Authoritative Authorities

In my previous post I mentioned that people will use science’s scheme of self-correction as a support of its authority, and that this is utterly confused. In fact, here’s what I said (yes, I’m quoting myself. Think of it as saving you the trouble of clicking on the link):

(It is a matter for another day that people take being wrong as one of the strengths of science, ignoring that a thing which may be wrong cannot be a logical authority, by definition.)

Today is that day.

Before getting into it, I need to qualify what I mean by an authority. There are multiple meanings to the phrase authority, and the most common one—someone such as a king, judge, etc. who should be obeyed and who enforces their will through force—isn’t relevant. I’m using the term “authority” as in the material logical fallacy, “appeal to authority”. Unfortunately, appeal to authority is often misunderstood because it would be much better named “appeal to a false authority”. A true authority, in the logical sense, is  anyone or anything which can be relied upon to only say things which are true. If you actually have one of those, it is not a fallacy to appeal to their statements.

A logical authority may of course remain silent; its defining characteristic is that if it says something, you may rely on the truth of what it says. These are of course hard to come by in this world of sin and woe, and you will find absolutely none which are universally agreed upon. That doesn’t mean anything, since you will find absolutely nothing which is universally agreed upon.

To give some examples of real authorities, Catholics hold that the bible, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and the pope when speaking ex cathedra are all authorities. God has guaranteed us that they will not lead us astray. Muslims hold that the Quran is an authority.

Not everyone believes there exists any authorities at all, of course. Buddhists don’t and neither (ostensibly) do Modern philosophers. If you insist on distinguishing Modern philosophers from Postmodernists, then Postmodernists don’t believe there exist any authorities either. In general, anyone who holds that truth is completely inaccessible will not believe in any authorities.

So we come to Science, and the curious thing is that science explicitly disqualifies itself as an authority. Everything in science is officially a guess which has so far not been disproved by all attempts which have so far been made to disprove it. And yet many people want to treat science as an authority. In some cases this is sheer cognitive dissonance, where people pick what they say on the basis of which argument they’re having at the moment, but in other cases there is an interesting sort of reasoning which is employed.

Both forms tend to piggy-back the bottom 99% of science on the success of (parts of) physics, chemistry, and to a lesser extent some parts of biology. This especially goes together with conflating science and engineering.

The first and stronger sort of argument used is that science may always be subject to disproof, but that after a sufficient amount of testing, any such disproof will be at the margins and not in the main part. The primary example of this is the move from Newtonian mechanics to Relativity, where the two differ by less than our ability to measure at most energies and speeds we normally interact with.

The problem with this argument is that there is relatively little of science to which it actually applies. Physics is rare in that most physicists study a relatively small of phenomena. There are less than two hundred types of atoms, and less than two dozen elementary particles, and apparently no more than three forces. So thousands of physicists all work on basically the same stuff. (It’s not literally the same stuff, of course; physicists carve out niches, but these are small niches, and often rely on the more common things in a way where they would be likely to detect errors.) This is simply not true of other fields in science. You can study polar bears all your life and never do anything which tells you about the mating habits of zebra fish. You can study glucose metabolism for five decades straight without even incidentally learning anything about how DNA replication is error-checked. You can spend ten lifetimes in psychology doing studies where you ask people to rate perceptions on a scale of 1 to 10 and never learn anything about anything at all.

The result is that in most fields outside of physics and (to a lesser extent) chemistry, theories are not being constantly tested and re-tested by most people’s work. In some of the fluffier fields like human nutrition and psychology—where controlled experiments are basically unethical and in some cases may not even be theoretically possible—they may not even be tested the first time.

The second and weaker argument is that science is the best that we have, and so we must treat it as an authority. This is very frequently simply outright wrong. In fields where performing controlled experiments is unethical, science consists of untested guesses where the people making the guesses had a strong financial and reputational incentive to make interesting guesses, as well as often a strong financial incentive to make guesses which justify government policies that the government would like to do anyway. But that only counts if the financial incentive is provided by tobacco companies or weightloss companies. Other financial incentives leave people morally pure because most scientists have them.

Actually, there is a third argument too, though it’s almost never stated explicitly. A lot of people work hard in science and believe that they’re doing good work, so it would be rude to doubt them. This is, basically, a form of weaponized politeness. The sad truth is that lots of scientists aren’t more honest than other people, lots of scientists aren’t smart, and lots of scientists are wasting their time. It’s mean to say that. Sometimes the truth hurts. It always sucks when honesty and politeness are enemies, but if a person prefers politeness to honesty, he’s a liar, and there’s nothing to be said to him except that he’s working to make the world a worse place and should stop.

Ultimately, of course, the real reason science is held to be an authority—as opposed to a potential source of truth which must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis because a scientific theory is only as good as the evidence behind it—is because this is a cultural thing. People need authorities in order to feel secure, and if they won’t believe in the right authorities they will believe in the wrong authorities.

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