Brief thoughts on analogies

Apologies for the unusually crappy blogging this week. With the arrival of a replacement from my lost/stolen laptop, I should catch up on the 12,000 unread items in NetNewsWire soon, and return to normal crappy blogging.

In any event, Chad Orzel replies to last week’s ruckus over “ways of knowing” by observing that “Using Analogies on the Internet Is Like Doing a Really Futile Thing“:

No matter what the analogy is, any attempt to use analogy, simile, metaphor, or any other lofty rhetorical technique in a debate being conducted on the Internet is doomed to end badly. No matter how carefully you set up your analogy, somebody will come along and interpret it in the most stupidly literal way possible, find some tiny point where it fails to correspond perfectly with the actual topic of discussion, and decide that this disagreement is an utterly devastating counter-argument to whatever point you were trying to make.If the topic is anything remotely controversial, like religion or politics, tens of somebodys will jump on the stupidly literal interpretation, and arguments about the validity of the analogy will come to totally dominate the discussion.

This is incredibly frustrating, because argument by analogy is a tool with a long and distinguished history among intelligent people debating topics in good faith. On the Internet, though, it fails every time, or close enough that it makes no difference. ?

There are only two ways to go with this: either abandon the use of analogies entirely, or refuse to engage those who are only interested in quibbling with the analogy. Any other course of action risks disaster, in the form of complete distraction from the important argument to some complex squabble over trivialities.

The first option is impossible. Everything we do winds up touching on metaphor, metonym, and other such devices. Indeed, Douglas Hofstadter has argued credibly that the ability to understand analogies and engage in analogical reasoning is a (perhaps the) hallmark of intelligence. So abandoning metaphor entirely is giving up a key component of intelligent thought, not just of intelligent conversation.

This brings us back to the point about ways of knowing, at least in passing. We learn things through metaphor and analogy, some of which can’t be learned in other ways, or can’t be learned as easily. Thus, reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is hard, and doesn’t necessarily foster a deep appreciation for and adoption of a sensible approach to learning how to be an ethical person. Reading Huckleberry Finn is easier, and is more likely to produce a particular outlook on ethics, not to mention race, class, adolescence, and a host of real-world ethical dilemmas. This is because the reader is able to see Huck’s similarity to him- or herself, and is able to see an analogy between Huck’s moral and ethical dilemmas and those of our 21st century lives. Thus, we learn about ethics by analogy more clearly than we do via direct lecture and abstract logic.

Because I think metaphor, analogy, metonymy, and other literary/rhetorical devices matter, I can’t abandon them. And because they matter, I can’t abandon people who would rather ignore these approaches to reality. If the goal of this blog is to be at all educational, one hopes that a vigorous defense of of analogy will serve some salutary effect in the difficulties people have with analogical thinking, whether they be religious fundamentalists bent on Biblical literalism, or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave W.
    September 23, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    This brings us back to the point about ways of knowing, at least in passing. We learn things through metaphor and analogy, some of which can’t be learned in other ways, or can’t be learned as easily.

    It seems to me that has nothing at all to do with “ways of knowing” (not even in passing) and everything to do with “ways of teaching” and/or “ways of learning.” I doubt you’ll get an argument that there are not many valid “ways of teaching.”

    And again, this seems to confuse conveyance of knowledge (ways of teaching) with the discernment of knowledge (ways of knowing). “Because my teacher told me so” (or, “because the book said so”) is, in general, a pretty poor “way of knowing” by your own definition.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    September 23, 2009

    It seems to me that has nothing at all to do with “ways of knowing” (not even in passing) and everything to do with “ways of teaching” and/or “ways of learning.”

    That would be true if one abandoned a metaphor once one “knew” a thing. But I’m not sure this is true (I’m also not a psychologist, so I don’t have any real expertise).

  3. #3 vileseagulls
    September 24, 2009

    !!! You made an analogy about learning ethics. I fail to see how this relates to discussion on the internet! Therefore your post is invalid.

  4. #4 Stephen P
    September 24, 2009

    There is a world of difference between using an analogy to clarify a statement and using it as a method of argument.

    Once you have established the validity of a statement with your intellectual peers, it is fine to use an analogy to explain it to a wider audience.

    It is also fine to use an analogy to identify statements which it might be worth trying to validate.

    But analogy is definitely not an appropriate tool for demonstrating the truth of a statement. Argument by analogy is a logical fallacy.

  5. #5 Ophelia Benson
    September 24, 2009

    Well I was going to say exactly what Dave W said, but I see Dave W said it, so I don’t have to.

    But really, Josh – teaching is not the same thing as knowing. Communication is communication, it’s not a ‘way of knowing.’ These distinctions do matter.

  6. #6 Random Reader
    September 24, 2009

    Glad to see some people expressing the same thoughts I had.

    Josh – Can you address this distinction between “ways of knowing” and “ways of learning”? Do you not understand the difference, or do you have good reasons to reject it? Either way, I’d like it if you said something about this.

  7. #7 Wes
    September 24, 2009

    But analogy is definitely not an appropriate tool for demonstrating the truth of a statement. Argument by analogy is a logical fallacy.

    Analogies actually can be used for valid argumentation, so long as they rely on isomorphism. Darwin’s argument for natural selection, for example, relied heavily on an analogy with artificial selection, and to good effect.

    But that’s neither here nor there. Josh’s complaint is a red herring. The atheists he’s referring to probably have books like The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable on their bookshelves. They’re perfectly capable of recognizing and understanding an analogy.

    Objecting to an analogy’s validity is also a perfectly good form of argument in cases where the analogy is thought to be misleading or inappropriate. And in the case of the stories about vampires, it’s just a bad analogy. There’s a big difference between reading fiction and practicing a religion. Truth-claims associated with fiction are generally about one’s own personal feelings or social/political views. But religion makes metaphysical truth claims.

    If someone used a work of fiction–say, Huckleberry Finn–to argue for a metaphysical claim, I think any sensible person would object. No amount of fictional work can be evidence of the existence of god, an afterlife, angels, miracles, the soul, or whatever else.

    If slacktivist said that reading a vampire story helped him realize the importance of some ethical truth, I would commend him. If he then said that the same story also taught him that Cartesian dualism is true, I’d think he must have lost his mind.

  8. #8 Norwegian Shooter
    September 24, 2009

    Can we please excuse metaphor from this debate? It is entirely innocent of all charges against analogy.

  9. #9 jrshipley
    September 24, 2009

    Is the Bible analogous to Huck Finn because both are works of fiction?

  10. #10 Michael Fugate
    September 24, 2009

    “If the goal of this blog is to be at all educational, one hopes that a vigorous defense of of analogy will serve some salutary effect in the difficulties people have with analogical thinking, whether they be religious fundamentalists bent on Biblical literalism, or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.”

    How do you know these fundamentalists and atheists are wrong?

  11. #11 Tulse
    September 24, 2009

    We learn things through metaphor and analogy, some of which can’t be learned in other ways, or can’t be learned as easily.

    But only if we draw the right analogies, or understand the metaphors correctly. And the only way we determine if we are right and correct is if the analogies and metaphors actually map onto the real world. In other words, analogies and metaphors can’t teach us anything that we couldn’t learn from empirical observation. It may be easier to learn through analogies and metaphors, but that’s a completely different issue, one of pedagogy and not empiricism.

    And how does one decide what the right metaphor or analogy actually is for a given piece of work? To return to an example I’ve used several times before (but which Joshua has yet to address) I can argue that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a metaphor for Aryan pride, and the importance of fighting against immigration and race-mixing. Is there any objective way to argue that that is an inappropriate interpretation?

  12. #12 Paul Murray
    September 24, 2009

    “or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.”

    Let’s all together now fling around accusations that everyone else is erecting straw men! I’ll join in.

    Yes, I think that the “true form of religion” is anthropomphisation, but that is not the same as thinking that it is biblical literalism.

    To me, atheism means that I think that when people pray, there is nothing on the other end of the phone. The soul of theism is that God not only exists, but that cares for us – or at least has opinions about us. He has emotions towards us, he has intentions, he thinks and feels. That he (or they) is, at the end of the day, a person who communicates and whom we can communicate with.

    That is: God may not have a human-shaped body, as does the primitive deity of genesis, who lives on top of the sky and came down to walk in the garden with Adam in the cool of the evening, but he *is* a human-shaped soul. A person.

    Sure, philosophers and theologians construct notions that they call “God”, but yes – you are right – I think it’s all a load of old hooey with very little to do with the real world and with what people actually believe. If you can’t pray to it, if you can’t petition it for help, if it doesn’t have ideas on how you ought to behave, then what you are practising isn’t really religion.

    And yes, I think that many of these theologians and philosophers are being dishonest – mainly with themselves. Because I think that when trouble strikes, when their kids are ill or missing for two days, they’re on their knees praying to their father who art in heaven.

    It doesn’t have to be biblical literalism to be nonsense. But religion – the *practise* of religion, is devotional.

  13. #13 Notagod
    September 24, 2009

    I too like analogy. Christianity is like bullshit, both stink to high hell. Now since I have make an analogy I must be correct. Plus there is reference to the christian hell idea so added points there for sure.

  14. #14 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Notagod: I note in passing that analogies are not inherently true, but are often useful. For instance, bullshit may stink, but flowers grow out of it. I guess your analogy means that Christianity is unpleasant, but has good effects on society. An interesting, though debatable, position. Thanks for sharing.

  15. #15 Dave W.
    September 24, 2009

    Ophelia Benson wrote:

    Well I was going to say exactly what Dave W said, but I see Dave W said it, so I don’t have to.

    And I’ve been saying it for a week now.

    I think I must be confused. Perhaps the real analogy is that “literary truth” is just a metaphor for some other kind of truth that Mr. Rosenau simply hasn’t mentioned yet. So when he says or implies that books offer another “way of knowing,” he really means something else entirely, but hasn’t given us the map with which the rest of us can complete the analogy. As if I were to say, “apples are a metaphor, and there are easy ways to eat apples and difficult ways to eat apples.” Without a referent (“apples are like a ____”), it makes no sense.

    Or is Rosenau using the Chewbacca Defense on us?

  16. #16 IanW
    September 24, 2009

    “…atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.”

    Well you just lost me Josh. I’m sorry but when you start pulling out the ridiculous slurs, you’ve lost any credibility.

  17. #17 Art
    September 24, 2009

    IMHO the critical point here is not argument by analogy or not; it is that arguing, often just discussing, issues of any kind with people who argue in bad faith is a waste of time.

    The simple fact is that much of the rhetoric of the right these days is intended to be glorified word salad and entirely beyond logic or reason. The intent is to end, not win, debate. When one side is ideologically burdened by articles of faith that are empty, counterproductive and illogical but which simultaneously cannot be questioned the only thing that side can do is to disengage. Engagement and honest debate in good faith risks having to examine the assumptions and articles of faith that each sides hold. The tight cannot abide self examination because thee articles of faith are clearly, demonstrably, false. Open admission of this would shatter the party.

    So the strategy is to go through the motions of engagement but to offer only empty slogans, baseless critiques and non sequiturs. Purposeful failure to comprehend and critique of analogy that becomes an exercise in itself is part of this strategy of non-engagment and distraction. When inevitably laughter, exasperation and calls of bad faith come up they are followed by accusations that we are not taking them seriously, are failing to compromise, aren’t being bipartisan. Which is more distraction and besides the point.

    I agree your not going to get far very fast by avoiding all analogies. I think the point here is to use analogies as well as you can but to quickly decide if a critique of an analogy is undertaken in good faith or not. If not then the person, or group is clearly not arguing in god faith and they can be safely ignored.

    In the end the discussion of use or non-use of analogy is not about the use of them at all. It is about honing skills in identifying if an argument is undertaken in good faith or not.

    The right is frequently arguing in bad faith as a way of avoiding or delaying having to examine itself, its assumptions, and its articles of faith. That is an exercise that has to be undertaken within the party itself among the faithful.

    The right wants non-engagement but, at the same time, wants to seem engaged and active. It wants the rhetorical fight without any thought, consideration or debate. In part because the political leaders can use this pseudo-debate as a distraction within the party itself. Bumper stick slogans used to keep the party faithful from thinking too deeply about what it all means.

    When a party argues in bad faith the only logical thing to do is walk away. This ends the war of words between political parties and gives them a small measure of silence for their party faithful to consider the coherence of their system. Disengagement can be seen as encouraging the self-examination their leaders with to avoid.

  18. #18 Random Reader
    September 24, 2009

    Josh – Why is it that when you take the time to reply to a comment, you only reply to the one that looks to be rather sarcastic (which you then, interestingly enough, take literally)? Why not reply to the more substantive comments?

  19. #19 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    RR: I’m formulating more substantive responses to other people. When something gets caught in a filter I get notified, and that goads me to action. It’s not the best system.

  20. #20 scote
    September 24, 2009

    ” If the goal of this blog is to be at all educational, one hopes that a vigorous defense of of analogy will serve some salutary effect in the difficulties people have with analogical thinking, whether they be religious fundamentalists bent on Biblical literalism, or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.”

    This is a non sequitur. Defending the legitimacy of argument by analogy does not in any way affect biblical literalism.

    You can argue that the bible is metaphorical or what not, but that has nothing to do with claims of what constitutes a “true form” of religion. Because religion is based on assertion rather than evidence, “true” religion is whatever a believer says it is, and thus biblical literalism is very much a “true form” of religion, and one embraced utterly by millions of Christians. You can argue that such literalism is misplaced, unfounded, etc., and that it is factually untrue, but you can’t reasonably argue that it isn’t true **religion**.

  21. #21 The Other Josh
    September 24, 2009

    atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.

    Name one. I’ve never made that claim, and I’ve never seen another atheist make it, either.

    You’ve gone from obfuscation to outright dishonesty.

  22. #22 Badger3k
    September 24, 2009

    Scote – “You can argue that such literalism is misplaced, unfounded, etc., and that it is factually untrue, but you can’t reasonably argue that it isn’t true **religion**.”

    Josh pretty much did when he said he rejected (more or less) the Nicene creed as Christian Doctrine (or at least Catholic) for some metaphorical pap spouted by some Jesuit philosopher, merely because, apparently, Josh favored it. If that isn’t arguing that the belief in a physical, literal resurrection is not a Catholic belief, then I’m not sure what is (even though I think that it is a horrible argument, it still can be used as such by some – argument by preference?)

  23. #23 MadScientist
    September 24, 2009

    I’d add idioms to the list. As for analogies – analogies are like diapers, sometimes they’re empty and sometimes they’re just full of it.

  24. #24 Josh Rosenau
    September 24, 2009

    Several people object to the line about “atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.” I should clarify that this is by no means meant to imply that all atheists think this. I’ve seen several (Jason Rosenhouse, to cite one example) praise fundamentalist interpretations, while obviously finding them utterly wrong (e.g. http://scienceblogs.com/evolutionblog/2007/01/harris_vs_sullivan.php). Sam Harris’s style of argument also strikes me as presuming this point, since he treats religious moderates as an unpleasant rump to the real religious people: fundamentalists. Without that assumption, I just don’t see how you get to arguing that moderates justify fundamentalists.

    Much discussion above also about distinguishing “conveyance of knowledge (ways of teaching) with the discernment of knowledge (ways of knowing).” An interesting distinction, but not a bright line. Certainly, teaching produces knowledge, so a way of learning (of being taught) ought to be a way of knowing.

    How do I know pretty much anything I know about physics? Not from research in physics, from experiments I’ve conducted, but from some physicist or physics teacher telling me about it. Epistemologists recognize testimony as a valid form of justification for beliefs, so there’s really no philosophical issue there. Indeed, it’s worth noting (as I have elsewhere) that the term “way of knowing” derives from the pedagogical literature, not from the epistemological literature. I suspect that’s where it entered the discussion, with Eugenie Scott adopting that phrase from a different context to try to express something about the different ways we can gather (and convey, perhaps) truth claims. On very good advice from other commenters and bloggers, I’m going to try to move away from the term, as it seems to introduce more confusion than clarity.

    Wes: “If someone used a work of fiction–say, Huckleberry Finn–to argue for a metaphysical claim, I think any sensible person would object. No amount of fictional work can be evidence of the existence of god, an afterlife, angels, miracles, the soul, or whatever else.”

    Um, I think it’s pretty reasonable to say that Mark Twain meant Huck Finn at least in part as an argument for the metaphysical wrongness of slavery, and for a series of related ethical claims. Why else preface it with: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I’d argue that morals, narratives, and plots, are all metaphysical in some sense. I think you are making a narrower claim. Perhaps “supernatural” rather than “metaphysical”?

    Tulse: I’ve now addressed Aryan Buffy in the original thread. I agree that analogies are only useful “if we draw the right analogies, or understand the metaphors correctly. And the only way we determine if we are right and correct is if the analogies and metaphors actually map onto the real world. In other words, analogies and metaphors can’t teach us anything that we couldn’t learn from empirical observation. It may be easier to learn through analogies and metaphors, but that’s a completely different issue, one of pedagogy and not empiricism.”

    Perhaps, but that’s a fine line. Most people don’t learn about science through empiricism, they learn it through pedagogy. Heck, even scientists learn most of what they know by reading what other people say about it. The peer review system and conventions of scientific writing tend to quash literary flights of fancy (though as others note, Darwin deployed analogy successfully in the Origin and the recognition that two situations are similar often forms the start of a scientific investigation and its explanation in print), but still, scientists have to rely on the testimony of witnesses to an empirical investigation quite often.

    So one can’t reject religion simply by noting that religious experience is largely transmitted through testimonial methods, rather through empirical experience. Furthermore, religious people do evaluate whether a religion’s claims match their own experience, even if that’s a question of emotional experience. When you push these questions, it isn’t so hard to see similarities, if not quite analogies, between science as an enterprise and (some forms of) religion as an enterprise. Different norms and traditions, different ways of evaluating claims, just as literature, math, and philosophy use different norms, standards, and techniques, but the similarities are worth exploring, too.

  25. #25 Jim Thomerson
    September 24, 2009

    An appropriate analogy may clarify an argument. An inapproprate analogy will probably obfusicate. But in neither case does an analogy test the argument. One cannot falsify by analogy.

  26. #26 Notagod
    September 24, 2009

    Josh Rosenau@14, flowers also grow without bullshit and bulls also eat flowers. To follow your example we could have a good society without the stink of the christian and the delicate flowers could grow without being eaten.

  27. #27 Matti K.
    September 25, 2009

    “If the goal of this blog is to be at all educational, one hopes that a vigorous defense of of analogy will serve some salutary effect in the difficulties people have with analogical thinking, whether they be religious fundamentalists bent on Biblical literalism, or atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion.”

    Who tells me what is the “true form” of religion” Mr. Roseanau? Mr. Mooney? NCSE?

    Or is the “true form” somehow related to the development of science? Like that the “true form” is a dynamic structure that emerges from religions when parts clearly incompatatible with science are effectively scrapped from their dogma?

  28. #28 Tyrone Slothrop
    September 25, 2009

    I’ll readily concede that I know jack shit about anything, but – doesn’t science make use af analogies as well? May info is probably severely outdated, but I have often been told that light, for instance is sometimes best understood as behaving like particles, and at other times best understood as behaving like a wave.

    How is this not analogy?

    If one were to argue that light is both at the same time and that the wave/particle dichotomy is therefore an accurate description concerning a matter of fact that is merely to complicated for the human mind to understand without the use of, er… analogy… then, er… we’ve only established the usefulness of analogies again, haven’t we?

  29. #29 Tusle
    September 25, 2009

    Man, Josh, your last comment is perhaps the most muddled thinking I’ve seen on these issues — is that the standard that the NCSE has for its staff?

    Let’s start with:

    he treats religious moderates as an unpleasant rump to the real religious people: fundamentalists. Without that assumption, I just don’t see how you get to arguing that moderates justify fundamentalists.

    The argument is not about what is “real” religion, but whether the philosophical underpinnings of moderate beliefs serve to support and legitimize the more extreme aspects of religious belief. The atheist argument is not that fundamentalists are somehow the “true” form of religion, but that both fundamentalists and moderates make indefensible assumptions as to how the world works, and moderates thus provide cover and support for their fundamentalist co-believers. This really isn’t a complicated argument, and it in no way requires some notion that one type of religion is “truer” than another (and I really don’t understand what that claim is even supposed to mean).

    Certainly, teaching produces knowledge, so a way of learning (of being taught) ought to be a way of knowing.

    Holy crap, you work for the National Center for Science Education and make this idiotic statement? Teaching conveys knowledge to individuals, but it in no way produces new knowledge for humanity as a whole. The whole question we’re wrestling with is whether a conveyed belief should count as “knowledge” if it has not been justified by some objective means (that is, if there is not some broader warrant for its truth). Teaching doesn’t do that — it conveys beliefs which may or may not be true, and what counts as actual knowing requires some broader justification.

    How do I know pretty much anything I know about physics? Not from research in physics, from experiments I’ve conducted, but from some physicist or physics teacher telling me about it. Epistemologists recognize testimony as a valid form of justification for beliefs, so there’s really no philosophical issue there.

    This is just so wrong I don’t know where to start. Epistemologists only recognize certain kinds of testimony as justification, namely, testimony which itself has justification. After all, if your physics teacher taught you that Guatamalans started WWII, or that whales are actually fish, presumably you’d agree that you’d have far less warrant to believe that their claims are true because they are outside of their area of expertise, areas where you have less justification for believing that they have knowledge. We have very complex and sophisticated systems of education and certification to ensure that particular individuals are seen as having justification for the claims they make, without us having to replicate their work ourselves. But the point about science is that, with the resources and background, anyone could replicate that work — science is not a matter of personal testimony, and the “justification” that we grant to scientists who make claims is parasitic on their societally-granted warrant.

    So no, being taught by a physics teacher is not just “testimonial”, certainly not like the testimony of those who make religious claims. In the latter case, the only warrant those people have is their personal experience, which has no formal cultural structure which ensures its veracity behind it. Again, I find it dumbfounding that someone who works for a major national science advocacy organization could be the least bit confused on this point.

  30. #30 gillt
    September 25, 2009

    Josh says: “”conveyance of knowledge (ways of teaching) with the discernment of knowledge (ways of knowing).” An interesting distinction, but not a bright line. Certainly, teaching produces knowledge, so a way of learning (of being taught) ought to be a way of knowing.”"

    So you admit there’s a distinction between teaching and knowing, but go right ahead and deny the same distinction in the following sentence.

    I’m sure you understand that “conveyance” and “produces” are not the same. One means to communicate, the other to generate. Contradicting yourself aside, I’m not at all convinced that teaching generates knowledge; rather, teaching communicates previously generated knowledge.

    Josh: “scientists have to rely on the testimony of witnesses to an empirical investigation quite often.”

    What? No we don’t. Ever heard of Journal Club? Something all scientists should be familiar with if not in name then in practice. Take something published in the literature, look at the data in the paper, and decide whether or not the data supports the author’s interpretation. We don’t rely on witness testimony, we rely on data and remain skeptical of testimony.

  31. #31 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Gillt: Why are you distinguishing data in someone’s paper from “testimony”? The person is telling us what they saw, and could be lying, could be misreporting it accidentally, could have miscalibrated instruments, etc. A scientific paper is testimony, not direct experience, and that’s a fine way of gaining knowledge, AFAIK. As for “way of learning” vs. “way of knowing,” I honestly don’t know that it’s a useful distinction for precisely this reason. If they are not identical, it’s more a relationship of subset/superset or overlapping fuzzy sets than of independent entities.

  32. #32 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Matti K.: NCSE has stated clearly that it takes no institutional position on religion. I don’t speak for NCSE on this blog, nor do I speak for Chris Mooney (nor, in point of fact, did I bring his name up at all). For myself, I don’t claim to know what the “true form of religion” is. I think it’s related not to the development of science specifically, but to the development of human understanding more broadly. That’s just my opinion, though, and could well be wrong.

  33. #33 Tulse
    September 25, 2009

    Why are you distinguishing data in someone’s paper from “testimony”?

    If you don’t understand the principled difference between what someone reports in a science paper and what someone reports in a religious scripture, you have no business working at a science advocacy organization. Here’s a hint: only one is objectively testable by other people. (Here’s another hint: in only one of those can you successfully accuse someone of fraud.)

  34. #34 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Tulse: Your comment is not germane to the distinction Dave W. was drawing. He agrees that at least part of a scientific paper is testimony (presumably the Introduction, Methods, and Discussion), but is disputing that the Results section is testimony. I disagree.

  35. #35 Notagod
    September 25, 2009

    “As for “way of learning” vs. “way of knowing,”"

    Josh, its telling that you are unable to perceive the difference between what is learned and what is known. There definitely is a difference. You can learn a bunch of crap, that does not mean you know anything.

    P.S. My last comment must have offended you since you apparently elected not to post it. I’m sorry that you were offended. I hope you don’t choose to be offended by this one.

  36. #36 Tulse
    September 25, 2009

    He [...] is disputing that the Results section is testimony. I disagree.

    My comment was indeed germane to this issue, since scientific data simply are not “testimony” in the same way that scriptural revelation is, for the reasons I outlined previously.

    Perhaps it would help to come at this another way — do you at least agree that there are criteria by which we can determine a priori if some “testimony” is more likely to be true? Or perhaps more to the point, do you think there is any difference between the “testimony” of a researcher in a journal article and the “testimony” of someone making a religious claim?

  37. #37 Scote
    September 27, 2009

    For myself, I don’t claim to know what the “true form of religion” is. I think it’s related not to the development of science specifically, but to the development of human understanding more broadly. That’s just my opinion, though, and could well be wrong.

    Err? “True” form of religion? WTF????? Not related **specifically** to science? Why would it be related **at all**??? How can you even **propose** that there is such a thing as *true* religion? It is like proposing to answer what the “true” favorite color is–for everybody. You can’t. There isn’t.

    The concept of there being “true” religion necessitates the converse, that there be “false” religion, but since religion is entirely subjective you can never define “true” religion and tell others, with any authority, that theirs is false. So, what on god’s green earth are you trying to say by proposing the concept of “true” religion and saying that “fundamentalists” don’t have it? Disagreeing with somebody’s favorite color choice isn’t the same as saying their favorite color isn’t “true,” and the same is the case for claiming somebody’s religion isn’t “true”–unless you are willing to hold religion to an **objective** test and to scientific standards of knowing, whereby you have an actual leg to stand on when calling one religion or another “true” based on something other than subjective feeling. You are trying to do some weird hybrid of calling some religions “true” but others false without any objective metric. Why on earth would you try to do that, and why would you try to do that as a way of advancing a scientific opinion.

    I think you have dived off the deep end in this case.

  38. #38 Dave W.
    September 27, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    Tulse: Your comment is not germane to the distinction Dave W. was drawing.

    You meant gillt.

    He agrees that at least part of a scientific paper is testimony (presumably the Introduction, Methods, and Discussion), but is disputing that the Results section is testimony. I disagree.

    I’m right there with you, actually. Conveyance of knowledge (in the Results section of a paper) is not that knowledge. The knowledge was gained by a certain small group of people prior to the knowledge being conveyed in a journal article. Knowledge and its conveyance are independent.

    Knowledge conveyed in a journal article is only as justified as your trust in the author(s), as you noted, Mr. Rosenau. Knowledge gained by replicating the experiment is justified through trust in yourself and your team to conduct the test correctly. I think there’s a large-ish difference between the two.

  39. #39 gillt
    September 28, 2009

    Josh wrote: “The person is telling us what they saw, and could be lying, could be misreporting it accidentally, could have miscalibrated instruments,”

    Yes any number of these scenarios “could” happen, but that’s why you include all pertinent data (and necessary controls) in your paper so misreporting and even lying are much, much more difficult.

    What it comes down to is you missing the point here. Scientists don’t rely on testimony, they rely on raw data. An author isn’t going to say, “I’m hear to testify that I observed such and such which I didn’t include in the paper…but trust me I saw it.”

    A methods section of the paper presents the raw data along with how it was obtained. The Results and/or Discussion is where the data is interpreted. If I want to critique a paper, I go right to the Methods to see if the data even makes sense. If it does, then I (the royal I) judge whether the data taken as a whole justifies the author’s interpretation. Oftentimes we don’t reach the same interpretation of the data, but all the data is still there, or else the paper is worthless. I’m a molecular biologist, so maybe the science papers you read are completely different, but I kinda doubt it.

    Josh: “As for “way of learning” vs. “way of knowing,” I honestly don’t know that it’s a useful distinction for precisely this reason.”

    You will not get much traction among scientists with this view.

  40. #40 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2009

    Dave W.: “Knowledge conveyed in a journal article is only as justified as your trust in the author(s), as you noted, Mr. Rosenau. Knowledge gained by replicating the experiment is justified through trust in yourself and your team to conduct the test correctly. I think there’s a large-ish difference between the two.”

    Sure. But how many experiments actually get replicated like that? In my experience, quite few. People will try to extend an analysis, and sometimes replicate part of a previous study to ensure their technique is right, but there’s no grant funding for simple replication of results.

    GillT: As I said, there are norms and traditions and standards in science which try to replace the need for trust in testimony, and other traditions use other means to evaluate testimonial claims. Anyone who has been involved in the publication process knows that it’s far from perfect, either at propagating corrections, or at catching small massaging of data, especially in low-impact journals.

    On a related note, Tulse asks: “do you at least agree that there are criteria by which we can determine a priori if some ‘testimony’ is more likely to be true?”

    I agree that certain sources are to be considered more reliable, having shown a track record of accurate reporting. More significantly, testimony can be evaluated after the fact. A scientific result can be re-tested, or can feel “off” based on one’s experience. That can lead to further review. Similarly, religious claims can feel “off,” or can contradict teachings from someone you’ve found to be reliable before.

    Is it a more subjective process for testing and evaluating claims? Yeah, but no more so than the testing of claims in philosophy or literature.

  41. #41 Dave W.
    September 28, 2009

    Joshua Rosenau wrote:

    Sure. But how many experiments actually get replicated like that? In my experience, quite few. People will try to extend an analysis, and sometimes replicate part of a previous study to ensure their technique is right, but there’s no grant funding for simple replication of results.

    Well, I (for one) would be quite happy to say that there are a lot of people who have a lot less knowledge than they think they have, simply because they read journals articles and just swallowed the results without question. Plus, given that people can memorize “facts” without actually understanding them (witness Richard Feynman’s experience with Brazilian students, where they really didn’t know anymore than what they were able to parrot), and it seems to me that the “justification” for “knowledge” requires more than just reading and memorizing.

    Does Searles’ “Chinese Room” have “knowledge” that the person inside the room does not?

  42. #42 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2009

    I’d say Searles’ room does have more knowledge than the person in it. The analogy always seemed bogus because it analogizes the person in the room to a person walking around, rather than analogizing the room to a person’s mind.

    I agree that justification requires more than memorization, but it is surely a way to gain knowledge. Mine is a fairly Bayesian account, so acquiring knowledge is not an endpoint, but a beginning of further tests.

  43. #43 gillt
    September 29, 2009

    Josh said: “I agree that certain sources are to be considered more reliable, having shown a track record of accurate reporting. More significantly, testimony can be evaluated after the fact. A scientific result can be re-tested, or can feel “off” based on one’s experience. That can lead to further review. Similarly, religious claims can feel “off,” or can contradict teachings from someone you’ve found to be reliable before.”

    This is a false equivalency. If you want to draw this kind of similarity, then start by explaining the religious version of a double-blind test. This is just one example of many. Until you can do this sort of thing then saying the methods of science are imperfect in order to draw a comparison to religious ways of knowing is not legitimate. Science does not rely on personal testimony the way religion does.

    Josh: “Is it a more subjective process for testing and evaluating claims? Yeah, but no more so than the testing of claims in philosophy or literature.”

    Does the evidence support your position that religious believers perceive claims had through divine revelation the same as claims made by an art critic? I think not.

  44. #44 Wes
    October 7, 2009

    Wes: “If someone used a work of fiction–say, Huckleberry Finn–to argue for a metaphysical claim, I think any sensible person would object. No amount of fictional work can be evidence of the existence of god, an afterlife, angels, miracles, the soul, or whatever else.”

    Um, I think it’s pretty reasonable to say that Mark Twain meant Huck Finn at least in part as an argument for the metaphysical wrongness of slavery, and for a series of related ethical claims. Why else preface it with: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I’d argue that morals, narratives, and plots, are all metaphysical in some sense. I think you are making a narrower claim. Perhaps “supernatural” rather than “metaphysical”?

    You and I need to have a little talk about what the word “metaphysical” means. Mainly because I’ve been studying philosophy (including metaphysics) for several years now, and haven’t the foggiest clue what you mean by “metaphysical wrongness”.

    Metaphysics comes from Aristotle’s work of the same name and denotes what he calls “first philosophy”–that is, the ultimate nature of reality. Supernaturalism vs. naturalism is one metaphysical issue, but not the only one. Mind/body dualism vs. mind/brain identity is another. Scientific realism vs. instrumentalism is one too. Free will vs. determinism is yet another.

    “Slavery is wrong” is an ethical claim, not a metaphysical claim. The two are different. Note that Twain’s facetious warning refers to three things: Moral, motive, and plot. Not one of these entails any specific commitment to any specific metaphysics.

    If someone were to say, “The Bible inspires me to live a good life,” that’s a perfectly acceptable social or ethical claim. But if they claim, “The Bible is true when it says that an omnipotent personality controls the universe and I will spend eternity with Him,” they are making a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality. Compare: “Bram Stoker’s Dracula inspires moral/political view X” vs. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula is why I believe in life after death.”

    See the difference? The first is reasonable. The latter, absurd.