Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Is that a fact?

Facts are crucially important to us, we base aspects of our political and social constructs on them, but what are facts? Aldous Huxley’s view of facts was much the same as Spinoza’s, with whose writings he was familiar. Both men say the only facts we can possibly be aware of are psychological facts – events in our heads.

The only facts of which we have direct knowledge are psychological facts. The Nature of Things presents us with them. There is no getting round them, or behind them, or outside them. They are there, given.

One fact cannot be more of a fact than another. Our psychological experiences are all equally facts. There is nothing to choose between them. No psychological experience is ‘truer’ so far as we are concerned, than any other. For even if one should correspond more closely to things in themselves as perceived by some hypothetical non-human being, it would be impossible for us to discover what it was.
Aldous Huxley – Do What You Will – pub 1929

The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing save through ideas of modifications of its body.
Benedict Spinoza – Ethics – Boyle translation

One consequence of this take on facts is as Huxley states it – one fact cannot be more of a fact than another. Science and common sense are merely ways of organising facts to our best advantage, which is usually the way that leads to a minimum of unexpected events. 

Unfortunately, and this is the tragedy of the human condition, it is possible to claim that unexpected events were either expected or they never happened. Why? Because even an unexpected event is just another fact, or not as the case may be. Such claims are what we call wisdom, politics or delusion, depending on the claimant’s status within the current power structure.

In my view this is why science is falling apart as an intellectual project. Science is strongly associated with democracy, with freedom to explore possibilities other than the official doctrine, freedom to discover new facts. As democracy fails, so does science, because the domain of facts becomes polluted, boundaries become diffuse. Allow me to repeat a sentence here :- 

Science and common sense are merely ways of organising facts to our best advantage.

Once our best advantage refers only to the political elite and their stakeholders, then both science and common sense are fatally compromised. In the end, Huxley and Spinoza were right - the only facts are psychological facts. So facts are as mutable as people and their status as facts crucially depends on the political and social constructs within which they arise and acquire their value.

Climate science organizes its "facts" for the advantage of its stakeholders - the UN, the EU, governments, banks, insurance companies, pressure groups and large corporations heavily invested in climate policies. Ordinary citizens have no power to reorganize climate "facts" towards their own advantage, largely because democracy is falling apart.

Ironically, the partial loss of a culture where facts are organised to minimise the unexpected will have one predictable consequence. The unexpected will occur more frequently and be more damaging. Eventually it will destroy us unless we relearn our science of well-organised facts and even more importantly, our common sense.


Sam Vega said...

At one level, there is nothing more than our experience - which is the Spinoza/Huxley point. But it should be possible to "bookmark" which of our fleeting psychological states are important, and which are trivial. Half-memories of dreams are insignificant facts, whereas how to stop arterial bleeding and how to stop e coli multiplying are important facts. I think it is a readjustment which is required, rather than a root-and-branch reassessment. I'm not sure whether we have lost the plot because of human malevolence, or whether we have just entered a phase where the map is inadequate for the new territory. Or, to use the earlier analogy, we have mislaid the bookmarks and we are trying to remember a lot of new books...

What do you think of the opening of scientific research to public scrutiny?

If it is real (as opposed to government flim-flam) I have two problems with it. First, what sense will lay people make of advanced science? Second, it could lead to de-investment. I have limited knowledge of this area, but I was told by a science academic that one Uni which was excellent at bringing in private funding was valued by its sponsors because they kept their mouths shut and did not publish until the product was "in the bag".

Demetrius said...

I see no ships.

A K Haart said...

Sam - using your analogy, I would say the bookmarks are now skewed away from our best interests. E Coli is found on lettuce but we are warned about red meat, that kind of thing.

There is a problem with open research in certain areas such as pharmaceuticals where the investment is huge.

On the other hand, many pharmaceuticals don't work as claimed and more open research might bring this out earlier.

A huge amount of research is worthless and the number of PhD theses that are never cited grows year on year. It's about 50% now I believe.

Interesting but difficult questions I reckon.

Demetrius - which of course was a useful fact!

James Higham said...

Such claims are what we call wisdom, politics or delusion, depending on the claimant’s status within the current power structure.

Alternatively, it could be having too much time on one's hands. ;-)

A K Haart said...

James - indeed!