Monday, May 23, 2005

Skepticism and true belief

Many years ago, back in the "anything goes" 60s, I was co-teaching a seminar with a professor from the English department. One day he brought in a collection of scholarly articles: as I recall, about a dozen from science journals, and an equal number from philosophy and theology journals. He doled them out and asked us to count qualified statements -- the ifs, buts and maybes.

The results were enlightening. The science articles contained far more qualified statements than the philosophy and theology journals, turing upside down the preconceptions of many of our students.

Along that line, here are some quotes from a one-page article in the May 6, 2005 issue of Nature, entitled "Changes in the Sun May Sway the Tropical Monsoon." Note the "may" in the title.

"'[The latest evidence] is kind of selling me on [a sun-climate link],' says longtime doubter Gerald North of Texas A&M University."

"That's a strong contention in a field littered with debunked claims and disappearing correlations..."

"'This is probably the best monsoon record I've seen,' adds paleoclimatologist Dominik Fleitmann of Stanford University. 'Even better than ours."

"'In sun-climate, 'just when you think you're making progress on one front, something on another front falls apart,' says solar physicist Judith Lean...Now Lean questions her [own] brightness estimates."

And so on. The great strength of science is organized doubt and the willingness to shed firmly held beliefs when the evidence requires it, something you do not find in the annals of true belief.