Practical knowledge and scientific doubt

Posted on July 21, 2008


The recent hullabaloo about the workshop at Altenberg has made me think once again about the way that so many people fail to understand what a vocal difference of opinions means in science. It is hard to know what the causes are but it is standard for non-scientists to think that a live dispute among scientists means that there is something fundamentally wrong. Perhaps it is that people try to understand it in terms of a normal everyday dispute between people, such as whether to go the cinema or the theatre – the kind of dispute where there is no right or wrong but it is just a question of having to find a compromise. What is normally not appreciated is that in a scientific dispute it is not a question of ‘learning to get along with each other’ but that the dispute has a heuristic value in so far as it is the means of arriving at an understanding of the situation in question. Also, the fundamental significance of the largely shared background assumptions that make the often abstruse dispute possible is not normally understood. Nearly always, scientists are not arguing because they can not come to an agreement about the basics but because they are working out the details. I know that it has been said countless times by far better writers than myself but the common lack of appreciation for this basic aspect of science is probably far more problematic than the lack of knowledge concerning any one of the things that science tells us about the world, including evolution. The reason is that once people appreciate the significance of scientific disputes they are in a much better position to come to understand the claims science makes while, if they lack such appreciation, they can not grasp the fallibilist status of scientific claims. The article written by Stark on which I commented in my previous post is just one example of exactly this mechanism at work.

The whole problem seems to me to go back to a very Peircean dilemma that I have raised a number of times. On the one hand we have to have enough trust in our own beliefs to act on their basis while on the other we have to remain critical enough about them to be able to improve upon them. For most people, the right balance for such issues as evolution, global warming, etc. is far more clearly towards the ‘acting’ side of things while for scientists it must necessarily be much more toward the ‘thinking’ side. After all, scientists don’t just want to understand something well enough to know what to do about it for practical purposes, they want to extend their understanding as far as possible. The question becomes one of how to reconcile the two attitudes in a socially viable way. It does not help that there’s plenty of individuals willing to spend large amounts of money on ensuring that most people do not come to understand what the scientists are relatively clear upon and what they are still trying to pin down.