Sir Humphry Davy Speaks

Sir Humphry Davy Baronet

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I’m currently reading Alan Sokal‘s book “Beyond the Hoax,” and noting therein the unholy alliance of some in the academic humanities on the Left with the current obscurantist assault on science in the U.S. by pundits, corporations, and politicians on the far Right, and it seems to bear out a suspicion that I’ve held for awhile, the striking similarity in the arguments of prominent Postmodernists and those of the Right in denying, and in denying that they are denying, findings of science that do not set well with them politically, religiously, ideologically, nor economically.

Though the Right has often been characterized as absolutist and authoritarian in worldview, their arguments against science sounded suspiciously relativist to me, and that got me thinking about one of their tactics, which I discovered to be brilliantly purloined from Postmodernist discourse: Conflating facts, truth, and knowledge, with mere assertions, claims, and pretensions of the same, and dismissing any science they disagree with by invoking suspicion of bias and vested interest on the part of researchers.

In short, in dismissing science by denying its objectivity, by claiming, by facile but fallacious argumentation, that it’s not only scientists themselves who are prone to ideological leanings, but that these are built into the very process of the scientific enterprise itself.

That’s a tall order of nonsense indeed, and offered with no proof to boot. While It’s legitimate to bring up the possibility of researcher bias in a study, mere suspicion of motives without evidence does not constitute a valid argument.

What needs to be done by those advancing these arguments is to point out the specific errors in a study through which the bias and vested interests of those conducting it can be shown to have compromised the results of the study.

If that cannot be done, or won’t be done out of intellectual laziness, then I’m sorry, that’s just not a valid argument.

Proof speaks more clearly than mere assertion without proof, which may be dismissed without proof, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens.

This post’s quote spells out perfectly my view that science as a whole is neither masculine nor feminine in character, neither Western nor Eastern in nature, neither Capitalist nor Socialist, and neither good nor evil in moral standing, but the best means we have to date of gaining objective knowledge of reality.

As Carl Sagan put it, it is a way of skeptically interrogating the universe, more than a body of knowledge, and along with the various human faculties of Reason, one of our best ways of not just knowing facts, but of finding them out.

Science as a whole knows no ideology, and the facts it lets us find are facts whether we like them or not, for better or worse for our precious conceits and wishes.

Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and of no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.

~ Sir Humphry Davy, discourse delivered at the Royal Society (30 November 1825)

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