(About a 7 minute read)
Dear Ms. Teresums,
Boyd Stace-Walters here. Worldly logician, savvy epistemologist, and frighteningly good philosopher of the sciences. Mr. Sunstone has asked me to address you on a subject he says is “as near and dear to her as wanking.” Whatever “wanking” means. The subject in question being “How Scientists Verify that Something is True”.
I must dutifully warn you, Ms. Teresums, that the subject we are about to embark upon is thrilling, entirely thrilling. It is fraught with ecstatic moments of discovery, and there are dangers, Ms. Teresums — dangerous moments when the least slip in reasoning can plunge the unwary student into the racing, whitewater current of a logical fallacy!
I must recommend you have you smelling salts handy at all times.
With that said, I must now reveal to you the shocking truth — the truth that most scientists do not prefer the word “truth”. That is, they do not like the word. They shun it. Routinely refuse to use it. And with good reason!
You see, “truth” means so many various things to so many people that it is a perfectly useless word if you wish for a word with a more precise meaning. For that reason, I must ask that you mentally interpret the question, “How do scientists verify that something is true?” — that you interpret that question as, “How do scientists verify that something is a reliable fact?”
Now at this point, it would be quite tempting, Ms. Teresums, to mumble a thing or two about the techniques used to establish reliable facts, and be done with it. But that would be rather like describing the tu quoque fallacy without explaining why it is indeed a to-be-feared fallacy. In a sense, you would know what the tu quoque was, but only in a superficial way — much as carnally knowing your spouse is superficial unless you have a firm grasp of the epistemology of carnal knowledge.
So let us take a different approach than to simply list a few techniques for establishing reliable facts.
Imagine, Ms. Teresums, imagine that you are the last human alive upon the earth! Moreover, let us suppose you decide to do what virtually anyone would do in such a circumstance. That is, you decide to while away your idle hours by reconstructing all of the sciences from scratch, purely for the sake of amusement.
Now for you to do that, you would first and foremost need a method or procedure for conducting science. Without one, you would not know what to do. There is, of course, a procedure — often called, “The Scientific Method” — that you can easily find various representations of simply by googling for it. It is not actually the only method of the sciences, but it is the most famous.
There are many ways of describing the method. To keep things simple enough here so as to avoid unnecessary excitements and passions, I will reduce it to just these steps:
- Create or invent a hypothesis that explains something.
- Using deductive logic, arrive at a prediction that, if the prediction comes true, then the hypothesis will be supported, and if it comes false, then the hypothesis will be demonstrated to have been false.
- Conduct an experiment to determine if the prediction comes true.
Of course, if the prediction comes true, then your hypothesis is collaborated or supported. If the prediction does not come true, then your hypothesis is mercilessly rendered false.
For example: Suppose you created this for an hypothesis: Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen. You reason that, if you hypothesis is true, then you will be able to create water if you can find a way to combine pure hydrogen with pure oxygen. And that is what you end up doing as an experiment — combining the two to get water. Thus, your hypothesis is now supported.
Some scurrilous people of low repute — by which I mean, poets and such — believe, Ms Teresums — actually believe — that you would now be finished. That all there is left to do is sort out the details, and voila! You have reconstructed the entire known body of knowledge that is the sciences.
I implore you, Ms Teresums: Do NOT be led down that path. No, down that path lies madness and poetry with not a proper philosophy of the sciences in sight! If not yourself, think of the children! Think of their tender, young philosophies. Think how they might be corrupted for life by the scandalous notion that you would need no more than the scientific method alone to reconstruct the sciences from scratch!
DOESN’T ANYONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN ANYMORE?
Please forgive me, Ms. Teresums. I am an epistemologist and a logician, and therefore it all but necessarily follows that I am a worldly man of passions. Huge, towering passions! I cannot but scarcely contain myself when I think of the dear children and the heinous corrupting influence of their being misled into believing that the scientific method alone is sufficient to reconstruct the sciences. Feel free to reach for your salts at any moment.
The fact is we humans are born with certain cognitive biases. Inborn distortions in how we think. Moreover, we cannot entirely escape them, albeit we can — with sufficiently rigorous training in critical reasoning skills — ameliorate their effects.
Because of our cognitive biases, Ms. Teresums, you would, if you attempted to reconstruct the sciences, most likely slip and slide into erroneous reasoning faster than a poet can screw up a perfectly good first order propositional calculus. Poets, Ms. Teresums. Steer clear of the lot, if you want some decent advice. Not to be trusted, poets. Not a well-formulated epistemology among them!
No, our cognitive biases are sure to gain the upper hand, Ms. Teresums — unless we deploy a reality-check to combat them.
And what might that be, you inquire? Well, the most certain method is to pray to the Great Logician in the Sky for guidance.
Hah! I jest! I merely jest! I am a man of wit, you see. Rollicking good wit. In reality, the best that can be done is to have our work checked by other people. People who understand the subject. That is to say — in the language of the philosophy of the sciences — we want some good person to inter-subjectively verify our results.
“Inter-subjective verification” is a perfectly handsome turn of phrase that boils down to this: Verifying something by two or more people.
Thus, were you and I to each conduct the same experiment, and arrive at the same results, we would be said to have inter-subjectively verified those results. And that’s our reality-check, you see. Our guard against the chilling chaos and destruction that might otherwise befall us due to our cognitive biases.
The rest are details, Ms. Teresums. Mere details Thus it can be said that scientists verify something is a reliable fact by:
- First creating or inventing a hypothesis designed to explain something.
- Second, by using deductive logic to arrive at a prediction that, if true, would support the hypothesis being true; and if false, would destroy the hypothesis.
- Next, by conducting an experiment to determine if the prediction is true or not.
- And last, by publishing the whole procedure so that it can be double-checked by other scientists.
Of course, a great deal more goes into it than that, Ms. Teresums. A great deal more. What I have offered you is a merely idealized version of events. But that much is the core of it; that much is the gist, so to speak.
Ah! I perceive you’re sleeping. Reminds me so much of my two ex-wives. Neither one of them could fully endure the roller coaster thrills of a good lecture in the philosophy of the sciences, either. Perfectly charming.
Yours in logic and bliss,