Of course I'm liberal, I believe in liberty.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Enlightened Path to Truth

From David Brin's excellent discussion of modernism versus romanticism:
Given what may be at stake -- either billions of dollars or else a perceived world-in-peril -- it would be surprising if human subjectivity and bias did not sometimes bias outcomes.

This is, in fact the critical discovery of science. That we often perceive what we expect or want to perceive, often at variance with what is objectively true. The Cro Magnon genius of trumping objective evidence with subjective belief. The original and only true form of magic.

How has science dealt with this quandary? By encouraging open enquiry and vigorous reciprocal accountability. And by enticing younger researchers to take risks and challenge portions of the edifice that may be weak, with substantial status awaiting those who do succeed in toppling a paradigm, some time.

I have generalized this with a catchy acronym-aphorism - CITOKATE ... or... Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error. A practicing scientist knows this, in his or her bones, even as the Cro Magnon ego inevitably tugs in the other direction, murmuring to each of us that we are 100% correct and that critics are all vile fools. Yes, that tug is overwhelming. Which makes even the partial success of scientific training - at making some egotists welcome criticism - all the more wondrous, almost a miracle.

The lesson for everyday life? If none of us are likely to catch our own mistakes, we can hope that others will catch them for us. And yes, even when eagerly rebellious, snotty graduate students do the catching.
Even though reality itself is obviously objective, no human is capable of understanding anything other then a subjective version of that truth. No experiment, no observation, no set or laws or theories are completely objective, but we can arrive at a very close approximation when many people attempt to recreate an experiment or make the same observation or contemplate the theories. Through the combination of many subjective minds each criticizing the others (hopefully in a nice way, though it isn't strictly required) we can asymptotically approach objective reality.

Often even scientists don't see their own subjectivity. In college I attended an open forum dealing with some great injustice done by one of the college officials. (Yea, that was sarcasm. This was an excellent example of liberal activism run amok.) At one point a science professor chimed in that scientists could not be racist because they dealt with objective reality, and more than that, the scientific community was innately international in nature. This sounded reasonable enough to me at the time. He then went on to say that the end of racism was a good thing if for no other reason then intermarriage would lead to a darkening of skin color that would help protected us from the sun's UV rays.

It wasn't until contemplating what he said the next day that I realized the subjectivity of his last statement. One could even call the statement racist, but in a purely accidental, not at all evil sort-of way. The fact it took me a day to catch it showed that I too could fall for this mild, unconscious form of racism. (Re-read the sentence if you didn't catch it right away. It seems blindingly obvious to me now.) That science professor assumed that people were white. Intermarriage doesn't lead to a darkening of the skin color, it leads to an averaging. It's only darkening from the point of view of the white guy. As you can see, the scientist wasn't as objective as he thought.

I have this dream that someday creationists will someday play a true critical analysis role for evolutionary biology. For the most part, the creationist arguments against evolution have been weak, but they are getting stronger. (Though no where nearly as strong as the mountains of evidence supporting evolution.) Ideally, if creationists really want to be taken seriously they'll have to make real proposals and engage in real science. If they honestly believe creationism will be proven correct, they should have no fear in participating in the process honestly. Historically they only cared about propaganda but I've seen some signs they me be getting more serious in the debate. We'll see. In my perfect world the IDers and creationists will play a useful critical role in the natural sciences. But if they do choose to be serious they will have to open themselves to criticism right back at 'em. We'll see if that ever happens.