How Science Guess Becomes Science Fact

Hello, ideas. Welcome to the Hunger Games! May the odds be ever in your favor.

Science is under attack. Not breaking news, we can see for ourselves that it is. Right? You have heard, “We don’t have time. The science is settled. We must act now!” yes? If it’s settled, what is it and how does it get ‘settled’?

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So when we say the “science is settled” what do we mean by ‘science’? Perhaps science is a field of study? After all, we want girls to find careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). It is not, but that may be why science is perceived as a sector, a field, rather than what it partly is: a suite of methods for teasing out how everything around us—and within us—works. So rather than being a field of study, science is a way to study?

Science really is knowledge: How it is obtained and verified. The word ‘Science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge.’ So if we say ‘science is under attack,’ that would mean ‘knowledge‘ is under attack. And it is. Knowledge is constantly under attack, and it’s being attacked for the best of intentions: to protect people from being hurt.

I recently listened to Jonathan Rauch’s book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

His book is an apologia for free—no holds barred—speech, and against those who want to prevent such speech from hurting people.

“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. That means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism (no final say); it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will. But we also are not supposed to claim we have knowledge except where belief is checked by no one in particular (no personal authority).”

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

Rauch argues that “liberal science”—his term for the process of “What do we know, and how do we know it?”—is at stake if free speech is curtailed, often by well-meaning people. “No social principle in the world is more foolish and dangerous than the rapidly rising notion that hurtful words and ideas are a form of violence or torture (e.g., “harassment”),” Rauch says, “and that their perpetrators should be treated accordingly. That notion leads to the criminalization of criticism and the empowerment of authorities to regulate it. The new sensitivity is the old authoritarianism in disguise, and it is just as noxious.” (emphasis is mine)

While free speech is crucial and the threats to it (fundamentalism, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism) are crucial to liberal science, and would not work without the ability to offend, it was Rauch’s discussion of liberal science itself that I found most intriguing.

Knowledge is a product, like the metals we mine and the cars we build. To be more specific, our knowledge is a set of statements which we are satisfied are true—which have been validated, truth tested, in some satisfactory way….

Liberal science is a big and complicated thing. No one could begin to describe it fully. However, with nullius in verba (take no one’s word) and “order without authority” we have the underpinnings of liberal science.

Bertrand Russell once said that “order without authority” might be taken as the motto both of political liberalism and of science. If you had to pick a three-word motto to define the liberal idea, “order without authority” would be pretty good.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

Who gets to choose what is knowledge? The answer is literally everyone. The competition to stay alive, though, is between ideas, not people.

Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self–regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game)….In biological evolution, no outcome is fixed or final—nor is it in capitalism, democracy, [or] science. There is always another trade, another election, another hypothesis….No matter who you are, you must conduct your business in the currency of dollars, votes, or criticism—no special fiat, no personal authority….

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

No one gets a pass. “Who you are doesn’t count; the rules apply to everybody, regardless of identity….no matter how stupid and grubby-minded the critic.” If you want your ideas to be encoded in the current book of knowledge, you must submit them for review.

[The] name of the game is to make knowledge and score credit for it, and you get credit only when your conclusions are checked out by others. Others must be able to rely on your conclusions, confirm your results, trace your logic, get hold of your data. So the game of science forces you to build bridges. You must persuade.

Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Expanded Edition by Jonathan Rauch

So we find that the science never is “settled.” Our knowledge of the world outside and of ourselves shifts, adapts, and evolves as ideas gain or lose credence by how well those ideas perform against all contenders. Welcome to the games, Ideas. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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