“… for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits: it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs. ” – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics1 I. Shermer’s idealistic claims about science
Shermer’s account of science as deeply “provisionalist” in its approach to its own knowledge claims is a misleading exaggeration – one that underplays the role of consensus and co-operation in scientific inquiry, and that fails to do justice to the intellectual-historical record of most of the natural sciences. However, it does contain a grain of truth, insofar as most scientists are ready to admit that none of their scientific beliefs are 100% certain. Conclusions in the natural sciences are arguably always provisional, as no theory within this area of knowledge is ever deductively proven.
The strongest theories are those that have withstood the most attempts to disprove them, and even those which seem to have stood every kind of test are liable to be caught out by an exception sooner or later. Newtonian mechanics, formulated in Principia Mathematica in the year 1686, remained unchallenged for over 200 years and in 1900 Lord Kelvin, a prominent physicist, stated “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement”2.
Five years later Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity, supplanting many of Newton’s theories and re-establishing physics as a provisional, progressive area of science3. Ideally, natural scientists should be the purest of Popperian sceptics4, relying solely on falsification as a means for testing hypotheses, and ignoring the potential errors of verification and confirmation bias at all costs. However, following the important insight provided by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science in practice would appear to be not as provisional as Shermer would seem to suggest.
II. Shermer as a Popperian falsificationist? Karl Popper, one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, first proposed the concept of falsification and Popperian scepticism in the natural sciences as an alternative to relativism or subjectivism. Popper held that no scientific theory is ever proven, and that verification is therefore impossible. By the same token, the only way proposed by Popper to attach any epistemic value to a scientific theory was through attempts at falsification5.
Popper seems to think that good scientists can and should be willing to hold to their hypotheses very tentatively, and they should be willing to give them up quickly and easily. Popperian falsificationism maintains that all scientific conclusions are almost entirely provisional. Popper denies the existence of any form of ultimate verification in science, ensuring that a conclusion is always to be held provisionally. Shermer’s absolute claim that science holds a “belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions” runs parallel to Popper’s claim, refuting verification of any kind of scientific conclusion. III.