RHETORIC JOURNAL


CONVERSATION ABOUT SCIENCE
Noah Dove - Nov. 11th 2008

The following conversation began with regards to Al Gore recently saying that a new American presidential administration meant that everyone would "wake up" about the issue of global warming. The issue quickly moved to one about the purpose of science. Note that the term 'globalwarmingism' was used by me in a previous email

Matt said...

I'm starting to be able to bridge the gap between our disparate positions. This has to do with science and Propositional Calculus. The latter is a system for writing down a certain set of logical expressions in a symbolic notation so that they can be more easily manipulated. In the logical (can be shown to be true or false) expression "It is raining today" (this is a simplistic example to help you get the idea. The statement is actually a series of more complicated expressions, but we're simplifying right now), you might replace the whole statement with a single letter P. To express logical inference, you use the double arrow symbol: "If it is raining today, then I will bring an umbrella" becomes P => Q. There are many other symbols, but I'll just focus on this symbolic abstraction and the if-then.

The power of the symbolic abstraction is that it no longer becomes relevant to worry about what P is. As long as it is context-free (doesn't bleed meaning into nearby symbols), if I write [[P=>Q] & ("and") [Q=>R]] => [P=>R], it doesn't matter what P, Q, and R are. The statement is true regardless of what the symbols stand for. Such is the power of symbolic abstraction.

The power of the if-then is the ability to chain them together to reach other interesting conclusions. For instance, you might know the above tautology: [[P=>Q] & [Q=>R]] => [P=>R]. If you know that both [P=>Q] and [Q=>R], then you can use "modus ponens" to reach the conclusion that [P=>R]. To instantiate the symbols as a matter of illustration, I might choose P to be "It is raining" and Q to be "I will be wet when I go outside" and R to be "I will need to change my clothes today". The symbols become, in English: If it is raining, then I will be wet when I go outside and if I will be wet when I go outside, then I will need to change my clothes today, then I can conclude that if it is raining, then I will need to change my clothes today. We've eliminated a symbol from out representation and come to a powerful conclusion. This expression we can apply to the situation if we know that is it raining (if P is true) to conclude that I will need to change my clothes today.

The interesting bit about the inference P=>Q is that it doesn't require P to be true for P=>Q to be true. For example, P might be "I can fly" and Q might be "I will go to the top of Mount Everest", then P=>Q is certainly true, even though P is not. This is an example of what linguistic-type people call the subjunctive or contrary-to-fact writing.

This is related to our discussion about science due to the fact that science's conclusions can all be written using this propositional calculus. P=>Q is the basis of most scientific conclusions. It relates the assumptions we are making and the process by which we found our conclusion to the conclusion itself. "If our instruments are within a high accuracy level and if atoms work the way we think they do, then we can conclude that I just moved a single atom using my microscope." That was just one example. There are many such logical inferences you can pull from any given paper.... probably on the order of millions.

The logical basis for science is that all of the P=>Q, Q=>R, [[R&S]v~T]=>[UvV] types of reasoning all link together. There are no dangling conditionals (the things before the =>) except for those the greater scientific community accepts as valid assumptions.

This means that science almost NEVER tells us anything about P or Q.... it just tells us how they relate. You can also think about this as a large network of computers. The scientists can tell you about the way they are hooked up, but nothing about the computers themselves.

So what's the relevance of science, if it can not discern the nature of P or Q or of anything in the universe? As it turns out, we humans find it extremely difficult to discern P or Qs ourselves. We we see a thing, we are not seeing its nature, but merely the relationships that thing has with its environment. Those relationships are what science describes. Science can then inform our existence and make interesting and accurate predictions without knowing the real nature of the universe. All scientific knowledge could be written as a series of if-thens, and manipulated to come to a variety of interesting relationships which we can apply to what we know of the universe.

The sum of the assumptions a person makes can be considered their faith, the things they take without requiring any reasoning to reach them. Whereas reasoning takes the known relationships (of the inference [P=>Q] variety) and applies them to the known assumptions (P) to generate meaningful conclusions (Q). Everyone then has assumptions, and everyone has a set of reasoning that they apply every day.

Scientists are aware of a much larger library of P=>Q than other people due to their questioning nature. In fact, some of them know so many that the list of assumptions they are making is so short, that they believe there there is nothing except for the relationships between things. They believe that the things themselves have no greater nature than the sum of their relationships. This is another way of stating atheism. There are many people, though, who find that there is some quality to things beyond its relationships. These people are theists.

So, when you say that science is used to bolster religion, it's not really a fair assessment... These people are applying the reasoning (P=>Q) that science has discovered to the assumptions that they make. There is really nothing wrong with that. That process is something that every person go through every time to reach any kind of conclusion.

The important point to be made about 'manmadeglobalwarmingism' is that most scientists agree with the man-made climate change hypothesis. Maybe 60% of them are atheists and the other 40% are of a variety of other religions, each with its own set of acceptable assumptions, any two of which are incommensurable. Given these diverse sets of assumptions, a similar set of reasoning, and a similar conclusion, we need to wonder how these different people can all agree on the same thing, even though they are coming at the problem from different beginnings. The simplest explanation is that this conclusion is valid INDEPENDENT of any set of (non-trivial) assumptions; that this conclusion is not a statement about the way things are (a P or a Q), but rather that this conclusion is an inference (P=>Q) that can be deduced from the set of existing inferences REGARDLESS of the nature of the world. There may be a more complicated explanation, but I'm primed to go with the simple one.

That said, those deacons of 'manmadeglobalwarmingism' are not the same as fundamentalist christians because the former doesn't require you to change your faith (set of assumptions) while the latter does. The former should be able to argue his point without referring to any assumptions while the latter only talks about assumptions. This difference is critical between science and religion and is one of the big differences between the way I see the two entities and the way you see them (as far more similar).

Noah replied...

Firstly, I would like to note that A agree with much of what you've said in such an eloquent way. Secondly, in order for this reply to make sense, I've got to define something first. The combination of the set of assumptions one has in conjunction with their choice of patterns and reasonings, I will call a worldview. Furthermore, I consider a worldview and a religion to be synonymous. Once you add people, money, power, and structure to a worldview (religion), it becomes an organized religion. Thus, the difference between what any one person happens to believe, and, say, Christianity (as if there is a set definition), is that Christianity has a lot more people who believe the "same" things, and has a lot more money, power, and structure, but is otherwise exactly the same.

That being out of the way, I'd like to start with your definition of science. As you note, "P=>Q relates assumptions we are making to the process we used to the conclusion itself" and "Those relationships are what science describes. Science can then inform our existence and make interesting and accurate predictions without knowing the real nature of the universe." This is such a beautiful way of describing the utility of science. Indeed, I am in agreement that the sole purpose of real science is to discover patterns in the universe.

Of course, how can you go about finding patterns? The first way is through induction. You take data + reasoning to find a pattern. It's great because it's clean. It's less than great because you only get corroboration, not explanation. This creates a problem where you have no certainty to your predictions (for example, if you knew the pattern was 1, 2, 3, you might say the next step after 99 was 100, except for the fact that the actual imaginary rule in question changes when you hit triple digits and the actual answer is 102 for whatever reason. You just didn't have a big enough sample size I guess). This causes anomalous data to create ever more intricate and complicated sub-patterns (which themselves are corroboratory), which leads to insane complexity. In the end, of course, utility is lost in proportion to complexity. As well, you can never be completely sure that the reasoning is correct, as there's no way to check it at the end (how would you know if the anomalies are from a complex bug in the algorithm or not?) In the end you're left with a lot of talk with no confidence in its accuracy and no hope for utility.

The second way of going about it, of course, is deduction. In this case, assumptions + data + reasoning is used to find a pattern. While the introduction of philosophy and a human element buys us the ability to say "why" and allows us to reach toward "truths", it does come at a dangerous price. Adding assumptions, needless to say, adds a lot of new complexity to the equation. Why do people have the assumptions that they have? Fear, greed, intolerance, speculation, and a huge host of other human problems immediately cloud what was once nice, straight-up logic.

As you note "There are no dangling conditionals except for those the greater scientific community accepts as valid assumptions". The price for not leaving assumptions dangling is to make them the foundation of the whole house. Of course, there are the matters of pure faith that a scientist brings in that can color things, but the problem goes deeper. As I'll explain in a moment, the patterns and conclusions, and the "why's" that science generates become so percolated with assumptions that when you build the next layer up, the previous layer becomes an assumption in the next. For example if your "reasoning" step requires the use of carbon dating, you have to have the assumption that carbon dating is an accurate way of measuring time using biological matter. If you don't, then you're using a different reasoning step than someone else, and thus you're naturally going to find different patterns. Likewise, Einstein thought about matter and energy in a very different way from his peers. Back in 1920, anyone using the reasoning stage of that time would have of course thought Einstein was a goof, which they did for a couple of decades, but that's another story.

So, we know that assumptions are based on assumptions, and we know that the reasoning stage is based on a combination of assumptions (will this method really test this effect for the desired result?) and conclusions, to produce conclusions, which are, then, the product of assumptions + data + (assumptions + assumptions [read: conclusions]) = conclusions. As such, conclusions recursively become nothing more than three parts assumption to one part data. This, of course, is the danger you bring in when you bring assumptions in in the first place, but it's a price most are willing to pay in order to have utility.

Now, as you say, "The sum of the assumptions a person makes can be considered faith. Whereas reasoning takes the known relationships and applies them to the known assumptions to generate meaningful conclusions. Everyone has a set of assumptions and a set of reasoning" To which I say "exactly". Note back to the very beginning where I define the combination of one's choice of assumptions and one's choice of reasonings as one's religion.

Of course, you disagree with my application when you say "Saying that science is used to bolster religion is not a fair assessment. These people are applying the reasoning that science has discovered to the assumptions that they make. Nothing is wrong with that". I wholeheartedly agree that nothing is wrong with that at all. Here's the catch, though. You posit that science has "discovered" their reasoning process. The thing is, though, that they didn't: they created it. The questions a scientist asks is based on their assumptions. The experiment they set up is based on their assumptions. That their experiment will yield good, real, useful results is based on their assumptions. The machines they work with were designed for a purpose based on assumptions by designers who designed based on assumptions who build the machine itself based on assumptions. The data taken is then turned into a pattern based on assumptions and reasonings (which I'm trying to point out right now, are actually based on assumptions). There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. It is unfair, however, to say that we have been given the patterns of reasoning from on-high, when they are actually fabrications.

But if they are fabrications, then what are they fabricating? Well, if assumptions + reasoning = worldview, and assumptions + data + reasoning = science, once you get rid of the particulars of the data, you're left with the fact that science = worldview, ergo science = religion. I'm not the first person to make this statement. The late great Thomas Kuhn, for example wrote his big manifesto on how scientists use previous assumptions to fuel the process of creating more assumptions (no matter how useful), and how the structure of scientific revolution (switching from one reasoning to another) actually plays out surprisingly like a conversion experience. This is very unsurprising to all those post-positivists out there, including myself.

To make a brief digression, I would like to note that the institution of science often behaves like an organized religion. For example, science thrives on consensus. If you're not using good assumptions and orthodox reasoning, then we're not even going to bother to fund your goofy idea, much less take any results seriously. As well, when people come by with a new set of reasonings, they are usually excommunicated. The difference is that for some, in 20-40 years the whole establishment has a conversion, realizes the mistake of proverbially stoning it's prophets, and gives them Nobel prizes before returning to enforcing it's new orthodoxy on its members.

So, onto the meaty bits at the end of your essay. You note that "The important point about 'manmadeglobalwarmingism' is that most scientists agree with the man-made climate change hypothesis". Yes, I agree, but what does that mean? A majority of humans in a human institution have agreed on one set of assumptions as their operating procedure rather than another. They have a group religion. That's all well and good, but since when has mob rule decided the accuracy of patterns? As you go on to note "The simplest explanation to this is that the conclusion is valid INDEPENDENT of any set of assumptions".

You may see an equation of "any reasonable assumption + the reasoning = conclusion most people agree on" as a tacit argument that the reasoning must be sound. What I see is "any reasonable assumption + collectively agreed upon worldview (based on assumptions) = a conclusion that most people agree on." Other than seeing it as somewhat of a tautology, in the end, I boil it down to "religion + religion = conclusion that people of said religion agree on".

I'm not going to say that this is the worst possible way to find a pattern, but I think I have the right to be highly skeptical of the conclusion, especially since (especially in this case) the arguments given for people to believe in the religion in the first place are that a lot of people who already believe in the religion believe in the religion.

Then, of course, you conclude with "The difference between 'manmadeglobalwarmingism' and fundamentalist Christianity is that the former doesn't require you to change your assumptions. This difference is critical between science and religion." The problem, other than all that I've been saying so far is that science DOES require you to change your worldview in order to get along. In order for me to believe in man-made global warming, my assumptions on how atmospheric data is collected, and how it is validated, and how certain assumptions are used to process it, must change. In order to change, I need to adopt the assumptions and reasonings (worldview) wholesale in order for the conclusions to line up with the "common consensus". In short, I'd need a religious conversion from the religion of "not man made global warming" to the religion of "man-made global warming".

How do you induce conversion experiences? You prostelatize. Fundamentalist Christian jerks do it. Man-made global warming jerks do it. Hell, even my very act of writing is prostelatizing the virtues of post-positivism. In short, though, I have too much doubt to believe in man-made global warming at the moment, and, to be honest, the deacons of that particular worldview are doing a very poor job overturning my skepticism.

My skepticism is actually something else I'd like to comment on quickly before I conclude this whole affair. I am in agreement with you that anyone can make up their own assumptions and assume their own reasonings, and come up with whatever goofy conclusion they want, and that's just fine. The thing is, though, that I, personally, am concerned with the accuracy of conclusions, not based on their internal consistency, but on personal observation.

Basically, I look at the assumption + reasoning = conclusion post-positivistically, and try and weed out all of the rampant murkiness that introducing philosophy to science ultimately brings. In the end, yes, I judge it against personal assumptions, just like everyone else, but here we get to a part of the fundamental core of my being, namely, that I think conservatively. No, I don't mean Republicanly, but rather I mean this: To me, there are patterns to things that are very long-reaching. These tentative constants tend to float only very slowly around. Such things have put me in the "realist" camp of international relations, for example.

As such, when things come by that deviate from the norm (as best as I can understand it), my natural gut reaction is that someone is talking not in a way so as to alter the existing norm, but rather have fabricated a new "norm" based on what they WANT the "norm" to be in their perfect world. For example, take gun control. To say that removing guns will remove violence means that you have to stray from the "real": a world in which fear is the most driving human factor, a world in which might, at least in the short term, makes right, and a world where, left with no other option, people will commit desperate acts (all of which I see as part of the real world). Instead, in order for gun control to make sense in most of it's applications, you have to believe that people will always try to do the right thing no matter what (as in, they wouldn't shoot people for food just because they were starving), that violence is caused by the opportunity to commit violence (as such, if you remove the opportunity, you will remove the violence), and that the technology rating of the offender is somehow directly tied to social deviance.

All too often, I see people fabricating a reality and then trying to enact policy on it that ultimately fails because they weren't actually interfacing with the real reality. As such, there are always unintended consequences because the actions that they thought would work well due to their worldview create a different result because the world is different from their worldview.

So, this brings me back to science. What is science good at? Finding patterns. It's good at describing the way the real world really works. This is true for natural laws like physics, and it's true for human interaction, like sociology. This, I believe is the ultimate duty of science. After all, if I was willing to be content with any old assumptions + reasoning = conclusions matrix, I'd probably believe in Zeus rather than NOAA. So, this brings me to my complaint that this whole global warming thing is about bad science. It's so clear to me that this whole thing has the worldview, people, money, and nearly structure so that it is, in near fact, an organized religion. Good science is not about propagating religion, it is about constant skepticism and doubt in such a way where it isn't blinded to it's own inaccuracies in it's patterns. In short, science isn't doing what it's supposed to do in part because so many of its practitioners have abandoned it in favor of a sciency-sounding religion (not unlike scientology in that regard, actually). Meanwhile, the skeptics and the doubters are losing funding and are being shut-out by peer-review, which points to a state of the institution of science that is in VERY sorry shape, at least as far as this issue is concerned.

I respect science enough not to want to see it hijacked by worldviews, at least, not as much as possible in such a way where you don't have to go back to induction. As such, it bugs me when evolutionism and creationism both try to pawn themselves off as science when they're not, and it bugs me when people like Al Gore use sheer demagoguery to steal the minions of science away to far less useful endeavors, leaving science's true purpose unfulfilled.

Matt replied...

Induction and deduction are both critical reasoning functions. Propositional calculus was derived during the enlightenment era, when it was thought that pure deduction was sufficient to describe behavior, and as such, only really covers deductive reasoning. There is another math that can be used to express induction, but I will not get into that here. It suffices to say that science is both good at finding patterns (induction) and deriving conclusions from assumptions (deduction).

I don't want to muddy the vocabulary as you have, and so don't want to buy your everything-is-an-assumption diction. Rather, I would say that any conclusion is only as good as its assumptions and the application of its reasoning (I'm certain you would agree).

Besides attacking the validity of reason, there has been great debate as to the origins of assumptions/conclusions/reasoning. Are these concepts latent in the world? Are they man made fabrications? Ignoring the more complex cases of geophysics for the moment, consider the number 42 (the clear choice). Did someone discover that number latent in the universe or is that number a man-made fabrication? Forests have been destroyed as scholars have scratched their reasoning on reams of paper over the centuries, and no satisfactory conclusion has yet been reached. The theists would argue that God has left his mark on the world in the form of mathematics (Newton) whereas the atheists understand that there IS no latent meaning and that humans have created these numbers as tools to solve particular problems.

Of course, I have a different answer than these two warring groups. I think that their answers are really the same answer, but stated in two different ways. The numbers we have are related to certain physical phenomenon, indicating that they are dependent on the universe, and given some other universe, our numbers would be different. At the same time, without people, the numbers wouldn't exist. It's people's interpretation of the universe that causes these numbers to form into our heads. So, the numbers are both part of the universe and not. It's both absolute and relative!

Regardless of your opinion on the origins of these mathematical and scientific tools, it's not reasonable to dismiss them. If you think they are fabrications, then you think most things are fabrications, and hence wouldn't use that criterion as one to dismiss a thing. If you think they are latent, then you will value it because of its latent-ness. So don't undervalue these tools.

The tools of reason are very pervasive, and make their way into all aspects of life. Religion is not immune to reason sneaking in. I agree that religion and reason are linked and will ever be. I greatly disagree with your definition of religion, as assumptions + reasoning, because I see faith and religion as somewhat analogous to assumption and reasoning. Faith is something that happens to you, not something you can acquire, while religion gives you a way to reason about these givens. Were religion to be a purely existential thing, I couldn't help but agree with you, but since religion is so closely tied to something ineffable, it grows beyond the box your reasoning would otherwise contain it in.

The ineffable separates science from religion. Though they both work with assumptions, the assumptions underlying science are of a wholly different kind. Because religion attempts to reason about non-man-reproducible events, it falls outside of the realm of topics science encompasses. Whereas faith asks of one belief, science asks only for reason. Most of science, except for a small number of assumptions, is a purely deductive and inductive exercise. Not believing in science's explanation of global warming is, therefore, equivalent to not believing in man's ability to see colors or not believing in the sun rising the next day. It is a logical fallacy, simply due to science's close ties with logic.

Noah replied...

Before I get to your main point, there's something I'd like to note. You said "The numbers we have are related to certain physical phenomenon, indicating that they are dependent on the universe, and given some other universe, our numbers would be different. At the same time, without people, the numbers wouldn't exist." The thing is that given that humans create symbols and meaning, it doesn't matter what the universe looks like, as it's completely up to us to describe it. If the universe was different in such a way where red was blue, humans in that other universe could look at blue and call it red, even going so far to think about the color exactly the same as humans in a universe where red is "actually" red. Just because there is a figment of reality somewhere in the mix doesn't mean that it isn't all relative.

As well, I don't feel that I'm devaluing the power of reason, neither to I feel I'm doing as such to science (unless you have an over-valued view of science, or course ;) ). Given that it is a man-made construct using assumptions and conclusions that were made up of assumptions and reasonings (which, recursively are also based on assumptions), I don't find any problem in seeing the value of reasoning AND calling it a big pile of assumptions. After all, it's those very piles of assumptions that cure cancer and fly us to the moon.

I'm a little confused, though, when you said "I agree that religion and reason are linked and will ever be. I greatly disagree with your definition of religion, as assumptions + reasoning, because I see faith and religion as somewhat analogous to assumption and reasoning." I agree that faith is a form of assumption, and I believe that religion is assumptions + reasoning, so where's the discrepancy? As well, I am confused by your comment that science and religion are different because religion deals with the ineffible? Science definitely does choose more useful subject matter, but why does their choice of subject matter mean that they are necessitously different types of institutions?

This brings us to the concluding paragraph, which I'll break down line by line.

"Though they both work with assumptions, the assumptions underlying science are of a wholly different kind." To which I agree, science and religion follow the exact same pattern, albeit with different subject matter. Because the structure is the same, I have no problems talking about them as if they were completely, rather than almost completely identical. "Because religion attempts to reason aboutnon-man-reproducible events, it falls outside of the realm of topics science encompasses." This, of course, merely reinforces my point.

Then you say "Whereas faith asks of one belief, science asks only for reason." Woah, woah, stop the train here. Firstly, faith is just assumptions, it doesn't care what conclusions you draw (beliefs). Faith asks for nothing. Religion, on the other hand, asks for both a common set of assumptions AND a common set of reasoning. For example, Christianity usually requires you to have faith in an all-powerful, all-judging god, and that hell exists. It also requires you to have the reasoning of "God is powerful and will judge my soul and send it somewhere in the afterlife. This leads to the common belief of "If I do bad things, God's judgement will be against me, and I'll go to hell". Of course, there are some "religions" out there that are missing reasoning (like shintoism) or are missing assumptions (sort of like confuscionism), but none of them are very widely practiced as they're not as powerful as religions that contain the vital assumptions + reasoning = conclusion step.

Saying that science asks only for reason is very odd to me. As you note elsewhere, science is a part of the assumption + reasoning = conclusion matrix. Science asks you for assumptions all the time, and that's before we remember that reasoning itself is based on assumptions and assumption-full conclusions from other experiments. The only way that you can completely strip any assumptions whatsoever out of science is to strip the reasoning step down to boolean logic + data and then run pattern-finding software on it. The reason people don't use this (induction) anymore is because it is uncertain of it's final results, and it quickly lacks utility. In order to be useful, it needs to say "why" not just "that", which requires human assumption to enter in, which, in turn, pollutes the whole system.

Let me also put out an email that I sent you earlier, a quote from Dr. Hedley Bull:

"It is the practice of many of these writers to cast their theories in the form of a deliberately simplified form of reality... The virtue that is supposed to lie in models is that by liberating us from the restraint of constant reference to reality, they leave us free to set up simple axioms based on a few variables and thenceforward to confine ourselves to rigorous deductive logic, thereby generating wide theoretical insights that will provide broad signposts to guide us in the real world even if they do not fill in all the details....

The freedom of the model-builder from the discipline of looking at the [real] world is what makes him dangerous; he slips easily into a dogmatism that empirical generalization does not allow, attributing to the model a connection with reality it does not have, and as often as not distorting the model itself by importing additional assumptions about the world in the guise of logical axioms. The very intellectual completeness and logical tidiness of the model-building operation lends it an air of authority which is often quite misleading as to its standing as a statement about the real world.

The fashion for constructing models exemplifies a much wider and more long-standing trend in the study of social affairs: the substitution of methodological tools and the question "Are they useful or not?" for the assertion of propositions about the world and the question "Are they true or not?" Endemic though it has become in recent thinking, I believe this change to have been for the worse. The "usefulness" of a tool, in the end, has to be translated as the truth of a proposition, or a series of propositions advanced about the world, and the effect of the substitution is simply to obscure the issue of an empirical test and to pave the way for shoddy thinking and the subordination of inquiry to practical utility."

In any case, saying that science asks only for data and reasoning simply isn't the way that science works today (or really for much of human history at all).

To get to your final note, "Not believing in science's explanation of global warming is, therefore, equivalent to not believing in man's ability to see colors or not believing in the sun rising the next day. It is a logical fallacy, simply due to science's close ties with logic." Firstly, I would like to note that science has a very close tie to scientific reasoning, but little science has ties with actual, pure, classical logic. While logic is definitely in there to say "if assumption A & assumption B & assumption C then conclusion D" doesn't mean that the statement is purified by using a logical structure, but rather the otherwise strictly logic-based reasoning is polluted by all the assumptions that are required to get the conclusions. It doesn't matter if I get my assumptions by using boolean logic, or if I get them because my parents told me they were true, an assumption's an assumption. It doesn't matter the method you use to stack them, you still end up with a pile of assumptions.

Therefore, not believing in one conclusion based on one set of conclusions does NOT mean that I need to believe in another conclusion based on another set of assumptions. This would require all assumptions to be completely accurate (in which case, why would we be having this conversation), or as you try to put it, you have a system which weeds out the assumptions, which is only true if you're using data mining (and I'd even argure there are assumptions in there too). As such, assumptions are rife, and are of differing quality.

More importantly, the less faith I have in any of the assumptions, the less faith I will have in the conclusion. As such, in order for me to change my assuptions (or, change my faith in a religious like conversion experience if you will), someone needs to convince me that their assumptions are both more accurate, and have more utility than my current choice of faith (assumptions). Needless to say, Al Gore shouting at me "CONVERT!!!!" doesn't exactly cut it for me.

Let me close with a final thought about all this returning to the subject of science's purpose. Yes, science is a religion because, like religion, it is a pile of assumptions, ways of processing assumptions, and natural conclusions that make up a series of well-packaged worldviews, and that's just fine. However unlike, say, Christianity, whose purpose is social justice and the salvation of souls, the whole point of science is to come up with the most accurate assumptions, the most accurate and usable reasonings to create conclusions that as best describe reality as we experience it as accurately as it possibly can. If it's doing something else, in my view, it's not doing good or even real science.

As such, real science needs to be skeptical, or else it becomes dogmatic (which then perpetrates philosophical pseudo-scientific debates on the dogma, like I see going on with evolution and global warming). The problem, of course, is that science is religion, and the scientific process/community is an organized religion. Organized religions tend to have a lot (politically, monetarily, etc.) at stake in uniformity of dogma and the propogation of its orthodoxy. Both of these inhibit real science. While the primary inhibitor is no longer the Catholic church, it has, sadly, become the scientific institution itself. Of course, it doesn't help when scientists get distracted from their real, skeptical, critical work by money, power, prestiege, etc.

In this way, I think people like Al Gore are being detrimental to science. Rather than constantly questioning and doubting for the purpose of refining the patterns that describe reality, people like this are encouraging said practitioners of science to jump on board a certain set of assumptions with a certain set of data with a certain pattern of reasoning that forms a philosophy (or a religion), not a real science. Not to say that scientists can't defend their own particular assumption + reasoning structure, but getting money and politics involved threatens to consume the scientific institution's soul from the inside out, which is very concerning to me.

In addendum, the conversation continued...

Matt said...

So I finally looked up Positivism and how it compares to post-positivism... and I'm really surprised. I guess I would hope that the majority of scientists or people for that matter would be neither... it's the whole "the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience" that I have trouble with, only because I've experienced things beyond what would normally be called "sense experience"... Which is certainly against what the originators of the philosophy intended "sense experience" to encompass.

Noah replied...

So, I suppose it's a little bit unfair of me to just brand myself as a post-positivist, as I'm not actually completely on board with ALL post-positivist interpretations (although, I'm willing to give most of them a fair degree of credence). If you want to get the one closest form of post-positivism that relates to what I believe, have a gander at Constructivism:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivist_epistemology

The basic gist is that humanity cannot prove, it can only ever corroborate. It constructs narratives that are a careful blend of data and other human factors. It is important for me to stress that I don't take this skeptical view as cynicism, saying something sarcastic like "because we can never really know the truth, all we're doing is propping up delusional fairy tales when we pathetically attempt to describe reality". I believe that there is actually useful ability that stems from such narratives and, indeed, are necessary when faced with the options of "iron-clad belief that we're discovering the truth" and "we can't know; don't bother".

What I think is important to always consider is the human element in all of these things. The minute that any assumptions show up (which is nearly always the case when you start talking causalities), you have to immediately look at things like:

Biology (does their genetics predispose them to think a certain way?)
Sociology (how have other people influenced them in the past?)
History (what have they experienced in their life that will affect their decision-making process?)

Along with things like small group psychology (how does the relentless drive towards consensus affect the least-common denominators of group members, and how do they effect the ultimate decision-making process?) As well as things like cognitive factors (given that a human can't hold onto and process all things at once, how to they limit their scope/data set? How does seeking consistency and the use of heuristics affect the decision-making process?) As well, you have to look at idiosynchracies (how does one's ambition and ego, or sense of success, or fear affect how they gather and interprate data?) What about personal experiences? What about the learning process from previous assumptions, data, and conclusions? What about the fact that bureaucracies will be bureacracies, along with all that drags with it?

As such, to remove the human being to merely a actor who flips the switch, lets the machine run, and reads the universal truth that the machine spits out cuts out so many variables, that it can hardly ever be trusted (thus why I'm not a positivist). I will admit that plunging down from the highest levels of abstraction does cause science to lose utility (for example, dealing with theories, whether they reflect reality or not, is much easier, and usually more useful in the short run than asking what the connection is between theories and the NSF's funding criteria), to decapitate oneself from the vast body of the reality of the human condition is an inevitable recipe for folly, and to ignore it leaves the reason for scientific fads, norms, and outright revolutions forever shrouded in mystery.

To get at something I was pointing to earlier, I believe that it is the unique mission of science to attempt, however vainly, to pierce through this crazy complicated mass of the human condition and provide us with the narratives/patterns/theories that are the most accurate and the most useful. Often it does this very, very well, but it's tragic to me to see the baser side of humanity drag certain parts of science down into the muck that it's supposed to be circumventing.

Matt replied...

Agreed on several points! But I think you may be amplifying the already loud voices of the extreme zealots in many of these 'religions' you give examples of. I would consider Al Gore to be, again, a moderate voice on global warming, stressing realistic action and planning based on reasonable extrapolation of data. Maybe you're just sensitive to this kind of voice?

Noah replied...

1.) yes, I am more sensitive to assumption use, I don't deny. I'm also highly sensitive to people who I perceive as being oblivious to their own assumptions (especially while claiming truth. My hubris meter has an 11). Those people have a tendency to get under my nerves.

2.) I will also admit that there are crazier people out there than Al Gore when it comes to this issue. As well, I respect the fact that he hasn't pushed hard excessively over-the-top ideas. For example, there was a dude that I heard on the radio from some random environmental group who posited the idea that "because people's support and thus general advancement on alternate fuels/energy sources only occurs when energy prices are high, it should be the government's mandate, in order to curb global warming, to purposefully enact policies that drive up energy prices." While an Al Gore carbon tax may slowly strangle industry (not that I'm in favor of that either) and thus the economy, the idea of deliberately tripling energy prices fills me with a nemesis-like wrath when I think of how many millions of mostly impoverished people will suffer so greatly in order to achieve an end (especially one I don't agree with).

I suppose, to clarify, then, my beef with Al Gore ISN'T that he has an ideology and that he's trying to push it so that policies he wants to see enacted get enacted. After all, what else is the point of politics? My beef is that he's taking an inherently muddy vat of humanity and dragging science into it, and some parts of science have followed. Science is supposed to counteract the worst, most arbitrary parts of the human condition: the very thing that politics feeds off of.

I mean, if people want to say that they think that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to marry is because they have a belief system which leads them to a certain set of beliefs, which causes them to enact certain policy, then that's their prerogative. I believe that science should be exempted from this process, because getting involved invariably pollutes the unique mission of science. It feels like a shame to me to use an institution that is useful precisely because it is inquisitive and skeptical, and then to see it being used to the ends of orthodoxy, dogma, and conformity of thought in pursuit of policy.