Follow-up to Reead's questions about Faith and truth in science - was - RE: virus: Re: virus-digest

carlw (
Wed, 10 Feb 1999 21:52:36 -0600

Nice questions. And very pertinant. Given the "personal" nature of the questions, the ease of misunderstanding this class of question and the huge variety of answers that you might get from different respondents, I have tried to make my personal biases explicit in the answers while providing some justification for my reasoning. If any of it seems obscure please feel free to ask again.

-----Original Message-----
From: []On Behalf Of Reed Konsler
Sent: Wednesday, February 10, 1999 12:34 PM To:
Subject: virus: Re: virus-digest V3 #39

>>Faith is accepting something without proof and generally refers to the
>>untestable. If what you are swallowing is testable, then it would not
>>require faith to accept it.
>I agree with this (and a great deal of what you said in your longer post).
>As you pointed out, all living scientists began "in media res" and so
>accept, without direct evidence, many easily testable principles. Is it
>that a scientist presumes everything they beleive is *potentially*

Well, stipulating for the moment the assertion "accept without direct evidence" the answer has to be yes. Although from a theoretical perspective, for any theory to become "strong" there has to be significant testing. At a minimum, the testing has to be done by more than one scientist/group of scientists at more than one location and at different times. It is prefered to attempt to find alternative experiments using alternate equipment and methods to demonstrate the same conclusions. The Fitgerald/Lorentz (which finally rid us of the concept of aether) experiments are a perfect example of how to do this correctly. Pons and Fleischmann (the cold fusion debacle) provided an example of how not to do it. But all scientists can and (even if only due to the pressure of time) must sometimes incorporate previous results into their work untested. Not that this is necessarily invalid. "Shoulder's of giants" and all that. There is nothing precluding this in the scientific method, so long as it is remembered that a theory can only be as "strong" as the axioms (implicit or explicit) which are included.

>Is everything a scientist believes testable and, if not, is the presumption
>itself a kind of faith?

It should be. If there is an "untestable" presumption behind a "belief", then whether or not it is a "scientist" that is doing the "believing", I think you could characterise it as "faith". Then again, this would immediately mean that whatever you are dealing with, you are certainly dealing with "not science".

>Do you think that most "real" scientists actually
>engage in this process of continuious self-interrogation...or do they
>often simply disregard questions and challenges to the paradigm?

In my experience, most do. I think that while the former is desired and the latter is unfortunate, both happen, the latter far more frequently than is desireable. The system is, however, by and large very reliable and self-correcting. For example, the fact that Nature declined to publish The "Cold Fusion" papers indicates that the peer system was functioning correctly. While there is a lot of pressure on young scientists to conform, at the same time, there are very large rewards if one of them succeeds in falsifying a "treasured paradigm". So the challenges, even to well established theory, tend to be ongoing and occasionally produce suprising results. e.g. The loss of the canals of Mars.

>If ignoring challenges to paradigm (as Kuhn documents) is not a
>product of "faith", then how would you describe it?

I too would describe it as "faith". I would qualify this by suggesting that Kuhn spent too little time in the lab. Certainly if we look at the broad sweep of science, I would say that every major paradigm accepted today is based on a huge number of continually challenged concepts. Kuhn spent too much time "in vacuo" and too little watching people "doing science". Actually if I catch your allusion correctly, Kuhn's criticism of the lack of support for assaults on paradigm ('62?) was following up on Hansen's ('58) seminal work on critiquing theory-neutral observation, followed by Popper ('59) and IMO Feyerabend ('75) exemplified the viewpoint. It should be noted that despite these critiques, that the idea of theory-neutral observation and strong paradigm challenges persists, especially among experimental and applied scientists. Certainly I would hold (I consider myself to be somewhat of a systematist, after Nelson ('89)), that to a large extent (far larger than Kuhn or Feyeabend acknowledges) experimental or observational data is unarguable and presents independently of a particular hypothesis or paradigm. Certainly I (and many other scientists) believe that the body of verifiable results, interpreted (as I suggested in the longer letter) through a very rigourous, or even robust, recourse to positivism is far more significant than the theory or hypothesis on behalf of which the data is gathered. To repeat myself "A strongly positivistic interpretation of theory generates an "instrumentalist" account of science, and implies that attempts to integrate the results of science into frameworks of wider significance are scientifically and literally meaningless." My reasoning runs like this. It is very easy to commit a petitio principii through appeal to the criteria for choosing data in order to support the hypothesis from which those criteria are chosen, the result is not knowledge, it is simply an arbitrary worldview. No judgement can be made about which of the many possible data sets so formed is optimum. Thus this approach is invalid. Given this principle, I think that a particular modus is of much less import than Feyerabend (or Khun) would have it.

>Have you ever known scientists that struck you as dogmatic, perhaps
>in their pursuit of research, perhaps in their personal lives?

Of course. And unfortunately aging often leads to calcification of thought with a direct correlation to a rise in dogma. We all have met people like this. But maybe less so in the hard sciences where the evidence is often "self-evident" and debate almost invariably centers on duelling theories to explain/predict the data, than in the softer sciences where argument frequently centers on the criteria for admitting data based on personal biases to particular worldviews.

>playing the role "scientist" make one immune to faith?

Not! Not in the slightest. At least, that is my opinion. Just think how many "scientists" who should know better are quite prepared to make "ex cathedra" type statements on subjects they are not qualified to speak to. Like the biologist discussing nuclear power stations. And the newspapers reporting "scientists say...". It is why the careful examination of all presented material is required with positively inquisitorial attention to detail, in order to root out any "faith" based assertions. It is expected that scientists (who are obviously more aware of this class of error than most) will monitor one another, and when necessary, issue appropriate warnings. In this environment, skepticism is not simply a weapon, but an indespensable tool. Even if its use often looks to the outsider (and sometimes the insider) like a simple hatchet job.

>Does playing
>the role "member of religion" make one particularly succeptible?

Somewhat tricky. I rather think so. Once one has accepted something, anything, "through faith", you have surrendered your rationality. And I have observed that such an abdication of reason tends to infuse the subject's thinking no matter how carefully the subject believes that they have partitioned their thoughts. Bear in mind though that as (an amateur but keen) student of history, I am very biased on this subject. I have seen no good from any religion in recorded history. Due to an interest in debate in this area, I have also probably suffered more, and from much noiser representatives of religious worldviews, than is most peoples misfortune.