Saturday, June 30, 2007

On being confident (sort of)

In the early 1970s, I conducted an interdisciplinary seminar with a colleague from the English Department. One day Professor R. brought in a few dozen scholarly articles, half from science journals, half from philosophy and theology journals. First, he gently elicited from us our expectations about which articles were more likely to be matter of fact and which speculative. Then he passed them around and asked us to count qualified statements -- "probably,"`"maybe," "it seems that," that sort of thing. To our surprise, the science articles were full of qualifications; the philosophy and theology articles contained hardly a one. It seemed that the less evidence the authors had for a thing, the more confidently they asserted it.

I was remind of this experiment as I finished Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale, his account of the evolution of life on Earth.

Dawkins is often charged as a scientific dogmatist by his critics, especially by those on the religious right who are offended by his robust atheism. But do the experiment. Open the book to any random page and count qualifiers. I was constantly struck as I read the book by the author's cautious assertions of fact, by his willingness to say "I don't know," even by his friendly explication of scientific ideas he does not personally agree with. If this is dogmatism, it is dogmatism of curious sort. The Ancestor's Tale is chockablock with the kinds of solid evidence that should let one speak with a certain magisterial authority. How refreshing, then, to hear the voice of someone who recognizes the limits of reliable knowing, and who refuses to cover his ignorance with blind faith.

More on this topic in my essay tomorrow.