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October 31, 2005

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I think you are basically correct, but I would express this with more precision. For example, there is not one "scientific method". Rather, there is a scientific toolbox, that is used in a fluid manner. See for instance :
https://www.dharma-haven.org/science/myth-of-scientific-method.htm

Also, science and the scientific method are not one and the same. Philosophy, for example, can be done using a simpler form of "the scientific method", but it is not science.

Welcome to Atheism Online. This looks like an outstanding blog, and I added it to my RSS aggregator. I'll be reading often. Keep up the great work!

Hi Skeptico, I've been a reader for a good while (through RSS), but have mostly been content to sit back and nod in agreement with your posts before now. I'm going to jump in now, though; I just wish it weren't to disagree with you. ;)

While I agree with you that "science has proved to be the most reliable method we know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works," I don't think your argument is an effective one against someone who believes differently, since you're essentially asking people to use the scientific method to invalidate the scientific method.

Put it another way. Let's say, for example, that John Q. Credulous believes that the most reliable method he knows for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works is not through evidentiary analysis, but by revelation from the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by His Noodly Appendage). When you ask him, then, to provide evidence that it's the best method, he says:

"No one is claiming that Noodly Revelation has all the answers or is always right. However, His Noodliness has proved to be the most reliable method Pastafarians know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works. If you are claiming that there is a better method, it is up to you to justify that claim. To demonstrate this, you need to explain your better method for evaluating claims, and cite revelation from His Noodliness that it is indeed a better method."

You can protest that obviously such revelation doesn't exist, and that a request for such demonstrates a near-complete failure to understand how the scientific method works. And, as far as that goes, you would be right. But to the faithful Pastafarian, you're just making excuses and equivocating.

So while you're not, in my view, wrong, this argument can't possibly be effective as far as I can tell.

Now, if you could find the flaw in the argument using THEIR rules rather than YOURS, *THAT* would be an accomplishment.

Anyway, keep up the good work, and I'll keep reading.

(Hope this doesn't post twice. I seem to be having troubles...)

Well, we have what appears to be legitimate criticism. Now, if only it came from a non-skeptic. :P

Oh, well. Maybe someone might be inspired to do more than drive-by insults about our "negativity".

Alan M.'s criticism isn't a very good one. Stating that "science has proved to be the most reliable method we know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works" is not asking someone to use the scientific method to invalidate the scientific method. Instead, it's just a matter of statistics. The scientific method has produced more correct results than any other given method; therefore, by definition, it is the most reliable method for producing correct results.

Sez ExtinctInstinct: Stating that "science has proved to be the most reliable method we know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works" is not asking someone to use the scientific method to invalidate the scientific method.

No, but asking them to "explain their better method for evaluating claims, and provide evidence that it is indeed a better method" (emphasis mine) IS. This is asking them to state a hypothesis, collect data, observe the data, and draw a conclusion. That is (in a nutshell) the scientific process.

All right; you have me there. :) However, how would one prove something correct, if not through that process?

Alan M:

I had considered and understand your point and it has some validity. However, the burden of proof has to be upon the person making the claim. Nothing else makes any sense. (Otherwise, pay me back the $1,000 I lent you.) So it has to be up to them to justify their claim that there is another way of knowing. Of course, they can justify it how they like. And we can examine what they say and see if their justification makes any sense. So far I have never received any reply to my question: “what is your better way?”, let alone an explanation for why they think it is better.


Evidence appeals to the senses; one can feel it, smell it, taste it, see it, hear it, etc. Presenting anything else is as good as making it up. Like kids playing "guns" (yes, we did that when your Rockstar was a lad) - one kid claims force field, the other claims his laser can penetrate the force field, kid one claims his force field is double power, kid two claims his laser is double power, and so on, and so on...

Skeptico: I hear what you're saying, but I think you're missing my meaning. Or else we're talking at cross purposes. I wasn't talking about shifting the burden of proof (well, I was, but as support of the argument, not as the argument itself); what I'm talking about is method of proof.

Person 1 says: "Method A is better for finding the truth."
Person 2 says: "No, Method B is better for finding the truth."
Person 1 says: "Okay, Person 2, prove Method B is better using Method A."
Person 2 says: "No, Person 1, you prove Method A is better using Method B."
& etc. etc. Welcome to Hell. :)

What I'm trying to get at is, you can't prove a method of proof without using a method of proof to, er, prove it. And in that equation, each method will de facto prove itself to be best. But that is not sufficient to universally validate or invalidate a method of proof; for one to be proven "best known method," it has to prove itself as the best using all known methods (which is, of course, impossible).

And now we move onto philosophical debates about the nature of knowledge.

Anyway, what I like about the scientific method: It's easily corrected when wrong. All it takes is one well-designed, replicable experiment to overturn existing theories. Too bad woos aren't interested in such things.

And now we move onto philosophical debates about the nature of knowledge.

"As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know."
--Donald Rumsfeld, accidental poet

I understand your point Alan. What I’m saying is that they won’t be able to demonstrate their method is better without providing evidence.

For example, suppose their method of knowing is dreams – they dream the lottery numbers each week. OK, how are they going to demonstrate that dreaming really is a better method of knowing? They’re going to have to show they won the lottery aren’t they?

I think there's a couple general "classes" of types of "knowing".

You can compare within a class, sometimes.

And the scientific method has the benefit that it's close enough to what we use in our everyday life that you CAN compare the scientific method and our general method of reckoning - and if you do it fairly enough, the general method of reckoning wins. The problem comes when people take the gifts of science for granted - which suddenly makes it very hard for science to show that it's actually doing anything.


And then, of course, you have religious revelation, which is a completely different class from science - by their very natures, you can't convince someone that one is superior to the other unless they already accept that one.


So your argument's going to be useless on the creationists - but should work reasonably well on the "psychics" and the alties, since they don't have a 'codified' method of reasoning.

So your argument's going to be useless on the creationists - but should work reasonably well on the "psychics" and the alties, since they don't have a 'codified' method of reasoning.

I'm not convinced any valid form of argument is effective on those sorts. But we might as well try.

*sigh*

What are these other ways of knowing? In my experience, they are mostly just appeals to authority. A general rebuttal for them is, "Why is your authority any better than X?"

Also, since so much of our everyday lives are dependent upon science, other good rebuttals compare what science has accomplished vs what these other ways of knowing have accomplished. Eg what does their way of knowing offer in the way of medical treatment?

What I’m saying is that they won’t be able to demonstrate their method is better without providing evidence.

Why not? I mean, obviously, they won't be able to demonstrate to you or me that it's better without providing evidence. But they've clearly demonstrated to themselves that it's true, even without what you or I would deem acceptable evidence, or else they wouldn't believe it*, so some manner of demonstration (no matter how illogical) exists.

Take your dreamer, for example. If he believes that the winning lottery numbers come to him every week in his dreams, then he's either delusional (which can't be attacked by logic), or he has a reason (objectively good or not) to believe it. And whatever that reason was, it was, to him, more convincing than the scientific evidence that argued against believing it. That being the case, providing or asking for more scientific evidence most likely wouldn't accomplish anything: His reasoning has already transcended scientific evidence, and so any more would be unlikely to change anything. What would be needed to change his mind is something that appeals to that non-scientific reasoning.


* This is, of course, based on the assumption that people will only believe something if they have a reason (good or not) to do so. If the case is actually that people will believe things for no reason whatsoever, then it's another nut entirely.

Re: obviously, they won't be able to demonstrate to you or me that it's better without providing evidence. But they've clearly demonstrated to themselves that it's true, even without what you or I would deem acceptable evidence, or else they wouldn't believe it

Yes but when you ask them how they know this, they will usually be stumped. Hardly anyone has an answer to that question. Asking “how do you know that” isn’t necessarily asking for scientific evidence – it’s just asking how they know. That will usually reveal that they have no way of knowing.

The exception is the person who believes, as you said, for no reason whatsoever. I once had a discussion with someone about Indigo children. She “knew” these were of alien origin. I said, “How do you know?”, and she said, “I just know.” With that sort of person clearly nothing will convince them of anything. I actually said “I just know you’re wrong” – which demonstrated the fallacy of that way of thinking to everyone else listening. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Fair enough. Although recognizing that they don't know how they know doesn't necessarily mean that they will stop "knowing." Y'know? ;)

I actually said “I just know you’re wrong” – which demonstrated the fallacy of that way of thinking to everyone else listening. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

And there's the crux of it all, I think; the "to everyone else listening." This argument (the one in your post, in case we've lost count) can work on the undecided observer, even if it doesn't affect the alternate method believer, and that's where its value still definitely holds.

Anyway, I think we've given it a good go 'round; thanks for the debate. 'Twas fun!

But then, what else would you expect? We're both Libras. ;)

Is Skeptico really a Libra? I had my money down on Aries or Scorpio. ; ]

Actually, most people think I’m a Gemini. ;-)

anyway, it's pretty clearly false that the only way of arriving at knowledge is by employment of scientific method; the following claims don't seem to be established established by that method (without *really* stretching one's definition of scientific method), but I'm pretty sure I know them:

(1) I exist.
(2) If p implies q, and p, then q.
(3) It's possible that water not be H2O.
etc....

I would think that logic would be part of the scientific method, which means that "[i]f p implies q, and p, then q" would be established by the scientific method(s). Chemistry has establised the connection (or lack of same) between water and H20, again by scientific methods.

Your existence in an empirical fact, which can be proven by observation, which is very much part of the scientific method.

All in all, I find your examples unconvincing.

Re (1) - I think you are right to claim that one might present valid arguments for one's own existence that have premises established by observation, but it is not clear that this is the only way to do so (one might reason 'I think, therefore I am'; and it's not clear that one comes to know the truth of the claim 'I think' by observation).

Employing scientific method might involve applying logical rules such as stated in (2), but in what sense are those rules *established* by scientific method?

I'm afraid I left out a 'not' in (3) - I meant to say that 'It's not possible that water not be H2O'. The thought is one about modal claims. Chemists certainly established that H20 is water, and given that if a = b, then necessarily a = b, it follows that necessarily H20 is water. But I'm pretty sure chemists did not establish that if a = b, then necessarily a = b; hence that it's not possible that water not be H20 is not established by chemistry.

apologies for the quadruple negative in that last sentence!

sumguy:

Yes, but what is your better method?

If we go back to your original statements, something to the effect that "The scientific method is not the only source of truth," I would propose the following as an argument at least supporting this concept.

The opposite of this statement might be something like, "The scientific method is the (only) source of truth." But what do we know of the history of "science"? The history of science is that there has not just been a gradual increase in the truth that science knows, but actually that this truth has changed, sometimes in a way diametrically opposed to what was known before. Many of the concepts about the structure of the universe, the human body, chemical reactions have been "proven" wrong by more modern analytical methods when they became available, but science as an approach in which observations are made, and then conclusions drawn based on those observations, led to those erroneous ideas. To be sure, many archaic ideas survived long after they were shown to be incorrect, yet this remains true today. The origin of the universe, the question of whether it's expanding or not are all modern knowledge which has changed dramatically in our lifetimes.

So the "truth" that science proclaims has actually changed over the years; yesterday's truths are today's falsehoods or follies. So in a sense, science itself doesn't believe in "truth" at all. What it believes in is a current conjecture that most accurately fits the data that we now have available to us. And it is subject to adjustment, change, or complete abandonment.

So if we go back to the original conjecture, "The scientific method is not the only source of truth," if science has shown itself to not necessarily be a source of truth, then this this conjecture is not exactly false, it's more of a nonsequitur.

Greg P:

Re: The opposite of this statement might be something like, "The scientific method is the (only) source of truth."

You’re building a straw man here.

What I said was:

science has proved to be the most reliable method we know for evaluating claims and figuring out how the universe works. If the believer is claiming that there is a better method, it is up to him or her to justify that claim.

Re: Many of the concepts about the structure of the universe, the human body, chemical reactions have been "proven" wrong…

This is the “Scientists were wrong before so they are wrong now” fallacy. I’m planning a post on that one too.

The issue is, is there a better method for evaluating claims? If so, what is it?

I'm afraid I don't do enough epistemology to have an account of how we know claims 1-3 enough; i just wanted to establish the falsity of the claim that one can only know things by using the scientific method.

Perhaps you only wanted to make the weaker claim that the scientific method is, in some sense, the 'best' way of knowing (you seem to suggest that scientific knowledge is the 'most reliable', or best way of knowing); I'm pretty happy with accepting that employment of the scientific method is the best way of evaluating a wide variety of empirical claims. But even here we should be careful - take my perceptual claim that there is a computer in front of me; I'd want to say that I know that simply due to my being visually confronted with a computer; it's not the case that the claim has the status of a probable hypothesis based on experience (presumably with experiences being regarded as observables).

The straw man was exactly the point I was trying to make.
To say that the scientific method leads to truth is at least an overstatement. It's more like it leads to understandings of the kind that can be tested from various perspectives, now and in the future.
Scientific method is really an application of logic, interacting with observations.
But logic is not unique to science, and in fact there is a logic within the realm of religion. The problem with the logic of religion is that there are immutable laws (beliefs) which must be accepted and are generally untestable. And some of the logic of religion falls more into the category of common sense, which can sometimes be valid, but in many cases fails tests of accurate observation.
The end result is that the scientific method cannot exist in the realm of religion, unless one is willing to do away with the immutable and the untestable, but if you did that, what would be left?

Going off on a tangent as to other ways of knowing, would the "court of law" method (what I call it) satisfy the criteria for an alternative way of knowing?

Scientific method requires evidence that proves, a court requires evidence that supports a position.

End result in a court, is that you don't have to prove anything, you just have to provide enough evidence supporting a particular position that will persuade a judge and/or a jury.

Having said that, if you provide evidence in court that proves something, that's usually considered a slam-dunk.

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