Sunday, January 01, 2006

In Evidence We Trust

Neil Postman's 'Informing ourselves to death' contains some odd sentiments that I'm struggling to make sense of. In particular, he describes an "experiment" he'd conduct by making up some scientific study and seeing if people would believe its conclusion. When they do, he paraphrases Orwell as saying that "the average person today is about as naive as was the average person in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages people believed in the authority of their religion, no matter what. Today, we believe in the authority of our science, no matter what." But that would only be a bad thing if science was as ill-founded as religion. Given that empirical evidence is a good guide to truth, whereas religious dogma is not, it seems entirely appropriate that we should place more trust the former. This is what places us in a much stronger epistemic position than our "Middle Aged" ancestors.

Returning to Postman's "experiment": when his listener fails to be sufficiently skeptical, what exactly is their mistake? It seems to me their only mistake is believing Postman to be a credible source of information. Perhaps they should have responded with a skeptical "You're pulling my leg!" (which is, after all, the truth). But this can't be the fault that Postman is wanting to highlight. Surely he isn't wanting to say, "Oh, look at all these naive people that consider my testimony trustworthy. What fools! They should know better than to believe what I report." That would be a very odd complaint. Surely more fault lies with the liar than with his trusting audience.

Alternatively, perhaps Postman was meaning to criticise them for believing the scientist's conclusions, even on the assumption that Postman was telling the truth about the study having been carried out. But that would be even more odd. Postman would effectively be mocking people for believing what the evidence points to. "Empirical evidence suggests that surprising result X is true, and so these naive fools now believe X!" Such criticism of open-mindedness strikes me as downright bizarre. Postman continues:
But I think there is still another and more important conclusion to be drawn, related to Orwell's point but rather off at a right angle to it. I am referring to the fact that the world in which we live is very nearly incomprehensible to most of us. There is almost no fact -- whether actual or imagined -- that will surprise us for very long, since we have no comprehensive and consistent picture of the world which would make the fact appear as an unacceptable contradiction. We believe because there is no reason not to believe. No social, political, historical, metaphysical, logical or spiritual reason...

n fact, George Orwell was more than a little unfair to the average person in the Middle Ages... There existed an ordered, comprehensible world-view, beginning with the idea that all knowledge and goodness come from God. What the priests had to say about the world was derived from the logic of their theology. There was nothing arbitrary about the things people were asked to believe, including the fact that the world itself was created at 9 AM on October 23 in the year 4004 B.C.

...we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why.

But of course people in the Middle Ages didn't know any of that either. They thought they did, but they were wildly mistaken in all sorts of ways. We know a great deal more about these matter than they did (in large part because of scientific progress: biology has given us real knowledge of the origins of species). And yet Postman laments our lack of dogma, our refusal to ignore the evidence if it goes against our preconceived notions of "common sense", and appears to join Orwell in considering us "naive" because of this! Incredible.

Improving our epistemic situation has come at the cost of comforting illusions, I suppose. Perhaps that's the essential point that Postman was trying to point to. But surely few of us would consider that a wholly bad thing, and it's awfully misleading of Postman to try to cover this up by steadfastly ignoring considerations of truth and evidence, and attempting to pass off dogmatic illusions as "knowledge"! Not impressed.

And for all those who complain that "science is the new religion", please clarify: are you really trying to suggest that our beliefs should not be responsive to empirical evidence?


  1. Perhaps this a wildly mistaken reading of Postman (I've only read Amusing Ourselves to Death), but I think that he may be referring to the epistemic situation of the general populace rather than that of the scientists/religious figures. While the scientists may have a better epistemic situation than the religious leaders, the public has the same relationship to the scientists that the medieval public had with the religious authorities - testimony. I think Postman would then say that the radical empiricist underpinings of science cannot account for that. So, the general populace (although not in America) who knows that Darwinism is true is in the same position as the medieval populace who knew that the Roman Catholic Church was true.

    I should also note that in Amusing Ourselves to Death Postman uses 'epistemology' in a very odd manner. If he misuses it in Informing Ourselves to Death, then I'm not sure that my attempted defense of his position is sensible.

  2. In a sense maybe what he is heading towards (even if he doesn’t know it) is that most people don’t believe science because of a direct logic chain but instead because "Neil is credible". This thing "his credibility" (and potentially that of a few researchers) that they are measuring the understanding of the world against may be big or small but it is bigger than logic to them it would seem.

    Maybe this is how they see the world.
    It has always been the case and probably always will be that if you sitting here now try to "reinvent the wheel" when looking at a science fact (for example) you will fall very far short so most people don’t do it and almost everyone who does is wrong.

    Only every so often is an individual smarter than the (admittedly not perfect) sum of humanity before him. That is both natural and the exceptions are likely to be a diminishing group until one day it is basically zero forever.

  3. Patrick, the concerns you point to do sound much more reasonable. Though here the misplaced faith is not in science per se, but rather in those who claim to have scientific support (when they really don't, or not as strongly as they imply). This might even include individual scientists, I suppose.

  4. i have the same impression as Justin - that the purpose of the argument was to upbraid the general public -- Joe Schmo -- for not having a sophisticated view of the theory of science. am i right? am i wrong? if i am right, than it seems a bit of a waste of time. Joe Schmo has really bad table manners and no understanding of Beethoven's middle string quartets, either. not to mention his abominable record in financial management. regrettable, yes, but hey, should postman perhaps move to another planet? ;-)


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