On Friday 10 December 2004 16:06, Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales wrote:
I don't see any difficulty at all here, as long as
we abandon the idea
that neutrality requires epistemological nihilism.
This notion of "credible" reminds me of "confidence" discussed in the
bullet below in light of global climate change:
°03.01.13.mo | The Politics of Science and Vice Versa
I want to understand to what
degree, if any, something can be commonly known. This is what I've
* An understanding of fact and theory based on Moran/Gould's
"Evolution is a Fact and a Theory",
+ There are observations of facts about the state of the
Universe. We know that the sun moves in the sky, rising and
falling -- regardless of some Biblical interpretations.
Objects on earth fall. The earth has existed for billions
of years with varied life forms living upon it. And this
planet is undergoing substantive climate change.
+ There are theories that explain the relationships between
observations, posit mechanisms, and predict future events.
The earth orbits the sun according to gravitational
principles that also govern the path of the apple falling
from my hand. Our present continents developed via
geological processes including plate tectonics. And humans
have, in part, effected climatic change and its probable
detrimental effects. And just because something is a theory
doesn't mean that it is dismissable or that every "theory"
is equally capable.
+ There is evidence that determines our confidence in both
facts and theories. One would think the nature of
ascertaining facts via observation is trivial, but we must
be wary of hindsight bias, confirmation bias, placebo
effects, and all manner of other prejudicial phenomena.
With respect to theory, confidence is determined by the
nature of its assumptions, testability, the quality of the
underlying data/observations, and the theory's explanatory
power. Theories are wrestled with by the scientific
community, tested, repeated, confirmed, and settled upon by
scientific consensus and ultimately judged by historical
However, the relationship between fact and theory is
complicated because we often can not perfectly observe the
state of something, such as the surface air temperatures
and thickness of the Arctic ice cap. We then must take
samples and extrapolate, which now, in part, constitutes a
theory about the validity of the extrapolation until the
extrapolation is considered so conclusive as to engender a
fact. For example, only the irrational or obstinate would
dispute the observation of fact that it is very cold in
Boston today absent readings from thermometers in every
square foot of Boston.
+ Anything can, and unfortunately will, be disputed. Some can
argue that the aliens have placed the image of the falling
apple in my mind or that God placed fossils in the earth to
test my faith. However, these pronouncements are useless.
In science "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that
it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." I suppose
that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility
does not merit equal time in physics classrooms." - Stephen J.
Gould, Evolution as Fact and Theory; Discover, May 1981.
The above reliance upon aliens and gods to explain a
falling apple as fact is absurd because they defy every
other assumption necessary to daily life in this world:
that the majority of humans can trust their most basic
senses. As a theory, these pronouncements can not be tested
and they offer us no novel explanations of the past nor
predictions for the future. Science is the difficult
process of gaining a useful understanding of our world
while avoiding an alarming collection of biases,
self-interested prejudices, and cognitive blind-spots.
Furthermore, scientists can, should, and do argue about
particular nuances without necessarily undermining the
confidence of a larger understanding. For instance,
scientists might discuss gradualism versus punctuated
equilibrium without contesting the geological records,
fossil records, nor natural selection. Or they may come to
find that an understanding only applies to previously known
assumptions, but new assumptions (e.g., non-Euclidean
geometry, relativistic time/space, the quantum scale, etc.)
require new observations and explanations under the new
* As I've written before, "We can never know everything." We all
can't be experts on everything, so we often need to rely upon
credible authority while remaining critical and skeptical, but
* It's no good being dogmatic. I've found the criticism of the
IPCC policy summaries (distinct from the actual report) to be
interesting and the recent debate regarding ice sampling in the
Arctic worthy of further research.