Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Doggerel #177: "Certainty"
Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
Various woos like to ask us if we're certain about scientific knowledge, or about our doubts on "supernatural" topics. The problem with the question is that it deals with a fundamental misunderstanding about science and skepticism. Certainty isn't for us (unless you're a mathematician).
Scientifically minded people work with confidence levels. And we generally work by falsifying the null hypothesis, not by developing an absolute proof of a theory. It's also rare for us to declare anything impossible. As such, I tend to see certainty as the province of woos, not skeptics.
Scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable: That means that if they're wrong, they can be shown to be wrong with the right evidence, and modified or abandoned to account for that evidence. A skeptic has to know what would prove him wrong. Usually, when I ask woos what it'd take to get them to admit they're wrong, they refuse to consider the possibility. Instead of only going for certain things, we go with whatever appears to have the highest probability and plausibility.
We also recognize that we're mere mortals. We can't attain special exceptions to our limitations. When you think you have certainty, it can often pave the way to barbarism. Just take a good look at religious fanatics and cults of personality. Having a little doubt in everything is a good thing. That's how we've made such great progress in expanding the knowledge of our civilization.