Guala’s “Philosophical Arrogance” in Science

by Shaun Terry

In the past, I have been criticized for being uncharitable to philosophers, but I contend that this might whitewash what is often my point: so long as we aim to use language to convey facts, the language that we choose seems to bear importance.

To help illustrate my point, let us consider something said by Guala, on pg. 607:

“The correct reading is that deductive logic is an insufficient tool for scientific inference, and hence we need to complement it by means of a theory of induction. The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result. Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle. What we need is an explication of why some such inferences are considered more warranted than others. If, as pointed out by Duhem and Quine, deductive logic is insufficient, this must be a task for a theory of induction.”

This quote gives several examples of exactly what I mean. Guala starts by telling us——perhaps from his Ivory Tower, smoking a wide cigar, maybe wearing a platinum monocle (or thick glasses to deal with what might be an extreme case of myopia)——what the “correct” way is to read the Duhem-Quine problem. Well, maybe he is correct, but he sure seems confident! Is Guala privy to superior information or superior logic to that of Hume, Popper, and others? Despite what seems to be a respectable, albeit divergent to my own, opinion, I find this issue to be important. If we treat the concept of knowledge as though we can assert that we know that we know things, and if we allow this to be reflected in our language, then I suppose that we risk poisoning the well. What do I mean by that?

If we do not always have in mind that we may be wrong, it could be easy to be confused about what can be known or what is known. This seems to have led to many disasters. Firemaster 550, leaded gas, asbestos, tobacco, marijuana, the shape of the Earth come to mind as problematic cases of having overstated our knowledge. Some cases have led to mass destruction.

Later in the same line about Guala’s “correct” reading, he tells us that we need to use “a theory of induction” to make up for the Duhem-Quine problem. We have gone to great length to describe problems with induction, so although Guala seems, throughout the paper, to treat induction as valid, I find it unnecessary to rehash now obvious points.

The next sentence is more interesting: “The Duhem-Quine problem does not imply, as sometimes suggested, the impossibility of justifiably drawing any inference from an experimental result.” I think it is important to recognize that it seems that we probably do know some things, but it seems that we cannot be certain about that, and it seems even less likely that we can be certain about exactly what it is that we know, so Guala’s point only seems to be important insofar as we can say that there is probably a good reason to do science: within some margin of error, we are probably sometimes correct.

Next, Guala, out of concern for validating statements that seem impossible to make, seems to aim for tragic irony. He says, “Scientists in fact do draw such inferences all the time, and it takes a good dose of philosophical arrogance to question the possibility of doing that in principle.” That scientists draw inferences does not seem to present evidence that they are right to draw such inferences. Perhaps what he means is that it seems that science probably sometimes works, and sometimes, scientists make these sloppy inferences, so maybe the sloppy inferences happen to sometimes work, and that validates the inference-making process. If this is his point, I find it extremely problematic for reasons that I have stated and that I will further develop, not to mention that it seems illogical.

“Arrogance” is a term to describe people who think that they are more skillful or important than they are, correct? I argue that we might say that someone would be arrogant if they assumed that they were correct when they were not. Here, Guala seems to be gaslighting by projection. What I mean is that he seems to intend to get the cautious, prudent skeptic to doubt their wisdom by asserting that they overstate their case, but this seems rife with contradiction. It is as though he is saying that he knows that people can know things and that he and others can know when they know things and that people who say otherwise are not only wrong; they must have a defect to even question Guala’s position. It seems silly, but I will step away from my purely defensive posture now.

The rest of the quote seems to be more of the same (arrogant) overstatement of Guala’s position, so I will desist from breaking all of it down. However, to speak more to my point, I do not think that the most important problems in these texts are always the content of what is being said. It is my view that the presentation plays a key role in the shaping of science and of the culture in which science (or any other human phenomenon) takes place.

Guala seems to gloss over problems and oversimplify ideas to the point of vanquishing contingency. This kind of approach is reflective of problems I have been bringing up all semester. It is not that the content is so objectionable; it is that the presentation normalizes faulty thinking. I would prefer that someone use a socially responsible form to present a bad idea than to use a reckless form to present the right idea. At least in this case, there is the virtue of reinforcing a culture that would seem better equipped to deal with the complications of an elite few producing science. If we constantly state things as absolute facts, myriad problems seem to arise.

On pg. 609, Guala states:

“In a mediating model theoretical principles are combined with substantive information from the real world, to create a tool that can be used to investigate both realms: the theoretical realm by deriving interesting implications that were not obvious from an examination of the theory itself, and the real world by deriving testable predictions about observable phenomena.”

Is this not highly contingent? This week’s other reading, from Nelson, is far more palatable for me, much as most of the reading this semester has been. He seems more interested in acknowledging the apparent contingency in what is being stated.

If we want to prevent tragic mistakes and injustices, it seems wise to assume that we cannot be completely sure of anything. Guala’s absolute statements remind me of Paul Mccartney’s Beatles’ tune: “Here, There, and Everywhere.” I am sure that I will probably eventually make up the sleep I have been losing after having read Guala’