Personal Experience vs Science – Are They At Odds?
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Personal Experience Vs Science – Are They At Odds?
A good question found its way into my inbox today: What is the value of personal experience versus scientific evidence? Why does it seem the two of these sometimes conflict? Can they marry?
It does seem the two of these sometimes conflict, doesn’t it? Because occasionally you’ll hear somebody say they attempted this or that diet and it cured them of baldness, or whatever. Then somebody else, somebody from the evidence-based crowd, let’s imagine, will attempt to correct that person, saying they’re conflating causality with sheer dumb luck, or something like that. Then the dieter will tell the evidence-based person to shut his mouth, because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and the evidence-based person will link to some article on PubMed, and tell the dieter to shut his mouth, because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And both parties will go away feeling satisfied with themselves, knowing they showed what a terrible ignoramus the other person is. It’s a win-win, just like all internet conversations are.
Science is a lovely enterprise, and one, no doubt, that has seen enormous success. If it weren’t for science–that is, the methodological testing and refining of hypotheses through experiment and observation–we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because there wouldn’t be computers or the internet. There wouldn’t even be telephones. So, we should all be very thankful to science. It’s made a lot of good things happen.
But there are two problems that have come along with both the development, and success, of the scientific enterprise. These two problems are:
- Thinking that all knowledge can be reduced to the scientific form of knowledge. (“Scientism”, as it is sometimes known.)
- Holding to a Utopian view of science.
We’ll begin, obviously, with the first, or the notion that all knowledge can be reduced to the scientific form of knowledge. This is problematic for a few reasons. Predominantly, because it’s wrong. Take morality and ethics, for example: Can these be reduced to the scientific form of knowledge? Certainly they cannot. This doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried; it only means they haven’t succeeded, and often when they have tried, very bad results have been obtained. (“I’ll take ‘Eugenics’ for six million, Alex.”)
Now, science might be able to tell us something about what contributes to human flourishing, just as science might able to tell what contributes to the flourishing of cantaloupe. But you can’t define morality as whatever contributes to human flourishing, because that’s not what morality is, since we can imagine–or, no need to imagine, really, when can just as easily remember scenarios where eugenicists have proposed such a preposterous scheme, and which led (or would have lad) to what any right-minded human being would agree to be deeply immoral acts. (Also, Robert Nozick’s Experience-Machine, on why intrinsic feelings =/= morality) So, while acts leading to human flourishing may involve moral acts, they may also involve immoral acts (a cheating husband that, upon knowing he would never be caught, could add “happiness” to another woman’s life, without decreasing his wife’s.), and so this is a mere (read: arbitrary) equivocation. So, it seems on morality and ethics, science has nothing to say.
Or, take it one step further, just for fun. Because say you did adopt a moral worldview around whatever contributes to human flourishing is right and whatever detracts from it is wrong. Only now you have to explain why whatever contributes to human flourishing is more important than whatever contributes to the flourishing of sea elephants, an animal which, personally, I hold in very high regarud. Particularly when they have cute, little mustaches, on their fat and smoosh-y, little face. So, on what scientific grounds, I would like to know, do you have for asserting that human life is more precious than sea elephants? It seems a sort of species-ism, is at play here; a mere favoritism based solely on the one doing the formulation. But maybe I much prefer sea elephants to be jolly than humans, so maybe I will base my life around nurturing sea elephants and neglecting humans, and call that moral. How bowdah!
A few other things that cannot be known solely through the scientific way of knowing would be logic and mathematics, both of which are presupposed by science. Also, the existence of the external world, which science also just assumes. (There is no way, scientifically, to show we aren’t all hooked in to The Matrix, but there are at least some compelling philosophical reasons to think that we aren’t. I’ll alleviate your panic another time, perhaps.) Even the reality of the past cannot be empirically verified; that, too, is merely something we hold to be axiomatic through experience. These are all philosophical/metaphysical assumptions, not scientific facts.
So, it’s important to understand that “scientism” isn’t science. It’s a theory of knowledge. It’s a theory of knowledge that cannot be scientifically verified. So this rests as a classic (and, let’s be honest, embarrassing) case of something that is self-referentially incoherent. In shorter language, it’s bad philosophy. Let’s take the following statement just to magnify the point: “You should only believe what can be scientifically proven.” Is that statement scientifically provable? That exercise, dear reader, I leave to you.
So, whatever science has given us (and it’s quite a lot) we must remember that science is a subset of reason, and not, as some would have it, the other way around. This is why logic and philosophy should be solidly formed, either before, or alongside, any scientific pursuit. Because doing so will make a person much less prone to faulty claims about what science is and what science can do.
Unfortunately, however, this position of scientism is one that people, who are scientifically, but not philosophically, trained, often assume. They believe (for reasons we’ve already seen to be in error) that if something hasn’t been established scientifically, then it’s not worth paying attention to, or can’t be true. This is not only wrong; it’s dangerous. Because science is changing. Science is discovering new things, all the time. So, what might be true one day, could be very untrue the next. But then wouldn’t that have been true before, even if it hadn’t been discovered yet? I’m sure you can think of examples where such a position could lead a person to commit a mistake, or speak hastily.
For example, the diet that “cures” baldness–well, maybe it just hasn’t been investigated enough? Well, maybe. Or maybe it has. Because absence of evidence, while not always evidence of absence, sometimes is. And this, of course, would depend entirely upon the ratio of what we should expect to see, versus what we actually see. If somebody were to tell me there’s a moose in the Malvern Buttery, and I clearly don’t see a moose (and yes, I have my glasses on), and I am clearly in The Malvern Buttery, and then I say to this person, “Sorry dude, but I think you’re hallucinating,” and he responds, “You know, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence,” I can fairly and confidently assert that absence of evidence IN THIS REGARD is evidence of absence, and that he is insane. I can fairly and confidently say there is no moose in The Malvern Buttery, because if there were, I should expect to see it. (Now, evidence =/= proof, I get that. The moose could be cloaked or something, who knows. But again, that isn’t what I–nor any reasonable person–should expect if there actually were a moose in an otherwise small coffee shop. I should expect to see that moose helping himself to the croissants).
But say there were a moose in The Malvern Buttery, God help us, and say somebody told me that moose sometimes have red hair, but this moose clearly has grey hair. In this case, absence of evidence wouldn’t be evidence of absence. Because while I don’t observe red hair on the moose in The Malvern Buttery, that doesn’t mean I might not observe red hair on some other moose. (I don’t know whether moose can have red hair or not; I’m not a moose-scientist. Somebody please educate me in the comments.) It’s important to understand these distinctions, because it’s important to not get ahead of yourself, even if you think you may be onto something. But the main point is skepticism should be applied just as much in making claims, as reason to refute them.
This brings me to my next criticism, which is the Utopian view of science, or merely the notion that science is perfect and conducted only by seraphims. When you state it like this, almost everybody agrees this cannot possibly be true, even if their argument is solely that seraphims (since they’re not scientifically verified) cannot possibly exist. Seraphims aside, science is clearly conducted by humans. And humans are animals filled with biases and prone to mistakes and evil. I’m not saying we can’t trust science; I’m not saying that at all. Because science (fortunately) has mechanisms built in (such as peer review) to account for the blemish that is human error. But these mechanisms aren’t perfect, and to imagine that science can’t or isn’t afflicted with the same biases or incentives that impinge upon all other forms of human enterprise is to engage in fantastic thinking. We can generally rely that science won’t be as heavily afflicted, perhaps, but certainly we shouldn’t expect that people won’t sometimes set up experiment in ways to produce exactly the results they want. Or, to be a bit more frank, that people won’t just fudge the data. All this happens more often than people may think. Such is why retractions exist; not only for when new evidence might show a theory to be wrong, but also for when new evidence might show a scientist to be a fraud.
From How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data.
“A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices.”
( º﹃º )
Realize that people do hold a fairly high stake in scientific opinion, as they should. But it’s exactly because the public can be swayed by what the current “scientific opinion” is, that this will naturally corral a certain level of corruption around the engagement. No different than what’s seen in religion and politics, really, where what should be a useful, productive means for human understanding and achievement, can be seized and manipulated by people who would seek to exploit any opportunity they can to advance their (or someone else’s) agenda. This isn’t me being all “Mr. Conspiracy”–this is just the way it is. And it’s because science is conducted by humans, that science can never be perfect. So drop the view of Utopian science. It does’t exist.
But just because science can never be perfect, doesn’t mean science can never be good. Science is good. And so long as we engage in science with these cautions in mind, we are likely to have better results. But we must keep on with our skepticism, not only about our own experiences, which we should always run against the current stream of scientific evidence, to see if it makes sense or is a fluke or what, but also against any so-called scientific claim that seems to run counter to something we believe is basically true. For example, if a study emerged tomorrow that said free will doesn’t exist, I would be suspect. Because free will is a properly basic belief, something we all commonly feel that we have. So, I would be much more inclined to believe a study to affirm this (or at least leave the door open) over one that denies it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of our “properly basic” beliefs might not be true. But it does mean that we shouldn’t deny a properly basic belief unless we have very strong reasons to do so.
This is why, on one hand–and to return to the topic of fitness–I’m not going to support the notion that the ketogenic diet is some sort of catch all solution for every conceivable form of disease (current research certainly wouldn’t suggest that it is) nor, on the other hand, would I talk somebody out of ketosis who is seeing fantastic results with it, which many are. Because there’s a healthy middle ground, I believe. I think we can accept and a learn from a person’s experience, while comparing it to the body of research, to see what we should do ourselves, and what we should recommend to others.