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Denialism

I recently finished listening to two audiobooks. One was Bertrand Russell's What I Believe, which was a collection of three essays/talks he'd given. "Why I am not a Christian" was one of those few philosophical essays that I can almost wholely embrace. It's nice when you can speak across almost a century with someone else, and find so much common ground. It's very validating. On the other hand, his position of science being a "useful fiction" in the first essay, was strikingly at odds with the positive and optimist view of science expressed in "Why I am not a Christian". Philosophers are as likely to be schizophrenics about this as Christians are, and I will talk more about that below.

I also finished listening to another one, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter. Really great book, and frankly, it put a lot of thoughts I'd been having recently about my philosophy of science class into perspective, but I'll talk about that more. I thought about sending it to my dad to read. I don't think he's appreciate it. He's big into health food stuff, and consumed by Faux News conspiracies, but that's precisely why he needs it so desperately.

I took a philosophy of science course this winter and somehow, all these things managed tie together with these two books. The topic of the course was scientific realism, and in particular the debate in philosophy about the aims of science (what they are or ought to be), and whether we should believe in the conclusions of science or whether things like electrons are, as Bertrand Russell put it, convenient fictions that make useful observational predictions.

There really aren't words to express how dismayed I was, not only at the painful irrationality of the arguments, but that some of the students were really taking them seriously.

One argument is called the "Pessimistic Induction", it says that science has been wrong in the past and therefore, we can conclude it will be wrong in the future. Frankly, I think philosophers are much more subject to this attack (including that the pessiminist induction is complete crap) since they jump around more than any other discipline I've ever seen. Our ability to control nature is not counted as evidence for science being right. All they see is that since science is never perfectly correct, the only thing to do is be agnostic on it. How anyone can go through their entire lives so afraid of every being wrong is beyond me.

Some antirealists claim that the goal of science is merely to achieve "empirical adequacy", i.e. make good predictions. While that is certainly important, where is the sense of curiosity? It's completely lost on these people. Probably, they figure it's irrational. I have a hard time imagining Carl Sagan got into astronomy to make good predictions, about what exactly? Don't scientists want to know how the world works? What else could be worth the pain and sacrifice of 12 years of additional education plus 5 years as a post-doc and then 7 more trying to get tenure. How can you be passionate about empirical adequacy? Clearly, they are confusing engineers with scientists.

It boggles the mind that more than a century of data demonstrating not only the existence of the electron, but also some of it's incredibly bizarre properties is not enough to convince some of these "thinkers" to believe in their existence. Electrons are not metaphysics, folks, just physics! The mountain of evidence, but instead, some philophers, like Bas van Fraassen, would have you believe that if you can't see it with your stone-age eyes, then it is never to be believed, regardless of the amount of indirect evidence for its existence. Surely, I agree, if you can't see it without instruments, I can understand a certain skepticism and demand for a bit more indirect evidence than if we could see it.... but there must be a point at which the indirect evidence tips the balance toward belief or all you are engaging in is radical skepticism... better known as denialism.

And the arrogance of asserting that scientists all agree with you, at the same time acknowledging that you have not done the sociological study to back up that claim, further, that you have no interest in doing said study, and that it wouldn't matter anyway. Don't you think it effects the argument if you are arguing against what is already presumed? As it turns out, philosophical positions change over time. Last week I listened to an audiobook on the history of quantum mechanics, Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar, and not only was it a fascinating book, but also it did talk about such a study done in the 90's, and I think every one of the authors who claimed to know what physicists think would have been shocked by the results (turns out only 4% believed in the Copenhagen interpretation, which once dominated physics, and a plurality believes in the Many Worlds Hypothesis, and the rest, "other"). How can you do any thoughtful philosophy without first having the data like this? Philosophy needs to be more like science, and less like teenagers bullshitting over a beer.

Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed by the whole thing. Interesting to read, until someone starts taking it too seriously. And for my final paper, I was hampered by not being able to say what I really think, which is that this is all a symptom of a larger problem: when you take irrationality that seriously, it poisons all your thinking. Science is not perfect, but as a whole, it does try to strike a balance between evidence, skepticism, rationality, and other features that drive it towards better representations of the truth. Entirely too many philosophers of science have never actually done science, or read even about the details of how theories come to be tested, negotiated, modified, tested again, challenged, and eventually, settled upon when there is only one theory left standing given the evidence... and even then, differing levels of committment depending on the amount and certainty of the evidence. Not to mention, how little they know about notions of approximation in mathematics.

Reading antirealist philosophy of science is like listening to sore losers after a battle, trying to justify their failure by claiming that they actually were victorious. It borders on the insane.

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