Artillery Row

What is truth?

Banging on about “the methods of science” is not a good argument

This week Richard Dawkins had another crack at an increasingly salient question: “What is truth?” Yet he didn’t answer it. Dawkins has spent decades posing that question, without practically answering it. His job title from 1995 was Professor for Public Understanding of Science. Great as he is at advocating for science, he hasn’t practically defined science either.

In 2011, Dawkins produced a children’s book on “how we know what’s really true.” This defines “reality” as “the facts of the real world as understood through the methods of science.”

Dawkins has always neglected argument as a method of reaching truth

Defining “reality” in terms of “real” is circular. Furthermore, reducing facts to products of “science” won’t work with anyone smarting from the false promise to “follow the science” on Covid-19, or the conflicting “scientific” advice on eating sugar versus fat. That’s before we try to argue with the critical theorists and postmodernists who assert that “the methods of science” perpetuate traditional structures and systems of power.

Dawkins has always neglected argument as a method of reaching truth. In my own teaching, good argument contributes to good science. Yet we do not need the methods of science to build a good argument. And a good argument can elicit truth without recourse to science.

For instance, consider the untruth in a defendant’s claim to have never heard of the victim but to know the victim as a liar. The defendant’s claim contains a contradiction. It is thus illogical. The principal rule of logic is that an argument must be internally consistent. In addition to the formal fallacies of illogic, we should watch for informal fallacies, such as circularity. Dawkins teaches none of the fallacies. Worse, he routinely commits fallacies.

Dawkins is a beautiful communicator, but a disappointing arguer. He often claims to be misunderstood, but also admits some responsibility. For instance, by choosing the title The Selfish Gene (for a book published in 1976), he reduced a metaphor for evolution to three words, but also opened himself to misinterpretation and attack – as if he were asserting that genes had emotions or reasonings.

The God Delusion (2006) was insulting to the religious, for whom their culture, at least, is not a delusion. Even atheists can appreciate the culture without being delusional. Moreover, atheists can find truths in religious dogma, such as the risks of sexual promiscuity.

Dawkins’ book for children is confusingly titled: The Magic of Reality. In the first chapter, Dawkins admits that “magic is a slippery word.” He then defines magic in three ways, of which he applies “poetic magic” to reality: “an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works.” There is beauty in his expression, but no guide to reality.

Thus, Dawkins fails ontologically. He fails epistemologically too: he doesn’t deliver on his promise to tell us “how we know what’s really true.” The book is really a long collection of observations of natural phenomena, with some cursory philosophy thrown in. At best, it is phenomenological.

Observation is an inherent part of the scientific process, so I am confused why Dawkins doesn’t tell us how to be good observers ­– except by telling us to be scientific, which he almost always reduces to controlled experiment.

Observation is necessary to any method of science, but science is not necessary to observation. If you want to be sure of your personal observations (what you see, handle, hear, taste), your due diligence starts with philosophical checks (such as clarifying definitions and categories) and psychological checks (mindfulness of potential misperceptions and biases).

Courts of law do not need controlled experiments when they admit witnesses. The court can interrogate the reliability of the witness. The court can find evidence for reliability in the testimony, i.e., in the witness’ argument. The interrogation itself is a form of argument. Courts do not need the methods of science to find fallacies in argument.

Courts might reach for the methods of science to confirm material evidence. However, science itself is an inaccurate standard by which to judge all truth. Reliable personal observation is one standard, as we have seen. Replicable observation is the next standard of truth. A court attempts this when it admits a witness to corroborate another witness.

Empiricism, at base, is replicable observation. Dawkins does not define empiricism so practically. He does not even define science practically. For me, science is any replicable way of verifying knowledge. In other words, it is the process of achieving empiricism.

Dawkins leaves the layperson without any practical understanding of science

There are many ways to be replicable, but there are other dimensions to worry about, such as reliability – which is why controls are desirable. But there are reasons to resist controls, such as naturalness of observation. Dawkins tells you nothing of this trade-off. By constantly asserting the controlled experiment, he leaves the public ignorant of the trade-off (unnaturalness), and of simpler methods (such as uncontrolled experiment).

Worse, by not defining science (except circularly), Dawkins leaves the layperson without any practical understanding of science – except (illustratively) as this phenomenon, that phenomenon, or controlled experiments in general.

Finally, by setting up science as a foil to “superstition,” he encourages the public into a binary view of truth that misses the nuances in between (such as intuition).

I am surprised Dawkins has not redressed this gap during the nineteen years since his children’s book. Dawkins produced three memoirs in five years (2011-2015) – increasingly egocentric and long-winded reprises of his prior works, with false confidence in everything from the decline of violence to the solidity of his marriage. Learning nothing from the critics, he followed up with “selected writings” in 2017, and “a beginner’s guide” to giving up religion (2019).

This week, Dawkins gave The Spectator an article starting with the exciting question, “What is truth?” “Finally!” I thought. Alas, he answered: “the kind of truth that a commission of inquiry or a jury was designed to establish.” This is another circular answer. Immediately, he adds another: “scientific truth is of this commonsense kind.” No definitions follow.

Even within his own field, Dawkins does not define truth. He fairly attacks the woke denial of DNA (because white men discovered it, with that tool of white male power – the controlled experiment). But Dawkins does not provide a practical alternative. Dawkins asserts: “DNA is a fact.” Then he describes the structure of DNA, as if description is proof. And he keeps bringing up the controlled experiment as the arbiter of truth. Dawkins is not a practical guide to truth.

As I teach it, truth is an accurate understanding or communication of things as they are. To counter the declining consensus on what is true, we need to champion objectivity (independence of personal experience and judgments). To agree on objectivity, we should argue logically and empirically.

That’s why progressive dogma about bringing “respect” back to discourse is a false promise – and self-serving too (note the vacuousness of “respect”). Banging on about the methods of science is also a false promise.

What we need is a good argument. Progressives deny argument by asserting their consensus ­– and then cancelling anyone who objects. Dawkins denies argument by banging on about the methods of science. We need to learn how to deliver a good argument before we can agree on good science.

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