[This is a modified repost of an article I had originally posted on my now-defunct personal blog. I repost it here for two reasons: (1) I think the subject matter at hand is still extremely important and relevant, and (2) I will make frequent reference to this in upcoming posts.]
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Imagine your pet political group that makes claims you find stupid or offensive: racists, creationists, the Westboro Baptist Church, whomever. However incorrect we might think personally they are, most of us find silencing them to be unfair, since they have a right to be heard and granted an equal say in our tolerant, deliberative, modern democratic society. This is precisely the point of this post. The modern challenges to the progress of science are not so much creations of the religious fundamentalists on the political right (though this undeniably still exists), but more so from the humanitarian and egalitarian arguments commonly associated with the political left.
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One of the best books I have read in recent years, period, is Jonathan Rauch’s Kindly Inquisitors, which makes precisely this point. The book is slightly dated (printed in 1995), but there was a new edition out this year [that I have yet to read] with more recent anecdotes. Nonetheless, the arguments are timeless, and even the anecdotes from the 1980s and 1990s Rauch uses to illustrate his points are eerily similar to examples we still might see in our media and discourse today. Permit me to paraphrase his argument, with my own commentary.
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There are three main challenges against the progress of science:
The first is the “Traditionalist Challenge” – the obvious and easily visible ones from religious fundamentalists. They argue that those who know the truth should decide who is right. Invariably, each religious sect (insofar as it is making descriptive claims about the world, not simply providing religious services) is certain that they, and only they, know the truth, and necessarily must control and censor all contrary opinions as blasphemy through an inquisition. Clearly when multiple sects hold different beliefs, the only resolution to decide who is right is through violence. We don’t need to spend a lot of time dissecting and overcoming this authoritarian challenge because that has already happened, slowly and painfully, over the last several centuries. This challenge comes from a minority that most people today ignore or mock, compared to the other two.
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The second is the “Egalitarian Challenge.” This is the rather appealing argument that since everyone is equal, everyone’s opinions claim an equal right to respect. A more radical version of this principle is that for those political classes that have been historically oppressed, their opinions should be disproportionately respected more than those opinions of historically privileged classes. Intuitively, at least the non-radical version sounds perfectly sensible, and one is hard pressed to morally argue against it. But even so, this would stop science in its tracks if followed it to its full implications. There is a big difference between equal opportunity to participate in science (which is untenable to reject) and the equality of treatment of one’s scientific results. Einstein was an outsider to the scientific community, a Swiss patent clerk nobody, but he was elevated with scientific praise because his predictions were verified – if he had predicted instead that gravity was made of cheese, he would be rightly dismissed as a crank and never would have left the patent office.
There is a strong difference between knowledge and belief here. My fictitious Einstein is totally fine to continue believing gravity is made of cheese, even after being rejected by the scientific community. We can certainly respect his belief as his own opinion, which he has every right to, however odd it may be. But that is one thing. It is a completely different matter when these beliefs are made policy relevant, and are to be taught to others as knowledge. It would be a horrible world for the progress of science if knowledge was made by voting and campaigning between political groups. When we are forced to be given equal time for different viewpoints in our national discussion, we make marginalization illegal. We will be living Bertrand Russell’s nightmare, where “the lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the ground that he is in the minority” (Rauch 1995: 118, my emphasis).
The third, and related challenge, is the “Humanitarian Challenge.” This is another appealing argument that says everyone has a right not to be harmed. More specifically, people have a right not to have their feelings or inherent dignity hurt and be told their beliefs are wrong. This is another admirable moral belief, but it would again halt the progress of science, which, for better or worse, is made entirely on the basis of proving past beliefs wrong. There are plenty of anecdotes about the personal tragedy of scientific careers (even lives) ended because a different scientist proved their theory wrong. But while these costs are concentrated on those scientists who put their theory at stake, the benefits are dispersed across all of society, who are now elevated to greater understanding and knowledge.
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If we were to follow this challenge to its conclusions – science is viewed as a form of violence against others. Fighting words over different theories are viewed just like bullets. And how do we prevent violence? Through active policing and a greater monopoly of violence – so we’ve secretly returned to the inquisition from the Fundamentalist Challenge (ibid: 131). Nobody has a right not to be offended, which of course would imply that any opinion that they personally did not like ought to be suppressed. So why do we tolerate the racists and the bigots and the pseudoscientists? Because the alternative would be worse. Instead, we simply criticize, ignore, and marginalize them from public discourse – certainly more humanitarian than the alternative.
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Finally, Rauch defends the only robust alternative, what he calls the “Liberal Principle of Science” (note “liberal” here is akin to the more broader “classical liberalism,” rather than the modern progressivism we Americans attribute to the word in politics today.) The liberal principle is defined by two key tenets (ibid: 48-49):
- “No one gets the final say: you may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.” Science, unlike faith, or pseudoscience, is constantly being updated and is never fixed. Newtonian physics gives way to Einstein’s relativity, which gives way to Quantum Mechanics, which may give way to something in the future. Scientific theories only persist as far as they have not yet been invalidated.
- “No one has personal authority: you may claim that a statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement.” Anybody at all can play the science game. There are stories of nobodies disproving scientific theories originally posited by Ph.Ds and experts. Access to the scientific community in principle is free (it is obviously not perfect or costless), one need only be able to demonstrate and argue the truth or falsity of a claim.
Thus, science progresses by criticism. Those whose theories about the world have been demonstrated to be incorrect (such as the phlogiston theory, the miasmic theory of disease, or most notably, the Ptolomeic model of the heavens) are marginalized and ignored. They can certainly still firmly hold these beliefs about the world and we cannot fault them for that, but for them to try to pass these disproven beliefs as scientific knowledge, we have no choice but to risk their offense for the sake of human progress. Whether this is morally and psychologically comforting or not, the alternative is just too costly.
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Science, and the reason for its success, is not just the method that we learn in 8th grade. Indeed, most of science is not done in this discrete, systematic, and methodologically monist way, and there are those, like Paul Feyeraband, that argue there is no uniform scientific method. What is more important is the institutional framework of science – the scientific community and its relationships. A number of authors, like Michael Polanyi, have written on the importance of viewing “science” as an institution and a community. It is a bottom up, emergent spontaneous order of individual scientists pursuing their own research agendas, linked and checked by other scientists and mechanisms like peer review, publishing in academic journals, and academic conferences. Vlad’s post on how to disagree with the economic mainstream, and more specifically, his recent paper on this topic emphasizes this insight.
Put another way, an individual scientist can very easily do bad science – cherrypicking examples, abusing statistics, falling victim to confirmation bias, and a host of other problems. Indeed, there are often incentives encouraging one to do so – one can only publish an interesting result, so there is every reason to ignore non-interesting but important null results, or to cook the numbers to make it look interesting. But the community as a whole does good science because of the mechanisms that correct these errors and criticize and weed out the bad science. Since science works through criticism, it pits the reputation of scientists against one another to incentivize each individual scientist to prove the others wrong and bask in the limelight. The liberal community of science is not perfect – there is no perfect institutional arrangement – but it is far better than any comparable alternatives.