I've been musing a bit lately on the difference between an accumulation of facts and a theory which explains those facts and provides a framework for them. This musing was brought on, of course, by my continuing to follow the Dover, Pennsylvania "intelligent design" trial. (See the sidebar for links related to Kitzmiller v Dover.)
One of the defense witnesses was the "intelligent design" advocate Michael Behe (whose testimony I discussed earlier here). Behe is a trained and practicing biochemist, and yet he does not accept Darwinian evolution theory. As a biochemist, Behe will certainly know an awful lot of facts about biology, much more than I ever will, but without a theory that fruitfully ties those facts together (or holding to a false theory that cannot serve to provide a useful framework for those facts), Behe will never really understand biology, no matter how large his accumulation of facts might get. He'll have a lot of information, but he won't have any real knowledge, and he'll certainly never achieve biological wisdom.
Science is built upon facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science that a heap of stones is a house.
Henri Poincare Science and Hypothesis (1905)
[I]solated facts don't make an education. Meaning doesn't come from data alone. Creative problem solving depends on context, interrelationships, and experience. The surrounding matrix may be more important than the individual lumps of information.
Clifford Stoll Silicon Snake Oil (1995)
Facts may accumulate without theory; but they will prove to be unstable and of little profit in the end. Theories may flourish if their basis lies not in scientific fact but in opinions and interpretations acceptable only to the members of a limited faction; but they will be bad theories.
This is not something that holds only for biology, psychology or the sciences, it's true in other academic endeavors as well. A Marxist historian, for instance, could well outstrip every other historian in knowing masses of accumulated facts, but because those facts are interpreted through a strongly biased theory, the analyses that results will frequently be useful only up to a point. Certainly, Marxist analysis can provide some novel interpretations that can make us think again and see situations more freshly, but when put to the test, the built-in biases that are part and parcel of the theory, which are, in fact, their warp and woof, without which it wouldn't be Marxist, overwhelm the analysis and make it problematic and less reliable.
If we're looking to historians to interpret the past for us, for help in understanding the present and determining what we should so in the future, it wouldn't do to rely on theories which lead to erroneous conclusions.
(I think the same point can be make regarding Freudian analysis, that it occasionally throws up interesting ways of looking at human behavior, but, because it lacks a credible theory to explain that behavior, its usefulness is of a limited sort, and more inclined to be invoked in a literary manner than a scientific one.)
Another issue involved in looking at facts and theory is the nature of the information which is being accepted as "fact", and utilized in that way.
[Some schools of history assert] that all "facts" claiming objective existence are simply intellectual constructions. In short, there is no clear difference between fact and faction. But there is, and for historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist ones among us, the ability to distinguish between the two is absolutely essential. We cannot invent our facts. Either Elvis Presley is dead or he isn't. The question can be answered unambiguously on the basis of evidence, insofar as reliable evidence is available, which is sometimes the case. Either the present Turkish government, which denies the attempted genocide of the Armenians in 1915, is right or it is not.
Where there's a fact vacuum, pseudo facts, opinion, and outright fantasy come rushing in.
Kurt Anderson "The Age of Unreason" in The New Yorker (3/3/97)
Anderson's remark seems very well applied to what's happened in recent weeks in regards to the Fitzgerald investigation of the Plamegate scandal. The investigation was, laudibly, remarkably leak free, which lead to an absence of hard information. The ensuing vacuum was quickly filled by not only material leaked by the witnesses' representatives, but also all sorts of bizarre and outlandish speculations about what where the investigation was going, what Fitzgerald was after, who was going to be indicted, and what would be the ultimate result of all the revelations which were sure to see the light of day. While some of the initial speculation was built on a foundation of fact, the accumulated architecture of the castle in the air that resulted from layer after layer of guesses, intuitions, speculations and hypotheticals, all glued together with healthy globs of wish fulfillment, was, to say the least spectacularly fantastic.
(One of the fantasies that I found particularly unrealistic and outrageous was that "Fitzmas" would see all the members of the White House Iraq Group frogmarched -- that was the word that was used -- out of the White House in handcuffs, into waiting paddy wagons! And this came from a person who fancies herself an historian and an acute observer of politics and interpretor of current events!)
It's not news to any of us that we're living through a pretty awful period of American history. We've got an administration in office which is hell-bent on re-making the country for the benefit of their corporate clients, undoing most of the political and economic progress that's been made over the last 70 years. They control not only the Executive, but the Legislative and, when pressed, the Judiciary. Their support comes from social reactionaries who themselves have a program that rolls back our social progress and aims to turn us into a close approximation of a theocracy. The party in power uses, with great skill, propaganda techniques and wedge issues to divide and conquer and keep themselves in control.
In short, we're pretty much fucked, at least for the time being.
In such a dilemma, it's not unexpected that people would prefer to believe in fantasies that tell them, for instance, that Fitzgerald's investigation will lead to Bush's being impeached, and it's hardly a surprise that people will react with anger when it's pointed out to them how unreasonable and unlikely such an outcome would be. Nor is it a suprise that they would prefer to forget about those fantastic predictions after it indeed turns out that they're unfulfilled, and then try to pretend that they never happened. Happiness, it seems, at least to some people, is a state best achieved through ignorance, since the wisdom that knowledge can bring is too hurtful.
Of course, I can't see it that way. I much prefer to have a take on the world that is as close to realistic as I can get it, and to that end, I prefer to rely on the judgment and analysis of people who respect facts and who utilize a coherent and rational theory of the world to interpret them. Lacking that, however can we claim to be "part of the reality-based community"?
hostile to science
lacking in empathy
lacking in public spirit
out of control
Thanks to: Breeze, Chuck, Ivan Raikov, Kaiju, Kathy, Roger, Shirley, S.M. Dixon
i've got a little list...
Steven Abrams (Kansas BofE)
Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson
Roger Ailes (FNC)
Alan Bonsell (Dover BofE)
Bill Buckingham (Dover BofE)
George W. Bush
Bruce Chapman (DI)
The Coors Family
William A. Dembski
Leonard Downie (WaPo)
John Gibson (FNC)
Fred Hiatt (WaPo)
James F. Inhofe
Philip E. Johnson
by Joel Pelletier
(click on image for more info)
Stephen C. Meyer (DI)
Judith Miller (ex-NYT)
Sun Myung Moon
Elspeth Reeve (TNR)
Martin Peretz (TNR)
Richard Mellon Scaife
Susan Schmidt (WaPo)
John Solomon (WaPo)
Richard Thompson (TMLC)
Bob Woodward (WaPo)
All the fine sites I've
Be sure to visit them all!!
Arthur C. Clarke
Daniel C. Dennett
Philip K. Dick
Stephen Jay Gould
"The Harder They Come"
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Marx Brothers
Michael C. Penta
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
"The Red Shoes"
"Singin' in the Rain"
Talking Heads/David Byrne
Hunter S. Thompson
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
If you read unfutz at least once a week, without fail, your teeth will be whiter and your love life more satisfying.
If you read it daily, I will come to your house, kiss you on the forehead, bathe your feet, and cook pancakes for you, with yummy syrup and everything.
(You might want to keep a watch on me, though, just to avoid the syrup ending up on your feet and the pancakes on your forehead.)
Finally, on a more mundane level, since I don't believe that anyone actually reads this stuff, I make this offer: I'll give five bucks to the first person who contacts me and asks for it -- and, believe me, right now five bucks might as well be five hundred, so this is no trivial offer.