April 23, 2024

Epistemology and Politics – The Misuse of Science

Even if the word “science” has nothing to do with “creation of knowledge” from an etymological point of view, but rather the nature or system of knowledge is its subject, it is still relevant if we consider the creation of new knowledge. It is also considered the goal of science. But what distinguishes “knowledge”? How do you know you know something?

Political decisions that have substantive social impacts should be based on facts as much as humanly possible. To this end, politicians must seriously rely on scientific findings. This allows us to determine the best course of action to achieve political goals.

Unfortunately, there has recently been an increasing number of politicians who misuse purely observational studies or untested hypotheses to present the actions they propose or even the political goals themselves as scientific facts. For example, many politicians have incorrectly portrayed vaccines against coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) as suitable for preventing infection or as having no serious side effects.

The negative impact on society in general and the scientific community in particular was then exacerbated by the fact that scientists who did not agree with these politicians were publicly discredited and their reputations and careers in academic science were threatened. In the scientific world, increasing attention is now being paid to ensuring that the desired outcomes of research work do not conflict with the political mainstream. Or that results that go against the mainstream should not be published at all so as not to jeopardize one's career.

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“So I guess I am.”

In this situation that threatens society and free science, it is very important to ask again about the foundations of knowledge: So what can people really know about themselves and the world around them? This question has long worried philosophers and led to the famous phrase “cogito ergo sum” by René Descartes; So I guess I am.

Descartes constantly doubted everything and came to the conclusion that every perception could also be a mirage and that one cannot even know for sure whether one is dreaming or not. However, the one thing that one cannot meaningfully doubt, and thus represents the only certain knowledge about the world that can be experienced with the senses, is the truth of doubt. Because doubt is an intellectual activity, it inevitably needs someone to do or think, and this thinker is you, so it is certain that you yourself exist: “I think, therefore I exist.”

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Apart from this statement about our empirical perceptions, there is no certain knowledge about empirical facts, and for this reason one is never immune to errors in the empirical natural sciences. Even old models such as the geocentric world view or Newtonian mechanics can suddenly be shown to be wrong or generally invalid due to new scientific work. From this vision, the philosopher Karl Popper developed what is called “critical rationalism,” which posits the existence of a world that people can only access through their cognitive devices.

Causation in this world is regulated by (natural) laws that we humans cannot access directly, but can be deduced from experiments or observations. However, since conclusions from observations can always be reasonably questioned, he developed the “falsification” methodology, which Imre Lakatos expanded into complex falsification: the assumption of a causal relationship based on observations is put forward as a hypothesis that must be refuted by experiments, and only so long as it does not succeed Experimental refutation A hypothesis is considered true or can be used to form theories about the world.

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Serious scientific work

An example to illustrate this: It is assumed that placing 100 umbrellas in an area of ​​10,000 square meters is the cause of rainfall in this area because it has been observed that this is the case more often, or in other words: there is a strong relationship between open umbrellas and rainfall. However, experiments in sunlight show that this is not the case, so this hypothesis was put aside and a new hypothetical cause of the rainfall effect was sought.

Observed associations are therefore not evidence of causality, but are used exclusively to formulate hypotheses, which must then be experimentally tested to confirm their validity. Only as long as the hypothesis thus obtained holds up, can one assume that the association on which it is based represents causation. However, a new experiment can occur at any time that disproves its validity, which is why you can never be sure that a hypothesis actually reflects a causal relationship according to natural law. This is how serious experimental science works. Or in other words: Serious scientific work does not actually begin until after an observational study!

Current state of science

As explained above, it can always happen in science that existing hypotheses are falsified because seriously well-established hypotheses must be falsifiable. If a hypothesis is formulated in such a way that it cannot be tested—that is, falsified—in an experiment, or if it has not yet been tested with appropriate experiments, it may not be presented as the current state of the science; Especially not in public!

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Thus policies based on observational studies or untested hypotheses, as we have seen repeatedly in recent years, are lethal. Things cannot continue like this, otherwise serious scientific work will become increasingly rare, and the prospects for groundbreaking scientific discoveries and the paradigm shifts based on them will diminish. And this is exactly what is usually done by scientific outsiders!

The text is an excerpt from the knowledge paper.The increasing disappearance of cognitive methods from science is the cause of many political problems“That forum Socrates published.

Andreas Radbruch in conversation with Axel Mayer
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