How not to argue for relativism

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Scientific American has published a blog post by Julia Shaw on “the benefits of a post-truth society”. The title make it sound provocative but it’s actually very sloppy. Here’s how the column goes. First, citing the authority of the dictionary of all things, Shaw defines facts as things that are known or proven. Then she seems to stipulate that science is the only candidate for a means by which anything could be known or proven. And then finally, she claims (with little argument) that nothing can be known or proven by scientific means. It follows that nothing is known or proven, and so there are no facts. There are many problems with this argument, any of which is sufficient to sink the whole thing. Here I’ll limit myself to explaining four of those problems.

The first problem is that the author is equivocating by defining facts as items of knowledge. The relevant sense of the term fact is “something that is the case”; something can be the case without being known. Or at least, this seems to be what’s actually at stake in all the fuss about the idea of a post-truth/post-fact world: is anything the case independently of what people know or believe, and if not, what are the appropriate standards for knowledge and belief?

The second problem is the implicit stipulation that science is the only candidate for a means by which something could be known or proven. At the very least, some mathematical claims seem to be knowable, and the method of proving such claims does not resemble science as Shaw describes it. Certain other claims are knowable by direct experience — “I am thinking”, for example. The stipulated claim is false.

The third problem is the claim that science cannot yield knowledge. Shaw says this is because science cannot prove things. Rather, science proceeds by inference from repeated observations. This can be interpreted two ways. On the first interpretation, this is simply circular, because proof is being used just to mean whatever justifies regarding some proposition as an item of knowledge. To say that science cannot prove things is just to restate the claim that science cannot yield knowledge. And on the second interpretation, the argument is badly underdeveloped, because Shaw fails to explain what the relevant standard of proof is and why it cannot be met by inference from repeated observations. What would it even mean for an inference from accurate observations to be justified if not for the inference to be appropriately regarded as true?

The fourth problem — the bottom line, really — is that this column is just a massive cheat. As proof (heh) that a post-truth/post-fact world is nothing to worry about, Shaw points out that she wrote a whole book about science without using the terms “fact” and “truth”. But as it turns out this is not so much because she has a radically revisionary conception of the relation between science and reality but rather because she can use a thesaurus. Instead of truth, fact, proof and knowledge, Shaw instead speaks of “understanding”, “insight”, “break[ing] down … illusions”, being “more right”, and “what the universe really looks like”. But the latter terms are used in such a way that they can be substituted with the former to yield what is clearly just a restatement of the truth/fact paradigm she purports to be challenging. In the end, her argument against the ordinary understanding of truth and fact actually turns out to be a reaffirmation of it.

In my view, a far more appropriate response to the realities of human fallibility and widespread disagreement about what the world is like that ostensibly motivate Shaw’s turn to relativism would be a stance that it is often confused with but in fact stands in stark opposition: simple intellectual humility. How arrogant to rush to the conclusion that our failure to bring the scientific enterprise to completion in short order is attributable to the universe’s shortcomings — its failure to contain such things as facts — and not to our own. Widespread disagreement and fallibility are exactly what would we should expect if there are such things as facts but humans are limited in time, space, and perceptual and intellectual capability. In the face of these limitations we should adopt a critical attitude to our beliefs, strive to correct biases that can steer us wrong, carefully scrutinize our observations and the inferences we make from them, respectfully consider each other’s perspectives, and reconcile ourselves to the possibility that some truths may be forever beyond our reach. If there are no facts, its difficult to see why we should be cultivate this kind of humility; it seems to be warranted precisely because there are such things as facts, by virtue of which our beliefs about what is the case can be wrong.

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