Since two prominent science fraudsters, the egregious Michael “hockey stick” Mann and St. Anthony “mask theater” Fauci, have recently received gratifying comeuppances—gratifying to the world, that is, not to them—I thought I might leave weighty subjects like Joe Biden’s mental and physical condition, the crisis at our Southern border, and whether there will be enough maternity flight suits and transgender surgeries performed in the U.S. Navy before it is needed to interdict some calculated adventure on the part of the Chinese (or the Russians or the Iranians).  

Instead, as we are constantly enjoined to “follow the science” with respect to “climate change” and mortal threats to 0.03 percent of the population such as this season’s respiratory coronavirus, I’d like to step back and say a few words about the nature of scientific knowledge in general.

Do you believe humanity possesses more scientific knowledge now than it did in 1901? Unless you are mad, your answer is: Yes, of course. There is vastly more known today than there was 100 years ago. The proof of the expansion of knowledge is everywhere around us, including the computer screen on which I am reading this sentence.

That healthy acknowledgment of the advancement of knowledge is what we might call the Dr. Jekyll side of the question. If you have been to college recently, or if you have dipped your toe into the waters of postmodern thought, you also know something about scientific irrationalism, the Mr. Hyde side of the question.

“Truth” vs. Truth

Just like Mr. Hyde, scientific irrationalism generally lives a semi-concealed existence. It’s rare to find anyone who will come right out in the open and argue that there is no more known now than there was a century ago.

It does happen occasionally. The (in)famous philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, for example, argued that scientific laws, like laws in a democratic polity, should be put to a vote. Feyerabend maintained that science is no more cognitively privileged than (for example) astrology, voodoo, or necromancy. The “only one principle that can be defended,” he wrote in Against Method, “. . . is anything goes.”

That certainly worked for Cole Porter. But for science? Not so much. Of course, such bald irrationalism is rare, even for academics with tenure. Modern irrationalists tend to be more subtle. Employing a knowing smile, they raise questions about the cogency of words denoting cognitive success: words like “knowledge,” “truth,” “discovery,” “proof,” and “validity.”

They do the same thing with words of cognitive failure: “mistake,” “false,” “refuted,” and so on.

How do the Mr. Hydes of the intellectual world accomplish this stupendous feat of subversion?

I have just indicated one popular method: the promiscuous use of scare quotes. After all, a scientific “truth” is something quite different from a scientific truth, just as a “refuted” theory is different from a refuted theory. (Consider the difference between fresh fish and “fresh” fish.)

Another popular irrationalist technique involves blurring the distinction between logic, on the one hand, and history or sociology, on the other.

It is quite simple. Instead of saying that a given theory is true, you say that it is considered by the best authorities to be true. The first is a logical claim; the second an historical observation masquerading as a logical claim.

It would be difficult to overestimate the popularity of these irrationalist sentiments in our culture today. Even as we crack the mysteries of the human genome, send men to the moon, and revolutionize communications with computers and the internet, Mr. Hyde coexists happily with the Dr. Jekylls that make it all happen.

Mr. Hyde Disguised as Dr. Jekyll

One of the most popular Mr. Hydes in recent memory was the historian of science Thomas Kuhn. His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions has had an extraordinary influence. By the mid-1980s, it was the most frequently cited 20th-century book in the “Arts and Humanities Citation Index.” (The honor of being the most cited author, by the way, went to V. I. Lenin—a fact that should give us pause about the whole academic enterprise that supports such inquiries.)

Even if you haven’t read Kuhn’s book, you probably have absorbed something of its argument and phraseology. How often have you heard someone talk about a “paradigm shift” or a “paradigm change”? The phrase is Kuhn’s, and it sums up nicely the idea that made him famous.

According to Kuhn, scientific truth is “paradigm relative.” For example, what was considered true under the Ptolemaic view of the solar system differs from what we, having read Copernicus, believe.

But that difference, Kuhn says, does not mean that one paradigm is true and the other is false. Different paradigms, he insists, are “incommensurable”: they cannot legitimately be compared.

To illustrate this idea, Kuhn asks “what mistake was made, what rule broken, when and by whom, in arriving at, say, the Ptolemaic system?”

As the philosopher David Stove pointed out, most people do not find this a difficult question to answer. For starters, there was the mistake of believing that the sun travels around the earth every day.

The idea that truth is “paradigm relative” allowed Kuhn and his many followers to align themselves with the scientific irrationalism of Mr. Hyde while appearing in the white coat of Dr. Jekyll.

Whenever anyone accused him of advocating a relativist view of science, Kuhn replied that he—just like everyone else—believed that science “solves problems.”

Here is the rub: on Kuhn’s view of science, problems don’t stay solved. If the traditional view of science as cumulative were true, Kuhn wrote, then “in the evolution of science new knowledge would replace ignorance rather than replace knowledge of another and incompatible sort.”

In fact, the evolution of science is the story of ignorance being replaced by knowledge. But with the phrase “incompatible knowledge” Kuhn scuttled the word “knowledge.” As Stove points out, “knowledge implies truth, and truths cannot be incompatible with one another.” Kuhn skirts over this crucial issue.

Skepticism over Certainty

Why is scientific irrationalism so popular now, at a time when the successes of science are overwhelmingly obvious?

David Stove suggested one important reason. When the certainties of the Newtonian view of the universe began to give way in the face of the innovations of quantum theory at the end of the 19th century, the reaction among many philosophers of science was nothing short of panic.

What they had regarded as the most certain of all theories turned out to be in need of serious revision. In reaction, they resolved never again to bestow their faith in scientific truth unconditionally. Skepticism, not certainty, became their watchword. I suspect something similar happened in the world of art when the Abstract Expressionists took the art world by storm in the late 1940s and 1950s. Ever after, resistance to charlatans was fatally weakened. But that is a story for another day. 

In science, the most famous example of this once burned, twice shy form of philosophy of science was expounded by one of Thomas Kuhn’s most influential predecessors, Sir Karl Popper.

Popper’s 1934 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery made the curious argument that the distinguishing mark of a scientific theory was not (as everyone used to think) that it was verifiable by empirical evidence. On the contrary, Popper argued that a theory was scientific to the extent that it was “falsifiable.”

In other words, for Popper, only theories that are disprovable are genuinely scientific.

Odd, isn’t it? It used to be that the more unassailable a theory was, the more credence you would accord it. But Popper stood all that on its head. “Irrefutability,” he proclaimed, “is not a virtue of a theory . . . but a vice.”

As the science writer Martin Gardener observed, if Popper’s theory of falsifiability were true, then if our horse won at the race track, we would exclaim “Great! My horse failed to lose!”

What was novel about Popper’s famous doctrine of “falsifiability” was not the idea that negative instances disconfirm or “falsify” a theory. The fact that the proposition “All ravens are black” is disconfirmed by the appearance of one white raven is a logical truism. What was novel was the amazing thought that positive instances do not—in principle cannot—act to confirm a proposition or theory.

For Popper, if every raven anyone has ever seen is black, that fact gives no rational support for the belief that all ravens, in fact, are black. Scientific laws, he says, “can never be supported, or corroborated, or confirmed by empirical evidence.” He goes even further: of two hypotheses “the one which can be better corroborated, is always less probable.”

Meaning . . . what? That there is no such thing as empirical support for a scientific theory. Right. If you believe that, then I have a bridge I would like to sell you for a modest consideration—always assuming, of course, that you are wearing a mask.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

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