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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, June 08, 2015

We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism

The following was originally published at Talking Philosophy in July 2013. It was a reconstruction (based on memory and my speaking notes) of my presentation, "We have the extraordinary evidence! Science, skepticism, and denialism", at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. This was the 2013 iteration of the James Randi Educational Foundation's (JREF's) annual conference devoted to scientific skepticism.

Note that I cannot provide a transcript of exactly what I said, and nor had I prepared the talk in a form that could simply be read out. As usual in my presentations, I extemporised to a considerable extent.

My thanks for the photos to Miranda Hale (pic of the large screen), Jerry Coyne (pic taken from the audience) and Peter Boghossian (pic taken from backstage).

I discuss how our modern, scientific picture of the world did not come intuitively to individuals and cultures, but was hard won over hundreds of years. I go on to relate this to contemporary scientific skepticism and the concept of denialism.

Read on...

Indulge me while I say how pleased and privileged I feel to be at this great event. Though I’ve flown nearly 8000 miles to attend, I feel very much at home among all you welcoming, friendly, and refreshingly rational and reasonable people. When DJ Grothe invited me to speak at TAM, I felt honoured but also felt some trepidation: I am not a magician, a scientific investigator, or indeed any sort of scientist, so what sort of contribution could I make to your theme of fighting the fakers, addressing a group of hardened and seasoned scientific skeptics? Perhaps, however, a philosopher can offer you a perspective that’s of general interest.

To do that, I’d like you to cast your minds back about 500 years. Now, I know none of us are quite that old, and I don’t believe in reincarnation, as will come up again later in this talk. But we have a pretty solid historical record of the past five centuries, at least for many parts of the world. So I’m going to make some comparisons between, let’s say, 1513 and 2013.

The lesson here is that what seemed like an ordinary, or at least acceptable, claim in 1513 might be an extraordinary claim now, and what would have seemed an extraordinary claim then might now be, in the relevant sense, an ordinary one. This is not because I take some relativist approach to truth, but simply because the reasonably available evidence has changed enormously over five hundred years.

In particular, I’d like you to think of European civilization in 1513. This was four years before Martin Luther confronted the indulgence seller Johann Tetzel with his famous Nine-Five Theses, catalysing the Protestant Reformation. It was thirty years before the publication of Copernicus’ major work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, and about a century before Galileo’s great scientific discoveries that arguably mark the beginning of modern science. Charles Darwin’s work was over three hundred years in the future.

People in Europe five hundred years ago were, in effect, living in another world. That is, the information available to them was radically different from what is available to us today. No wonder they understood the world very differently.

The celebrated Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has carried out a similar exercise to the one I’m asking of you, though his exercise relates specifically to the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Taylor is himself a religious believer, but his 2007 book, A Secular Age, discusses how things changed over the past five hundred years to enable a movement from a society where belief in God is essentially unchallenged to the current situation in Western societies where it is, as Taylor puts it, “understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.” For Taylor, it was virtually impossible, or unthinkable, not to believe in God five hundred years ago, whereas today, as he puts it, “many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable.”

As I said, Taylor is not an atheist, and nor is it my purpose today to put an argument for atheism – for that you’ll need to see my new book with Udo Schuklenk, 50 Great Myths About Atheism.

But it was not only belief in God that came easily in that era — all sorts of beliefs that seem bizarre to scientifically educated people today were commonplace, while the foundation stones of the modern sciences had not yet been laid. Taylor identifies features of life in early sixteenth-century Europe that made the existence of God just obvious to everybody, and importantly some of them apply more widely than belief in God.

First, the natural world was seen as testifying to divine activity, whether it was the appearance of order or the occasional extraordinary events that could not be explained by human knowledge at the time — whether plagues and natural disasters or years of exceptional fertility.

Second, if you lived in Europe in the sixteenth century the political and social systems were still closely integrated with the religious system. At all levels of society, it was assumed that human activity was underpinned by the activity of God, and all communal life was pervaded by religious ritual and worship.

Third — and this is very important — there was a strong sense for sixteenth-century Europeans of living in an enchanted cosmos, full of miraculous beings and powers.

Fourth, as Taylor adds, there was simply no well-developed naturalistic, secular alternative to religion and to what we’d now regard as superstition.

In my view, Taylor understates the degree to which science (in particular) changed things. There were undoubtedly other factors involved in the changes to how we think and understand world, but science as we know it was incredibly transformative. And in 1513, science as we now know it was in the future, as were modern styles of moral and political philosophy. Even humanistic learning, such as various kinds of textual and historical scholarship, was at a relatively early stage, despite the revival of classical learning that we know as the Renaissance, which had begun in Italy in the fourteenth century, but then proceeded through Europe in a very patchy way.

If you were living in the early sixteenth century, you’d have had no real reason to doubt stories of supernatural events, such as miracles, hauntings, and the effects of evil spells cast by witches.

Let me qualify that. It was quite well known that, for example, some seeming miracles probably had more ordinary explanations. There was also some cynicism and suspicion — it was well known that some holy relics were fakes and that some supposed miracles were fraudulent. You can find reference to this in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written over two hundred years before — and even in the work of St. Augustine well over a thousand years before. (Some of you will be especially familiar with Chaucer’s crooked Pardoner, often referenced by the late Christopher Hitchens in his debates.)

Still, the late medieval world was a world without professional scientists, paranormal investigators, and the like. Even if you thought that some specific purveyors of miracles and relics were fakers and frauds, you probably didn’t doubt that there really were miracles, ghosts, witches, and demons. There was no well-developed body of investigation and thought that you could draw upon for skepticism about all that, even if you were in the more educated classes of society. All the intellectual authorities that seemed trustworthy would have advised you, even required you, to believe in these things.

Today, of course, ordinary people still have problems knowing who to trust, who has genuine expertise. We live in a propaganda society, and we know that much of what we read or hear is misinformation. But at least we are in a position to examine who might genuinely be qualified to talk on a particular topic.

In the sixteenth century, there was no particular reason for an educated person to doubt that she lived in a world where supernatural forces were at work and supernatural events took place — even if not right here today, probably not far away or all that long ago.

Conversely, there would have been no reason to trust anyone who made such seemingly bizarre claims as that the earth revolves around the sun and rotates on its axis, that the earth is billions of years old, that human beings are descended from apelike forebears, or that the sacred history contained in the Hebrew Bible is highly inaccurate. From the point of view of someone living in early sixteenth-century Europe, all of these claims would have seemed extraordinary.

If I had time, I’d go into detail about the dramatic claim (so controversial in the era of Galileo) that the earth rotates on its axis. In the early sixteenth century and even a hundred years later at the time of Galileo’s discoveries, the idea that the earth rotates scarcely seemed to make sense. Galileo had to do much arguing and much hard-core science to challenge the seemingly commonsense view. If you’ve never done so, please read some detailed accounts of how he went about this, such as that in Philip Kitcher’s wonderful book The Advancement of Science (published in 1995).

For example, Galileo had to respond to the argument that an object dropped from a tower must fall “behind” the tower if the earth rotates. He used the example of an object dropped from the mast of a moving ship: for a sea-faring culture, this analogy had some imaginative salience. But in the end, he had to make extraordinary advances in physics, subsequently improved upon by Isaac Newton in particular, to create an imaginative picture of the universe within which the earth’s rotation was no longer an extraordinary claim. Similarly, the idea that we are descended through a naturalistic process from earlier primates was truly extraordinary until the evidence was gathered — and of course, that evidence has been vastly augmented since the time of Darwin, about 150 years ago.

The point of this talk is that the modern, naturalistic picture of the world that even most religious people accept for most purposes, most of the time, did not come naturally to us. It was hard won. It was won through extraordinary efforts — by Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and many others, including people whom we’d normally regard as philosophers and humanities scholars rather than scientists.

For someone in 1513, many of the most basic claims in our scientifically-informed understanding would have been extraordinary. The reason why we now, quite rightly, accept them is because we actually have the extraordinary evidence, accumulated over hundreds of years. The reason is not that our modern understanding of the world is, prior to the evidence coming in, natural or intuitive, or because the old understanding of the world was inherently, prior to the evidence, counter-intuitive or bizarre.

When it comes to intuitiveness, or otherwise, don’t even start me on relativity theory or quantum mechanics. The universe opened up to our inspection by science is very strange indeed, in the sense that much of what we have learned goes against our natural intuitions. For example, Edward O. Wilson has this to say:
The ruling talismans of twentieth-century science, relativity and quantum mechanics, have become the ultimate in strangeness to the human mind. They were conceived by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and other pioneers of theoretical physics during a search for quantifiable truths that would be known to extraterrestrials as well as to our species, and hence certifiably independent of the human mind. The physicists succeeded magnificently, but in doing so revealed the limitations of intuition unaided by mathematics; an understanding of nature, they discovered, comes very hard. … The cost of scientific advance is the humbling recognition that reality was not constructed to be easily grasped by the human mind.
Relativity and quantum mechanics are not for, say, primary school children. Still, there is an exciting story to tell about the advance of science, about how our scientific knowledge was hard won — even in the face of human intuitions. I think we should introduce our children to this story as early as possible in their education. We can always learn more about it ourselves.

I take scientific skepticism to be essentially skepticism about claims that educated people should now regard as extraordinary — not because they are inherently bizarre but because they are anomalous within our hard-won, scientifically-informed picture of the world.

Think again of reincarnation. If reincarnation were true, if reincarnation were a genuine phenomenon, this would force us to revise our whole picture of the world to find some mechanism whereby it takes place. That makes it an extraordinary claim, and that is a reason to investigate it in a spirit of suspicion.

By way of analogy, many people make claims that run counter to the evidence from humanistic scholarship. For example, many people will not accept that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare (though the claim being denied was never an extraordinary one in this case). They claim the plays were written by, say, Christopher Marlowe, or Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford.

Others deny terrible historical events, such as the Holocaust. There was once a time when the claim that the Nazis murdered nearly six million Jews in their concentration camps should have been regarded with suspicion, especially since much in the way of false propaganda was spread about the Germans during the first world war. We should always be cautious about atrocity propaganda, especially from our own side.

But of course, we know that the Nazi Holocaust did take place. We have the extraordinary evidence for these horrific events, and we have it in much detail. Given the picture that was built up by investigators immediately after the second world war and by historians since, we actually have the extraordinary evidence needed to believe in the occurrence of something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust. Someone who now denies those events does not deserve to be called by the honourable title of skeptic. Such a person is in denial of evidence that we actually have. Such a person is a denialist.

Initially extraordinary claims that actually acquire extraordinary evidence thereby change our picture of the world, or our understandings of ourselves and our situation. Once that happens, what were once extraordinary claims become normalised. Once they are sufficiently well established, those once-extraordinary claims can be used in arguments against new claims that are inconsistent with them. All the cumulative evidence that supports such a claim stands as evidence against any inconsistent claim.

So — the rotation of the earth was once an extraordinary claim. The onus was on proponents to gather the evidence. Skepticism about the claim was rational and warranted – though of course suppression and punishment were not. But the evidence has been gathered. Someone who denied the claim now would not deserve the title “skeptic”: such a person would be a crank or a crackpot or a denialist (don’t ask me what the difference is!).

We have, in our society, evolution denialists, Holocaust denialists, climate change denialists, and denialists of many other important claims for which we have the evidence, however extraordinary the claims might have been when first made, against the background of what it was then rational and reasonable to believe. That is a distinction that our children need to be taught, just as they need to know how hard won our current, evidentially informed, picture of the world actually was. I don’t believe these things are well understood, even by most adults.

Let’s do more about that.

Thank you, friends and colleagues. And thank you, JREF!

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