A Useful Mere Truism

‘X’ in this quotation is science, which has been temporarily re-named for the purpose of an examination of some criticisms of ‘science’:

X is “E-knowledge,” “obtained by logical deduction from firmly established first principles.” The statements in X must be “provable”; X demands “absolute proofs.”…I quite agree that X should be consigned to the flames. But what that has to do with our topic escapes me, given that these attributions scarcely rise to the level of a caricature of rational inquiry (science, etc.), at least as I’m familiar with it.

Take the notion of “E-knowledge,” the sole definition of science presented here. Not even set theory (hence conventional mathematics) satisfies the definition offered. Nothing in the sciences even resembles it. As for “provability,” or “absolute proofs,” the notions are foreign to the natural sciences. They appear in the study of abstract models, which are part of pure mathematics until they are applied in the empirical sciences, at which point we no longer have “proof.”…Science is tentative, exploratory, questioning, largely learned by doing.

So there! And who said that? Noam Chomsky. He said a lot of good stuff.

As for the cited properties of X, they do hold of some aspects of human thought and action: elements of organized religion, areas of the humanities and “social sciences” where understanding and insight are thin and it is therefore easier to get away with dogmatism and falsification, perhaps others. But the sciences, at least as I am familiar with them, are as remote from these descriptions as anything in human life. It is not that scientists are inherently more honest, open, or questioning. It is simply that nature and logic impose a harsh discipline: in many domains, one can spin fanciful tales with impunity or keep to the most boring clerical work (sometimes called “scholarship”); in the sciences, your tales will be refuted and you will be left behind by students who want to understand something about the world, not satisfied to let such matters be “someone else’s concern.” Furthermore, all of this seems to be the merest truism.

Yes, but how good people are at ignoring truisms when they’d rather spin tales.

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