One can take scientism too far. No, science is not “true” whether or not you believe in it, and science is not the only way of knowing, in no sensible definition of the words.Unfortunately, the phrase “Science is not the only way of knowing” has usually been thrown at me, triumphantly, by various people in defense of their belief in omnipotent things or other superstitions. And I will admit that my reflex is to say you’ll never know anything unless it’s been scientifically proved to be correct, to some limited accuracy with appropriate error bars.
So I am writing this blogpost is to teach myself to be more careful in defense of science, and to acknowledge that other ways of knowing exist, though they are not, as this interesting list suggests, LSD, divination via oujia boards, Shamanic journeying, or randomly opening the Bible and reading something.
Before we can argue though, we have to clarify what we mean with science and knowledge.
The question “What is science?” has been discussed extensively and, philosophers being philosophers, I don’t think it will ever be settled. Instead of defining science, let me therefore just describe it in a way that captures reality very well: Science is what scientists do. Scientists form a community of practice that shares common ethics, ethics that aren’t typically written down, which is why defining science proper is so difficult. These common ethics are what is usually referred to as the scientific method, the formulation of hypothesis and the test against experiment. Science, then, is the process that this community drives.
This general scientific method, it must be emphasized, is not the only shared ethics in the scientific community. Parts of the community have their own guidelines for good scientific conduct, that are additional procedures and requirements which have shown to work well in advancing the process of finding and testing good hypotheses. Peer review is one such added procedure, guidelines for statistical significance or the conduct of clinical trials are others. While the scientific method does not forbid it, random hypothesis will generally not even be considered because of their low chances of success. Instead, a new hypothesis is expected to live up to the standards of the day. In physics this means for example that your hypothesis must meet high demands on mathematical consistency.
The success of science comes from the community acting as an adaptive system on the development of models of nature. There is a variation (the formulation of new hypothesis), a feedback (test of the hypothesis) and a response (discard, keep, or amend). This process of arriving at increasingly successful scientific theories is not unlike natural selection that results in increasingly successful life forms. It’s just that in science the variation in the pool of ideas is stronger regulated than the variation in the pool of genes.
That brings us to the question what we mean with knowledge. Strictly speaking you never know anything, except possible that you don’t know anything. The problem is not in the word ‘knowing’ but in the word ‘you’ – that still mysterious emergent phenomenon built of billions of interacting neurons. It takes but a memory lapse or a hallucination and suddenly you will question whether reality is what it seems to be. But let me leave aside the shortcomings of human information processing and the fickle notion of consciousness and knowledge becomes the storage of facts about reality, empirical facts.
You might argue that there are facts about fantasy or fiction, but the facts that we have about them are not facts about these fictions but about the real representations of that fiction. You do not know that Harry Potter flew on a broom, you know that a person called Rowling wrote about a boy called Harry who flew on broom. In a sense, everything you can imagine is real, provided that you believe yourself to be real. It is real as a pattern in your neural activity, you just have to be careful then in stating exactly what it is that you “know”.
Let us call knowledge “scientific knowledge” if it was obtained by the scientific method applied by what we refer to as scientists’ methods in the broader sense. Science is then obviously a way to arrive at knowledge, but it is also obviously not the only way. If you go out on the street, you know whether it is raining. You could make this into a scientific process with a documented random controlled trial and peer reviewed statistical analysis, but nobody in their right mind would do this. The reason is that the methods used to gather and evaluate the data (your sensorial processing) are so reliable most people don’t normally question them, at least not when sober.
This is true for a lot of “knowledge”, that you might call trivial knowledge, for example you know how to spell “knowledge”. This isn’t scientific knowledge, it’s something you learned in school together with hundreds of millions of other people, and you can look it up in a dictionary. You don’t formulate the spelling as a hypothesis that you test against data because there is very little doubt about it in your mind and in anybody’s mind. It isn’t an interesting hypothesis for the scientific community to bother with.
That then brings us to the actually interesting question, whether there is non-trivial knowledge that is not scientific knowledge. Yes, there is, because science isn’t the only procedure in which hypothesis are formulated and tested against data. Think again of natural selection. The human brain is pretty good for example at extrapolating linear motion or the trajectories of projectiles. This knowledge seems to be hardwired, even infants have it, and it contains a fair bit of science, a fair bit of empirical facts: Balls don’t just stop flying in midair and drop to the ground. You know that. And this knowledge most likely came about because it was of evolutionary advantage, not because you read it in a textbook.
Now you might not like to refer to it as knowledge if it is hardwired, but similar variation and selection processes take place in our societies all the time outside of science. Much of it is know-how, handcrafts, professional skills, or arts, that are handed down through generations. We take expert’s advice seriously (well, some of us, anyway) because we assume they have undergone many iterations of trial and error. The experts, they are not of course infallible, but we have good reason to expect their advice to be based on evidence that we call experience. Expert knowledge is integrated knowledge about many facts. It is real knowledge, and it is often useful knowledge, it just hasn’t been obtained in an organized and well-documented way as science would require.
You can count to this non-scientific knowledge for example also the knowledge that you have about your own body and/or people you live together with closely. This is knowledge you have gathered and collected over a long time and it is knowledge that is very valuable for your doctor should you need help. But it isn’t knowledge that you find in the annals of science. It is also presently not knowledge that is very well documented, though with all the personalized biotracking this may be changing.
Now these ways of knowing are not as reliable as scientific knowledge because they do not live up to the standards of the day – they are not carefully formulated and tested hypothesis, and they are not documented in written reports. But this doesn’t mean they are no knowledge at all. When your grandma taught you to make a decent yeast dough, the recipe hadn’t come from a scientific journal. It had come through countless undocumented variations and repetitions, hundreds of trials and errors – a process much like science and yet not science.
And so you may know how to do something without knowing why this is a good way to do it. Indeed, it is often such non-scientific knowledge that leads to the formulation of interesting hypotheses that confirm or falsify explanations of causal relations.
In summary: Science works by testing ideas against evidence and using the results as feedbacks to improvements. Science is the organized way of using this feedback loop to increase our knowledge about the real world, but it isn’t the only way. Testing ideas against reality and learning from the results is a process that is used in many other areas of our societies too. The knowledge obtained in this way is not as reliable as scientific knowledge, but it is useful and in many cases constitutes a basis for good scientific hypotheses.