Controvertible, Incontrovertible, and Truth

E&E3. This entry is an elucidation and exegesis on Character of Science (November 2013)

Living and Dead Sciences

Sky-BoxLiving Science is like a loose-leaf folder in which our latest insights into every aspect of Nature are temporarily stored. The folder is part of our font of knowledge and therefore contains all sorts of bric-a-brac, including recently acquired knowledge and items of information which have been handed down to us over generations. They are often treasured, mainly for that reason, not because of they have much truth-value.

The collection is highly correctable and in recent years has often been revised and re-edited, like items in Wikipedia. Every now and then the folder is emptied out — a phenomenon now known by the memorable title of a “Scientific Revolution”. The implication is that there are “living sciences” but also several dead sciences.

If science is characterized as consisting of several bodies of knowledge it follows that several exist cheek-by-jowl, concurrently, as it were. It would therefore be appropriate to refer to a library of such folders as the library of living sciences — and to refer to those not in good standing, as a library of dead sciences. Dead sciences often retain their shine and continue to be valued by many, but do not serve as they once did, as launching pads for new discoveries and important insights.

Comments on the meaning of *Incontrovertible*

In the folder-library of living science is a collection of separate areas of concern. Some are more related to each other than others, like chemistry and physics once were. It is assumed that each folder contains a collection of truths, which I described earlier as have the status of a collection of incontrovertible truths. These are treasured by readers of these folders.

How do we define *controvertible*? The word is rarely used. I have seen it defined as, “To raise argument against; to voice opposition to something claimed.” *Incontrovertible* expresses the idea that a claim is beyond, or above challenge and is widely used in that sense.

For me the notion that something is not challengeable is odd indeed. On the other hand I accept the idea that there should be a pay-off to a challenge. The best pay-off would be to demonstrated that a received opinion or entrenched view rests on shaky, insubstantial foundations, that a previously impenetrable position had fault lines, that there were chinks in its armour, that a firmly held “truth” had been dislodged from its premier position and was obliged to cede some of its sovereignty. It is not merely a native iconoclasm that moves me. Experience is my teacher. Time and again I have found that views firmly and fervently held by others and by myself, were inadequately supported by evidence.

Incontrovertible Truths, or Truth in a Box

What is an incontrovertible truth? It is a truth-claim which cannot be challenged without also challenging the set of assumptions which were used to establish these truths.

Strictly, *incontrovertible* means that what is stated cannot be argued against since to assume that something is not true means that one can state what the world would look like without the truths which have now been denied. It is like sitting in a box, climbing outside it to see whether the box is white or black. To *controvert* means to hold a different opinion to an existing one — which is entirely possible — whereas to state that something is incontrovertible is to say that something cannot be conceived in other terms than those already used. It sets limits.

But setting limits has two implications: specifically (1) what is deemed incontrovertible is also axiomatic and therefore cannot be challenged; (2) whatever lies outside / beyond the limiting lines is also beyond being accessible (is inaccessible).

The second of these meanings permits us to claim that what is incontrovertible is only so within a frame of reference; but it is entirely possible to step over the line(s) of the framework and to redefine everything by taking into account that the range of items enclosed by the new space has been enlarged! The net has widened and new items have been encompassed. When this happens we are forced to re-evaluate each item in its relation to others in our collection, in our net.

The upshot is that when someone claims that some truths are incontrovertible they claim not only that they these marked truths must be accepted as basic, as self-evident, as not requiring justification, but that such truths cannot be challenged because the frame-work as been permanently fixed, moulded in concrete, not in sand.

Truths-in-a-box can be repackaged and are highly controvertible.

Reply to Marc: Facts and Theories

E&E 2
This is my second Elucidation and Exegesis (E&E). In an earlier blog I wrote When we say “This is true” we imply that this statement is defensible, or reliable, therefore should not be questioned. I subsequently received a note from Marc that *defensible,* *reliable* and *unquestioned* do not mean the same. Here is one comment — others may follow.

From Fact to Theory

My earlier statement should be interpreted as saying that if a claim is defensible as well as reliable, it would be counter-productive to question it. What purpose would such a challenge serve?

To demand additional evidence for a claim (1) suggests that the claim — the assertion that such and such is the case — is inadequate and is deemed insufficiently strong, perhaps weak; (2) it also suggests that the case made does not fit snugly into a pre-existing theory. We seem to demand that every new claim falls comfortably into a theoretical place — enlightens but does not disturb our pre-existing vision of the world.

Let us examine each:

(1) Consider first the strength of support for our conclusion “that such and such is the case.” The reason we asked for additional evidence was that the statement went beyond data currently available. One could, in principle, strengthen the data on the basis of which our conclusion was reached by adding to the pile, as it were. But this would be foolish unless we also improved our the method data-collection: a matter of more and better sampling. Data — short for data-points — have to be gathered in sufficient quantity to justify any general conclusions, as for example, “The data can be stated as follows…”. Presenting only a summary of the data assumes that it is the best summary and that a closer examination of the data would not unearth new aspects of events. This assumption has been faulted time and again.

In many cases the strength of support for a conclusion is barely adequate — a discovery often made soon after it was “tabled”. In other cases the method of discovery used may seem “primitive” by current prevailing standards. It happens with alarming frequency, in step with our current technological revolution in the art of measurement. Strong support, on the other hand, leads one to conclude that a claim has sufficient merit — should be considered seriously — may therefore be tagged as factual in the traditional — even, in absolutist — sense. We would then readily concede that whenever a claim is deemed insufficient, adjunctive materials could remedy this and therefore requires to be gotten. If all goes in the anticipated direction — the claim could be moved to the positive side of the ledger. It is all very iffy and tangential. Note: a transition from “perhaps as claimed” to “most likely as claimed” — or some equivalent affirmation — is modal decision — not absolute.

From this perspective stating that “It is a fact that…” — and its milder form, “it could be that…” — reflect different degrees of certainty regardless of whether the method used to establish the conclusions can overcome critical objections. Let us label this our concerns about the adequacy of our investigatory techniques, as when medical researchers are required to run double blind controls to support their view that a drug has the effect claimed for it. Simply to claim that drug x has a lasting effect on the severity of, say, psoriasis is not enough. The claim needs to be underpinned with data gathered in a highly prescribed manner.

Looking over past claims it appears that (a) many, or most, conclusions based on “investigations” remain open to the criticism that the methods used to establish a particular (general) conclusion were inadequate as judged by current standards; (b) that conclusions which appear compatible with an extant theory and which derive their claim from this context operate under a double jeopardy: the one already mentioned (see (a) and the jeopardy that the theory itself may be wrong. To fit snugly into a faulty theory appears to me like catching double pneumonia.

(2) Fitting snugly. A claim, or assertion that such and such is the case has the earmarks of a fact, but it is also a claim that it fits snugly into a pre-existing theory. (Logically, if Tc is a current theory, Tb would be its predecessor. Presumably, the difference between Tb and Tc is noteworthy! If a reason has to be given for changing Tb to Tc it would include that Tc accommodates data which were excluded by Tb and could not be readily accommodated. Indeed — the theory Tc may make up for, or be deliberately used, to handle new data. I will examine this in more detail in a future blog.

Fitting into a Theory vs Finding a Theory to Fit into

If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated by the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base or axioms) of an extant theory. I am careful to distinguish between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory although is not always easy.

An extant theory is one that is in use at the time a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will have to be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating proposition p into a network. One requires, as a matter of course that the network has some “range,” covers several quite distinct phenomena, otherwise the theory would be solely constructed to accommodate a solitary particular and troubling fact: it is an unacceptable proposal. Even an ad hoc theory is marketed to cover more than one fact, but is so constructed that it aims to bring a particular fact into relation with others. It does so by exclusion: the ad hoc theory usually accommodates some older facts with the new fact, but does so by excluding other facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. It is a matter of compatibility. If a fact is said to “fit” into a theory this is tantamount to saying that the fact as stated, that is, the proposition p, or set of propositions, sp, is deducible from the premises (foundational base, or axioms) of an extant theory.

I draw a distinction between an extant theory and an ad hoc theory by assuming that an extant theory is one that is in use when a particular fact is being accommodated, whereas an ad hoc theory is one that will be constructed, or formulated, for the specific purpose of accommodating p — and related statements — into a network. The ad hoc theory is usually wily — it is deliberately constructed to accommodate some older facts with a new fact, but it does this by excluding those facts which appear to be incompatible with the new. An ad hoc theory invariably creates its own set of facts, and thereby relegates many older facts into the class of “factoids,” that is the class of have-been-facts, a part of “dead science.”

Fitting a finding into a theory is always and inevitably done during the process of publicizing a finding. It is therefore an inevitable consequences of the process of communicating a discovery to others, of stating it, of trying to relate a finding to other matters which are already known, matters which have their establish location in a “knowledge-system” or a “belief system.” One expresses a finding in words and terms which inadvertently position it in a familiar context and in doing so one frames the finding, gives it theoretical relatives.

This description of what happens when a finding is brought to our attention suffers from a major defect: it suggests that a finding is placed into a system, a knowledge or belief-system, like a card placed into filing-drawer, where it has its “proper place.” But — as I shall argue in more detail on another occasion — this is not so: the term “system” is quite misleading and more formal than deserved. It is part of wishful thinking: we like to think of ourselves as “systematic thinkers, as being “well organized,” as knowing where things belong. But this self-image is less true now than ever before: we organize knowledge in many ways, in bits and pieces, as chunks, in conveniently placed separate drawers. A veritable potpourri, but not a system — and we harbour the idea that one day, some day, these different items will all be brought together, like petals of a daisy or cherries on a cherry-tee. No one has succeeded so far, although many have tried: it seems to be a fantasy without end.

Truth and Truth Claims

E&E 1
The epigrammatic nature of my blog post Character of Science calls for elucidations and exegeses — E&Es — this being the first of several.

TruthMy initial comments in Character of Science are about the interpretation of the much used, but greatly abused term *truth* (see this post for the meaning of the asterisks). When we say, “This is true,” we imply that what this statement asserts is defensible, or reliable, and therefore should not be questioned.

The term *truth* qualifies a statement. I wrote as if to suggest that there is a use of *truth* which makes what is claimed incontrovertible, whereas I think this is not so. Claims are always either strong or weak, justified or unjustified, supportable or insupportable. Indeed, every statement which assigns a quality to an object, or which describes an event, does so only to some extent. Even when we don’t make this assumption explicit, we are aware that this is so and that others share this assumption. We therefore should not use the term *truth* in an absolute, unqualified manner but speak only about making “truth-claims.”

*Truth*, I therefore submit, is not an object, not a substance, but refers to the quality of a statement one has made about something, a statement about some object or event.

The statement “elephants are memory deficient” is an example. It describes and assigns a quality to a familiar object, the elephant, and makes a claim which can most assuredly be investigated — although perhaps with some practical difficulty, much patience and considerable ingenuity.

Modern writers often refer to “degrees of truth,” just as they would to “degrees of pain” or “degree of sweetness.” In the example given, any answer to whether elephants are memory-deficient would need to include details of the degree to which this is so, as well as to the procedure used to establish the factual basis of this unusual claim. Therein lies part of the fun of being an investigator, a searcher after “the truth,” a scientist or insatiably curious but not afraid of what one finds.