Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VII

Pompeii, Italy (1993) Photo by author

Ha! It’s poetry in motion
Now she’s making love to me
The spheres are in commotion
The elements in harmony
She blinded me with science
(She blinded me with science!)
And hit me with technology
-Thomas Dolby, 1982 (She Blinded Me With Science)

Science, it turns outs, is a process not an answer. And, it usually has many answers from various sciences, each having their own methods and standards. When someone tells you, “the science says,” be skeptical. They are usually being paid to say what they are about to say or at least have been thoroughly indoctrinated by others who are paid. There is never just one answer to any supposedly scientific question.
-Kurt Cobb (Why am I feeling so anxious? The end of modernism arrives)

Unfortunately, there are many other misconceptions about science. One of the most common misconceptions concerns the so-called “scientific proofs.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a scientific proof…all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science. The currently accepted theory of a phenomenon is simply the best explanation for it among all available alternatives. Its status as the accepted theory is contingent on what other theories are available and might suddenly change tomorrow if there appears a better theory or new evidence that might challenge the accepted theory. No knowledge or theory (which embodies scientific knowledge) is final.
-Satoshi Kanazawa (Common Misconceptions About Science I: “Scientific Proof”)

In short, we can never be 100% that our perception of reality is accurate, and scientific experiments are virtually impossible to totally and completely control. Further, science often uses inductive logic, and it relies on probabilities to draw conclusions. All of this prevents science from ever proving anything with absolute certainty. That does not, however, mean that science is untrustworthy, or that you can reject it whenever you like. Science tells us what is most likely true given the current evidence, but it is a skeptical process that always acknowledges the possibility of being wrong.
-Fallacy Man (Science doesn’t prove anything, and that’s a good thing)

The answers you get depend on the questions you ask…What man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conception experience has taught him to see…Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science. But they cannot alone determine a particular body of such belief. An apparently arbitrary element, compounded of personal and historical accident, is always a formative ingredient of the beliefs espoused by a given scientific community at a given time…Because scientists are reasonable men, one or another argument will ultimately persuade many of them. But there is no single argument that can or should persuade them all. Rather than a single group conversion, what occurs is an increasing shift in the distribution of professional allegiances…The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.
-Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

Science! That is the refrain from some to argue for what IS and what IS NOT ‘true’ or ‘factual’ in this world of social media edicts and memes (and associated self-created echo chambers), especially regarding fake news, climate change/global warming, pandemics, politics, and life in general.

The idea that science provides us with ‘objective proof’ about issues is a common error I’ve encountered time and time again. It is held for many reasons, primary among them may be the ‘politicisation’ of the notion; that is, the use of ‘science’ by politicians and others to reinforce what are for all intents and purposes desired goals/policies/actions/narratives/etc., and their insistence about science providing definitive support. We are certainly seeing this more and more with competing narratives regarding Covid-19 and what should and should not be done to address certain concerns.

My enlightenment, as it were, regarding scientific ‘proof’ and associated beliefs came in two parts during my university education. First was a poignant discussion with a professor providing feedback on a paper I had written and used the idea of science proving something to support my conclusion. He stated rather bluntly that “‘proof’ is only relevant in mathematics and jurisprudence, not science.” He then went on to explain the concept in greater detail, but it was that short statement that has stuck with me and altered my view of ‘objective science’ as ‘proof’ of various beliefs.

The second tipping point for me was during a presentation on human intelligence by the psychology department of the university (I had become interested in the subject as I explored human evolution via physical anthropology classes and sat in on a presentation by a guest speaker). As I recall, the visiting professor asked somewhat rhetorically what was the definition of intelligence we could use to explore the concept. After entertaining a few responses (all of which were different) he stressed that if we were to ask 100 psychologists such a question, we would get back 100 different answers: there was no agreed upon definition. One’s particular perspective ‘coloured’ what was important and observed.

There were also a handful of texts I read that impacted my beliefs. Some of the most pertinent ones were: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The Mismeasure of Man, Ever Since Darwin, The Interpretation of Cultures.

The two experiences described above and the books I read impacted my interests at the time and I set off exploring other ideas and perspectives, getting into deconstructivism, philology, hermeneutics, dialectics, epistemology, objectivity versus subjectivity, and skepticism. More recently I’ve explored the somewhat related subjects of complexity and cognition.

All of these ‘colour’ my belief system and my arguments regarding ‘collapse’. Do I know for certain some of the things I pontificate about. Absolutely not. And I hope I couch my rhetoric in words such as ‘likely’, ‘evidence’, ‘probably’, etc. to demonstrate my uncertainty. Because when we get right down to it, not one of us can be certain about the future and our beliefs about it. As several people have been credited with stating: It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. We live within complex systems made up of complex systems that, because of the nonlinear feedback loops that exist and emergent phenomena that arise from them, can neither be predicted nor controlled. Of this, I am fairly certain.

Do I believe ‘collapse’ of our current globalised, industrial world will occur? Yes. The evidence, to me, seems overwhelming; particularly all the experiments involving complex societies that have been carried out before us and ended with decline/collapse (see Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and Diamond’s Collapse) and the ‘fact’ that we live on a world with finite resources but are pursuing perpetual growth (see Meadows et al’s The Limits to Growth and Catton’s Overshoot).

Will, as some argue, our technology and human ingenuity save us in this current trial in complex societies? I’m doubtful; in fact, I’m fairly certain these things will simply expedite the fall as we rush into them to try and solve the problems we have created, bumping up against the real biophysical limits imposed by a finite world in the process and creating even more problems and dilemmas.

Of course, because I cannot predict the future with certainty, only time will tell…