Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science? - some thoughts

The link below is to a thought-provoking post by Daniel Loxton about the relationship of science and skepticism. My thoughts are in reply #27, and I'm also posting them here. If you're interested in such things as I am, I also draw your attention to Jim Lippard's interesting epistemological observations in reply #10.

Summarizing Daniel's heuristics ...

1) Where both scientific domain expertise and expert consensus exist, skeptics are (at best) straight science journalists.

2) Where scientific domain expertise exists, but not consensus, we can report that a controversy exists — but we cannot resolve it.

3) Where scientific domain expertise and consensus exist, but also a denier movement or pseudoscientific fringe, skeptics can finally roll up their sleeves and get to work.

4) Where a paranormal or pseudoscientific topic has enthusiasts but no legitimate experts, skeptics may perform original research, advance new theories, and publish in the skeptical press.

I'd summarize my response by saying that I think these are good categories, but we mainly know them after-the-fact. They don't really get to the heart of what it means to be an effective doubter.

My thoughts in response:

I do find the idea of having heuristics for applying critical thinking appealing, but I’m uneasy about this particular very broad set and framework. There’s some question begging that seems inevitable when we draw up neat categories for observations.

Specifically, as heretical as it may perhaps seem to some, I don’t know that I agree that skepticism means a “science-based epistemology.” I think it means more a heavily empirical epistemology: observe and guess and test, rather than theorize and predict. Clearly, theory and prediction do play a central role in _science_, but not neccessarily in _skepticism_ pe se. To me they are closely related but not the same thing.

These categories in the post seem in part based on the underlying notion that expertise and epistemic value are closely related. To me, expertise does not have a straightforward simple relationship with our knowledge of the underlying phenomena. For one thing, it takes us in two different directions at once: (1) refined expertise organizes our knowledge of a domain along very specific lines – thus its power – and this also causes us to treat true anomalies as outliers to be ignored, and (2) expertise also makes us better able to see finer distinctions that lead to new discoveries.

So to me _expertise_ does contribute greatly to scientific discovery, but expert _consensus_ does not neccessarily define the underlying phenomena or by itself merit a different approach to experimentation. It is in the areas where we have the strongest expert consensus that the most interesting anomalies arise. It is often in testing the least likely conjectures, the ones outside the expert consensus, that we make the most interesting discoveries.

Before the discovery of metamaterials, there was an almost unanimous consensus that em radiation could not be guided around objects except in science fiction. The discovery had to be made by experts who could understand the significance of the discovery and had the tools for isolating it, but still it violated the expert consensus. Examples like this are rare, but I think well established, showing dramatically the two divergent ways that expertise influences epistemic value.

Dealing with the problem of interpreting an anomaly, if we knew ahead of time what the relevant domain of expertise was, and how it affected our understanding of the observations, we would already have largely solved the problem, thus the question begging of dealing with claims differently based on their relationship to the expert consensus, especially assuming that the expert consensus renders moot the scientific value of applying expertise to studying a putative anomaly.

I would argue that skeptics are at their best domain-general observers and experts in various areas of protocol and experimentalism and avid students of past lessons learned in studying anomalous claims in general. Consequently I think they are best engaged across the board investigating the circumstances of interesting claims – making use of scientific domain experts … knowing the expert consensus and taking it as the default … but not relying on the expert consensus by assuming it always makes anomalies less likely.

As a personal preference, I don’t think skeptics should be only in the job of confirming the consensus, but also in the job of questioning it reasonably.

kind regards,

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