Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Nation Ruled By Science Wouldn't Be A Terrible Idea, If Done Right

Recently there were several articles criticizing a tweet by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson about an idea for a virtual country called Rationalia with a single line constitution that all policy should be based on the weight of evidence:

For an evidentialist like me who thinks the justification of a conclusion depends solely on the evidence for it, this seems like a good idea. Who wouldn't want to live in a society where policy is based on evidence? Well, lot's of people apparently. Now mind you, Twitter has a 140 character limitation, and offers little room for nuance. So the details of Tyson's idea aren't able to be hashed out on such a platform. But for someone who just wrong a lengthy blog post about how we should infer ontology and who actively supports applying scientific thinking to society's problems, I can offer some insights and a critique on how such a country could in theory work, and in the process shut down many of the strawmen arguments made about such a view.

Over at New Scientist Jeffrey Guhin makes several mistakes in his critique of Tyson in an article called, A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea. First he immediately calls Tyson's idea "scientism." 

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is – you guessed it – science. People sometimes use the phrase “rational thinking”, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

Now it is true that Tyson has been accused of scientism in the past, so I cannot defend Tyson on this, as I myself reject it in its strong form. But, there are two different kinds of scientism, strong and weak. Here are the differences:

Strong scientism: the view that science alone can render truth about the world and reality
Weak scientism: the view that science is the most reliable method to render truth about the world and reality, but one among many methods that can render truth.

There are various definitions of strong and weak scientism, and no necessary agreement on them among philosophers and scientists, but that's how I define them. Given weak scientism, no one is forced to think science is the sole way to solve the world's problems or the only thing that can count as "evidence." And with that, this critique disappears.

Next Guhin moves onto flaws in science itself. Scientists have irrational biases he says, and this could lead them to mislead us. Sure, we all have cognitive biases, and scientists are not in any way immune to this defect. But the scientific method takes into consideration these inherent cognitive biases and employs methods like double blind peer review to correct for them. In a society like Rationalia which emphasizes scientific thinking, presumably any problems that exist in science, like a lack of funding, or issues with the peer review process, will have special dedications reserved for fixing them. Why would we assume that the problems that exist in science today in societies that do not privilege scientific research and its findings to determine policy would persist in a society that does? In Rationalia scientific funding would take precedent over many other forms of funding, like the insane corporate welfare and military industrial complexes we have in the modern US.

Still, we must acknowledge the flaws in the often shocking history of what was once considered "science," as Guhin writes,

Phrenology – the determination of someone’s character through the shape and size of their cranium – was cutting-edge science. (Unsurprisingly, the upper class had great head ratios.) Eugenics was science, as was social Darwinism and the worst justifications of the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
Scientific racism was data-driven too, and incredibly well-respected. Scientists in the 19th century felt quite justified in claiming that “the weight of evidence” supported African slavery, white supremacy and the concerted effort to limit the reproduction of the “lesser” races.
It wasn’t so long ago that psychiatrists considered homosexuality unhealthy and abhorrent. There is at least one prominent, eminently rational psychiatrist who hasn’t come around on transgenders. And many scientists decided that women were biologically incapable of the same kind of rationality you find in men, a scientific sexism reborn in contemporary evolutionary psychology.

Yes it is true that there used to be many views masquerading around as science that we would not consider scientific at all today. But the way to resolve these problems was always to have better science, not get rid of science or to think science isn't the best methodology for finding truth about the world. Phrenology was debunked as pseudoscience by scientists. The same goes with astrology and homeopathy. Science is a method for finding truth and during the course of that finding it will make mistakes, but within its methodology it has built into it a way to weed out pseudoscience from actual science (although not necessarily perfectly all the time as the line between what is pseudoscience vs science is not always clear.)

But what is science?

Part of the problem here is that nobody really knows what science means. Most people define it as the exploration of the world we live in, which is a fair if simplistic description (and not much on which to base a nation). The academic definition is frequently debated, without any really clear headway. (It’s hard even to figure out how to define physics, chemistry and biology.)

Defining what science is is a question for philosophy, not science. The philosophy of science is a field dedicated to defining science from non-science, or pseudoscience, and in interpreting scientific theories. Science isn't going to answer whether a hypothesis has to be falsifiable in order to count as science because the question is over the very nature of science itself. So in this sense, philosophy is greatly needed. That's covered if you accept weak scientism like I do, and that's why I think it's a much better alternative than the far too restrictive scientism that Tyson, Dawkins, and Nye are privy to.

Guhin next compares scientism to creationism in terms of dogmatism:

Like Tyson, creationists begin with certain prior commitments (“evolution cannot be true”, for example, substitutes for “science cannot be wrong”) and build an impressively consistent argument upon them.

Though I agree that scientism is dogmatic, I don't know any of its modern adherents like Tyson, Dawkins, or Nye, who actually start with the prior "science cannot be wrong." Does Guhin intend this to mean the findings of science or the methodology of science? If the former, I don't think any of them think the findings of science cannot be wrong; if the later, the method of science has been reformed over several hundred years and fine tuned to remarkable precision. Does the methodology of science itself need improvement? Perhaps. I don't know. But it's done amazingly well for so long.

The past mistakes of science should make us sceptical that it could be used to build a utopia. But, the scientists might say, science is most important for its ability to self-correct. Psychiatry has come around on homosexuality, for example. This may be true, yet it presents the precise reason why attempting to act only accounting for the “weight of evidence” is so flawed.

The robust success of science should actually give us comfort that it could be used to build a better society. I refrain from using the term "utopia" because such a term wreaks of naivete. If we're not going to act on the weight of evidence, then what are we going to act on? We should make decisions based on the best available evidence we have at the time, but we also have to have an underlying philosophy that guides those decisions so that we don't have the eugenics and social Darwinism of the past, and I think secular humanism is best for that. I'm pretty sure Tyson would agree with that but didn't have time for detail in the limitations of Twitter. But I don't know. In this case I both partially agree with Guhin and disagree with him in his article.

So would I pack by bags and move to Rationalia if such a country actually existed? It depends. I need a bit more detail about what it entails before I terminate my apartment lease. But I would not be against it in principle. So long as it is done with weak scientism with an underlying humanist philosophy, I'd be on board.

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