Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Facts And Values

FLG had a post not too long ago, or maybe it was a comment over at A&J, about how facts and values cannot be separated. Or rather, one can separate them, but whenever you draw a conclusion using facts you are unavoidably applying values. So, if you are going swimming and I tell you to bring a towel, then I am implicitly saying that being dry is better than being wet.

Likewise, let's assume the science proves that the climate is warming. That doesn't imply any course of action whatsoever. To draw some conclusion, we need to do something about it or not, involves the application of value to the equation.

Today, Bruce Schneier links to a paper that says people ignore facts and instead tend to "form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values."

opponents of a scientific consensus often try to claim to be opposing it on scientific, rather than cultural grounds. "Public debates rarely feature open resistance to science," they note, "the parties to such disputes are much more likely to advance diametrically opposed claims about what the scientific evidence really shows." To get there, those doing the arguing must ultimately be selective about what evidence and experts they accept—­they listen to, and remember, those who tell them what they want to hear. "The cultural cognition thesis predicts that individuals will more readily recall instances of experts taking the position that is consistent with their cultural predisposition than ones taking positions inconsistent with it," the paper suggests.

FLG has a problem with this. It's mostly a problem with people's failure to understand the role science plays. It isn't some super source of authority for everything under the Sun. It's a means to determine things about the material world. And it's pretty damn good at it. The issue is that scientific fact contains no meaning. Whether the solar system is geocentric or heliocentric isn't meaningful. Meaning applies to people. We could live our lives perfectly happy believing that the solar system is geocentric.

FLG's point here is this. Science has a process for determining fact. Or removing doubt, if you want to be specific about it. We need to ensure that process is working. However, if the real issue, most of the time, is whether the facts are true or not, but they are meaningful.

1 comment:

George Pal said...

From the paper:
”Clearly, the scientific community isn't succeeding in making the public aware of its opinion”

That’s it! That’s the tip off. You need read no more than that to know ‘here be gnostics’. The royal priests, in science and now in politics are having a devil of a time trying to convince everyone the tossed chicken bones really mean what they say they mean.

From FLG:
“It isn't some super source of authority for everything under the Sun.”

But they so desperately want it to be, think it ought to be, and believe it would be if only they could talk down to us, or we could listen up to them, better.

The greatest in any field are those who can take a true measure of what they do and how little they know. A truly great scientist of the last century, Richard Feynman, left us with the first rule of science:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

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