How Stephen L. Carter celebrates egregious displays of scientific ignorance, confusing it with dissent in a free society.
January 30, 2016
Stephen L. Carter, a distinguished Yale Law professor writing for Bloomberg View in an article called “Have You Thanked A Flat Earther Today?” on the recent brouhaha between a rapper B.o.b who claims to believe in a Flat Earth and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson who tried to talk some sense into him, essentially says that it was all good fun since dissent is good and a sign of real freedom (hence the title of the article). He concludes an interesting discourse of the history of Flat Earth-ery with the following.
Carter is a distinguished law professor to whom knowledge of law, historical precedent and interpretation, arguments and presentation of words to convince people of his case is the foundation of his craft.
Though this sounds similar to the scientific method, the latter is fundamentally different.
In Law, one takes a position and tries to argue the point using oratory and/or other expository skills backing it with history and analogies. A skillful lawyer is one who can convince a judge, a jury, a panel, the public of his or her case.
In science one starts with observations, forms a theoretical hypothesis to explain these observations and firms up a theory that can explain more and more observations. A theory seeks to explain reality as it is observed and, crucially, make verifiable predictions.
A key here is that a single non-conforming (verified) observation or a prediction that did not pan out, means that either the theory must be modified or in extreme cases thrown out and a new one built from the ground up. A scientist may start with a hypothesis only to abandon it or having to modify it when one of more observations contradict the implications of said hypothesis. A theory must be convincing not to the public but his informed peers, and penetrating (often heated) questions are not just expected but welcome since they help flesh the theory out. And generations of scientists often may work to test out predictions made by the theory.
Example of Geocentric vs Heliocentric Theories
A geocentric universe – that supported by Aristotle (who incidentally was among those who conjectured based on evidence early on that the Earth was a sphere) – is at first glance the more obvious choice. The Sun, Moon, Stars seem to go round the Earth, so why shouldn’t Earth be the center?
There is nothing wrong initially with this theory and indeed the one that makes most sense based on limited observations (like at first glance the Flat Earth).
Then one starts adding more observations like the motions of planets – the very name means wanderers – whose retrograde processions over time from an Earth point of view suggest that they couldn’t be explained by a simple circular motion around the Earth. Epicycles and other complications were introduced to keep the central tenet of Earth-as-Center intact (increasingly for Religious reasons).
Ultimately, a heliocentric universe more neatly explained all of this without invoking complicated gyrations just to keep Earth at the center – the Copernican view. From an Occam’s Razor point of view this was the obvious choice.
Yet the key to acceptance was not just Galileo’s discovery of satellites revolving around Jupiter, but the development of theories from Kepler’s Laws to Newton’s Theory of Gravity which gave the mathematical and physical basis for the Heliocentric theory to be widely accepted.
So the Geocentric theory was not overthrown as a whim or as an expression of dissent to the Religious establishment (which not only refused to look through a telescope to verify Galileo’s discovery of what would later be called the Galilean moons around Jupiter, but threw Galileo in jail for his troubles). Science is very conservative and a new theory becomes dominant only when it not only explains observations better than the dominant existing theory but also has better predictive power each time knowing that a single verified observation that contradicts a theory’s prediction can mean it is incomplete or plain wrong (which was what led to the Einsteinian revolution of existing “common sense” notions of time and space for example).
Does this mean the Geocentric theory is “wrong”? The Scientific Method would say if one is going to propose that now, one needs to carefully revisit all the observations and be knowledgable in theory formed over centuries from folks such as Newton to Einstein that is used to send rockets up, satellites that bring us GPS and so on. And then come up with a consistent Geocentric theory that modifies or overturns various theories of motion, Gravity, Electromagnetism, Optics – indeed all aspects of Physics as we have known them for the past 400 years – with a brand new one which explains all observations and is superior at predictive power.
One can’t just say “Obviously everything goes around the Earth. Just look up!” without understanding any of this.
The Fundamental problem with Carter’s Position
Being a lawyer, Carter’s position is not just “Of course you can! It’s a free country!” but that this is an expression of dissent to be celebrated as an example of freedom.
Technically the first position is true of course. There are no legal laws to say (almost) anything one wants to say, like for example for me challenging Carter’s on an intricate point of Law he actually studied without me knowing anything about it.
But celebrating such an attitude as an expression of dissent in the “land of the free” misses the point. Dissent in Science is not like a protester against a law or political system they see as unfair: it is a deep questioning of either the validity of observations, analysis or conclusions based on informed research. There are serious physicists for example who dissent on the overwhelmingly accepted and repeatedly validated (and still being tested) Einsteinian view of gravity with alternative theories.
But the anti-intellectual ethos that pervades much of the US, pooh-poohs the need for informed debate. “Common sense” is enough. Obviously the Earth is flat. This lack of knowledge is coupled with a refusal to look at rational arguments writing them off as either the work of unquestioning mindless researchers or some darker conspiracy theories.
Science then is increasingly being seen – not just by Flat Earthers like B.o.b but educated men like Carter – as just another field like Politics, fair game for grass roots dissent of the masses against the establishment in their Ivory Towers. In other words having anyone challenge the Scientific Establishment should be celebrated in the same spirit as say the Civil Rights movement.
And this is the dangerous path which leads to the overwhelming evidence of man-made Global Warming being attacked not from legitimate scientific arguments (of which there are some) but from sheerly “common sense” grounds by many including the Chairman of the House Enviornment and Public Works Committee who brought a snowball into the House in the middle of Winter to make his “case” against Global Warming.
And it’s not hyperbolic to say this widespread disdain for not just the Scientific Method, but Education, Logic and Reason versus “Common Sense” has deadly consequences, as the so-called “debate” over Global Warming has shown.
In the United States, regions of which have historically had a deep suspicion of informed debate, Fame, Money or Popularity (included as measured in Twitter followers) is seen as giving sufficient legitimacy to a person to challenge established Scientific Theories or eschew rational debate in favor of an entertaining one. It is telling that Tyson chose to “debate” B.o.b not with a dry exposition of fundamental errors in B.o.b ‘s so-called “proofs” but an entertaining monologue in B.o.b ‘s vernacular.
What’s distressing and telling in a country that suffers from low rankings among OECD countries in Maths, Readings and Science , is not B.o.b ‘s Flat Earthery (no doubt in part for self-promotion in an era where notoriety is financially enriching), but that educated men like Carter who one would presume should know better, actually celebrate this dumbing-down of the America and confuse deliberate, defiant ignorance with principled, fierce dissent.