“A scientific consensus is not a political election, nor a popularity contest, but a recognition of reality. Science is not a democracy where we all get together to make up and draft the bills of the laws of Nature, drawing straws for whichever one we like the most while wringing our hands with glee.”
I don’t know who to attribute that to, but it sums up something I’ve said before on this blog.
In science a consensus is reached when the findings of multiple fields of study converge on the same conclusions about whatever is discussed, whether it’s biological evolution, complexity theory, climate change, or the germ theory of disease, refined through a process of further research and debate.
The beauty of such a consensus is that it cuts across multiple disciplines, multiple scientific subcommunities, with thousands or even millions of data points converging toward that one set of findings, using the best methods and tools available at the time.
What makes scientific methods so effective and unique in acquiring knowledge is that they also let us test what we find to determine whether it makes the best possible match to how things actually appear to be.
If you expect the natural and social sciences to yield absolute, timeless truths about the world, then you’re setting your sights too high and are bound to be disappointed, perhaps even concluding (unsoundly) that we can’t know anything. But if that’s true, how can we know that? — it’s a self-contradicting proposition, and so a false one.
Any credible scientist will tell you that they don’t think they have it all figured out. Even before testing knowledge, science is about discovering new things.
Also, no credible research worker will claim that science is infallible — it’s messy, sometimes riddled with error, and always a bit shy of complete closure, but no other set of methods is as effective in doing what it does.
It does what it needs to do to tell us when we are wrong, and in so doing, when we’re on the right track.
Any consensus, even the most rock-solid, can be shown false by better methods and tools than those which established that consensus in the first place. With some ideas, though, that hasn’t happened yet.
To paraphrase Richard Dawkins, it’s “as close to certainty as possible that biological evolution is the correct explanation for the diversity of life, and it is as unlikely to be falsified as the fact that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun,” or at least orbit with the Sun around a mutual center of gravity.
Despite what creationists claim, evolution is falsifiable. A verified fossilized and accurately dated Domestic Shorthair kitten (Sorry, Mister Eccles…) found in Permian geological strata is all it would take to cause researchers to seriously reconsider evolution’s validity.
Even if we were to come to doubt that evolution is correct, that still lends no real support to the existence of anyone’s particular idea of a Creator, and we’ve invented thousands of them, all just as revered and thought just as real in their own time as any gods worshiped today.
Unlike politicians, to avoid the academic equivalent of career suicide, research workers are obliged to abide by what the data say in the course of their day jobs, and scientists who flout this principle in their work are roundly called out and frequently ostracized by their more professionally ethical colleagues…
…which system generally works to discourage dishonest conduct in the research community and encourage a general climate of honesty in the practice of science.
Why? Because that’s the only way to get results that work.
Most scientists, also unlike politicians, don’t get to pocket most of the cash they get from their research grants — much of it is spent on the costs of conducting research; hiring and paying trained research assistants, purchasing and maintaining instruments and other equipment to be used in a study, transportation and maintenance costs for field research, storage and preservation of specimens, etc, etc, etc.
Besides, public office holders make much more than scientists anyway, getting rich from campaign donations going into their ‘war chest’ that they often get to keep, as well as bribes from lobbyists and kickbacks from corporations and other organizations who they support in their policy and legislation. This doesn’t even include their salaries, paid vacations, medical benefits, and any stock trading they may make on the side while in office.
So much for claims by politicians that science is a special interest. Oh, those nasty, pernicious facts with their liberal bias…
Scientists ultimately answer not to a political process or partisan ideology, but to a higher power, Reality herself…
…and it is best not to spurn her, for she can be rather insistent on having her way, and vengeful when denied.
I think that the questions “Of what practical use is philosophy? Isn’t it just idle mental tomfoolery fit only for ivory tower pseudo-intellectuals?” have a very good answer in terms of tangible derivative benefits…
Socrates is said to have quipped “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and Steve Novella has paraphrased that as, “The unexamined thought is not worth thinking.”
The most important fundamental activity of humans is thinking, clearly or not, and our thinking underlies all other activity we perform. I can easily understand the more down-to-earth types who think that philosophy is the purview of eggheads, wooly-headed professors and greybeards with no practical use, but I respectfully disagree, and I think that they misunderstand what it is and what it’s often very evident uses are.
Philosophy permits us to examine both our lives and our thoughts, allowing us to improve the quality of both, making them well worth living and thinking. To me, that alone makes it worthy of use. But there’s more to this picture…
…since philosophical reflection in the form of a spirit of investigative truth-seeking is useful for challenging our assumptions, those things we think we know or treat as though we do, motivate us to discard false beliefs, weigh ours’ and others’ opinions more effectively, and empower ourselves.
This is a fact well-understood by those who would control others by making or keeping them ignorant and gullible.
Modern science, from whence our technology comes as effectively irrefutable evidence of its usefulness and the progress it allows for our understanding, depends upon a particular philosophical framework that determines what it is, how it works, how we can know what we know and what limits apply to it.
Any time a scientist tests an idea by experiment or other observation, she is putting to use philosophical ideas that have developed over the last few hundred years to gather her data. These ideas are not just idle speculation — they are tested against reality itself to see if they are worthy of being added to the process of science and the findings we uncover to our store of knowledge that grinds slowly forward over time.
And these tests are performed by other scientists independently, to see if they succeed no matter who performs them, a test of the idea’s objectivity which must prevail to lend support to its worth to science.
Ideas that pass this gauntlet, and continue to, for real knowledge is always self-correcting with newer and better data, become accepted and refined, and ideas which fail are discarded when their assumptions and data are found to be in error.
Yes, some assumptions are better than others, and those which don’t pass the reality test, whether the facts of the natural or human worlds open to empirical inquiry, fall by the wayside into the realm of non-science, even when formerly accepted as science early on.
All of this depends on philosophy, for philosophy and science were once one and the same, though now complementary disciplines: science supplying the data for much modern philosophy, philosophy the conceptual apparatus for science, the underlying thinking behind it.
Consider this: Whenever you have an idea, any idea at all, of what knowledge is, how to find it, whether it even exists, or perhaps what it’s worth, you’re using a philosophy of knowledge, an epistemology, whether you know it or not!
Since thinking is the most important fundamental activity of humans, even when we don’t do it very well, or fear doing it well for the threat it implies to our cherished beliefs, and since the science that has made our global civilization as powerful, and dangerous, as it is absolutely depends on its philosophical underpinnings to do what it does as effectively, however imperfectly, as it does for our lives and our economies, I think that any discipline that makes us think about ourselves, our world, our lives and our thoughts has very great practical use indeed, if you think about it a bit.
But, then, what do I know? ^_^