Science, Authority, and Knowledge

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in a recent essay praising the virtues of science:  “Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

This is the sort of sweeping statement that one is apt to make when making an abstract case for the scientific method without examining too closely how scientists actually acquire knowledge in the real world.  The fact of the matter is that no one — including the most brilliant of scientists — can acquire knowledge without relying on social processes that include hierarchical authority and “conventional wisdom.”

How does a psychologist such as Steven Pinker know about the Big Bang theory of the universe?  Did he purchase a telescope, conduct his own observations, track the movement of the galaxies, and come to the conclusion that the universe began with a big bang?  No, like the rest of us, he was taught the Big Bang theory in school.  He had neither the time nor expertise to critically evaluate whether or not his teachers might have been wrong.  He had to accept their authority because there was no good alternative.  “Faith” might be too strong a word, but there is a certain degree of trust that when specialists in physics write textbooks and give lectures, they are providing the truth, as best as they are able to.  In an earlier time, Pinker would have been taught not the Big Bang theory but the Steady State theory of the universe — and he would have accepted that, without trying to verify it himself through empirical observation, because that was the conventional wisdom.

How does Pinker know that the theory of evolution is true?  Did he study living organisms and fossils for years and years, matching each empirical observation with the claims of Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and others?  No, he accepted what his teachers taught him, for the same reasons he accepted the Big Bang theory.  Like everyone else, he trusts the specialists that are doing their jobs, and when these specialists have a strong consensus that something is true, he accepts this.

What happens when there are outstanding disagreements among scientists, whether involving string theory, multiple universes, the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of evolution, or other issues?  Does Steven Pinker get right to work on these issues, making his own observations, and testing multiple hypotheses?  No, like the rest of us, he either pleads ignorance, accepts the findings of the most recent article he’s read on the subject, or tries to gauge the majority opinion of scientists on that issue and adopts that opinion as his own.

Now, I’m not trying to discredit science here.  I fully accept the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution, and I have a low opinion of various attempts at “creationist” theory.  But I didn’t arrive at these conclusions by disregarding authority, but by embracing authorities that seemed to me to be genuinely interested in studying the real world, willing to share their methodologies and observations, accept criticisms, and change their minds when necessary.

We are born into this world as ignorant as the lowest animal, we gradually absorb knowledge from our parents, teachers, peers, and our culture, and we may — if we are very, very lucky — make one or two truly original contributions to knowledge ourselves.  Even the most hardheaded skeptic, the bravest dissenter, the most diligent and persistent questioner, cannot do without some reliance on authority and conventional wisdom.

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