Five Choices (4): Censorship vs Disagreement

Part four of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

4 - Encaustic BlueHow should we deal with misinformation? We have a choice. One approach is to accept disagreement, to let people share their perspectives even if they are wrong, and thus to tolerate arguments as an essential part of democracy and free speech. But if we do this, we run risks. People may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, or even that put everyone in danger. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions. People might even be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

We have a clear alternative: censorship. We can say that whenever the consequences are sufficiently severe, we are obligated to draw a line in the sand against disinformation and prevent it from being disseminated. We could form a media power bloc - say, a Trusted News Initiative - and get all the tech companies controlling social media, and all the major players in the journalistic media to agree to prevent the dissemination of misinformation. In short, we can unite the most powerful forces in communications technology to enforce censorship in order to prevent misinformation from being spread.

But this too carries risks. The nature of scientific process is built upon disagreements. Despite the simplistic orthodoxy of 'hypothesis, experiment, theory', the production of scientific knowledge is not a sausage machine that you simply crank the handle to reach conclusions. On the contrary, a fairer caricature of the process would be 'competing hypotheses, triangulation of evidence, validation of theories' - and in all three stages, disagreement is essential to success. In the absence of disagreement, we are in danger of drawing premature conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and thus treating provisional hypotheses as robust theories without the painstaking work required to assemble an accurate picture.

Applying censorship to active scientific research topics is not a way of defending scientific knowledge, it is a method of completely preventing its production. You simply cannot stop the spread of misinformation without knowing what the true state of affairs is, and you cannot know this without permitting the disagreements that allow the sciences to conduct effective research programmes. And given that every theory in the sciences is provisional until all objections are eventually resolved (a process that typically takes decades), there is never a viable point at which censorship could plausibly be in the service of scientific truth.

If you resort to censorship, you make it impossible to know the true state of affairs. As a result, people may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, even that put everyone in danger, such as prolonging widespread panic. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions, such as reneging on civil rights agreements. People may be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences, such as whether or not they have taken a vaccine. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

Next week, the final part: The Experts vs the People

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Five Choices (3): Health vs Disease

Part three of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

3 - Encaustic GreenHow should we try to look after ourselves? We have a choice. On the one hand, we can choose health, and therefore try to find ways to maintain and encourage good health in all those we share the world with. This is the difficult process of finding ways to balance whatever gives us pleasure and enjoyment with whatever harms are associated with it. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation; even if I know that I need exercise, companionship, and sustenance, what works for me in this regard need not work as well for someone else. Living for good health means wrestling with situations as complex as humanity itself.

Fortunately, there is a far simpler approach to the problem of living: we can declare war on disease instead. If we call 'disease' whatever causes harm, the problem of how we should live becomes far simpler, since all we have to do now is minimise disease. Unlike good health, which requires us to think about humans in the context of their minds and lives, minimising disease seems amenable to a simple calculation - does this cause more disease, or less? If it causes less, that is the option we must choose. All other considerations can be rescinded, or at least brushed under the carpet - even the impact of this choice on other diseases is all too frequently ignored once the order to charge is given.

But this negative policy of disease is a chimera. Disease is always hiding in shadows, and it is never as clearly defined as when it is painted by those who insist we are obligated to wage war against the invisible enemy. 'Disease' is a book of names that is always open for additions, but the naming is not the problem. It is the presupposition of disease that we might question, for once we commit to replacing the problem of good health with the Sisyphean task of fighting diseases, every problem becomes deceptively simple. Here is another disease, what can we manufacture to fight this disease...?

Alas for proponents of this infinite medical crusade, good health is not merely the absence of disease. At best, limiting disease is a component of good health - and how great a contribution it might make we certainly shall not discover by treating disease as a war we are obligated to fight on all fronts. For unless a battle, a disaster, or an accident claims your life you will eventually die of disease - to think otherwise is merely to deceive yourself. As long as you approach the problem of life from the presumption of arresting disease, failure is inevitable.

There is another way: to choose to pursue good health and thus enter a strange and ambiguous world whereby your physical and mental well-being are yours to claim and discover. Paradoxically, committing to fighting disease is not a path to good health at all, but merely a means of escaping thinking about it. For as we always knew, disease is not another name for health, but rather its diametric opposite.

Next week: Censorship vs Disagreement

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (2): Technology vs Sciences

Part two of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

2 - Encaustic YellowWhere should we place our trust if we wish to help humanity flourish? We have a choice. One path is to commit to scientific practice to give us means to evaluate our options for living. Through the laborious work of investigation, disagreement, and eventual consensus, the sciences give us means to parameterise the options available to us. We can, for instance, compare different treatments for a particular kind of cancer in order to determine what is effective in comparison to no treatment - and this latter option is much more important than we sometimes recognise, since from the point of view of scientific work, taking no action must always be compared to taking action if we want to be sure that the conclusions we are reaching are valid.

There is an alternative path - technology. We have tended to think of the relationship between science and technology as akin to cause and effect: first we conduct The Science, then we build The Technology. And there is some truth to this understanding, for revisions and expansions to our knowledge attained by the meticulous work of researchers do indeed open up new possibilities for creating tools. But technology, as Martin Heidegger realised, is not just a name for our devices but rather an enframing philosophy of instrumental means. We back-project the name 'technology' onto windmills and ploughs, but when we evoke this name today we are ordering the world to our purposes. Through our commitment to technology, all things become resources for our exploitation.

To think of technology and the sciences in tension feels strange, given how we have learned to view one as a consequence of the other. But if the core philosophy of the sciences is to patiently construct the truth of any situation, the core philosophy of technology is to produce superior means for exploiting all available resources - including humanity. Have you never wondered why so many organisations can name a department, without a trace of irony, 'Human Resources'...? The vital question becomes whether exploiting humanity and the world as resources can indeed serve human flourishing rather than, say, rendering it impossible. Technology offers us an alternative to human flourishing: ever greater technical power.

What does it mean to choose between technology and the sciences? It is the tension between exploitation of resources and answering questions about the effects of so doing. Thus if we choose 'technology' we can (for instance) claim that cars get safer as we add more safety equipment, whereas if we choose 'sciences' we can determine that 1.2 million people still die from road accidents irrespective of those modifications, while the environmental damage associated with their manufacture and operation remains unrelenting. If we choose the sciences over and above technology, we are obligated to look our cyclopean monster in its eye and can scarcely reach any other conclusion than that technology, far from saving us, has raised us up so high that we can see our own extinction from here.

Next week: Health vs Disease

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Five Choices (1): The Science vs Research

Part one of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

1 - Encaustic RedWhere can we turn in these troubled times for solutions to the difficult problems? When it comes to empirical matters, we have a clear choice. One option is to turn to researchers to conduct investigations, but this takes time. Experiments and studies require planning and execution. While laboratory studies can be completed in mere days, substantial trials take months - years for longitudinal data. Then papers must be written, submitted to journals, peer reviewed (often, alas, under highly manipulative conditions), and even after that the scientific community does not treat a matter as closed. Other researchers and theoreticians will respond to the initial reports and conduct further research, either in support of or in opposition to the conclusions drawn in the original paper. All in all, reaching a firm interpretation of the evidence can take years - in some cases decades. Scientific research is slow.

Fortunately, we have a faster alternative - The Science. The Science works on an entirely different basis, because unlike the meticulous investigations conducted by researchers, the Science is always by definition true. Therefore, if you rely upon The Science instead of research, you are never wrong, and do not have to face the time, effort, or aggravating disagreements that happen whenever researchers strive to reach viable interpretations of the evidence. Once you choose The Science over research, you simply reach a conclusion - either instantaneously, on the basis of prior theory, or rapidly on the basis of the early guesses - and magically your work is done! You have your decision, and far faster and more easily than if you had committed to the painstaking process of assembling the truth via the work of researchers.

Precisely because The Science is never wrong, errors are simply attributed to specific scientists, which is to say, to mere researchers, further increasing the conceptual distance between these two alternative forms of knowledge production. The sciences and their researchers are not only slow and messy, they must be the site of all mistakes, because The Science, by definition, is infallible. That's why it commands such vehement commitment from its advocates: unlike research, The Science is never wrong.

This ideological idol we have built over the site of research practice works so effectively to usurp and undermine scientific work that we can brazenly dismiss all claims contrary to The Science as belonging to "just some scientists". Regrettably, in the last year we have intensified the power of The Science by permitting - nay, insisting! - that everything contrary to The Science must be excluded as dangerous. The Science is threatened by those who disagree with it, because it is necessarily true and therefore beyond challenge. Yet haven't we seen this pattern before, in other institutions that claim authority, and decry contrary viewpoints as blasphemy? The Science seems remarkably similar to precisely that which is claimed to be its opposite...

Next week: Technology vs Science

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.


Prelude: Five Choices

A preface to Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

0 - Encaustic - BlackAt a time when we are told there are no choices, that what must be done is known and certain, it is impish - practically blasphemous! - to suggest we have choices. But we always have choices. What we often don't have are good choices.

In the short serial that follows, Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge, I offer a series of five choices in how we approach the production of scientific knowledge.

Or do I...?

Reading each choice it may seem as if no reasonable choice is actually entailed, that if we accept my premises we must make the choice that, clearly, I am arguing for. And this is precisely the point - the trick, even. For given that on all five choices we already somehow chose the unthinkable choice, something must be seriously wrong with our collective thinking on scientific knowledge to have made not just one horrible mistake but five dreadful and ghastly mistakes.

And of course, the reason we choose the unthinkable choice in each case was precisely that it was not presented as this choice at all, but as another choice, a choice where there was no choice. An infernal alternative, as Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre put the matter: "Wherever an infernal alternative is constituted, politics gives way to submission, and even those who resist may be trapped, that is to say, may define their opposition in the terms fabricated by the alternative."

If I am successful in reconstructing these non-choices as non-choices of another kind - of a kind that reveals that there always was a choice and we merely made bad choices and called them unavoidable, it may hint at a secret path out of the political labyrinth we have found ourselves imprisoned within. Only it is not much of a secret... it is so blindingly obvious that, incredibly, we did not even consider it an option. We could choose to uphold our prior ideals, ideals we have been told remain important even while we are instructed that they have been completely trumped (pun intended) by urgent crises that require us to pack them away until that jam-tomorrow moment when these self-inflicted amplifications of catastrophe are over.

Mary Midgley, as ever, saw the risks of such bizarre salvation narratives when they become falsely associated with the work of the sciences. Writing in 1992, she remarked:

Science really is a wonderful thing, and human beings really are wonderful creatures. But there are other wonderful things and wonderful creatures in the world as well. To exalt science properly is to show it in its place among them, not to send it off to an unreal, isolated pedestal among the galaxies. The true value of science is something that is only insulted by tagging it with the offer of pie in the sky. Nor can that offer restore the meaning to life, if indeed meaning is lacking. If it was wrong for religion to make capital out of offers of this kind, it is no less wrong for science to do so.

I stand ready to escape from the oubliette. I hope some of you will come with me.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.