Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Hypothesis or not?" is not the instructive question

Lawyer: So does this theory of evolution necessarily mean that there is no God?
Professor Frink: No, of course not...It just says that God is an impotent nothing from nowhere with less power than the Undersecretary of Agriculture, who has very little power in our system. (chuckling Frink noise)      —"The Monkey Suit", The Simpsons
I've noted before that misconceptions clump together. So the stereotype that dissenters of faith-beliefs have a pitiful lack of imagination is often paired with a second: that they narrow-mindedly interpret every statement like a literal scientific hypothesis. "As someone with a broader viewpoint, I don't pretend that everything can be analyzed through scientific means. I recognize that science has its limitations, and perhaps my faith-beliefs do too. That's why I'm unimpressed when critics scoff that my faith-beliefs are 'inferior hypotheses'. To the contrary, my faith-beliefs are significant because the topics aren't restricted by empirical methods. When I'm worshipping or praying, I'm not a scientist measuring outcomes to test a hypothesis. It sometimes seems to me that you people spend a lot of time, especially on the Web, elevating science into an object of adoration. Just as I have my favorite celebrities and lecturers and books, you have yours. I believe what my favorites proclaim, and so do you. I confess that I approach everything through the lens of my faith-beliefs, but you do the same with science. That devotion explains your determination to misconstrue my ideas as hypotheses and mix up your science with my faith-beliefs."

Surprisingly, I sympathize a little with this stereotype's complaint. I don't wish to phrase my opposition as a war between science and religion's competing hypotheses. I'm not eager to verbalize a stark choice between "sides", assign every statement accordingly, and pressure everyone to align themselves with the correct side. The effort to classify statements into domains is a diversion. I prefer to emphasize the question of each statement's credibility. What is its meaningfulness? How is the accuracy of its meaningfulness demonstrated in practice, especially in comparison with the many inaccurate statements which resemble it? What if someone could take the time to put aside an alleged war between ideologies and only try to judge as impartially as possible whether their dear statements could be mistaken?

To reiterate, these inquiries apply to statements from science as well as religion. The more central quarrel isn't about which team is generally "better" and therefore right. We don't follow statements made by scientists purely because science is great and we love science (whatever that means). We're guided by practical definitions of trustworthiness. The process matters. Statements from a science "domain" are trustworthy to the extent that each is backed by a sufficient, public, repeatable process. The pivotal point isn't the mere acknowledgment that science can be persuasively accurate; it's understanding why that is.

In this context, dedication to science is less about allegiance than about a crucial side effect: full appreciation of scientific standards. Those can inform the predominant manner in which someone sifts through the credibility of statements. They can't subject every statement to thorough science itself—exhaustive and meticulous observation, theorizing, experimentation, publication, peer review, etc. In that sense, they can't handle every statement like a hypothesis. Nevertheless, once they can recognize how science laboriously earns trust in its statements, then they can contrast it with the various alternative ways that humans try to inspire trust...such as manipulation or simply the overbearing, blunt command "Trust me!"

The final goal is a paradigm shift. They can stop selectively asking, "Is this statement 'scientific'? Should I act like a scientist when I ponder it?" They can switch to consistently, honestly, fearlessly asking, "Regardless of the domain this wondrous statement comes from, can anyone reasonably explain why I should believe it, and how I could possibly verify its particular details?"

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