It is time for another entry into the mailbag series where I answer feedback email from readers and others. If you want to send me a question, comment or any other kind of feedback, please do so using the contact form on the about page.
Why is it so hard to argue with proponents of pseudoscience? In a previous post about the necessity of non-arbitrary axioms, it was speculated that this might depend on the fact that various cranks and quacks have fundamentally different ideas about what exists, the nature of knowledge and how to reach reasonable conclusions about the world around us. Three arguments were deployed against the rejection of axiomatic starting points: it is self-referentially incoherent, it leads to a rejection of knowledge and anything will be true if you assume a contradiction. When faced with this issue, some people appeal to coherentism or claim that science too must share these issues.
Science is not self-refuting
A comment recently submitted by a person going under the name of “The Adversary” tried to execute a similar pirouette. Although not relevant enough to be part of a reasoned discussion, refuting the claims therein can be useful for understanding the opponents of scientific rationality:
You realise [sic] that the scientific method also shares this key feature, right? If you say that the scientific method is not about reaching absolute truth, you are also expressing an implicit liar paradox. Is not the proposition that there is no absolute truth itself considered an absolute truth and therefore immediately self-refuting?
Scientific research is not about reaching absolute truth. So far so good. However, this does not constitute a claim that absolute truth does not exist. It is merely the humble admission that science, although very successful as a method for reaching reasonable conclusions about reality, is not all-powerful. Scientists are humans and can be subject to the same cognitive biases as anyone else. The strength of science, however, comes from its ability to self-correct and carry out independent tests. So no, science is not self-refuting.
The falsifiability criterion is not self-refuting
All meta theories of science run into this problem. Falsification : Can the law of falsifiability itself be falsified? etc.
That might have been a problem had falsification in the philosophy of science been about all possible claims, whether scientific or not. That, however, is not the case. The falsification requirement is not a law, but a pragmatic approach that is only pertinent to models that aspire to be considered scientific. Furthermore, it might be possible to measure the effectiveness of the falsifiability criterion for producing reasonable scientific models in contrast to some other criteria. This would then mean that falsifiability was indeed falsifiable. Thus, another alleged “problem” with science has been dismantled.
How science prevents arbitrariness
Rejecting non-arbitrary axioms is logical trivialism, the thing we are trying to avoid (And arguments against contradiction are usually arguments against
trivialism.), so the post-modern view should be rejected. But the scientific method cannot prevent trivialism either, ultimately.
Sure it can. Science and scientific insights have helped us build planes, split the atom, landed on the moon, discovered the dinosaurs, fed billions of people and saved human lives. Postmodernism or anti-scientific quackery does not even come close.