Descartes' Dilemma

Descartes' dilemma was that it might all be an illusion.

What's the point of the scientific method, he said, if our senses might be overcome by illness or wishful thinking or some science-chick's really great looks? It was all good and fine for Rog or Frankie Bacon to ramble on about scientia experimentalis. But what if we can't believe our experiments because we can't believe our eyes?

Descartes decided to get at the truth by discarding any doubtable facts, including those presented by our frail human senses. The problem, it turned out, was that all the facts were doubtable. The only thing he couldn't doubt was that there was some "he" in existence doing the doubting.

This was what led him to his famous cogito ergo sum meaning "I think, therefore I am".

In another time and place, he might have stopped there, but this was 17th century Europe; definitely not the time and place to publicly express doubts. So, smart man that he was, Descartes played some games with words and pretended that he could also prove God's existence and goodness, as well as the right of powerful men to own property, collect taxes and generally run the world in whatever way they wished. ("I think, therefore I survive?")

Descartes chickened out on skepticism (wisely), and Western thought and culture pottered on until it reached the point in the 1980s when I read - in a university textbook no less! - that Descartes had come up with his fabulous theory while living in a stove. Living in a stove! Turns out, that was just a bad translation. But the fact of it, the fact that people could read this in a university and not laugh out loud, shows how far we are from embracing Descartes' notions of radical doubt.

Which may explain all the bunking and debunking and rebunking that passes for most science news these days.

One problem in the communication of uncertain science is that university research officers and journalists overwhelmingly define what's news in science as the release of a new scientific study. Everyone benefits from this negotiation of newsworthiness, as universities compete for prestige and future funding dollars while journalists file dramatic narratives on deadline.... [Yet] "true today, not true tomorrow" reporting on new health studies leads to the easy interpretation that something is wrong with the institution of science, rather than addressing a systematic bias in how research is communicated and then reported by journalists.

That's Matt Nisbet posting on Framing Science, part of the ScienceBlogs network.

It's a decent rejoinder to yet another "science news" story that's sure to twist lots of knickers. There are lots of versions out there. My current favourite is the story in today's Guardian, not least for its utter "We've been mislead, but now we know beyond any doubt" tone.

The article asks commenters to recall other "myths debunked." That yielded to some comments that suggest the paper's readers are a good deal more skeptical and light-hearted than its science columnist:

  • The old chestnuts "smoking causes cancer" and "human activity is partly responsible for global warming" are always good for a laugh - who comes up with em I say?!

  • Okay so let me get this straight -
  • 1) A headless chicken will live on without a hangover, therefore decapitation is the only definite cure for one.
    2) Lightening causes global warming (this makes sense).
    3) If you stand on the great wall of China, the only thing you can see is the moon.

"Finding the truth is difficult," wrote Ibn al-Haytham (writing in ancient Iraq and exploring scientific methods some 500 years before Descartes), "and the road to it is rough."

Tell me about it. It's like living in a stove.

P.s. More on journalists and bloggers (me!) having trouble with the facts This Winter's First Real Storm - Take 2.

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