by Shengpei Wang Feb 2017
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the American Society of Naturalists.
Section 1. Should we think before believing?
A simple sentence caught my attention today. “We believe […] that a unified ecology must start from individual-based ecology.” 1 It read naturally to me at first, but something seemed amiss: Is it legitimate for scientists to say we believe?
Since the earliest forms of civilization, we have pondered questions such as “How do we gain knowledge?” and “What do we believe?” Given the recent social and cultural climate, questions such as these should concern us now more than ever. In my opinion, science is the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge. Not everyone agrees, however.
Historically, knowledge had been derived from the views of leading political and religious authorities, but in time, theories and observations overtook the role as the primary source of scientific knowledge around the seventeenth century. This change was pioneered by early scientists such as Galileo, whose scientific discoveries not only laid the foundations to modern astronomy and physics, but more importantly, challenged the authoritarian view of knowledge. I don’t think any of us question the importance of observable facts, but many people in the US still question whether we can believe science. Can we truly believe patterns inferred from observations made by the scientific community? And can we truly understand what is not directly observed or even observable?
Scientific statements arise from logical deductions and inductions. Deductive reasoning generates definitive conclusions that are true as long all the premises are true. But scientific premises usually need to be tested or are derived from inductive reasoning. Induction, however, does not necessarily ‘test’ a premise but provides multiple lines of evidence of support. I regard the inductive approach as the source of open-mindedness that characterizes science, but to others it seems to be their source of doubts. If we truly believe in science and believe its findings, shouldn’t we know what makes scientific knowledge justified? And hopefully, we can persuade others to trust our logical conclusions if we are explicit about our reasons.
Section 2: What I have learned about epistemology.
Knowledge is generally accepted as justified beliefs, but there is no consensus of what makes knowledge justified. There is even skepticism about whether knowledge is possible at all.2 Although I will omit arguments of skepticism for practical reasons, I argue that we should judge scientific claims critically. Science seeks truth, but it does not possess it. Rather, science approximates truth.
Modern science is characterized by falsifiable claims, which can be demonstrated to be wrong if appropriate evidence is discovered. However, falsification is not the totality of scientific pursuit, because it does not generate new hypotheses by itself. This was also why I stumbled over the claim of we believe earlier. This claim is not an easily falsifiable claim, at least not with observations currently available. But is it not scientific? Other philosophical theories disagree that science should be solely characterized by falsification. For example, Imre Lakatos emphasized the development of theory through scientific programs, where existing principles guide new theories.3 By this token, claiming that we believe a novel prediction in light of existing theories and evidence is justified. Additionally, other approaches even allow for the quantification of levels of confidence based on existing knowledge, such as using conditional probabilities developed by Thomas Bayes. Despite the differences of these different philosophical theories, science is based upon the assumption of Uniformity of Nature, i.e. invariance of natural laws.4 This is necessary because we cannot possibly test a hypothesis in every possibly instance, and must generalize from limited observations.
Scientific methods discussed above ensure that scientific claims can be judged heuristically and beyond the specific context where observations are made; however, the claims are not objective in the sense that there is always subjective involvement. Even observations themselves are intrinsically influenced by our subjective experience, because all truth claims are states of minds.3 For example, an entomologist and a mycologist would notice very different types of organisms if they went on a nature hike together, and they would learn very different things regarding the local habitat. Furthermore, even if we were to start with the same observations, how we interpret our observations depends on both our existing knowledge and our expectations. This is also why some great findings, such as Mendel’s genetic theory, only gained prominence until rediscovered by scientist with very different mindsets. After all, science is not merely a collection of facts (observations), but a systematic synthesis of generalized claims. It results from our interaction with the natural world. We are part of both the process and the outcome.
I want to make a point here: I think the human aspect of science should be cherished rather than avoided. Even though scientific arguments are almost always influenced by subjective judgments, why shouldn’t I believe a premise if it is based upon all available evidence and the best judgment possible. The value of science for me is that it generates justified beliefs. I can believe a scientific claim if all existing evidence supports it, while maintaining an openness to change in light of new evidence. Additionally, just as there is no single view of the value of nature, the pursuit of knowledge can take on different meanings for different people. This is liberating rather than constraining, because it opens up opportunities for each person to define why and how nature or knowledge matters to them. Knowledge can be valuable to us in different but intimate ways. We can believe what we know.
Section 3: Resources
I hope I have incited some interest in you to learn about epistemology if you haven’t already. I have been inspired greatly by the book “What is this thing called Science?” by A. F. Charmers. It is a great read and very easy to follow. If you don’t want to read a whole book, the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is a reputable online resource open to the public. And there are always more journal articles waiting for discovery and many more exciting reads. Scientific findings are leading many philosophical developments, including evolutionary epistemology, neuroethics, and neuroesthetics.
- Grimm, Volker, Daniel Ayllón, and Steven F. Railsback. “Next-Generation Individual-Based Models Integrate Biodiversity and Ecosystems: Yes We Can, and Yes We Must.” Ecosystems (2016): 1-8.
- Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/epistemology/>.
- Chalmers, Alan F. What is this thing called science?. Hackett Publishing, 2013.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. “Is uniformitarianism necessary?.” American Journal of Science 263, no. 3 (1965): 223-228.