Science and reason
As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:
One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. e).
This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.
He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.
Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):
A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):
The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)
There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.
The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.
A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.
Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.
(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)
One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.
For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.
It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)