Truth and Certainty

Every now and then I’ll get in an interesting discussion on Reddit. I decided that rather than let those conversations dissappear into the ether of the internet, never to be read again, I’d copy them here. I don’t know if my words are worth preserving, but I spent a lot of time writing them damn it! So here’s one such discussion:

In response to a post indicating that we should “stop worshiping science” and “be skeptical of mainstream medicine,” I posted the following:

Skepticwolf: We do question it all. That’s the point. “Science” it not a specific set of beliefs that anyone can “worship.” It’s a method of examining whether a claim is true or not. And it’s the only method in history to reliably and consistently create progress.
If you have a suggestion for a better method of determining the veracity of a claim, I’m all ears.

Pookiemoose: I think it depends on what the goal is.
For me, science, along with rationality, logic and empiricism are pragmatically useful. These methods have worked through history, as you said, for progress.
But if the goal is to make claims about reality and facts in any type of certainty, I think these claims are the dubious ones that need to be questioned.
(This conceptualization of science, truth and realtiy is still a work in progress for me, so any feedback is much appreciated. :)

Skepticwolf: I may be reading your post wrong, but I think I see what you’re saying (and where I disagree). Maybe this will help.
It sounds like the underlying assumption in what you said is that certainty and/or Truth (capital T) is attainable. Science is not in the business of claiming things with certainty, as you said. Scientists goal is to analyze reality and find explanations that are most likely to be accurate, and Stand Firm under follow up testing.
Some things are so well explained and tested (very basic principles) that we don’t really need to question anymore. But we can NEVER say we’re 100% certain, because ultimately it’s possible that we don’t have all the evidence, or that there’s somewhere in the universe that principle doesn’t apply. If you follow the logic, absolute certainty is impossible unless you’re omniscient (which we obviously aren’t).
So, short of absolute certainty the next best thing you could hope for is: “so overwhelmingly likely that it would be ridiculous to continue to waste time questioning it.” That’s what the scientific process does really well. Any time a scientist says, “we’re sure of…” or “the truth is…” or some other statement of certainty, that’s what they mean.
So my feedback to your work in progress would be this: there is no Truth (capital T) and there is no certainty. Despite how it may feel emtionally (and despite what any religious person might tell you), those terms are ultimately useless to humans. They’re more distracting then helpful. Time wasted contemplating Truth is better spent doing pretty much anything else. My personal preferences are time with my family, Magic the Gathering, singing, Fantasy Football, and learning about what’s likely to be true.

pookiemoose: Any time a scientist says, “we’re sure of…” or “the truth is…” or some other statement of certainty, that’s what they mean.
I am not so sure about this. Why wouldn’t they use precise language, when everything else they do in their line of work is so precise? As you said, scientists do use language of certainty, as well as do many philosophers. I am not sure why they do this, but I think it is something that should be called out and addressed more often, because for me, it seems that it is more than just using the language of certainty. It reminds me of when (Dawkins)[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9102740/Richard-Dawkins-I-cant-be-sure-God-does-not-exist.html[1] ] had to admit they he couldn’t be sure if god exists or not, which is, as far as I understand, the original definition of agnosticism, after he has spent a fair amount of time criticizing agnostics for their lack of willingness to accept atheism as certain. (Not that you are defending any of this, these are just my thoughts. :)
I guess what I am really trying to say is that I do not feel that a lot of scientists and thinkers look at science in such a pragmatic way as you have claimed they do, based on their language.
there is no Truth (capital T) and there is no certainty. Despite how it may feel emtionally (and despite what any religious person might tell you), those terms are ultimately useless to humans. They’re more distracting then helpful. Time wasted contemplating Truth is better spent doing pretty much anything else. My personal preferences are time with my family, Magic the Gathering, singing, Fantasy Football, and learning about what’s likely to be true.
For the most part I agree, although I would not say it is totally useless, as it does seem to bring fulfillment to some that are still capable of doing so without actually making claims of certainty.
I would however take issue with the claim…
there is no Truth (capital T) and there is no certainty.
It seems to me that to say that there is no truth or certainty is a claim to certainty. I do not mean to be rude in my nitpicking, but it is like a proposed before, I think it very important to be more precise with our language, especially if ti seems that we are making claims to certainty when we do not mean or want to.
(thank you for your feedback, by the way. This is exactly the type of thing I need to get my brain going on these types of things. :)

Skepticwolf: It seems to me that to say that there is no truth or certainty is a claim to certainty.
100% correct. I typed that at 6:30am…and reading it just now I realized that I didn’t type what I was actually thinking. That should have read, “As far as human knowledge goes, there is no Truth or certainty.” I was referring to the way I (and most skeptics) think about it so I can go about my day-to-day life.
Why wouldn’t they use precise language, when everything else they do in their line of work is so precise?
Because the vast majority of the time when they say things like that, they’re not “in their line of work.” They’re interacting with non-scientists. It’s one of those difference between different colloquial uses of the word. This is actually a very deep and timely issue.
When scientists write papers, articles, scholarly stuff, etc they are usually very precise. They never say anything with 100% certainty (or at least almost never). When they’re talking to eachother, they probably use language like that but it doesn’t matter because everybody knows what they mean.
The rub is when they’re talking to non-scientists who don’t approach the word from the midset of “nothing is certain, everything is in degrees of likeliness.” As far as your average everyday schmo is concerned, most things are black and white, not grey. Something is either up or down. Alive or dead. Moving or still. As you (hopefully) know however, none of those are actually binary like that. All of them are on a spectrum. So when a scientist talks to that schmo (either directly, or via an intermediary like a reporter or something), one of three things can happen…note that these are generally in order of experience:
The scientist isn’t prepared for that difference in mindset and speaks colloquially like he/she would to other scientists. They’ll say something is certain, when that’s not actually what they mean. This used to happen a lot more that it does now, as everyone seems to be hyper-aware of the abusive power of mass media.
The scientist goes the opposite direction and assumes that everything they say will be taken literally, so they get super paranoid and qualify every little word they say. This is what happened with the whole field of climatology. About 20-25 years ago, unsuspecting climate scientists got ripped out of their quiet climate labs and thrown into the middle of one of the hottest and most divisive political issues in the past half century. A few of them made mistake #1, and now the entire community is super gun-shy about saying anything definitive. The problem with this is that when they say things like “as far as we know” and “so far the evidence shows,” that same average schmo takes that to mean that we’re still not sure, that the “jury is still out.” That’s all fine and good for discussion of nuanced issues that legitimately are still being worked out (like consciousness, intestinal bacteria, dark matter), but it’s problematic with things like climate change, evolution, homeopathy, etc. We are as sure as we could possibly be about those, but the “qualifying language” confuses the crap out of non-scientists, especially the ones on the opposite side of a political issue.
The scientist is aware of the differences between public and academic language, has practiced both, and knows which words to apply at what times to make sure that the appropriate message comes across. This is obviously the ideal situation, but it’s pretty rare. Most scientists are too busy doing actual science to learn how to communicate to the public. There are a few that have been outstanding (Neil Degrass Tyson, Bill Nye, Lawrence Krauss, Carl Sagan, Phil Plait, Steven Novella, etc). People like that study and learn what non-scientists are going to think when they use different language. They then spend a lot of time developing the skill of getting super-complex ideas across clearly and appropriately. Actually, Dr Tyson has spend a lot of time trying to convince the rest of the scientific community that it’s a skill they all should develop. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2011/03/01/neil-tysons-advice-to-young-science-communicators/#.UsXg0vRDsTw
All that said, ALL of them are aware of that all knowledge is subject to change if new evidence comes to light. Push any scientist to get specific about it and they’ll all say the same thing no matter what “certainty” you’re talking about, “As far as all the evidence shows, it’s true. We should teach kids it’s true. I believe it to be true. Yes, it’s true. But if you show me reliable evidence to the contrary, I’ll immediately change my mind and thank you for proving me wrong.”
Whew! Wall of text!
Edit: BTW, thanks for the fun discussion.

pookiemoose: So I agree and do not really blame scientists for using this type of language, as it does seem easier. But I think, and this is pure speculation, that using this type of language only fuels the fire in the problem of certainty. When scientists talk this way to the public, that comes to be what they expect. So when things are less certain, it is blown off as not being as good as the cases where scientists have told them things with certainty (which is kind of what you already said. I am just expressing my thoughts. :)
I would disagree when you talk about the things that are less problematic, because sure, they are as certain as it seems we can be, as of now, but this has been posited through out history, right? Galileo, Copernicus, etc. All these guys were fighting religious dogmas, but the science also worked, at the time, until things were shown to be different. It just seems to me that by using language that does not express the uncertainty of whatever is being talked about, even if it seems like a very small amount of uncertainty, is just setting up the type of society that will have a hard time adjusting to new ways of science when the time comes.
I guess, in all, what I am trying to say is that while I understand the reasons scientists use the language of certainty in certain cases, I do not see it as overall helpful, as it creates a culture that expects certainty, or even believes that the goal of science is certainty, and not a pragmatic endeavor.
(I hope all of this makes sense, I am just kind of letting my thoughts out onto the keyboard. :)
EDIT:I would add, as just an after thought, that maybe this is not totally unintentional, the culture of certainty. it seems very reminiscent of Foucault’s theories on the way knowledge is used as power to control. Just a thoguht. :)

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