesn’t want to. Vox is a kook whose own arguments seldom rise past the level of risible. Debating him wouldn’t merely be easy; it would be a dreadful bore. That’s a good enough reason to avoid it, methinks. (Plus, this rejection gives Vox the pitiful excuse to continue to claim that PZ’s just avoiding him because he’s scared of him, which only makes him look all the more foolish.)

With that little distortion out of the way, here is the entirety of Vox’s rejoinder to PZ’s assertion:

First, as Robert Winston, the former Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College London and past Director of NHS Research and Development, Hammersmith Hospitals Trust has said, "dogmatist scientists need to be reminded, now and again, that the discipline of science is not about absolute truth." It is not, as my erstwhile biology tutor used to say, "in the truth business". To say "science works" is not at all synonymous with saying it has the ability "to determine truth", much less to claim that it is "the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability." Engineering works even better than science, logic works quite effectively in most situations, and there is no shortage of empirical evidence indicating that revelation and intuition work as well.

Like all these alternative paths to knowledge, science sometimes works and sometimes does not work. There is little point in resorting to a scientific version of the Atheist Dance here, as the oft-chronicled failures and financial corruption of scientists inevitably amounts to the confirmed unreliability of science as it is actually applied in the real world. One cannot reasonably compare practical logic and practical religion with ideal science, and while one could argue that ideal science would lead to perfect understanding, the same is also true of ideal revelation, ideal logic, ideal intuition, and ideal history.

But concerning the question posed, there are so many obvious answers that it is almost astonishing to have to wave them in PZ's bearded face. Both math and logic permit things to be reliably known without testing them against the consequences, indeed, they are often utilized by scientists in lieu of science when the scientific method cannot be applied. The same is also true of all the documentary and archeological evidence that makes up recorded human history. It would be interesting to see what sort of replicable scientific experiment one would propose testing in order to prove the historical existence of Homer, as even DNA testing of current human populations matched to ancient DNA samples would not suffice to prove that one of them once wrote The Iliad. How would science go about proving or disproving the story that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree? It might be used to establish that there was no evidence to be found indicating that cherry trees grew in Mount Vernon during the reported lifetime of "George Washington", but that is the most it could hope to accomplish.

There are entire fields of human knowledge that have absolutely nothing to do with modern science. One cannot scientifically demonstrate that Brad loves Angelina or that Marius served as the consul of Rome seven times. PZ cannot even scientifically prove that he exists, or as Nick Bostrom would have it, that the material world even exists as anything but a sophisticated electronic simulation.

To reduce TRUTH to nothing more than "that which science can discover" is to eliminate the greater part of the truths that matter. Love, Life, Consciousness, Meaning, Purpose, and Probability are all well beyond the scope of science. Even Sam Harris would not go so far as Myers has gone, his most recent book, The Moral Landscape is nothing more than a futile attempt to, (ironically enough), make a philosophical argument for what PZ blithely asserts to be the case.

Wow. A whole essay’s worth of missing the point.

I’m not going to bother responding to any individual claims made by Vox because the whole thing is essentially an expansion of the same flawed idea: that PZ is wrong to say that science is the only means we have of determining truth because, well, science can’t verify everything. Which is as comically blatant a mischaracterization of PZ’s argument (and the original quote that started it all) as they come.

In case it isn’t already blindingly clear: No-one has ever said that science can verify the accuracy of every single statement or reported fact that’s ever presented. That’s not what PZ has argued, nor is it what the (apparently controversial) quote that’s at the heart of it all means. Actually, one would be very hard pressed to find any instance of any scientifically minded individual ever stating such a thing. Because it’s complete nonsense. We know that modern science, being limited by the humans who employ it, can’t explain everything or verify the truth in every single claim. The fact that science doesn’t know everything – and that it knows that it doesn’t know everything – is the reason why it hasn’t stopped yet, and nor will it ever do so, as long as there are humans left to continue its relentless pursuit of knowledge.

All that PZ and Harry Kroto (the scientist behind the source quote) have said – and what pretty much any scientist will tell you, I daresay – is that if you want to know whether something is true or not, then you need to employ the scientific method to understand and verify it. In claiming that science cannot verify such things as historical events and more intangible phenomena (such as love and consciousness), Vox is committing the fallacy of relegating science to eggheads fiddling with test tubes in a laboratory. As if the only way to perform any acts of science at all was to either be an accredited scientist, or to wear a white lab coat while doing so. He obviously fails to comprehend what others like PZ and Kroto take for granted: that anyone who does anything in a critical and objective manner is, in fact, doing science. Again, not lab-grade capital-S Science, the sort engaged in by actual biologists or physicists and so on, but science nonetheless.

Contra Vox’s claim, science not only can be applied to such matters as history and consciousness, it is. With some regularity, actually. In that, it’s how we know anything about these things. Poring over textbooks and ancient documents to glean insight into bygone eras? That’s science. Running people through scanning equipment and various other cognitive tests to catch a glimpse into what’s going on in their (and therefore, our) heads? Science again. Measuring the physiological effects of love (everything from heart rate to bloodstream hormonal shifts)? That’s science, baby. Whenever you do anything to glean objective data and draw conclusions from it, you are doing science. Tubes and white coats only rarely have anything to do with it. All it takes is a critical mind, impartial analysis and the ability to learn.

PZ was right: Science works. It’s a tool, the only one we have for determining the accuracy of various statements. That doesn’t mean that it’ll be able to determine the validity of every single statement – that’s not the point. The idea is that if there is evidence to be examined, then science is the only tool that will allow you to actually draw any sort of reliable conclusion from it.

So, once more, actual scientists are correct and Vox finds himself snapping at the ankles of his betters, who are already leaps and bounds ahead of him. You know … as always.