Re: Empiricism

Massimo Pigliucci (
Fri, 17 Apr 1998 10:51:48 -0400

Dear Garry,

I'll answer your "addendum" first. The rest will have to wait (Melissa
and I are moving into a new house this weekend...)

> Suppose that you discover a young girl in one of the "hollers" of
> rural
> Tennessee, and suppose this girl has remarkable abilities. It turns
> out
> that she can accurately predict all the statistics of Tennessee
> Oilers'
> football games two weeks in advance. Never fails. Now you have two
> options. One, you
> can say, "Well, I guess I was wrong about the empirical method. It
> seems
> that paranormal [non-natural] phenomena are real after all, and since
> they
> cannot be explained on the basis of empirical science, I must
> acknowledge
> at least some aspects of non-empirical reality." Or you can say, "Any
> gambler might have a run of luck--that's all this is." But since
> empiricism deals with what *works*--with the results of experiments
> and
> explanations which make possible predictions--it does not seem that
> the
> second way is open to you. Ex hypothesi, this girl's predictions
> always
> "work"!

Your example cuts to the core of how do you test the assumptions of the
scientific method, and in particular to the question of how much
evidence you need in order to accept or reject a hypothesis.

Most students are taught that all you need is *one* clearly contrary
evidence to reject a hypothesis (what I call naive falsificationism),
and that regardless of how many confirmations of a theory you have, you
still can't prove it.

The second statement is certainly true, but both these assertions fail
to recognize a central difference between science and mysticism. Science
is *not* about truth. It is only about probabilities. Which is by no
means a small feat! I'd rather know that my conclusions are 90%, 95%, or
99% accurate, than just make a guess...

Therefore, the response to your example is this: I would consider the
preliminary data very interesting. I would go back and keep observing
the results. The longer the temporal series of correct guesses, the more
*likely* a paranormal phenomenon becomes. And that's all I will ever be
able to say (unless I got paranormal powers of my own... ;-)


p.s.: yes, this discussion has been great for me too, it's great mental

Massimo Pigliucci, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolution
Society for the Study of Evolution "Dobzhansky" Awardee
Dept. of Botany, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-1100
phone 423-974-6221 fax 0978

Lab page Science & Society Darwin Day Rationalists of East Tennessee

"I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this." -- Emo Phillips ******************************************************************