What is a Fact?12-07-2012
What is a fact? Few more thorny questions exist. Consider this, from Hannah Arendt’s essay, “Truth and Politics:”
But do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all? Have not generations of historians and philosophers of history demonstrated the impossibility of ascertaining facts without interpretation, since they must first be picked out of a chaos of sheer happenings (and the principles of choice are surely not factual data) and then be fitted into a story that can be told only in certain perspective, which has nothing to do with the original occurrence?
Facts are constructed. They are not objective. And there is no clear test for what is a fact. Thus, when Albert Einstein was asked, how science can separate fact from fiction, brilliant hypotheses from nutty quackery, he answered: ‘There is no objective test.” Unlike rational truths that are true outside of experience and absolute, all factual truths are contingent. They might have been otherwise. That is one reason it is so hard to pin them down.
Steve Shapin reminds us of these puzzles in an excellent essay in this weeks London Review of Books. Shapin is reviewing a new book on Immanuel Velikovsky by Michael Gordin. Velikovsky, for those born since the 1960s, caused an uproar in the 1960s and 70s with his scientific claims that Venus was the result of a dislodged piece of Jupiter, that comets led to the parting of the Red Sea, that it dislodged the orbit of Mars threatening Earth, and caused the relocation of the North Pole, not to mention the showering of plagues of vermin onto the earth that nourished the Israelites in the desert.
Gordin’s book is about how American scientists went ballistic over Velikovsky. They sought to censor his work and schemed to prevent the publication of his book, Worlds in Collision, at the prestigious Macmillan press. At the center of the controversy was Harvard, where establishment scientists worked assiduously to discredit Velikovsky and stop the circulation of his ideas. [I am sensitive to such issues because I was also the target of such a suppression campaign. When my book The Gift of Science was about to be published by Harvard University Press, I received a call from the editor. It turns out an established scholar had demanded that HUP not publish my book, threatening to no longer review books for the press let alone publish with them. Thankfully, HUP resisted that pressure, for which I will always be grateful.]
For these Harvard scientists, Velikovsky was a charlatan peddling a dangerous pseudo science. The danger in Velikovsky’s claims was more than simple misinformation. It led, above all, to an attack on the very essence of scientific authority. What Velikovsky claimed as science flew in the face of what the scientific community knew to be true. He set himself up as an outsider, a dissident. Which he was. In the wake of totalitarianism, he argued that democratic society must allow for alternative and heretical views. The establishment, Velikovsky insisted, had no monopoly on truth. Let all views out, and let the best one win.
Shapin beautifully sums up the real seduction and danger lurking in Velikovsky’s work.
The Velikovsky affair made clear that there were radically differing conceptions of the political and intellectual constitution of a legitimate scientific community, of what it was to make and evaluate scientific knowledge. One appealing notion was that science is and ought to be a democracy, willing to consider all factual and theoretical claims, regardless of who makes them and of how they stand with respect to canons of existing belief. Challenges to orthodoxy ought to be welcomed: after all, hadn’t science been born historically through such challenges and hadn’t it progressed by means of the continual creative destruction of dogma? This, of course, was Velikovsky’s view, and it was not an easy matter for scientists in the liberal West to deny the legitimacy of that picture of scientific life. (Wasn’t this the lesson that ought to be learned from the experience of science in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?) Yet living according to such ideals was impossible – nothing could be accomplished if every apparently crazy idea were to be given careful consideration – and in 1962 Thomas Kuhn’s immensely influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions commended a general picture of science in which ‘dogma’ (daringly given that name) had an essential role in science and in which ‘normal science’ rightly proceeded not through its permeability to all sorts of ideas but through a socially enforced ‘narrowing of perception’. Scientists judged new ideas to be beyond the pale not because they didn’t conform to abstract ideas about scientific values or formal notions of scientific method, but because such claims, given what scientists securely knew about the world, were implausible. Planets just didn’t behave the way Velikovsky said they did; his celestial mechanics required electromagnetic forces which just didn’t exist; the tails of comets were just not the sorts of body that could dump oil and manna on Middle Eastern deserts. A Harvard astronomer blandly noted that ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy.'
It is hard not to read this account and not think about contemporary debates over global warming, Darwinism, and the fall of the World Trade Center. In all three cases, outsiders and even some dissident scientists have made arguments that have been loudly disavowed by mainstream scientists.
No one has done more to explore the claims of modern pseudo science than Naomi Oreskes. In her book Merchants of Doubt written with Erik Conway, Oreskes shows how “a small handful of men” could, for purely ideological reasons, sow doubt about the ‘facts’ regarding global warming and the health effects of cigarettes. In a similar vein, Jonathan Kay has chronicled the efforts of pseudo scientists to argue that there was no possible way that the World Trade Towers could have been brought down by jet fuel fires, thus suggesting and seeking to “prove” that the U.S. government was behind the destruction of 9/11.
Oreskes wants to show, at once, that it is too easy for politically motivated scientists to sow doubt about scientific fact, and also that there is a workable and effective way for the scientific community to patrol the border between science and pseudo science. What governs that boundary is, in Oreskes words, “the scientific consensus.” The argument that global warming is a fact rests on claims about the scientific method: value free studies, evaluated by a system of peer review, moving towards consensus. Peer review is, for Oreskes, “is a crucial part of science.” And yet, for those who engage in it know full well, peer review is also deeply political, subject to petty and also not so petty disputes, jealousies, and vendettas. For this and other reasons, consensus is, as Oreskes herself admits, not always accurate: “The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known.”
Just as Einstein said 50 years ago, in the matters of establishing scientific fact, there is no objective test. This is frustrating. Indeed, it can be dangerous, not only when pseudo scientists sow doubt about global warming thus preventing meaningful and necessary action. But also, the pervasive and persuasive claims of pseudo science sow cynicism that undermines the factual and truthful foundations of human life.
Arendt reminds us, with a clarity rarely equaled, that factual truth is always contingent. “Facts are beyond agreement and consent, and all talk about them—all exchanges of opinion based on correct information—will contribute nothing to their establishment.” Against the pseudo scientific claims of many, science is always a contingent and hypothetical endeavor, one that deals in hypotheses, agreement, and factual proof. Scientific truth is always empirical truth and the truths of science are, in the end, grounded in consensus.
The trouble here is that scientific truths must—as scientific—claim to be true and not simply an opinion. Science makes a claim to authority that is predicated not upon proof but on the value and meaningfulness of impartial inquiry. It is a value that is increasingly in question.
What the challenge of pseudo science shows is how tenuous scientific authority and the value placed on disinterested research really is. Such inquiry has not always been valued and there is no reason to expect it to be valued about partial inquiry in the future. Arendt suggests that the origin of the value in disinterested inquiry was Homer’s decision to praise the Trojans equally as he lauded the Achaeans. Never before, she writes, had one people been able to look “with equal eyes upon friend and foe.” It was this revolutionary Greek objectivity that became the source for modern science. For those who do value science and understand the incredible advantages it has bestowed upon modern civilization, it is important to recall that the Homeric disinterestedness is neither natural nor necessary. In the effort to fight pseudo science, we must be willing and able to defend just such a position and thus what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance” must be central to any defense of the modern scientific world.
When science loses its authority, pseudo science thrives. That is the situation we are increasingly in today. There are no objective tests and no clear lines demarcating good and bad science. And that leaves us with the challenge of the modern age: to pursue truth and establish facts without secure or stable foundations. For that, we need reliable guides whom we can trust. And for that reason, you should read Steven Shapin’s latest essay. It is your weekend read.