Mysteries Do Not Invalidate Knowledge

Mysteries Do Not Invalidate Knowledge January 14, 2013

A key point I emphasize in my classes is that, just because a range of views about a topic may be held by experts, that does not mean that all views are compatible with the evidence. Nor is it the case that, just because we are uncertain about the answers to some questions, everything is uncertain. The above image featuring a quote from Jerry Coyne makes the point well, I think, in relation to one specific topic about which denialists try to use unanswered questions to deny the accurate and well-evidenced answers we do have to some questions. But the general point is applicable as well to history (Coyne would do well to take that to heart) and other areas.

Phil Plait also made some important points with admirable succinctness and clarity on his blog today:

The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it’s wrong and how things really are.

This is coupled with how sticky bunk can be. Once uttered, it’s out there, bootstrapping its own reality, getting repeated by the usual suspects.

See also Irtiqa on crazy conspiracy theories.

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  • just because a range of views about a topic may be held by experts, that does not mean that all views are compatible with the evidence. Nor is it the case that, just because we are uncertain about the answers to some questions, everything
    is uncertain.

    I disagree. Them so called Shakespeare experts can’t even agree whether the guy they’re studying was gay or straight. So I say that’s pretty darn good evidence that he never existed 😉

    • Gary

      Not necessarily a binary, 1 or 0 decision. For Will, that is.

  • I know that it’s some people’s call (and unavoidable reality) to try to be in conversation with those who deny things like the testimony of God’s creation, the gifting and call of women to ministry and the universal love God has for every human – no exceptions. But a while back I decided that I wasn’t going to engage directly in conversation on these issues. Instead, my task is to use reality as a starting point and explore what our faith looks like from there. If you want to come along, great. If not – not my concern. God bless those who are still in the ditch trying to talk sense to some of these hard headed folk, but I’m so glad I’m not doing it any more. I don’t have the patience or grace for it, I’m afraid. I kind of think that in good part, a wide spread embrace of reality is going to happen the same way that acceptance of germ theory occurred – when the nay-sayers got old and died out.

  • arcseconds

    I kind of wonder whether the way science is often taught or presented in the media doesn’t have some part of the blame here.

    ‘Critical experiments’ are often highlighted, and it would be easy for someone to get the impression that all you have to do to destroy a scientific theory is to find one thing it can’t explain.

    (I’m also wondering whether Karl Popper might not have something to do with this.)

    But that’s not how science works. Actual examples of critical experiments are relatively rare, and this entirely ignores the more important matter of many pieces of evidence, standing somewhat or entirely independent of one another, being bought together by a theory that provides a common explanation.

    If you’ve got a theory that does that, you’re not going to ditch it because of one or two anomalous phenomena. Even if the recalcitrant phenomena start to become quite problematic, you won’t ditch it then either, so long as it makes sense of at least some matters, although you might downgrade its status to ‘probably isn’t right, but it’s the best we’ve got’. Scientific theories are usually only abandoned wholesale when there’s a better alternative, one that explains some of the previously unexplainable phenomena *plus* much of the previously explained phenomena, or at least holds strong promise of doing so.

    Also, people seem to forget that it’s OK for theories to be modified in light of new evidence, and moreover it’s often not clear whether a particular phenomenon can be explained without any modification to the theory. So there’s no sharp distinction between things that have yet to be explained by a theory, and things that can’t ever be explained by a theory.