Check Your Premises

 Posted by on 29 May 2008 at 11:16 pm  Epistemology, Science
May 292008

In a lengthy post entitled Dissecting Epistemology, Monica challenges the objectivity of many of our supposedly scientific beliefs about the world. She writes,

Apart from the obvious idea that much of science is ideologically driven, many scientists – irrespective of any underlying, driving ideology – have deliberately cooked data and managed to get it published in scientific journals for no other reason than the fact that they are second-handed and they want to be right. And of course, scientific history is also rife with examples of new ideas taking time to become established in the mainstream due to a lack of objectivity in the scientific community. Just take that “quacky” idea that bacteria might cause ulcers!! We scientists “know” that bacteria can’t inhabit stomach acid!? Right?? Most commonly of all, in my opinion, is not intellectual dishonesty but the fact that shoddy science is done all the time and people just fail to fully and objectively evaluate that research. Sometimes, those claims then end up becoming part of the “objective scientific consensus” that persists for 50 years.

To say, “I’ve not studied the issue, so I just don’t know,” is often the most objective, the most self-aware, and the most honest reply possible to an inquiry. Sometimes, it’s also the hardest reply.

In my judgment, even though I’m an ardent advocate of evolutionary theory, Ayn Rand exhibited exactly that kind of objectivity in her statement on evolution in her essay “The Missing Link” in Philosophy: Who Needs It. She wrote, “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent.” I’ve seen that statement harshly criticized in some corners of the internet, as if Ayn Rand were obliged to swallow the standard scientific account of man’s origins — without any study of the facts of the matter. That’s completely wrong: it’s a demand to accept a theory on faith, just because it’s endorsed by a sufficiently large number of supposed authorities. Ayn Rand refused to be that kind of epistemic second-hander. Instead, she formed her own judgments based on her actual knowledge. As a result of that method, she effectively challenged two millennia of altruism in ethics. That’s the kind of insight that scrupulous objectivity — not to mention a large helping genius — makes possible.

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