Bowman’s fork

If we consider any discipline that calls itself a “science” – such as climatology or academic psychology, for instance – let us ask: Does it use a formalism that enables us to reliably predict future events with precision? No. Does it dissolve a mystery by suggesting an explanation for something we did not understand before? No. Commit it then to the trash: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

My words above deliberately echo those of “Hume’s fork”, which Hume and his later followers such as AJ Ayer used to distinguish honest empirical or reflective enquiry (about “matters of fact” or “relations of ideas”) from meaningless metaphysics.

My “fork” is aimed at distinguishing between honest scientific speculation and pseudo-science. The evidence for a scientific theory – or any theory which purports to describe things we can’t see directly – consists of its passing tests, and its explaining things that we otherwise wouldn’t understand. If a theory or discipline does neither of those things, it is garbage. If it is not widely recognised as garbage, that is usually because people are taken in by its impressive-looking rigour. Science does entail rigour of course – but the converse is not true. Mere rigour is not enough for science. Even the most rigorous astrology or homoeopathy is worthless hokum.

So I see any genuine science as having either or both of two virtues: it must have predictive power, or else it must have explanatory power. If it doesn’t explain anything and can’t predict anything, it’s garbage.

Two genuine sciences stand out as being rather short on one virtue, but they more than make up for that vice by being long on the other virtue. Quantum theory has little explanatory value – it is so poorly understood that it creates more mystery and bafflement than it dissolves. But it has extraordinary predictive power. With evolutionary theory, on the other hand, it’s the other way around. Evolutionary theory has little predictive power – we really have very little idea of how future living things will differ from life at present. But it has extraordinary explanatory power.

Predictive power isn’t just futurology or “saying what the future will be like” – astrology does that – it’s predicting specific observable events in the future successfully, in a reliable and repeatable way, so that the hypotheses that imply these future observations are corroborated by actual observations. In other words, the theory to which they belong passes tests.

A theory can have various sorts of explanatory power, because there are several different sorts of explanation. The best-known sort exemplifies the “covering law” model of explanation: a law (such as Newton’s law of gravitation) plus some other assumptions, hypotheses and initial conditions imply that an event (such as the appearance of Halley’s comet around 1066) should occur. The event’s actual occurrence would have been a mystery, until we realised it was implied by other things we accept already. Our acceptance of those other things removes any bafflement we may have had about why that particular event happened.

Another important sort of explanation occurs when one theory is reduced by another theory. This is a relation that exists between two branches of language, so it’s a bit like a weak form of translatability. For example, phenomenological thermodynamics takes heat “at face value” and treats temperature operationally as “whatever is measured by thermometers”. The more recent statistical mechanics revolves around the idea that heat is motion within matter. Thus the molecules of a gas bounce off each other and the walls of their container in a random way, so that temperature in a gas is mean molecular kinetic energy. The latter theory reduces the former theory, so that central claims such as Boyle’s law have a counterpart in both theories. In effect, the two theories “mesh” like cog wheels. This meshing is the best reason we scientific realists have for thinking that science is slowly pulling back the curtain on the parts of reality we can’t see directly. This is good news for both theories.

Evolutionary theory meshes with plate tectonics, explaining why many marsupial species are found in Australia, why some still remain in South America, and how the one species that made it to North America got there via the isthmus of Panama. Evolutionary theory also meshes with genetics. This is good news for plate tectonics and genetics, but it’s extremely good news for evolutionary theory, because its powers of prediction are so limited. We can add its meshing with these other areas of human thought to a vast body of explanation: of why there are as many males as females in most species, of why we like junk food despite calling it “junk”, of why the peacock’s unwieldy tail puts it into serious peril. Evolutionary theory even explains why people come to believe bad science: selfish genes entail cooperation, which entails in-groups and out-groups, which often entails the adoption of theory purely for group-identification purposes. It is a tragedy that many people believe this or that theory for no better reason than “I am a Democrat, so in science I am on this side rather than that side”.

Good science yields good reasons for belief: in prediction, it yields reasons to believe things that may not have even occurred to anyone before, such as the fact that stars appear further apart if their light has to pass near the Sun. In explanation, good science yields reasons to believe things that we already believed, such as the perilous length of the peacock’s tail, but which seemed mysterious or baffling to us because we were unable to fit them into our larger belief system.

Bad science does neither of the above.

Denial of evolution in the Guardian

Writing in today’s Guardian, Deborah Orr tells us that there’s no such thing as “race”, that “our ‘race’ is human”, and that the “myth of ‘race’ was invented by racism”.

Let us be charitable and accept that she probably means well in that she is opposed to racism. That is a decent aim, one I hope all my readers share. But we don’t need to deny facts in order to behave decently – the denial of facts leads to the embracing of falsehoods, and that usually leads to indecent behaviour.

There are two fatal philosophical errors in Deborah Orr’s deliberate adopting of a falsehood. The first is a confusion of is and ought. Simply believing that there are factual differences between people (an is) does not justify the mistreatment of any of them (something none of us ought to do). The second error is called essentialism, the idea that if a concept applies to a class of things – such as a race of humans – they all must have a single feature (or “essence”) in common.

Hume was the first to recognize that believing something is entirely different from desiring it. What you think is a fact is entirely different from what you want to become a fact, i.e. what ought to be a fact according to you and your values. Racists are not people who think that as a matter of fact there happen to be some differences between races, but people who disregard or override the interests of some people because of their race. They do so because they want to, because they dislike particular races, or blame them, or have a deep distaste for a particular type of person, a distaste they think entitles them to act by doing things that harm that type of person. Racists act on such urges by “punishing” people who belong to the “wrong” race by withholding jobs, or by forcing them to live segregated lives, or by enslaving them, or by putting them into gas chambers.

We all recognize races, and the fact that there are fuzzy grey areas between races. And most of us realize that race is irrelevant for most aspects of human life. None of the differences between races are morally important, and certainly none of them justify mistreating anyone because of their race. But race is not at all irrelevant in biology, because evolution requires the emergence of different species, and different species can only emerge from different sub-species, otherwise known as races. (Darwin called sub-species  races, which means few people utter the full title of his best-known book, which means few people remember it, which caused Richard Dawkins some embarrassment recently.) In denying the fact that there are different sub-species of humans, Deborah Orr is denying the theory of evolution.

Deborah Orr’s confidence that the very idea of race is a myth is probably inspired by an old Platonic idea (of “ideal forms”) that lives on in the assumption that every concept can be given a “definition”. It’s still quite common for people to demand a “definition” of this or that idea in order for it to be considered legitimate. The “definition” stipulates a single criterion that must be met for membership of the class to which the idea applies. For example, to count as a triangle, a plane figure must have three sides.

But as Wittgenstein realised, many or most of our concepts are “family resemblance concepts”. That is, they apply to classes of things that have no single feature in common. Wittgenstein’s own classic example is games. For something to count as a “game”, it need have no special feature that characterises games in general, because there is no such feature. Games just have some shared features – family resemblances – that make them similar enough to each other for us to classify them the same way. No two games share all the same features, and some games might share none at all.

This apples to race as well. It is quite possible for a black person (say) and a white person (say) to have more in common, genetically, than two black people or two white people. But if they have enough of the family resemblances that characterise one or other race, they belong to one or other race. It’s no big deal. But it’s important in biology. We can’t just deny evolution and reject evolutionary theory because of a half-baked moral ideal.

Rape, etc.

Suppose something terrible happens: a child dies. The child’s parents are distraught. And as if they didn’t have enough to cope with already, next they have to face the inconvenience and anguish of making “arrangements” of the sort that always follow death. If the cause of death isn’t obvious, they might even find themselves becoming the focus of an investigation. They may be required to answer questions. The police might even be called in.

Unpleasant and unwelcome as those insults heaped upon injury are, it is hard to see how they can be avoided. No one but parents should make decisions about what happens to the dead body of a beloved child. And no one but the official coroner should determine the cause of death of a child. That is because of a tragic truth: sometimes parents do kill their children, so other people than the parents have to rule out “suspicious circumstances”.

Another terrible thing happens when a woman is raped. She is distraught not simply because she is the victim of a violent criminal assault, but also because rape involves the hijacking of reproductive choices and resources. Women hate and fear the very idea of being raped, even without the violence, just as men hate and fear the very idea of being cuckolded – and for remarkably similar evolutionary reasons. Victims of these acts lose vital reproductive resources, which are unwillingly or unwittingly channelled into offspring that are not of their own choosing, or even their own.

As if the victim of rape didn’t have enough to cope with, she next has to face the inconvenience and anguish of making sure the rape is reported as a crime, and that the criminal is brought to justice. For that, she must accuse someone of rape. This isn’t simply to “redress the balance” of the crime that was committed against her, but also to prevent others being raped by the same rapist, and to deter other would-be rapists.

But accusing someone of a serious crime is a serious business, because it often involves depriving the accused of his freedom as he is held in custody awaiting trial. This cannot be entered into lightly. It is an onerous responsibility that many would rather not take on.

Once again, unpleasant and unwelcome as these insults heaped upon injury are, it is hard to see how they can be avoided. No one but the rape victim can reliably identify the rapist, and no one but the members of a jury can convict him. This entails that everyone has to be present in the same courtroom at the same time. Due process must be followed, because the tragic truth is that sometimes women do falsely accuse men of rape; and someone other than the purported victim has to make sure that she really is the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator of another, equally heinous crime.

So the awkward questions and the anguish-filled court cases that follow rapes are unavoidable, although they are undoubtedly very painful and inconvenient. Like the unwelcome events that follow the death of a child, they are a necessary accompaniment that might be smoothed over as much as possible, but never completely by-passed.

Because our justice system treats people who are accused of crimes as technically “innocent until proven guilty”, before a verdict is reached it also has to treat those who accuse people of crimes symmetrically as merely “purported victims”. This is no doubt very frustrating to anyone who has had such an onerous responsibility as accusing someone of a serious crime thrust upon them, in addition to actually being the victim of such a crime.

The recognition of that frustration partly explains why there are some who assume that much of this can be avoided. They assume that the purported victim of a crime is not required to identify the criminal in court. They assume that the purported victim of a crime can in effect keep the person accused of the crime in custody at their leisure, if for one reason or another they do not feel like showing up in court.

I say the recognition of the frustration “partly” explains it. But it isn’t the whole story. Rape is one of the most hated crimes there is, not simply because it hijacks the (female) victim’s reproductive choice and resources, but also because it can hijack her (male) partner’s reproductive choice and resources. Women do not have any special evolutionary reason to hate and fear cuckoldry, but men do have such a reason to hate and fear rape. Furthermore, by biology and tradition, men tend to adopt the role of “protector” of women. And by biology and tradition, women tend to adopt the role of “protectorate” of men. This joint tendency can lead to the infantilization of women.

An unholy alliance of men and women – some men and some women – see men as genuine adults, and see women as mere children who must be sheltered or cocooned from the cut-and-thrust of adult life, including the very painful, difficult and often frightening cut-and-thrust of due legal process. Hence a sense of outrage when it is reported that a judge forced a woman to appear in court by threatening her with imprisonment, and further subjected her in court to the harrowing ordeal of identifying the man she accused of rape in person.

Yet that is as it must be, given that accusations of rape are so serious. They cannot be otherwise, because rape is such a serious crime.

The wisest and oldest guiding philosophical motto is “know thyself”. What these reflections on rape illustrate, to me at any rate, is that this motto has lost none of its wisdom as a guide over the many centuries since it was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. If we do not know ourselves, if we lose sight of our own urges to infantilize women, we will not resist these urges or keep them in check, and as a result women will be inevitably be infantilized. Women can of course gain in the short term by being given the benefit of doubt, and indeed men can gain in the short term by being seen (by women) to give women the benefit of doubt. But in the long term this way lies real damage, both to women and to society in general.

Every victim of every serious violent assault is traumatized, but that trauma does not turn any of them into children. Nor does it mean that due process can be abandoned. Women are not children, even after they have been subjected to the trauma of rape.

When a woman accuses a man of rape, the authorities have to follow up on the accusation, which often involves taking the man into custody. That is a form of imprisonment. A false allegation of rape is on a par with false imprisonment, which is essentially the same crime as kidnapping, a crime that is every bit as serious as rape. So any accusation of rape has to be treated with the same seriousness as rape itself, or as any other form of serious violent assault such as shooting. Making a true allegation of rape is of course morally obligatory, but making a false allegation of rape is as morally wrong as shooting someone and falsely claiming it was self-defence. So the legal system has to exercise great care – and if necessary, force – to find out whether a shooting really was in self-defence, and whether a rape allegation is true. Questions have to be asked, and answers must be insisted upon, and they must be forthcoming within a reasonable length of time.

A pair of suspenders

You can believe anything you like. What makes that possible is holism, which I recently called the idea of the twentieth century. It was always possible to believe whatever you like, of course, but it’s only since the twentieth century that we understand how people can manage to believe whatever they like, and know how to avoid it, at least in ourselves.

We believe whatever we like when we embrace theory as ideology. A theory counts as ideology not because of any intrinsic feature it has, but because of the way it is held. Specifically, we hold a theory as ideology when we habitually discount unfavourable observations. And we do this by routinely making up ad hoc hypotheses whose sole purpose is to accommodate them.

Perhaps a few examples will help here. Traditionally, religious beliefs have included such hypotheses as “God is merciful”, “prayer works”, and so on. But anyone can see that there is much evil in the world – anyone can make the observation that nature is often cruel or at least indifferent to suffering. So religious believers tend to make up additional hypotheses to try to accommodate this observation. A first ad hoc hypothesis might be that God gave humans free will, and so humans are free to do evil things. The evil humans do is a lesser evil than the evil that God would have done by not giving humans free will.

That’s fine until we remember that there is a lot of evil that humans are not responsible for, and even some evil that humans have alleviated – such as smallpox – which you’d think God would have alleviated if He were indeed all-powerful and merciful. So along comes the next ad hoc hypothesis, usually something along the lines of “God works in mysterious ways”. And so on.

By habitually ducking and diving, some religious believers in effect ring-fence their favoured hypothesis, protecting it from unfavourable observations by making excuses for it. In slightly more technical terms, they add one or more ad hoc hypotheses to the conjunction of hypotheses that first of all implied an expected observation, but now has to be adjusted to imply the actual observation:

If H1 & H2 &… then O


Er… oops! – All right then, let’s try this:

If H1 & H2 & Hah &… then not-O

(where Hah is an ad hoc hypothesis). And so it goes.

Of course religious belief isn’t the only “theory” that can be embraced as ideology. Someone might hold that Americans never walked on the Moon, by adding sufficient ad hoc hypotheses, such as that Photoshop was actually developed in secret by NASA in the 1960s (hence the convincing-looking fake pictures). Or he might hold that Marxism is correct, and things went badly wrong in the Soviet Union and China only because in those places it wasn’t followed closely enough.

To take a current example, as I write there appear to be signs of “green shoots” in the depressed US economy. On the face of it, this is a sign that the broadly “Keynesian” policy of “borrowing one’s way out of a recession” seems to work. Followers of the opposed economic theory of Hayek don’t like that, however. Many will be engaged in some “creative hypothesising”, coming up with new reasons why the apparent improvement is merely apparent, and if anything it actually counts as observational evidence for their opposed theory.

I pause here to stress here that that might indeed be the correct strategy. From time to time it is perfectly appropriate to discount an observation as “aberrant”. If you see a UFO, that is prima facie evidence that aliens are invading Earth; but it is more likely to be an aeroplane, or the planet Venus, or a weather balloon, or a trick of the light, or something else that cannot be counted as a serious falsifying observation. The mistake is to make that the routine reaction to repeated unfavourable observations.

So the way to spot ideology is not to look for a particular sort of theory, but to look instead for a particular sort of habit on the part of a theory’s partisans.

I mentioned above that to count as ideology, a theory does not need to have any intrinsically ideological feature. But some theories more than others lend themselves to being held in that habitually protective way. These are theories that suspend disbelief on the part of their exponents in an effective way. Typically, theories that suspend disbelief are (A) those that have a strong moral/political component and so inspire moral fervour, and (B) those that hold out hope of some sort of medical redemption, and so inspire the hope for a cure to our ills. We might call these the two “great suspenders” of disbelief. And they suspend disbelief by engaging with our volition – in how we would like everyone to behave, or in our (forlorn) hopes of immortality. In both cases wishful thinking directs factual judgement. And that is how we come to believe what we like.

The way to avoid ideology is to be on our guard against acquiring the habit described above. We are creatures of habit, unavoidably as Hume saw, but that habit is best avoided if we want our beliefs to be true.

“Against the man”

Most myxomatosis-sufferers are rabbits, but most rabbits do not have myxomatosis. Suppose a vet is trying to diagnose a sick rabbit’s symptoms. Does the fact that it is a rabbit give the vet a reason to rule out myxomatosis? Of course not. If anything, it gives the vet a reason to consider myxomatosis as a possible diagnosis.

Yet a similar statistical relationship between outsiders (~ rabbits) and genuine scientific genius (~ suffers from myxomatosis) leads many to dismiss outsiders’ ideas simply because of their provenance.

Historian of science Thomas Kuhn often stressed that most of the great scientific revolutions got started with the ideas of outsiders or newcomers to the field rather than well-established, highly-respected academics. The best new ideas usually “come out of left field” rather than from the “mainstream”.

Of course it does not follow that because someone is an outsider or newcomer, his or her ideas are likely to be the start of a new scientific revolution – most outsiders and newcomers produce nothing of importance (just as most rabbits don’t suffer from myxomatosis). Most might even be described as cranks or lone mavericks. In fact there is no good reason to think that just because an idea came from an outsider or newcomer, it is likely to be any better than an idea that came from a “mainstream” source. NOR, HOWEVER, is there any good reason to think that just because an idea comes from an outsider or newcomer, it is likely to be any worse than an idea that comes from “mainstream” sources. Analogously, there is no good reason to think a rabbit either has or does not have myxomatosis, simply because it is a rabbit. It might be something a gambler might take a bet on, but it isn’t the sort of thing we can reasonably form beliefs about in the absence of further information.

The willingness to take mere relative frequency as a reason for belief is a symptom of inductivism. The (bad) idea goes that a statistical claim about relative frequency (“most rabbits don’t have myxomatosis”) can be understood as a claim about probability (“any given rabbit is unlikely to have myxomatosis”, “the chances that a rabbit has myxomatosis are slight”) which in turn is understood as a positive reason to believe something (“for any given rabbit, we have a reason to believe that it does not have myxomatosis”).

To illustrate with another example, over the years Jews have been very well-represented among great artists and scientists, just as have lone mavericks. But just because someone is Jewish, it doesn’t follow that he or she is likely to be a great artist or scientist. Nor does it follow that because someone is Jewish, he or she is any less likely than others to be a great artist or scientist.

In warning people away from crackpot theories or pseudo-science, we should draw their attention to failures in the theories and methods used. We should not pay any attention to the type of person who proposes the theories or methods. The warning “beware the lone maverick!” is tantamount to “beware the Jew!” Logically, their status is the same: they appeal to an irrelevance.

We really cannot judge an idea by looking at the sort of person who has the idea. To do so is to commit a fallacy of relevance called argumentum ad homimem – an argument “against the man” rather than against his idea, which alone is relevant in science.

“Informal” fallacies tend to bunch together like teenagers – if you see one, you’ll often see another few hanging around somewhere nearby. Argumentum ad homimem often hangs around with “appeal to authority” – usually the authority of “peer-reviewed, mainstream” thinking.

But I’d better leave that for another blog post!