Is Science Persuasive?

More clearly: is the scientific method essentially persuasive in nature?

Hold your horses; this isn’t a conspiracy theory/Scientology/anti-immunization blog.  I just mean: has a scientist who fails to persuade people actually failed to use the scientific method?

Consider any school child’s version of the scientific method: something along the lines of observation-hypothesis-experiment-conclusion or however they are teaching the kids these days.  I don’t even remember how many versions of the thing I learned as a child and I’m sure the variations have proliferated in the decades since.

What I am asking is: does “persuade” belong on that list somewhere?  So that after your experiment or conclusion, if you fail at the persuasion stage, you have to go back and rethink the hypothesis or whatever.  “Some people don’t think I’m right.  Guess I have to start again.”

The answer is obviously no, right?  Except I teach kids, and I read things on the internet, and if that has taught me anything it’s that “obviously” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m sub-tweeting my real topic, by the way.  Give me a minute.

The essence of the scientific method–what it really is, if it has any legitimacy at all–is to explore, uncover, and make plain the causes of observed phenomena.  We could generalize it to just causes and effects, but usually we have in mind chemistry, biology, geology, etc. involving the observable, the in-principle-quantifiable, the material.  In any case, persuasion has nothing to do with it:

  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method in their backyard and never tell anyone about it.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that no one can understand.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that divides the scientific community.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that persuades everyone except for the world’s leading expert on the topic.  They have done science.

Ok, there’s that word “obvious” again.  I need a macro to kill that every time I use it.

There is a certain plausibility to associating “doing science” with persuading.  If we fuzz up the term, get away from the concrete action of the method and instead talk about science as a field or a discipline, persuasion suddenly enters the picture.  Science in this broad sense includes delivering papers at conferences, applying for and winning grant money, starting educational initiatives or government programs.  In all these domains the scientist is persuading people, and failure to persuade means no money, no fame, no achievements, maybe no more experiments or teaching job.

But it must be kept clearly in view that this is not essential to the scientific method as such.  It is a further end.  Persuasion is natural to our social activity; it is inherently political (in the classical sense, not the election-year sense).  As scientists we “science,” as social animals we persuade.

Now the link between “sciencing” and persuading is still pretty strong, but it’s important to see what that link is.  We like to think of ourselves as highly rational–faultless, really, although we would not often admit it–and so we often assume that science should be persuasive.  If I’ve done my science right, then all the other scientists should agree.  If the entire scientific community blows a great big raspberry at me, that’s reason to think I’ve gone wrong somewhere.  Peer review makes the world go round, man!

Except that’s not the history of science at all.  Major advances don’t happen by press conference and universal acclaim; they usually happen when all the old resistance to the new idea dies.  The lack of such conflict in much contemporary science doesn’t mean we are more enlightened–it means the “advances” are trivial, false, or no one is paying attention.  Or understands them.  It’s a silence of indifference.  Also, apparently, we can’t replicate any of these experiments.  That’s another problem for another day and not my tune.

So what is my tune?  What am I sub-tweeting here?

There is another method, if you want to call it that, which explores, uncovers, and makes plain the causal connections between things.  It is not exactly parallel to the scientific method for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it is not concerned with observables and quantifiables.  It is a science, if you will, of ideas.  It is called Logic and its finished product is called Argument.

In the proper sense of the word, the role of Argument is just as unrelated to persuasion as the scientific method is.  Each of them is concerned with answering the question “WHY?” by uncovering causal connections and presenting them in a formal setting that can be understood.

Now in the realm of Logic and Argument, all the same warnings about persuasion still apply.  We often fuzz up the term argument to encompass the social dimension of the person, a whole field of conversation, disagreement, and persuasion.  I don’t know that we have to try to reclaim an older, more technical sense of the word “argument,” but we sure as hell need to be clear on which sense we are using and not confuse the two.

It sounds weird, even to me sometimes, to say that the purpose of Argument is not Persuasion.  Because of course logic and the syllogistic and all that jazz are a key component in how we do, in fact, try to persuade people.  But as soon as you are talking about persuasion you are no longer talking about the essence of Logic and Argument, anymore than you are about the essence of the Scientific Method.  Argument can serve that further end, but now you are talking about Rhetoric.  And since we are all classically trained around here, we all know–obviously–that logic is just one of three ways to persuade.

There are few equivocations out there more common, nay ubiquitous, than Argument-sub-Logic and Argument-sub-Rhetoric.  It is a pernicious one, a dangerous one.  Plato been up in here warning us about it for millenia now.  Sophistry and demagoguery is all you have left when you allow Logic and Rhetoric to collapse into each other.

So “Is Science Persuasive?”  It its essence, NO.  Neither is argument.  But we are remarkable, rational beings.  We can be persuaded by them.  Behold, Reason in Her court.


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