Science & 'The Demon-Haunted World': An Exchange
New York Review of Books 6 March 1997: 50-52.
Wayne C. Booth:
Richard Lewontin's review of Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World [NYR, January 9] raises many of the right questions about the over-confident rhetoric of many scientists. Anyone who believes Sagan's claims about the ultimate hopes for "scientific method" should study Lewontin's underminings carefully.
It is not enough, however, to say that Sagan "has opened the wrong envelope." Lewontin himself has not quite opened the right one. He is right in claiming tat Sagan gives no clue about how scientific method might prove its own claims to superiority. But he falls into a shopworn and destructive dichotomy when he says, "The case for the scientific method should itself be 'scientific' and not merely rhetorical" (my italics). The "case" can never be "scientific" in the sense that Lewontin and Sagan imply. Lewontin does acknowledge that scientists inescapably rely on "rhetorical" proofs (authority, tradition) for most of what they care about; they depend on theoretical assumptions unprovable by hard science, and their promises are often absurdly overblown.
But he mistakenly suggests that such rhetorical reliance is a fault that the right kind of scientist--no doubt his kind--could escape. Since rhetoric is for him always on the non-rational side, it can have nothing to do with the genuinely scientific. He thus underplays two facts: that everyone, in all human circumstances, relies on rhetoric, and that some forms of rhetoric are thoroughly rational (for example, most of his arguments in his review).
Lewontin concludes that "we do not know [my italics] how to provide" "the power to discover the truth." He's right, if by "know" he means "able to provide experimental or statistical or mathematical proof, for every rational belief." But we can distinguish strong rhetoric (for example, "indubitable" arguments that "hard evidence should count") form the obviously dubious or just plain silly. From roughly mid-century on, beginning with the still underestimated works of Kenneth Burke, we have had a flood of serious inquiry into the many genuine distinctions in degrees of rationality obscured by that polarizing of "science," the rational, and "mere rhetoric," the irrational.
Lewontin also needs to do some rhetorical analysis of his God-terms, "matter" and "materialism." "No matter how counterintuitive," he says, "no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated," Sagan's and his faith in materialism is "absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door." Surely he knows that "matter" is by now an utterly ambiguous and controversial notion. Ever since Einstein "equated" mass, energy, and the speed of light, "matter" has snuck further and further under vast carpets of waves and patterns that, if still somehow "matter," ain't what matter used to be. It's often much more like what people have traditionally thought of as spirit, or even "the power of the Lord." Our presses are now flooded with books by genuine scientists grappling with what at one time would have been thought questions reserved for theologians.
In short, while I wish everyone shared Sagan's and Lewontin's rejection of kookie faiths which are easily undermined with hard evidence, such as belief in Martian invaders and spoon-benders, Lewontin's case against Sagan's naiveté would be a lot stronger if he acknowledged what we rhetorical theorists have been claiming for more than two millennia: about most of the issues that we care about, hard science can teach us nothing, but that does no mean that when science fails what is left is irrationality. What is left are a broad range of more or less rational arguments, to be tested not in the laboratory but in the courts of reasonable discussion.
The brilliant, learned Lewontin might well start his re-education by settling into a careful reading--or re-reading?--of Aristotle's Rhetoric. Then he could do a book tracing the non-scientific rhetorics, defensible and indefensible, of various prominent scientists. Such a book would join the fine work of economist Donald McCloskey on economists' non-economic, non-scientific arguments, in his book The Rhetoric of Economics.
What madness must have possessed me when I wrote "mere rhetoric"? I can only plead that while working on my review I was immersed in Plato who, as Wayne Booth knows, had a very low opinion of rhetoric. Indeed, he rejected its usual characterization as an art (tékhne), regarding it as only a practical skill or knack (tribé) like cooking and cosmetics, a form of gratification and flattery. I realize that modern views of rhetoric depend on Aristotle's encyclopedic treatment in his "Art of Rhetoric" (what the eminent Victorian classical scholar, Richard Jebb, though of as "one of the driest books in the world"). Aristotle like Plato thought that "the whole business of Rhetoric was to influence opinion" and he also agreed that one ought to lead people only to right opinion, so he deftly swallowed Plato by including within rhetoric both a recitation of the evidence and the logical structure of argument based on the facts.
Matters of style are treated by Aristotle only last and as a vehicle for the truth. But this neat anatomization of the subject, and the subordination of style to content that flows from Aristotle's moral view of the function of rhetoric, seem to me to miss an essential reality about argument. Our susceptibility to the resonance of language itself often leads us to accept what we otherwise would not believe. Although every moral and political conviction I have speaks against it, I am nearly driven by Milton's insidious poetry to believe that it is "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." For a pedagogical Aristotle this would be a particularly fine example of an "antithesis" in the "periodic" mode dissected in Book III, Part 9: the parallel but opposing structure. "Better to ..., than to ...," the contrast of functionally linked "reign" and "serve," the final antithesis of "Heaven" and "Hell," two words beginning with the same sound but with different endings. For me, however, it is an almost irresistibly seductive flight of English speech, a Siren music that can be withstood only by lashing myself to the mast of my convictions. Many times more dangerous than "mere" rhetoric, artful language creates its own logic.
Booth's gloss on my lament that we do not know how to provide people with the power to discover truth is off the mark. It has nothing to do with dividing all claims into the rational and irrational, into mathematically proven and just plain silly. Only the most simple-minded and philosophically naive scientist, of whom there are many, thinks that science is characterized entirely by hard inference and mathematical proofs based on indisputable data. I put a great deal of weight, as did Aristotle, on arguments about what is probable (in the everyday sense) and on arguments by example. Indeed the entire science of statistics is designed to cope with the ambiguity of most scientific evidence, and my professor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, the most eminent experimental evolutionist of his day, used to say that "statistics is a way of making bad data look good." The problem of the power to discern truth lies precisely in knowing how to evaluate, even roughly, the ambiguous knowledge of the world that is produced by so much of science. It is a problem because that evaluation requires an acquaintance with an immense penumbra of fact and theory that surrounds any particular observation and which provides its context. Unfortunately, there is not world enough, or time.
It is true, as Booth says, that matter ain't what it used to be, but then neither is materialism. Einstein's equation of matter and energy makes the materialist's life easier, not harder, because it brings under the aegis of elementary physical explanation phenomena that would otherwise be in the realms of mystery. By "materialism" we mean the claim that all the motions and states of the physical (including the biological) universe form a closed world of causation, solely under the influence of a small number of known measurable forces. As I pointed out, this claim requires us to accept that these forces have some counterintuitive properties, our intuitions having been formed by the experience of our gross senses. The fact that "matter" can be turned into "energy" is one of the less difficult ones for us to imagine because our ordinary experience seems to tell us (quite erroneously) that this happens every time we burn a piece of paper. And if any doubt remains that the conversion of mass into energy can be accomplished at will by the work of human hands, a trip to Hiroshima will settle the matter.