On well-known facts

The more you look at ‘common knowledge’, the more you realise that it is more likely to be common than it is to be knowledge.

Idries Shah, Reflections

We live in an age of faith. This may seem a strange thing to say at a time when rationalism and science are supposedly so dominant, but it is true and necessarily true because every age is an age of faith. This is so because we must take so much on trust. The scientific method is supposed to provide us with a guarantee that every assertion can be checked, but of course in practice this is simply impossible. I accept that the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second because I’ve been told as much by someone with no obvious motivation to lie to me, not because I have personally replicated the Fizeau experiment in my kitchen.

Of course, an assertion is not true just because it is a well-known fact. The long-running TV show QI largely consists of questions about well-known facts which are not actually true, or which used to be thought true but no longer are. Many of these are simply redefinitions of terms, such as the Moon no longer being a moon, or strawberries not being berries, but some are substantive.

These examples are trivial, of course. Most of us will continue to think of the Moon as a moon, whatever astronomers deem the definition of a moon to be, and frankly it doesn’t much matter either way. Others have practical implications. It used to be a well-known fact that the human stomach was too acid an environment for bacteria to live in it, and then Helicobacter pylori was discovered. This has had significant practical implications, as it can cause stomach ulcers; the discoverers were subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

But this extends beyond simple facts. There is a quotation I have been unable to track down (Derrick Jensen cites it somewhere) to the effect that the real authority in any society is its unquestioned assumptions. These are more pernicious; they are not facts but attitudes, perspectives on the world. We all frame the world in different ways, but in looking through the frame it is easy to lose sight of the frame itself.

Consider the proposition: “Technological progress is inevitable.” Now it is certainly the case that technological progress has occurred, in the sense that there are more complicated and resource-intensive ways of doing things available now compared to the past. It is also the case – though we don’t talk about this much – that it has not always been an unmixed blessing.

The Luddites, after all, were quite correct. The deterioration in working conditions which they prophesied did indeed come to pass. Was this inevitable? We tend to think so, because it happened. And yet was there any reason why Archduke Franz Ferdinand might not have lived to a ripe old age, as his uncle in fact did? History is notoriously written by the victors. In his interesting book Fossil Capital (Verso Books, 2015), Andreas Malm tells the interesting story of how and why steam engines replaced water-power. It is not because steam was ‘better’ – Boulton and Watt had a lot of trouble persuading mill-owners to pay good money to replace the free energy they were getting from rivers with costly and dangerous steam-engines. The decisive factor, in Malm’s account, was political. You can only build a water-mill on a suitable site, and this gives the local labour-force bargaining power. A steam engine can be put almost anywhere, provided you can afford to get coal to it, putting the mill-owner in a stronger position. It’s an early example of the mobility of capital which has become one of the plagues of the modern world.

We have many narratives of the form “A replaced B, therefore A was better than B.” We even apply this to biological evolution, even though Darwin himself repudiated this view. (“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives,” as he pointed out. “It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”) And this has real and unpleasant implications, as the history of so-called social Darwinism makes plain, a history which is by no means over.

To take a current example, who has actually called for the development and installation of the 5G phone network? What is its justification, beyond the fact that 5 comes after 4? Are we taking the potential risks to health, for example, as seriously as we would if it were not “progress”? Any political measure can be made more palatable, it seems, if it is represented as “reform” or “modernisation”, which are synonyms for progress. If only Henry VIII had known this dodge we would presumably have had the Modernisation of the Monasteries instead, whereby he claimed to be bringing them into the sixteenth century.

A newer thing is not intrinsically better (or worse) than an older thing. It is just newer. But we tend not to think of it that way. When I was a kid, products used to be advertised as “new and improved”; these days, “new” is held to be sufficient. (It’s also less committal; advertisers prefer not to be pinned down to too many questions of fact.) Out mystical faith in the passage of time as an inexorable bringer of improvement goes very deep. Hence the many complaints that X is unacceptable in this day and age. Presumably the speaker has in mind some previous day and age in which X would have been fine, although they never specify this. 2021 must be better than 2020, on the same principle that 5G is better then 4G, and presumably George VI was better than George V, and our present monarch is better still. It’s absolute bobbins, but hardly anyone questions it, because it’s a well-known fact.

Here’s another popular credo: “There is no truth but The Science, and The Data is its prophet.” Now if you talk to actual scientists, they will tell you that their claims to truth are strictly provisional. They have theories that correspond to and explain actual observations of the world, but those theories are always susceptible of improvement and even wholesale replacement in the light of newer observations. Some of these theories, especially in physics, are extremely well-grounded: if they are not the truth, they are as near as dammit the truth. But in principle, scientific knowledge is not absolute; it has an asymptotic relationship with truth, approximating closer and closer to it as out observations and theories are refined, without necessarily ever reaching it. (Here I distinguish empirical science from mathematics, which is rather more sure of itself.)

You won’t, however, find much of this in popular parlance. It is cheerfully assumed that some scientist or other will be able to give us offhand the truth about almost any question, up to and including those which cannot be investigated scientifically, such as the existence of God. These days we expect this truth to emerge from some curious metaphysical entity called The Data. Now any experimenter or engineer will tell you that data is tricky stuff; it’s never as accurate or complete as you would like it to be, and the statistical techniques used to correct this are a minefield of potential error. Never mind this: The Data knows all. It knew, for example, that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 US Presidential election.

Moreover, there is no such thing as The Science. Science is full of disagreements, by its very nature. Some researchers support hypothesis X, others hypothesis Y. Eventually one or other will be discarded, or someone else will suggest hypothesis Z which will turn out better than either. This is how science advances. It’s always messier, slower and more complicated than this in practice – the classic text is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn – but that’s how it works. People, including scientists, tend to be reluctant to change their mind; as the saying goes, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

Now as I said, some aspects of science are so well-established that nobody seriously denies them. (Well, I suppose economists deny the Laws of Thermodynamics, but that’s matter for another time.) In such cases we may perhaps speak of The Science. But there are many aspects that are still in dispute, and there always will be some. We should not be looking to scientists for ex cathedra pronouncements in these cases, even if some of them are happy to provide them. Scientists have egos too. All too often, however we do, a fact also well-known to advertisers who know that putting an actor in a lab-coat will add spurious authority to their message.

There is however an unfortunate tendency to lurch to the other extreme, taking all pronouncements by scientists as prima facie false. This is even more foolish than taking them all as prima facie true. We should beware though of consigning any opinion contrary to current science to the lunatic fringe without scrutiny. Today’s lunatic fringe can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy, as the sad history of Dr Semmelweis tells us.

Science, of course, can only address those questions to which its methods are applicable. This does not mean that the other questions cannot be asked, although you might sometimes be forgiven for thinking so. Indeed some of them demand to be asked. Any question regarding the purpose of anything other than a man-made object is beyond its purview, so asking about the purpose of life, for example, or the point of suffering, will go unanswered. Some philosophers would like to get around this by calling such questions meaningless, but in practice that won’t wash. And indeed the way people, including scientists and philosophers, actually live their lives gives it the lie. We need a larger context.

Back in 1884, Edwin Abbott Abbott wrote a novel called Flatland. In it, he imagines the inhabitants of a two-dimensional universe encountering the third dimension. This obliges them to abandon what was previously the well-known fact that the world has only two dimensions. As a result, their frame becomes larger and more inclusive.

Trying to peer around the edges of our frame seems to me a worthwhile exercise in itself. But it has practical consequences too, if only in enabling us to see through a lot of the flannel that passes for the truth. The fact that something is unquestioned does not render it unquestionable. Try it the next time you encounter a well-known fact. Once you start to spot them, you’ll find them all around you.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

5 thoughts on “On well-known facts

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