At TheBestSchools.org we care deeply about the way public education interacts with the broader culture—especially with the philosophical, scientific, and religious ideas that are circulating in the media today.
One of the most important of all questions facing us as citizens—both as voters and as contributors to our common public discourse—is the proper role of scientific claims in public education and public policy.
This is also one of the most important points of contact between education and culture, and it is here that we feel a special responsibility to do our part to help guide public discussion in a positive direction. To that end, we have already engaged in various efforts to promote open and honest dialogue on issues at the intersection between education, science, and culture, and we intend to be even more actively engaged in such efforts in the future.
While we are hardly neutral on the many cultural questions of intense public debate in our country today—no thoughtful and informed person can be that—we do see our role as primarily that of facilitating an informed discussion of the issues, as opposed to advocating our own viewpoint. That said, we do not hesitate to take a vigorous and unambiguous public stand on one issue—freedom of speech in the domain of science.
We deplore the growing climate of intolerance in this country (and around the world) on many fronts, notably with respect to unpopular religious expression and political opinion, among other things. But the issue nearest to our hearts is the dangerous trend toward curtailment of academic freedom and intolerance of dissent with respect to scientific claims. This tendency is not only becoming quite noticeable within the broader society, it is also (alas) of increasing concern even within the scientific community itself—which ironically prides itself on its skepticism and its refusal to kowtow to mere authority.
Recollect the stirring motto adopted by the Royal Society of London upon its founding in 1660: Nullius in verba (on no one’s words, or authority). Increasingly, we are now being told that we must adopt precisely the opposite stance: we must accept scientific claims, not on the basis of evidence and reasoning, but on the basis of consensus—that is, on the basis of authority.
As an example of what we are talking about, take the cartoon at the top of the page, originally published in 2010 by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and widely reproduced across the Internet by left-wing and anti-religious websites. What is this cartoon trying to say?
The cartoonist (one Clay Bennett) is poking fun at those who believe that freedom of speech ought to encompass the right to question the validity of scientific claims. “Imagine that,” Mr. Bennett seems to be saying. “Those benighted fools claim the right to doubt the consensus views of science. Why, they might as well claim the right to doubt that 1+1=2!”
But anyone who thinks for a moment will see that the real humor in the cartoon lies in the assumption that the two cases are relevantly similar.
Simple mathematical truths are indeed apparent to everyone—they are strictly speaking self-evident. That is why they can be taught to elementary school children. More complicated mathematical truths require the ability to follow deductive proofs. But even in this case, whoever is capable of following the proof will concur in the result (assuming it is correct). There is no need to quash dissent, because there isn’t any.
Some empirical claims, too, seem to be self-evident: there is a cat over there on the mat. Strictly speaking, even this may disputed (maybe I am in the Matrix), but let that pass. The important point is that for more complicated empirical claims—known as “scientific” claims—there is nothing equivalent to deductive proof. Instead, such reasoning is non-deductive (based on induction and inference to the best explanation), as well as being based on observation, which is inherently fallible.
In short, scientific claims are anything but self-evident. That is why there is disagreement. And that is why competing theories must be given the space to breathe. The search for scientific truth absolutely depends upon the freedom of expression and inquiry. The alternative is to fall into “intellectual phase-locking” (AKA “groupthink”) and error.
We ought to be teaching students that mathematics and science constitute two very different forms of human reasoning, and not the ignorant pretense that contentious scientific claims enjoy the same cognitive authority as the elementary truths of arithmetic.
What is truly hilarious about the cartoon is its philosophical naiveté: “Imagine that—thinking that any a posteriori empirical claim could enjoy the same sort of certainty as an a priori mathematical truth!” Once this is understood, it becomes clear that Mr. Bennett is hoist by his own petard.
In an effort to fight back against this increasingly oppressive climate of authoritaranism in our public discourse about science, TheBestSchools.org is currently sponsoring a Dialogue on the Nature of Science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer, two well-known science writers with competing theories on the cognitive authority of contemporary science, as well as much else.