Dispassionate Fact-mining

Absolute zero is difficult to imagine. As far as we know, it is only a theoretical possibility, measured as 0° kelvin, at which temperature all molecular movement stops, the absolute absence of heat. Its existence would theoretically be found at the very reaches of the universe, where the energy of the Big Bang has somehow completely dissipated; in other words, absolute zero cannot be achieved, but you can come close.

As far as wrongness is concerned, Adam Gurri has come as close to absolute as is possible. In his post Rhetoric and Due Diligence, Adam posits that scientists have a responsibility to gauge the rhetorical effect of their work. This request, brought forward in the cloak of the humanities, will have the unintended effect of returning us to the childhood of man, wherein we looked to a priestly religious caste to protect us from The Truth. The world has now grown up and is populated by adults, particularly the white, European variety, which has for centuries eschewed superstition and has dispassionately pursued The Truth.

Adam is particularly mistaken in his view of Scientists, egregiously assigning to them fallibility, not only in result, but also (and here, I think, is the reason we should start piling faggots around a large stake) in their motives. It is incontrovertible that Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are dispassionate, guided only by the Scientific Method, which is the cornerstone of The Truth, revealed to us by the Universe itself. Truth, then, is like a coal seam, and Scientists are only coal miners, trudging to their labor, lords of the underworld, to tirelessly mine Facts.

In the same way that a single coal seam can appear in many different parts of the world, e.g., Spain to Wales to Pennsylvania, and many methods can be applied in those various parts of the world for its extraction, so also Scientists, especially Social Scientists, are merely extracting Facts and Data in many and various ways, which they then haul to the surface for dispassionate examination and then application to The Truth, to which all Facts and Data eventually snap, be the Scientist at hand clever enough. If he is not clever enough, then another Scientist, undoubtedly, again, guided gently along the paths created by the Scientific Method, will eventually dispassionately discover how the Fact snaps to The Truth.

It may sound like a chicken-crosses-the-road joke, but the profoundly serious directive of Science is at stake: why do Scientists mine data? For the same reason miners mine coal: they are impelled to do so. It doesn’t matter who’s hurt or offended in the process; any such consequences are only the growing pains of a human civilization going through the inexorable process of cohering as one around The Truth. Some sloughing off is to be expected. Therefore, Adam’s homily on rhetoric clanks to the floor like so many iron manacles employed by the unfortunate and thoroughly representative Christian Spanish Inquisition: the humanities are not only not necessary, they are a hindrance to establishing The Truth.

Should it ever be discovered that a Scientist, especially a Social Scientist, has lost his dispassion, or has even willfully departed from the Scientific Method, anywhere along the process, beginning with descending into the Data mine, extracting Facts, examining the Facts, and then snapping the Facts to The Truth, then let the dispassionate peers of that Scientist immediately banish him from Science and force him to become ordained into the nearest amenable religious order at hand. So when Adam Gurri cries out in the wilderness, “We must acknowledge the rhetoric of scientific inquiry,” I say to him, “Save your preaching for Sundays, Friar Tuck.”

friar-tuck
Rhetoric is for children.
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When No Argument Can Save You

This week I had the pleasure of listening to my friend Noah appear on EconTalk to discuss the status of economics as science with my former professor in that discipline, Russ Roberts.

I would characterize neither of them as epistemologists or philosophers of science, but perennial practitioners. The chief difference between them, other than age or Noah’s ability to draw on a knowledge of physics as well as economics, is one of faith.

Noah himself brought this up: all science requires a leap of faith somewhere, as he put it. The example he used was Galileo’s experiment demonstrating that two balls of different mass will fall at the same rate. There’s only so far you can go to prove that this represents a universal law, or even a very general one. What if it only applies in our part of the universe? What if it only applies when there is a human observer?

Noah isn’t saying this makes us helpless or that we have to willfully ignore such thought experiments—nor should we.

The arc that Russ Roberts has gone through on this subject since I took his class during the crash in 2008 to the present can be characterized as a loss of faith—rather than the embrace of a given intellectual framework.

Russ has become unwilling to make that leap of faith when it comes to economic methods and arguments. But more importantly, he has lost faith in the sense of trust—trust in his fellow economists. Most importantly of all, he has lost faith in his own judgment.

The questions that he seems to come to again and again—why economists can’t agree on the effect of the 2009 stimulus, whether any study has ever completely won over people whose perspective was at odds with its conclusions—are attempts to establish, or prove once and for all the absence of, the credibility of economics as a field.

I’m not sure there’s an answer that could satisfy him. There’s a certain self-fulfillingness to losing trust in this way, much as widespread generosity in granting trust seems to perpetuate itself. How such trust can get established in the first place is a mystery, one that I’m certainly not going to get to the bottom of in a blog post.

“Against Method” is Rhetorically Destructive

All modern philosophy starts by acknowledging a basic anti-Cartesian premise: that the universe lacks an ‘all seeing eye of god’, that ultimate arbiter of Truth, method, or the thing-in-itself, for humans to access. Only this was not a new realization in 1975, when Feyerabend’s Against Method was first published. So what did Feyerabend add?

Feyerabend’s main contribution was to couch a political program within the anti-Cartesian premise. By undermining the one scientific method to rule them all, he deflated the authority of science in order to raise the relative status of other types of truth seeking, including mysticism, religion and the occult. This effort must be seen within the anti-imperialist zeitgeist of the 70s, with so many minds awakening to the failures of neo-colonialism through the tyranny of experts. But it was also a cause that appealed to Feyeraband as a practitioner of alternative medicine.

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In other words, Feyeraband’s contribution was rhetorical: He leveraged a technical philosophical position (epistemological anti-foundationalism) into a political posture against the hierarchical institutions of science, like the state or ivory tower, in order for them to be replaced by an “epistemological anarchism” which demanded our scientific “authorities” be devolved to a democratic system of popular vote.

By harnessing rhetoric Feyerabend was simply living out his own view of how science progressed: Scientific paradigms rise in part on their empirical merits but mostly on how persuasively they’re marketed. This extends the scientific enterprise far beyond the conjecture-refutation dyad of Karl Popper into the realms of rhetoric and aesthetics. For instance, Feyerabend famously argued that Galileo’s heliocentric model of the solar system succeeded not due to some empirical eureka moment or triumph of reason, but due to Galileo being “one of the greatest propagandists of ideas in the history of science“.

So while it is impossible to dispute the anti-Cartesian premise or the role of rhetoric in science, whether you are a fan or enemy of Feyerabend’s work will depend on your mood affiliations. Think of it as an “if-by-whiskey” contra Descartes. If Against Method is but one way to rhetorically frame our anti-Cartesian condition, the question you should ask is whether it is the best way — That is, if denigrating science and scientists, as such, was a very useful end.

I believe we increasingly live in Feyerabend’s preferred world, where suspicion of experts and the conflation of science with power reins supreme on both ends of the political spectrum. My sense is that this represents a major step backwards in our ability to reach honest agreement. Ironically, without the authority of science we will lose one of the strongest rhetorical wedges we have to hold the powerful accountable.

To see the alternative, contrast the rhetoric of Against Method with the writing of C.S. Peirce. Peirce started with the same anti-Cartesian premise, and yet developed a philosophy of science that re-conceptualized method pragmatically, without demoting science’s status in society. Peirce viewed scientists like blind monks feeling an elephant, who then build theory through a “community of inquiry“. While no method is “ultimately” better than another, our conceptions of reality have practical consequences, so different methods ought to lead to similar conclusion in the long run.

So here we have two attacks on epistemological foundationalism. Using one type of rhetoric, Feyerabend pushed an anti-colonial relativism, giving “equal rights” to creationists and trained biologists alike to claim the scientific credo. Using different rhetoric, C.S. Peirce raised the status of science while at the same time pointing out its fallibility. In Peirce’s own words:

To an earlier age knowledge was power — merely that and nothing more; to us it is life and the summum bonum — the highest good.

Feyerabend’s ideas belong to that earlier age; indeed, the core ideas in Feyerabend were not original. Rather, his legacy is the disrepute of scientific authority. But at what cost?