Science and opinion

Dear Editor:

I applaud Douglas Kimmel not merely for citing his sources but actually quoting some of their actual text in his letter to this page of Nov. 5 [“An alarming order”]. So much of the discourse of this past election season has been of the schoolboy-bully “You’re another!” sort that it is refreshing to see an opinion expressed that actually appeals to reason, that principle on which our liberal democracy and all its imitators overseas have relied to “get it right” and not merely flounder in a toxic epistemic soup.

This said, I vehemently disagree with some of the conclusions Mr. Kimmel has drawn. The essential question he raises boils down to this: Is a government acting properly in fostering what is scientifically proven, at the expense of ignorance, prejudice or outright lies? I would argue that wrong beliefs of this sort have a real and pernicious effect on the armed forces and federal contractors, by fostering a culture that is contrary to the self-evident truths we take to be what citizenship in our nation is all about.

Science rests upon proven facts, not imaginaries. Hence, we look to the social sciences as a foundational source of knowledge about the American way, including its central notion of equality. Put another way, opinions that relegate people of color or women to a second-class status are patently unpatriotic. Ideally, inoculating the young against such civic heresies would be part of the required curriculum in schools both public and private, but until it is, we can at least insist that our armies not be incubators of racism, nor that the contractors supported by our tax dollars abuse their employees on account of sex. Such misconduct is manifestly unworthy of any civilized country.

But how do we know that these propositions lead inexorably to truth, such that we can say that their contraries are poppycock? This is what epistemology is about. If we are familiar with the word at all, we usually take it to mean the science of how we know things; but the Greek root of the word is not knowledge (gnosis) but trust (pistis), the underlying question being not merely what we claim to know but what sorts, sources and authorities we can trust not to be leading us astray. Is science to be trusted and therefore a privileged body of communication? 

In a word, yes. With its requirements of consistency, dependence on reliable fact and the ability to duplicate its results, science has served us very well, not least in its spectacular results in such diverse areas of discovery as how airplanes counteract gravity by marrying sailboat engineering to novel means of propulsion, why human-driven climate change is producing ever-increasing global effects and what is going on at a microscopic level when a virus reproduces and spreads to become a pandemic.

So, it is an error, I think, to allege that the discarding of error in favor of verifiable truth is tantamount to censorship. Indeed, imagination plays a vital role, for much of what we today call “normal science” actually had its genesis in someone’s ingenious speculations. But only the ones that pass the tests of coherence and replicability can qualify as science per se. As an end in itself, opinion will not cure any deficiency in what we know, nor heal public institutions (however well intentioned) that inflict widespread collateral damage on our nation’s faithful servants. 

It is only correct science that can do this, bolstered by a national resolve to insist on reforming practices that perpetuate historical injustices, with the courage to teach by precept and example those fundamental truths that shall pave the highways to those alabaster cities so deeply longed for, and earnestly sought, by every patriotic American.

Nick Humez

Trenton and Painesville, Ohio

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