PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings

The Repudiation of Science

The Repudiation of Science and Other Lies

The repudiation of science, a stance adopted by some political and religious leaders these days, is a symptom of soul sickness that opens the door to chaos. This is not because science is infallible. It is not. Science is based on inductive reasoning; consequently, its conclusions can never be absolute or necessary. Its truths are, in the language of modern epistemology, synthetic, not analytic. The knowledge that we gain through the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation, through testing truth claims against evidence to verify or falsify them, is approximate and thus ever subject to revision. The whole history of science is a record of such midcourse corrections, suggesting that no scientific discovery can be presumed to be the final one. Good scientists know this; bad ones don’t. There is a humility built into inductive knowledge that keeps us from concluding that we have the final word on any matter, because we don’t know what new evidence might come along tomorrow. As William James tells us, we can know, but we cannot know that we know. At the same time, by providing a common, shared standard for what counts as truth, scientific thinking exposes subjective claims stated as though they were objectively true—a practice of dictators, liars, and madmen. The circular argument that maintains that, “X is true because I say it is,” is not only hubristic but also fallacious and therefore unconvincing. We cannot establish the truth of a claim simply by asserting it for the simple reason that false claims also can be asserted.

The claims of science must pass the rigorous test of correspondence to evidence. For this reason alone, dictators, liars, and madmen have no use for science, or for evidence for that matter, except where the evidence falls in step with their designs. They do not want their feet held to the fire of an objective standard because such a standard is a baseline for accountability. Plato takes this up in the Euthyphro. The dialogue opens with Socrates running into Euthyphro, who is on his way to the Lyceum to prosecute his father for impiety. Socrates engages him in a discussion about the nature of piety during which Euthyphro tries five times to state what piety is, each time without success. Finally, he confesses his assumption that piety consists of the action he is taking in prosecuting his father—in other words, that piety is defined by what Euthyphro is about to do. Socrates suggests that this is backwards, that we cannot establish that an act is pious simply because we do it; rather, we must be sure that we do what we do because it is pious. At this point in the dialogue, Euthyphro, having had enough of self-examination and of Socrates, abruptly ends the conversation and hurries off.

An act is not made pious because we do it any more than a claim is made true because we state it. It is a cause for concern when political leaders present as established truths, claims that fly in the face of the facts, when they maintain that “science doesn’t know” and make truth claims that cannot be verified or falsified, when they declare that there are “alternative facts” that have no evidentiary legitimacy. The claims that climate change is not real, that the coronavirus is nothing to worry about or that a cure is just around the corner, that 545 immigrant children who were forcibly separated from their parents are being “so well taken care of” living in detentions centers that are “so clean” are deeply disturbing. Anyone who repeatedly makes such claims, dismissing obvious evidence to the contrary, is either badly misinformed, lying, or delusional, any of which should be disqualifying in someone entrusted with the general welfare.

Being badly misinformed is a forgivable sin that can be corrected easily enough provided that there is a willingness to admit error and defer to evidence-based truth. It is no deficiency of character to get something wrong; it is, however, a great deficiency of character to be unteachable, to be unwilling or unable to admit wrong and make the needed corrections, to double-down on false opinions when confronted with contradicting evidence. Again, there is a primal choice here between humility and hubris before the truth as something greater than our will. The truth is what it is; the refusal to admit and work within this epistemological framework is a sign of arrested development or perhaps some farther reaching pathology. Science itself, as we have said, is susceptible to error, but the scientific method provides for self-correction. It is, in this sense, teachable. Being misinformed but also refusing to move beyond baseless subjective claims is serious. Lying, especially if it is chronic or compulsive, is more serious, and more serious still is that disorder of the psyche that leads to magical thinking, which is delusional, meaning that the one making the claim cannot distinguish between what is true and what he or she wishes to be true. It is human nature to interpret things in ways that present us in a favorable light. Psychologists call this “attribution bias,” which may lead us to excuse in ourselves behavior that we are quick to regard as blameworthy in others. The distortion of truth to which our political leaders have subjected us daily, however, is something unprecedented on the national stage in its scope, audacity, and relentlessness. When the truth is routinely and willfully ignored, denied, or distorted for the purpose of manipulating and controlling others, we are dealing with something far more insidious and malevolent than attribution bias.

The choice between humility and hubris is the fulcrum upon which all of this hinges. It is a choice that determines and reveals a person’s character, and contrary to what much of the electorate seems to have accepted, character not only matters, it matters more than anything else. A man who has no humility and so, no regard or respect for the truth, who makes claims that fly in the face of the facts in the hope that his stating and restating them will make them so, and worse, who does this to further selfish ambitions, and worse still, who believes his own fabrications, is a man of the most dangerous sort both to himself and to others. The truth is greater than the will of even the most hubristic demagogue. As Shakespeare admonishes us in The Merchant of Venice: “truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.” The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles makes the same point in Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus, a false king infatuated with his will and in blatant defiance of the gods, unwittingly sets into motion forces that lead him to a tragic fate. In the end, whether it suits us or not, however much we may wish it were otherwise, things are as they are. Science at its best, for all the limitations of inductive knowledge, for all its shortcomings and missteps, is rooted in an abiding commitment to the truth. There is a lesson in this that extends to all areas of life: Facing the truth squarely, unflinchingly, acknowledging and deferring to it, is the only safe and sustainable course.