Monday, January 13, 2014

Truth and consequences

From a review in the NYTBR of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's The Time Regulation Institute, which puts Tanpinar's novel in the tradition of Menippean satire: "What such otherwise dissimilar books have in common is a delight in exposing the limits of human reason, with particular scorn for any intellectual system that attempts to comprehensively explain the world."

I will admit to never having heard the term Menippean satire, but I can sympathize with the sentiment. Good advice, I'd say: Don't trust any intellectual system that claims to explain the world. Christianity. Marxism. Tea party politics. Nihilism. You name it. The world is too multifarious and full of surprises to fit into any intellectual straitjacket.

Does that include science? Absolutely.

But science has one characteristic that distinguishes it from every other comprehensive scheme I know of: Institutionalized skepticism.

Peer review. Mathematical rigor. Empirical reproducibility. Fluid consensus. There is hardly an issue of Science or Nature (the two journals I read regularly) that does not contain a retraction or correction of a previous paper that did not meet the standards of rigorous review and reproducibility.

Of course, any truth system needs stability if it is to be a useful guide to the world. I have suggested here before that science aspires to be radically open to marginal change and marginally open to radical change.

Other truth systems do occasionally make course corrections; think Protestant Reformation or the contemporary Chinese economy. But these changes are forced by circumstances and fiercely resisted by established powers. In science, it is the established gatekeepers that insist on applied doubt.

All of which means we can give science a measure of confidence that other systems lack. Not obeisance, but cautious confidence.