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Tuesday 1 May 2018

The Assumption

Thank you for that helpful contribution, Dr Zoidberg.
Pseudoscience, stupidity and wrong-headedness are some of my favourite topics. Over the years I've looked at the different flavours of wacky beliefs people hold, the way they express them, and the reasons they come to some truly bizarre conclusions. While true idiocy should not be disregarded, by and large even intelligent people can be guilty of wanton stupidity. This obviously includes me, so you have to take everything I say with that in mind.

But there are a couple of Aeon essays going around right now which I think go too far in this regard. Both make the same essential point : that fringe lunatics and the like are basically normal people, but with different - possibly much higher - standards of trust and objectivity than the rest of us. This is a comforting thought, because it means that "we don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude". They've just got the sources wrong, but are fundamentally open to rational argument and persuasion.

The essays are intelligent and persuasive, and the second in particular has many other points I entirely agree with. But this main point has a strong feel of being written by someone who has heard about loonies, but never actually gone and engaged with them. It might well apply to the silent majority of those who merely tacitly endorse fruitcake ideas - I certainly don't dispute there's some merit in it - but I doubt very much it applies to the vocal ringleaders.

So here I want to tackle a couple of important points. First I want to look at the underlying assumptions of science itself - not the messy process of actually doing science, but the most basic, fundamental assumptions of all. Then I'll see if these people are behaving in a way that is fundamentally compatible with scientific practise or if they reject this at a deeper, more fundamental level.

1) What is science made of ?

Another thing that helped prompt this post was a recent conservation with a very good friend of mine who happens to be a staunch atheist. He holds, essentially, that certain beliefs shouldn't be given the benefit of the doubt - that the scientific method must be correct almost by definition. Here I shall show what assumptions this rests on, but, much more fundamentally, why these premises are indeed (and can only ever be) assumptions, and why this is in fact a far more scientific approach in itself - and why it may not even be possible to do science if you don't make these assumptions.

To do this we'll need a basic working definition of science. Of course such a definition could easily take up an enormous amount of discussion by itself, so I'll just propose what I think is a useful, rough and ready description that should convey the essential meaning but might not stand up to rigorous philosophical scrutiny. Proof-reading this post when it was nearly done didn't reveal any obvious flaws, to me at least.

Science, I'd say, is the process of using rational methods to find out whatever is true about the universe. It doesn't necessarily always or entirely use rational methods (you can get lucky and literally dream up the correct answer), and likewise it doesn't always or entirely examine the real universe (you can construct theoretical models based on scientific principles but not expect them to apply to reality). I employ the word "process" in the definition because any process is unavoidably an extended, prolonged affair (not a discrete momentary act) and scientific examination can be incredibly complex. Yet if at some point a technique neither uses rational methods - if you've dreamed up or guessed an answer you still have to test it in a rational way - nor attempts to apply its findings to the real world, it is surely not science.

This definition is very broad, and arguably includes a lot of the so-called "humanities" subjects while excluding mathematics. You could, for instance, do a rational examination of a poem to analyse its sentence structure, or, oh, I don't know, a statistical examination of Plato. But in general I'd say that while there might be a scientific component to these topics, they also have other essential components of their own, such as subjective feelings and intuition. They could be seen as a mirror for science in that respect : they might not necessarily exclusively rely on emotions or internal reality, but they do require them at some point in their own procedures.

It should be apparent that this in no way disparages either science or the humanities, nor insists on firm boundaries between the two. They are both useful and valuable in their own fields, which sometimes overlap. Both can make use of (while being essentially distinct from) the other.

So what assumptions are implicit in this working definition ? Well, given the rather inexact nature of the definitions, the assumptions must be somewhat questionable as well. Still, this doesn't preclude an attempt at finding at least some of the underlying postulates on which the scientific method is founded. In less dedicated posts I've casually stated that science assumes the world is objective, measurable, and real, so let's use those as a starting point. Bear in mind that these assumptions apply only when someone is actually doing science, not necessarily all the time in everything they do. They do not have to be absolutely convinced of their unequivocal truth, they just have to (at the very least) accept and entertain these notions while engaging in scientific examination. That's what an assumption is, after all. I was also strongly reminded of this by this excellent online philosophy course, which really rams home the message that proof, in the strictest sense, is arguably impossible.

i) Objectivity

All forms of science, even those which examine the mind, are based around the notion that there is a world outside our heads. The world is, at least when we examine it, absolute. It does not depend on our own feelings and limited perceptions, except in that our own feelings and perceptions are part of the world. These may serve to limit our understanding, but they do not directly influence things beyond our direct, immediate, physical control. Being angry can cause us to smash things, but anger itself, when stripped of all its secondary effects on the body, causes no change except within our own minds.

Consider the alternative case in which the world was internal and that the only things which genuinely existed were our perceptions, if reality were nothing more than a dream, an illusion, or a simulation. Our thoughts, feelings, and truth would be indistinguishable. We could never know for sure if other people existed or if anything at all was truly independent of us. Reality could keep changing continuously and we'd have no way of knowing if our memories had changed. Two plus two could equal four, or five, or an exploding hippopotamus. There would be no reason whatsoever to presume the world was logical or meaningful.

That's the extreme case. A far more common alternative to the assumption of objectivity is that reality is a sort of objective illusion, which is internally largely and logically self-consistent. This shadow world is very much like our own, but because the physical laws which govern it are somewhat arbitrary and capricious, they can often be suspended. The world is occasionally haunted by ghosts, monsters, gods and demons with supernatural abilities, but most of the time logic prevails.

An even more extreme version has it that no such entities or other spooky phenomena exist and that the world is in fact basically the same as what we see, except that we're just a brain in a vat or a subroutine in a program. This is essentially pointless because there's no real difference between the observed and real worlds in that scenario except in matters of detail - if the observed world is illusory, there's not much reason to assume that brains or subroutines even exist externally, yet that is the usual presumption. But more on that later.

In The Matrix, the real world may be less pleasant than than the simulation but it's fundamentally the same - indeed it's based on a real, documented past. But there's no particular reason this should be the case : if absolutely everything is an illusion, what grounds do you have to suppose that reality operates logically ?
Objectivity itself is comprised, I think, of two other assumptions which do not always require each other. In its usual sense, what we mean by objectivity is that the world is both independent of and external to our thoughts and feelings. These are not quite the same thing. It's possible in principle to make an objective, logical, and even correct assessment of one's own internal feelings, all by oneself, without being influenced by those feelings - strictly speaking objectivity does not require externality, though often this makes things far easier. The externality of the world means that it exists outside our minds. This by itself does not require independence from our minds, since conceptually the world could be external but still directly dependent on our beliefs.

It's important to realise that being objective is not the same as correct. For example, one can construct a weather forecast, or a horoscope, that's entirely objective but completely wrong : neither independence or externality are sufficient for correctness; objective procedure is not at all the same as objectively correct. But a world that is by its very nature not objective cannot be analysed scientifically at all : you can't even have objective procedures, much less correctness, if reality is itself not objective.

So why is the objectivity of the world an assumption ? For the very simple reason that it's impossible to prove it's true. The conceptual possibility of the alternatives is itself sufficient to discredit any notion that the objectivity of the world is provable. If you were being continuously manipulated by Descartes' evil demon, or living in an even more complex and convincing version of the Matrix, you'd have absolutely no way to know about it, let alone demonstrate this to others. Given these two possibilities, that the world is or is not objective, we've no choice but to assume one or the other - there is absolutely nothing compelling us to choose one over the other save our own preferences. But for science, we must assume the former. To do otherwise is to replace objectivity with magic, but to not recognise that an assumption has been made is to fall victim to dogma, absolutism, and preclude the legitimate possibility that the world is fundamentally unscientific. And excluding possibilities without evidence is intrinsically an unscientific procedure, which is why our only hope lies in recognising the assumption that we're making. This doesn't mean we can't fervently believe our assumption is correct, we simply have to acknowledge that it's an unprovable belief.

If the boundary between objective, scientific reality and subjectivity is somewhat blurred by the idea of internally consistent illusions, it is at its fuzziest when dealing with quantum effects. There are, in fact, variants of the subjective nature of reality that are entirely reputable within the scientific mindset. The two most prominent interpretations of the weirdness of quantum reality are the Copenhagen Interpretation and the Many Worlds Interpretation.

The former essentially says that observation determines reality, which, even if not excluding the role of purely mechanistic observations, necessitates a role for conscious observers as well (though this does not forbid conscious observers from themselves being only a peculiar variety of mechanical constructs). The latter interpretation says that there is no unique reality and that all possibilities occur. If conscious beings have any sort of free will, then in this case their choices determine their experienced reality, but no more or less than any other possibilities arising from purely physical mechanisms.

Thus both have a role for minds, albeit rather weakly, and while both are considered extremely controversial (and sometimes deeply unsatisfying), both are also generally accepted as legitimate scientific philosophies. Neither suggest any direct role for emotion, only observation and choice. Most importantly of all, neither say that our subjective, internal reality is what directly shapes the external reality - they are simply weirder and more elaborate pronouncements that our interaction with the external world controls it, though in a very much stronger way than through simple physical control of our bodies. One may argue from other reasons why these ideas are not scientific, but purely from the perspective of objectivity, in my opinion they are sufficient.

ii) Measurability

The external, independent world must also be measurable. The world itself must be fundamentally capable of being measured, if only in principle - practical difficulties do not concern us here. And the observer themselves must be capable, with sufficient effort, to be able to make those measurements accurately. Of course this does not preclude them from making errors, but their own perceptions must be generally reliable enough that they can correct themselves meaningfully. Repeat observations of deterministic phenomena may give rare outlying values because the observer had an angry cat suddenly drop on their head from time to time, but the usual state of affairs is that their measurements are reasonably accurate. Errors can, in principle, be corrected through repeat observations.

Again quantum effects might seem to derail this pleasant idea, and to some extent this is true. The Uncertainty Principle does not forbid us from conducting accurate measurements, but it does limit our precision. In some circumstances, we can only give probabilistic estimates rather than hard values. It doesn't say that we can't measure things at all, only that we can't know their values to arbitrary precision. Which in general is also true of classical physics, since our measuring equipment is inherently limited anyway. That a particle might actually be a probability cloud is, from the perspective of pure measurement, not actually so different from us not being able to measure it with infinite precision and accuracy.

Clearly though, not everything is measurable. We cannot fly into the centre of the Sun or a neutron star and report back, because we'd die - and anything entering a black hole is doomed. However, with the notable and important exception of singularities, all of these are measurable - we assume - in principle. That is, their substances possess definite or at least probabilistic properties. Only singularities seem to defy this basic requirement, where conventional theories lead to infinities that are by definition impossible to measure. Most people believe this points to a flaw and/or incompleteness in the theory rather than reality having some rare exceptions which are inherently unmeasurable.

Simulation of what it would look like inside a black hole. Though the properties of space and time start to become fundamentally different within the event horizon, it's only at the singularity itself where they truly break down.
The role of the observer in this ties back to the idea of objectivity. Although they do have moods, biases, and incorrect ideas (and these internal constructs are themselves not necessarily measurable), this does not influence the external world directly. We cannot know for certain that each and every measurement was made correctly, but we instead have to assume that they were done with reasonable accuracy unless we have good evidence to the contrary. We again can't be sure that an evil demon isn't manipulating reality, or that we aren't living in an illusion with our memories being continuously replaced from moment to moment. We have to assume that this isn't true, that reality isn't so transient and our own skills are not so deeply at fault.

Without this assumption we have absolutely no basis for any of our conclusions at all. An unmeasurable world would have no basis for comparison, no justification for logic, and would be utterly inscrutable to analysis by any kind of rational methods. We have to assume that the world is measurable and our measurements are meaningful, otherwise the scientific analysis is impossible. And again, this is unavoidably an assumption because by definition we have no way to prove that this is really the case.

(Longer follow-up article to this one here)

iii) Reality

Thus far we have a world which is largely external to and independent of our own subjective beliefs, save some small overlap wherein we, as part of that world, are able to influence it. The world is measurable and our own ability to measure it is generally accurate. If we open the box to examine Schrodinger's Cat, we might be influencing the state of the cat or selecting which universe we inhabit (though surely, as someone once quipped, it doesn't take the creation of entire universe to kill one cat), but in both cases we still have an objective and measurable reality - even if our measurements are neither always complete, precise, or accurate. Our perception is limited, but not wholly wrong.

But do we really have to assume that this external world is in some sense real ? Obviously something does exist. In principle we could be living in a fantasy constructed inside the true reality, and if it was as self-consistent as it appears to be, then we could scientifically analyse the nature of that fantasy without being aware that it was not, in that strict sense, real. The assumption that we are in the "true" reality is one of convenience, otherwise our entire analysis is meaningless as it tells us nothing about the truth of the universe - which is the explicit goal of science.

I suppose if you were happy enough to analyse a fantasy, you could get away with rejecting this assumption, but the point is that the fact we are in the "ground state" of reality has to be an assumption. It cannot be proven. This is subtly distinct from the notion that the world we see is objective, since we could in principle inhabit a world which is indeed external to ourselves and independent of our minds but still, in effect, someone else's fantasy. The assumption that our observations are of something real gives our findings an important additional level of meaning, since it follows that we are understanding what's really going on - not just studying the elaborate playpen constructed for us.

That said, it is possible to scientifically analyse a fantasy. Theorists do this with numerical models all the time, yet eventually they expect their results to be compared and contrasted with observations. If those observations are themselves another model, then in what sense have we made a meaningful comparison ? I would say that comparing two models to each other is a qualitatively different activity to comparisons of models with reality - even though the operational procedures might be identical. If you don't know which one is real, it's impossible to say which one is better in absolute terms. You can only make relative comparisons, which are not the same thing at all. So while this might be the least important of the assumptions underlying science, in my view it is still a necessary one.

Combining these three assumptions raises an interesting philosophical question which I shall only mention in passing : where do our imaginary, immeasurable mental constructs - justice, duty, mercy, the tooth fairy, that sort of thing - fit into all these ? They clearly exist in some very broad sense, but obviously not the ordinary physical one. For that matter we could argue that mathematics itself - the foundation of measurement ! - is a mental construct that just happens to apply to the external world. And where does the external world end and the internal world begin ? What, when you really get right down to it, exactly is a thought ? How does an electrical current in the brain become something so much more than that ? I for one have absolutely no effin' clue, so it's way easier to just say, "External world = real; Internal world = something else. Bam. Done, bitches."

All of this analysis suggests at least one additional assumption that I feel fairly confident about.

iv) Logic

This is a running theme in the above discussion but has not been stated directly. If the world is independent of and external to our minds, measurable and real, this still does not preclude it from being fundamentally illogical. It could be a mass of daffodils one minute and full of screaming badgers the next. At any stage it would be measurable, but it would be proceeding in a completely illogical fashion (unless someone can devise a logical theory of spontaneous badger generation, but the deeper point should be clear).

Therefore the assumption that the world proceeds logically, with cause and effect, is distinct from the others. Mathematics, we assume, does apply in the real world given the appropriate numerical parameters and an accompanying account of the physical processes. Our understanding of both maths and physics need not be complete in order for us to assume that the world is indeed governed by them. We need not even fully understand logic itself (certain quantum phenomena and time travel to the past may be regarded as unsolved problems), but a universe that proceeds on capricious, arbitrary whims or without some kind of underlying reason to it cannot possibly be analysed in a scientific way.

Reason, of course, is a loaded term, often conflated with deliberate purpose. Certainly the ancient philosophers (and the religious today) thought that an ordered universe was impossible without a divine will to control it. Modern scientific thinking tends to the opposite view : that a potentially capricious supernatural deity could lead to disorder and chaos, and that to suppose they had some grand scheme in mind is an assumption that science is justifiably unwilling to grant.

No, reason in this context really means something far more basic - the mere notion of causation itself. Nothing happens, we assume, without something to cause it. Hume pointed out that we cannot actually prove causation in the very strictest sense - we only directly observe correlation. This makes our notion of a logical, coherent universe another assumption, though only in the sense that we cannot absolutely prove something totally unpredictable won't happen at any moment. Few people indeed would grant that causation itself is on unstable ground, though in the most rigorous sense it isn't actually proven.

Note that science also, in a strict sense, does not preclude there being an intelligent, careful being directing everything, thus being the root cause of absolutely everything - it neither rejects nor accepts this possibility but simply ignores it as irrelevant. Instead we only assume that cause and effect do actually operate, that one thing can cause another, that nothing happens without some cause - though that can frequently be fantastically difficult to determine.

v) Finite

Thus far I think my series of assumptions are all reasonably safe, and that though some might contest certain aspects of what I've described, few scientists indeed would disagree with the main points. For this final point, I'm likely venturing into far more suspect territory.

We do not know for certain that the Universe is finite in spatial extent. There is however very compelling evidence that is is finite in time and expanding, strongly implying that it is also spatially limited (though not necessarily bounded). If true, the content of the Universe must also be finite, though enormous. In such a case it becomes easy to understand what we mean by a fraction - half of all the stars might be red and half might be blue, the fraction of stars with planets is some number, etc., because the total number of things is fixed.

It's far less obvious if we can assign fractions in the case of an infinite universe - the measure problem. While some infinities are bigger than others, and you can do some mathematical operations on infinities, defining fractions turns out to be especially difficult - perhaps even impossible. Just as with singularities discussed earlier, infinity introduces an unmeasurable aspect to the universe, with all the problems that entails. Recall that singularities are generally supposed to not really be of infinite density as relativity predicts, but indicate instead some flaw in the theory that has yet to be resolved (whilst granting that the theory may be useful and correct in other cases). In the case of an infinite universe, or multiverse of universes, this escape clause is not possible. Thus an infinite universe becomes unscientific because it would be fundamentally unmeasurable.

Worse, its contents would become unmeasurable. A probability value is a type of fraction, and if you can't have fractions, you can't assign probabilities. If you flip an infinite number of coins, an infinite number of them will land heads up, another infinite set will land tails up, another infinite set will land edge on, and yet another infinite set will spontaneously quantum tunnel through the floor... Events that normally happen frequently in the quantum world but that have insanely small probabilities at macroscopic scales would not longer be limited by their fantastic unlikeliness. In some parts of the Universe broken eggs would reform into their original structures, water would freeze at boiling point, and the Loch Ness Monster would eat everybody.

Oh, you could save us from this hellish death of causation easily enough, but the price would be high indeed. We could, by an incredible fluke, just happen to be living in a region in which everything proceeded exactly as though causation meant something when in fact it was all due to random chance. Whilst such a scenario would still concede that the world was objective, it would utterly abandon any notions of measurability, logic, and in a certain plausible sense it would also relinquish the idea that it was real : how can you say which one of an infinite number of absolutely identical objects is the real one ? "Real" and "copy" cease to mean anything at that point. Everything we value most about the scientific endeavour would be gone.

Therefore I say that the Universe should be assumed to be finite. If we don't, we risk making science both pointless and impossible. Once again though, we cannot really prove the Universe isn't infinite in extent (or, strictly speaking, in time), so we must take this as an assumption. It's also important to note that infinities can be merely bothersome in some cases and even useful in others. The problems only occur when infinity is used to abuse probability, such as in the Many Worlds scenario where literally everything only ever happens by chance. Similar abuses are possible in samples which are merely very large, if one resorts to saying that an unlikely event only happens through chance and does not seek an underlying physical explanation. Great care must be taken to distinguish between truly random processes (in which exploiting the effects of chance is legitimate) and physical processes which occur repeatedly (in which case chance plays a role, but physics must also be accounted for).

An infinite, fractal or otherwise repeating universe could perhaps be made logical if the more probabilistic elements of quantum theory could be rendered back to something strictly deterministic. Like a sine wave or the Mandelbrot Set, such a universe need not contain necessarily everything conceivable, or random events happening without cause, but only feature endless variations on a theme. Some events permitted by quantum theory that are currently thought to be fantastically unlikely would have to be made truly impossible for this to happen. The size of the universe at any given moment would have to be finite in order to solve Olber's paradox, and you'd probably need some sort of cyclic process in order to prevent it either expanding or collapsing to oblivion. The problem of unique identity would still remain, and since we don't have a handle on the underlying cause of causation itself, I'm not convinced there really would be a way to prevent ludicrous events happening for no reason. I treat this possibility with the utmost caution.

Can these assumptions be disproven ? 

I've stated elsewhere that scientific theories can disprove their own more superficial own assumptions, such as the existence of dark matter or the age of the Universe - provided of course one remembers that assumptions are being made. What about these much more fundamental ideas ? Recall my attempt at a definition of science : the process of using rational methods to find out whatever is true about the universe. If we make all of the above assumptions, and then conduct our scientific inquiries in accordance with the vast array of other scientific principles and practises we need to carry out an investigation, is it ever possible that we could actually disprove any of them ? Could science actually disprove itself ?

I believe the answer is yes. There is little point in carrying out a scientific inquiry if you limit the conclusions you're allowed, though of course some conclusions are very much harder to reach than others. But we probably could disprove all of the above assumptions, thereby ending the use and value of science. Again, we'd have to remember that these are assumptions in order to be able to question them at all, but, being so fundamental to the scientific process itself, only a fool would demand anything less than the very best evidence possible before they decided that issues so basic ought to be scrutinised to explain their apparently incompatible observations. It would be an act of truly monumental stupidity to declare that because an observation can be explained by abandoning these foundations of science, that they are necessarily flawed - literally anything could be explained in this way. What we absolutely must not do, however, is to declare things to be impossible because our assumptions forbid them. That would be the most unscientific approach of all.

Here are some ways I suggest we might be able to disprove our assumptions, at least in principle.
  1. Objectivity. The independence of the external world could be disproven if someone's thoughts and feelings could be demonstrated to control it without any apparent causal connection. The externality could be disproven if their imaginings and reality could not be distinguished, if their thoughts could become physical constructs at will.
  2. Measurability. Like the single standing stone of Lancre which is so magical no-one is able to count it, measurability could be disproven through the existence of an unmeasurable object. That is, under conditions where measuring devices survive and function correctly, something must be shown to be unmeasurable (giving different results to the same observers using the same methods), be that either probability measurements or more definite numbers.
  3. Reality. If the visible external Universe suddenly stopped existing, or a supernatural phenomena such as a ghost or a demon was well-documented, this would be powerful evidence that what we generally observe is not the deepest level of reality. In the latter case it would have to be shown that the observations really do defy logic. In the former, in which an individual or group awake from a dream, then provided the "real" world was shown to be at least as coherent as this one, then there'd be (at least) no way of knowing which one was real, and good grounds to doubt that either of them were the ground state.
  4. Logic. As above, the existence of phenomena inexplicable by causation would satisfy this one. Most supernatural phenomena would fit this category, though some might be possible to explain rationally.
  5. Finite. This one is much harder. In principle in an infinite universe we could be inhabiting a region where all of the other assumptions permanently appear correct by chance alone. While we can say that observations are consistent with a spatially and temporally finite universe, we strictly speaking can't rule out that either of those might be deceptive. It is even possible that both are infinite, given that the outrageously improbable events allowed by quantum mechanics must occur somewhere in an infinite realm. I think it might be genuinely impossible to really prove that this one either way. The situation would improve considerably if we could somehow presume that the rest of the universe was similar to our own and evolving in a similar, logical and consistent manner. 
I write this very much in a contemporary context. As hinted at, it's unlikely that it's a black and white case of science being valid only if these assumptions are correct, but useless if any of them are not. In the past the logical and rational philosophers accepted mind as intrinsic to the ordering of the cosmos (it would be a step too far to ever call this a scientific assumption, however); if we constructed a virtual reality that was as convincing as this one we'd have to concede that our reality was unlikely to be the true one; if the measure problem could be solved through advancements in mathematics then infinity would no longer pose such a challenge; maybe it would even be possible to devise an alternative to logic itself. It's a fascinating question as to how far the modern scientific approach can be warped before we'd have to say that it was no longer providing the same basic intent or functionality as it does currently. But that is beyond the scope of the current post.

While I was writing this, The Conversation produced a nice little article in like vein which will bring us on to the second topic. This article points out that one flawed argument used by those who deny (some or all) scientific findings exploits the assumptive nature of science : if you don't really know anything without making these assumptions, then your inherent uncertainty, they say makes my position stronger. The error is that questioning these most basic assumptions actually makes any other counter-position possible, which is very different from saying that it makes any one particular counter-position more likely. If you don't know anything, then anything is possible. Why does the Flat Earth get more of a claim to correctness than an invisible jelly monster that's controlling everyone's minds using insane sausages ?

This alludes strongly to the power endowed in science by these assumptions, which I shall return to later, without undermining its even more fundamental basis of philosophy (which, as a quest to discover how we can know anything at all, is granted by its very nature much greater freedom to interrogate the principles of science - it does not have to automatically accept them itself). If, and I stress if, you can shift the arena of debate into the rational or irrational sectors depending on the issue at hand, then all sides are forced to acknowledge the assumptions they're making. This is a powerful asset in any debate. So now we should turn to the second topic, and whether this or other approaches can help those who accept the scientific world view in operating with those who don't.

2) What about the people who challenge these assumptions ?

So we've established a not wholly unreasonable definition of science and a set of assumptions on which it relies. We've shown that these are indeed assumptions, at least given our present understanding. But it's absolutely to vital to remember that within those assumptions, science is fully capable of establishing its conclusions with extreme confidence and even exact proofWithin these assumptions, but only within these assumptions, and accepting that it is neither complete nor perfect, the scientific method is an undeniable work of astonishing achievement.

What, then, of those who reject those conclusions and the arguably related phenomena of people with other (e.g. political) beliefs that make no damn sense ? Are these deep, intelligent thinkers who have thought carefully about the basis of science and then rejected it ? Or are they are just bloody mad ?

Nutters versus the truth

While the first of the Aeon essays is concerned explicitly with pseuodscientific, irrational beliefs, the second is more focused on the political arena and people not hearing opposing viewpoints. Yet both claim that their respective groups of apparent nutcases are actually just people with different standards of truth. They state that these people behave rationally and sensibly, but simply reject certain sources and insist on more rigorous levels of proof than the rest of us. I shall concentrate on the second essay, as it goes into considerably greater depth than the first. I apologise to the author if they were more strictly intending their essay to apply only to the political arena, but I do think that bullshit and post-truthism result from common causes both in politics and pseudoscience.
We don’t have to attribute a complete disinterest in facts, evidence or reason to explain the post-truth attitude. We simply have to attribute to certain communities a vastly divergent set of trusted authorities. Listen to what it actually sounds like when people reject the plain facts – it doesn’t sound like brute irrationality. One side points out a piece of economic data; the other side rejects that data by rejecting its source. They think that newspaper is biased, or the academic elites generating the data are corrupt.
The trouble is that if you actually do go and engage with people, you will find that they generally are being wholly irrational, and all too often it sounds very clearly like brute, outright stupidity. In my experience hardly any of them are really more concerned with being objective than the rest of us. Flat Earthers, in particular, tend to be religiously motivated, and like Creationists, will automatically disregard anything from any source whatsoever that contradicts their existing view. Even their own senses cannot be trusted, because, to be blunt, "God did it". Such a reasoning is by its very nature not objective in the slightest : indeed, it is an explicit denial of objectivism.

Other crackpot viewpoints tend to be of similar ilk, albeit with superficially different motivations : they tend to try to alter the facts to fit their views rather than the other way around - committing that unpardonable sin of thinking that what they already know is a fact, and so anything that contradicts it must be wrong by definition. They cherry pick to an absurd degree, holding whatever supports their view to be unimpeachable but anything else to be obviously wrong, with little consistency as to which source supports or disproves them. But the essay has a strange and unjustified insistence that they behave otherwise :
And, in many ways, echo-chamber members are following reasonable and rational procedures of enquiry. They’re engaging in critical reasoning. They’re questioning, they’re evaluating sources for themselves, they’re assessing different pathways to information. They are critically examining those who claim expertise and trustworthiness, using what they already know about the world. It’s simply that their basis for evaluation – their background beliefs about whom to trust – are radically different. They are not irrational, but systematically misinformed about where to place their trust.
Well, no, not really. They may well have a capacity to process information to form and evaluate conclusions in a logical manner, and I'm sure at least some of them really are, in effect, simply victims of chronic misinformation. But I think it would be a terrible mistake - or at best an oversimplification - to infer that this is what happens in the majority of cases.

Those who aren't interested in challenging their own views are not really being rational at all (or if you prefer, they are not engaging in critical thinking). If you go around only seeking out sources which support your existing view and insist that others must be discredited by definition of their obviously wrong conclusions, without examining the reasoning behind those conclusions, you are hardly being rational. You have already formed a viewpoint and are being an evangelical activist. You are not interested in the truth unless you actively examine contrasting viewpoints and try your best to give them a fair hearing. These people aren't "engaging in critical thinking" in the slightest - there's no real skeptical inquiry going on, they are simply rejecting sources based on their content.

Scientists behaving unscientifically : how to engage a scientist in debate

To be scientific about opposing viewpoints, you have to try and search for your underlying assumptions - ideally the deepest assumptions of all, ones you might not even be consciously aware of - and examine their effect on your conclusions. Scientists hold even empirical measurements as potentially subject to revaluation*, but they don't reject (though they may not immediately entirely trust) them because they don't like them. In contrast, continuously rejecting a conclusion on the basis of what it says without ever examining how it was formed is an entirely different, wholly unscientific approach.

* You might wonder, then, how there can be any facts at all in such a system. At a deep level, we might say that instead of the measurement itself being a fact, it was only a fact that someone claimed to have reported a measurement of a particular value. You can probably see that if we took this too far we would indeed be left with nothing - how do we ever trust anyone's measurements ? This again alludes to measurability as an assumption, and the shallower, more practical consequence is that we simply have to trust that values were reported correctly (see below).

Note the emphasis in that last point. While thus far I've largely been describing ideals, now comes the time when we must temper them with practicality. That is, no-one has unlimited skills, resources, or patience. Someone only need apply the assumptions and goals of science when they are actively seeking to undertake science, not when they're deciding what to eat for dinner. Likewise, if you're arguing with someone on the internet, you have no good reason to feel entitled that they should respond as a paragon of scientific virtue if your argument defies all scientific principles.

Furthermore, scientists do not go around questioning absolutely everything the whole time, because that is unproductive and stupid. It is absolutely integral to the scientific process, though not an innate feature of science itself, that some ideas can be rejected after suitable examination. Without this, progress would be impossible. Had we possession of some perfect artificial intelligence, we might just continuously feed it data and it would continuously re-evaluate all conclusions, but alas we have only our meagre, mortal brains to actually understand what the data means. It's a consequence of the assumption of measurability that we simply have to trust that measurements are generally reported correctly.

Questioning the very basis of science is a fine thing in a philosophy lecture or even in the much lesser medium of a dedicated blog post, but you can't expect everyone to do this either constantly or on demand. Within the scientific world view there are some conclusions which are very much stronger than others, and if you suddenly come unasked out of nowhere and challenge them with little or no evidence, you can't expect a warm and welcoming reception. Scientific conclusions are hard-won, and it is sheer folly to abandon them at the slightest provocation. Furthermore, individual scientists very often do hold those basic assumptions as ideological beliefs, which you can't very well expect them to alter on your say-so, but more on that in a bit.

So what if you do want to go and engage a scientist in an open discussion ? By far and away the best means to challenge them is the conventional arena of scientific debate : the peer-reviewed publication. This sounds pretty extreme, but it's the best method to be be taken seriously. It is, after all, how mainstream conclusions were formed in the first place. In some ways it's an astonishing level of double standards to demand that you can circumvent this as though you had a note from mummy.

But far more common, in my judgement, are people who aren't out to actively discredit science, nor are they genuine pseudoscientists or highly intelligent people who for whatever reason have got some wrong-headed notion stuck in their brains. Most people just aren't that interested. Rather, all they want is a bit of speculation and perhaps some insight into something they've got a passing interest in; they don't have the same level of expert knowledge, but they are at least somewhat curious about other possibilities. They may have a preference for one over the other but not necessarily a dogmatic conviction. Or, as the old saying goes, when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Most people don't need to be hammered, they need to be listened to and engaged using techniques of reasoning. It would be absurd to expect such people to suddenly spend years of their life learning things they have only a passing interest in, and equally preposterous to dismiss them completely - that should be reserved for the most extreme morons who really are rabidly anti-science. Great care must be taken to distinguish between people behaving (temporarily or chronically) anti-scientifically, saying that the principles of science are wrong, and unscientifically, where they say that they are merely inapplicable.

Therefore, if you want to engage in the more common but less rigorous debate with strangers on the internet, the premise and informality of discussion needs to be stated. I discovered this first hand not so long ago*, and could have saved a lot of bother if I'd paid more careful attention. The poor bloke was at pains to state that he didn't want me to accept something as true, but just assume it was for the sake of discussion.

* The Google Plus link may disappear. The original article is here, but it was mainly the discussion I wanted to preserve. Perhaps it's best lost though, as it became uncivil.

Being incredibly dense, I didn't realise this until he basically shouted it at me with a megaphone. Finally the light bulb moment occurred and I realised that I could proceed without professing some belief I didn't hold. I felt both assured that I was not going to be subsequently held hostage to my idle, frivolous speculations in the future, but was only engaging in an enjoyable, rewarding form of play : whilst entertaining the possibility of a different world view, I wasn't being asked to abandon my own. Had this chap proceeded in the more usual way of mouthing off about dogmatic, closed-minded scientists not listening to opposing viewpoints, it would have been just another slanging match; insisting that one already knows the answer will cause scientists, just like everyone else, to become defensive. It also helped that I already thought of the instigator as a basically decent guy who wasn't on an anti-science crusade.

Dealing with different conclusions

Another scientific dispute settled with brutality and shocking violence.
As regards both alternative scientific theories and political viewpoints, it is certainly possible to reach radically different conclusions based on the same data; I don't mean to suggest that anyone deviating from the scientific consensus (or indeed my own strongly left-liberal political leanings) is being a moron. Far from it. For example, of the people who regularly engage on my threads, I think just about every single damn one of them has got at least one opinion on which I think they're being really quite thick. This doesn't mean I don't like them, because, you see, the reverse is also true : I don't think I entirely disagree with any of them. Everyone's got something useful to say about something. And yes, I'm sure quite a few of them think that on a least a few issues I'm behaving moronically - and of course some fraction of this will be correct. You know what ? That's fine. We don't have to "agree to disagree". We can simply disagree, and still be friends. Unless you're a Nazi, that is.

Now this doesn't mean everyone is going to eventually come to the same conclusions or hold no moral convictions or ideals whatsoever; this, as the second Aeon article points out, would be "more than we could reasonably expect of anybody". You can't expect everybody to hold rational views about everything unless you're a total plonker. But, it's good practise to remember that some people disagree because they too are critical, rational thinkers who've taken the time and trouble to examine issues in detail, but that doesn't oblige you to agree with them. All that can be reasonably expected of a genuine truth seeker is that, circumstance and time permitting, they engage in a sincere effort to find the truth and honestly question their existing views.

For example, I've got followers (and in turn follow) people with whom I profoundly disagree regarding, say, Brexit, gun control, abortion, religion, capitalism, gender equality, UFOs, free speech, etc. I don't think most of these people are lesser idiots who are stubbornly refusing to see reason, I just disagree with them. That said, there are some views and combinations of views which are red flags. I'm unlikely to befriend someone who disagrees with me on all of the above issues (there's no point in just constantly having an argument), and there are some views so utterly stupid that I would seriously question the intelligence of anyone holding them, just as I would if someone told me that water isn't wet*. I think it's both reasonable and unavoidable to have some beliefs that just won't budge.

* Let's have no smart-alecy BS about wetness being perception, thankyouverymuch.

Recognising when things are hopeless

All that being true, I find it undeniable that some people are virtually lost causes, unless one is prepared to invest a truly enormous amount of effort into changing their minds. The second Aeon essay makes the important distinction that there are two kinds of limiting thought bubbles that people fall into, though I prefer my own terminology to describe them.

The simplest kind of bubble is one in which opposing viewpoints are not present. This is what I would call an echo chamber-: you're just hearing the same ideas repeated. Other ideas are excluded and never enter your social circle, not necessarily because you're attacking them but because you simply ignore or aren't even aware of them. Even the wisest people of all can only process the information they have access to.

The second kind of bubble is more sinister. Members of this are more like cultists : it's not that they merely disregard or even attack other viewpoints, but they attack other people because they hold opposing views. Those inside this kind of filter bubble are already aware of the opposing arguments but reject them. They do listen, but they take alternative views as evidence of the bias of the other side and do not ever entertain the possibility that they might be correct. In effect they have been inoculated against outside beliefs, allowing them to hear them but never accept them, even provisionally. They have made a far deeper ideological shift - they are so convinced they already know the facts, that anything challenging those facts is wrong by definition. The essay goes on to describe how it is possible, but exceptionally difficult, to reason with such people.

Do scientists sometimes fall into in such bubbles ? Inevitably yes, including the second. Even within science there are different modes of thinking at work. The best kind, in my view, is of a philosophical nature - a position for once which is neither at the extremes nor in the middle of the spectrum. These scientists sometimes stop to consider their underlying assumptions, the nature of the reality in which they operate, and entertain opposing viewpoints from time to time for the sake of curiosity. The curious, philosophical scientist is never stuck for very long with a dogmatic conviction, though they may weight some possibilities more strongly than others, and few if any are always questioning everything - that really would lead to being so open-minded your brains fall out. It's just that they are able and willing to do so from time to time.

The more sinister kind of thought is scientism. These kinds of scientists can be extremely intelligent and skilled at processing data to form a conclusion. They may even be genuinely curious in certain matters. But they are rarely of a philosophical inclination; they do not stop to consider their underlying assumptions or even admit they are making assumptions at all - their conviction of the five assumptions discussed earlier is so strong that they think of them as factual, and therefore anything going against them is wrong by definition.

There is a middle ground, of course. Such people accept the basic assumption of science as assumptions, but are disinterested in ever examining them. They say that propositions which violate these assumptions are inherently unscientific, and therefore it's beyond the remit of science to study them. They stop short of actually attacking unscientific ideas and world views because that holds no appeal to them either. This perspective is closest to the scientific approach itself, but arguably not as beneficial as the more philosophically-minded scientist.

Discussion serves multiple purposes

While in any debate it's very bad form to attack your opponent rather than their argument, it's nonetheless important to establish the nature of the person you're interacting with and the intention driving the discussion on all sides*, including your own. The latter isn't always obvious. For instance, for as long as I can remember I've been asking my mum questions and sometimes I don't agree with her answers. Her invariable, legitimate response has always been : "well why did you ask me then ?". After several decades, a lot of higher education and philosophical ponderings, I think I may finally have an answer.

* While it's worthwhile to be aware of the different ideals of how to respond to something you disagree with, this won't help if you don't also understand who you're dealing with. The idea that "small minds discuss people" is nonsense. Don't let the need to avoid insulting the other side prohibit you from trying to understand them.

In this context there are three sorts of discussion. One of these is education : the person asking a question wants an answer and expects the other person has it. They accept that they themselves don't already know the answer and want to learn what it is, requiring an external source to provide it or instruct them how they might find out. People often tend to assume that's why people ask questions in the first place, but this isn't always so - hence my mum's mild indignation. If the question isn't asked, or the debate is not entered, in a spirit of true and free inquiry, then it's not acceptable to give any-old answer. It's only in the mode where one side presumes the other has a greater knowledge and understanding that they surrender their own right to examine the response.

The second sort of discussion is where someone already believes they have the answer or at least a part of it. They might be asking further questions to evaluate their own (self) knowledge against other people, seeking to establish if their (own) views are consistent. They may also be unconsciously aware that they already hold a position on something, but they are not actually cognisant of what it is. This discussion is one of self-discovery, to raise their deeper view to a more conscious level. It might also be that the person already has all the necessary mental equipment and inner beliefs in place to form a position, but they are lacking some knowledge to fully formulate it, and they want another person's more developed opinion to help them construct their own. The point is that people can be participating in this kind of investigation without even being aware of it - and often the unfortunate matriarch will be equally clueless as to what's going on. It's certainly not the default assumption usually adopted during a discussion. While I was deep in my readings of Plato, I tried on a few occasions to actually participate in discussions like this. But, not being quite able to articulate what I was doing, I stupidly forgot to attempt to, making the conversations helpful but with more ruffled feathers than I intended.

(Of course there's another more trivial interpretation of why people ask questions and reject answers : they may not know the right answer, but they know enough to determine which one is wrong. If I ask why the sky is blue, and you say it's because it's full of smurfs, then I'm justified in rejecting your explanation even though I myself might not know the actual reason. I'd obviously overestimated your intellectual prowess.)

So long as one is aware of the purpose, the first two sorts of discussion can be highly productive. However the third sort, which is very common, is much less useful : activism. The first two types occur between the sorts of people who are, at least at an unconscious and basic level, willing to change their minds. The latter happens when someone has already made up their mind and wants to promote their own viewpoint, with no expectation that someone will seek or be able to persuade them in the process. They are explicitly saying, "here's what I think and why you should agree with me, I don't need to think about it myself any more"*. This mode of thinking is not wholly awful, but it is very difficult to change someone's opinion on that particular matter.

* Nothing is more irritating than clickbaity internet articles that do this. There's a world of difference between saying, "here are the facts and some interpretations, draw your own conclusions", "here's what I think about this", and, explicitly, "here's why you should think the same as me". Persuasion is respectable goal, but such an obvious declaration smacks of propaganda and devaluing disagreement. Strong convictions are best expressed implicitly, unless you at least make an effort to be tactful towards your opponents.

Activists are tough. Yet, if you are convinced that their viewpoint is wrong and needs to be dismantled, you could begin by undermining the factual foundations of their conclusions. Starting by attacking their ideology is rarely a good idea - this is usually a core part of a person's identity, and their very physiology is telling them not to believe you. Paradoxically, while people don't like explicitly being told what to think, they can be tremendously vulnerable to manipulation. A summary of some techniques can be found here. In brief : tackle the "facts" they think are true which have lead them to their own conclusions and beliefs, and let them come to their own conclusions independently (or at least think they have). If at all possible, don't leave a gap - argue for uncertainty, but present possible alternatives without enforcing them. Try and understand their deeper beliefs before attempting to change their more superficial conclusions. You may not have to shift their more valued ideology at all, if you can demonstrate that an alternative conclusion is compatible with it. Examples can be found here.

All this shows why discussions about post-truth and bullshit are so important. If people don't even care about the facts, then arguing with them rationally is useless. Most probably, some do and some don't. It's not that those who don't can't be reasoned with, it's just that you need to use more emotive techniques for them - otherwise they will view you as a cold, unfeeling monster. Conversely, appealing only to emotion to those who are more concerned about facts will be equally unsuccessful - they'll think of you as a wishy-washy ignorant woo-woo merchant. Pick your battles carefully, and seek to engender a sense of goodwill. As the second Aeon article rightly states :
We don’t simply trust people as educated experts in a field – we rely on their goodwill. And this is why trust, rather than mere reliability, is the key concept. Reliability can be domain-specific. The fact, for example, that somebody is a reliable mechanic sheds no light on whether or not their political or economic beliefs are worth anything. But goodwill is a general feature of a person’s character. If I demonstrate goodwill in action, then you have some reason to think that I also have goodwill in matters of thought and knowledge. So if one can demonstrate goodwill to an echo-chambered member, then perhaps one can start to pierce that echo chamber.
This also hints at why the method in The Conversation will only be of limited help : only a small subset of the Flat Earth ilk will be vulnerable to realising that abandoning the scientific method leads to abandoning all scientific knowledge. That small group will be those who have fallen victim to chronic misinformation, and/or have simply not realised the magnitude of the broad implications of their specific claim. These kinds of people have indeed not much abandoned the tenets of science : they only inhabit echo chambers, not cult-like exclusion bubbles.

In contrast the majority of pseudocscience acolytes unfortunately have begun to reject logic and rationality, but not entirely. Most, perhaps, are not wholly irrational, so in that sense the Aeon essays have a point; they selectively cling to logic even while denying its broader findings. If you tell them that the Flat Earth requires entertaining a host of other (scientifically) ludicrous other ideas, they'll only respond with mountains of "evidence" as to why their particular theory is correct and all the other are bollocks (trust me, I've spend far too much time around such people), not so much accepting or discarding scientific methodology as wantonly abusing it. Pseudoscientific findings are engendered by psuedological methods : rational here, irrational there, without consistency. This is what makes it so frustrating to come to grips with - believers clearly are inherently capable of behaving reasonably, it's just that on some issues they absolutely refuse to. They are highly reluctant to concede that their views necessitate that the world is not the objective, logical place they would (often) genuinely prefer it to be, because they don't really understand what we mean by objective or logical - they're rarely capable of grasping the basic assumptions of science.

The most extreme variety of all are actually sometimes more intelligent : they recognise that they're being irrational and that proposal doesn't fit in the remit of science. These people rarely try and persuade scientists, dedicated to rationality, that they should be irrational instead - because they know the response will be a straightforward, "no". It is perhaps inherently flawed to suppose that you can reason rationally with people conscious that they have rejected rationality, and vice-versa, so neither side is even capable of interacting much with the other. In my experience such people range from the utterly bizarre, who have rejected logic for reasons not even they understand, to deep, ferociously intelligent philosophers. For all that the world makes little sense and has seemingly little coherency without a scientific approach, and that self-consistent theories are only possible within the assumptions of science, the Universe is under no obligation to behave as we would demand of it.

3) Summary and Conclusions

It's all tremendously confusing. But there are quite a few take-home points from all this. First, let's sum up the nature of science and its assumptions :
  • The scientific approach and world view rests on key assumptions that the world is objective, measurable, real, logical, and finite. All of these (and perhaps others) are inherently unprovable - if any of them were not true, it would be extremely hard and likely impossible to guarantee that the world behaves in accordance with modern scientific notions. Ultimately, they really are, and can only ever be, assumptions. There is no question of "admitting" they're assumptions, because they simply are so.
  • Within those assumptions, science is a truly formidable edifice. That is not to say it is even remotely completely or perfectly accurate - its very nature demands flexibility. Yet it is capable of remarkable levels of confidence : if it can rarely give a complete or unequivocal answer, still it can give an answer which is sufficient for the basis of actions.
  • Science is capable of disproving itself, at least in principle. It absolutely does not follow that any viewpoint requiring scientific assumptions be suspended automatically disproves science, just that that viewpoint is fundamentally unscientific.
  • While science might never be able to deem that its key assumptions are really true, there are ways in which all of these assumptions can be tested. However this is dependent on the system itself, not the people participating in it. Dogmatic thinking can ensnare anyone, scientists and non-scientists alike, if they confound their unprovable assumptions with facts. 
And then we should break this up for readability, and move on to what we've learned about people both doing science and disagreeing with it. Those conscious of the scientific method and philosophy behind it will be aware (at some level) of the assumptions they're making and tend to admit them; crackpots seldom do. If you can manage to get people to admit what assumptions they're making, and thus shift the debate to the arena of rationality or irrationality as appropriate, you've gone a long way to getting them to start thinking. Which is, and I can't stress this enough, absolutely no guarantee they'll be any good at it. Anyway :
  • Scientists are people too. You cannot expect them to be wholly rational about absolutely everything, nor infinitely patient or available on demand. While some are abject ideologues, convinced that rationality is magically a fact by definition, others are very much normal people just getting on with their job, neither crusading for rationality nor attacking dissenters, ignoring rather than examining or championing the underlying basis of the process. Others, perhaps the majority to different degrees, are philosophical and curious, but even these are not performing seals obligated to abandon cherished assumptions through pure whimsy, any more than an artist should be expected to work "for exposure".
  • Debating scientific issues with doubters ideally requires an understanding of oneself, the other side, and the purpose of the debate itself. Some people are just misinformed about methods and facts, victims of echo chambers. Others are in a more cult-like state of indoctrination : the aggressive activist style of thinking makes them resistant to counter-arguments and even bolstered by them
  • Even the most rational of people do not necessarily agree on everything and may hold strong opposing convictions on certain topics. Someone who is in "activist mode" will be very hard to persuade and the method used highly dependent on the individual. Scientific conclusions cannot be fought with irrational, emotional arguments, and irrational, emotional arguments cannot be countered with cold logic. 
  • ... but if you do have to argue with an activist, don't try and go straight for the ideological jugular. If possible, instead try and undermine the factual or emotional basis of specific conclusions little by little. Argue for uncertainty but present alternatives, preferably ones compatible with existing ideologies. Demonstrate goodwill, don't criticise someone's intellect (even, or especially, if they don't have much of one) or tell them what particular fallacy or bullshit tactic they're using, and remember that changing their superficial conclusions may be much easier than altering their deep-rooted ideological beliefs. Hold your own convictions, don't tell them what to think, and try and lead them to form a new conclusion by themselves. Get them to entertain hypotheticals.
  • If you yourself venture into activist mode at times, never sink into this permanently. Always allow yourself a space in which to coolly and soberly reflect on yourself away from the judgements of others, entertaining alternatives if, for nothing else, than for the sake of fun. Feel free to fail. Improvement is only possible through change.

One of the main criticisms levied against the fundamental assumptions of science is that this seems to undermine the scientific world view. In my opinion, it does the exact opposite. It neither weakens nor cheapens the scientific achievement, but instead strengthens it immeasurably : the fact that its assumptions are disprovable is a tremendous power scarcely found in any other cosmogony; the admission that they are unprovable is a testament to its genuine commitment to truth and a powerful shield against dogmatic thinking. It opens new possibilities without abandoning the old, enforcing the strength of its conclusions without necessarily labelling dissent as heretical. And within those assumptions, it restores science to something like, though very much messier than, our schoolbook picture of a process of testing, falsification and proof. Absolute right and wrong becoming comfortingly achievable again, albeit rare, whilst not denying shades of grey nor, paradoxically, insisting on unquestionable doctrine. It really is the best of both worlds.

There is little sense in battling those who truly deny science by using scientific methods, any more than one would expect scientists to be coerced by irrational drivel; rather, they should be persuaded that its benefits do not exclude the virtues of more intangible perspectives. Argue factual and rational disputes primarily using scientific methods, and emphasise the emotional and moral aspects for debates which are driven by those quandaries. Allow the humanitarian and scientific viewpoints, which are not mutually exclusive nor incompatible, to flourish in their respective arenas, and instead of the forlorn hope of winning an impossible battle when ideological clashes do occur, seek instead compatibility and deny the conflict. The extremists, and the extremely stupid, are virtually beyond salvation, but the clash of the reasonably capable and ideologically less motivated (a conflict weaker in dispute but more numerically significant), might just be largely averted.

Finally, this acknowledgement of these assumptions - leaps of faith for some, entertaining notions for others - offers the prospect of a world which is richer, more wonderful, and more terrifying than found in any dreary textbook, religious text or cultist lunacy. It is partly through this admission that the scientific process ceases to become another means of control, yet another belief system using knowledge and belief to oppress rather than enrich, and transcends to a philosophical, genuinely curious search for the truth. That is the power of questioning the most basic assumptions of all, opening possibilities beyond intellect or fanaticism. No other human endeavour is so liberating, so unifying, as this unlimited, astonishing exploration of the reality of ourselves.

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