Everything is Relative . . . to what?

I like to believe that most of my friends — many of whom are scientists — are not relativists. But then every now and again I hear a phrase — “everyone has a right to his opinion,” “to each his own,” “that’s because you’re a man,” “you’re not a woman, so you can’t know” — that makes me despair. Of course, knowledge is relative. What we know, or think we know, is relative to who we are and where we have been. And, yet, the truth of climate change science is not a matter of perspective. The fact that cigarettes cause cancer is not simply my opinion. Privately funded health care is — objectively — bad for public health. Or, on more neutral turf: the science that allows us to send projectiles into outer space to distant planets is not subject to personal belief; it is not arbitrary.

My family subscribes to National Geographic — you know, the journal owned by Fox News. Perhaps you remember the cover article from a couple of years ago: The War on Science (March 2015).

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Science, as we know, is not an outcome; it is a method, the “scientific method.” It does not dictate what we know; but how we know. So, for example, by following the “scientific method,” researchers could, if they wished, explain the physiological response of an individual’s body when the object of their “love” passed by, even if only notionally; it could explain why two individuals who “love” one another met, on a particular campus, in a particular venue; and it could explain why these two individuals encounter friction over specific topics or behaviors. Has the “scientific method” then captured “love”? Well, no. And, yet, a person who relies upon the “scientific method” would no more object to studies of “love” based upon this method than they would object to studies that enable us to send projectiles to distant planets.

I think that this topic is on my mind because it is a kind of “perspectivalism” that stands at the heart of the #FakePresident’s popularity in the heartland. The “culture wars” as a political weapon — the tried and true method of defeating truth when all else has failed — trusts that the enemies of conservatism hold the opinions they do because of who they are: wealthy, educated, privileged. People believe what they believe because of where they have been and who they are. The #FakePresident’s supporters are cultural relativists. Are we?

No. Climate science holds true even if no one recognizes it. Light moves at the same speed through empty space irrespective of whether anyone is there to measure it.

Which is very different than asking the question: what were the circumstances under which we knew this? Which is very different than asking the question: why did we even know that we should inquire into  the conditions of knowledge?

Which is to say that “The War on Science” is a much broader and much deeper war than Fox News lets on. It is not a war only on scientists or researchers or universities. It is a war on scientia, on knowledge. It is gnostic or, if you prefer, Manichean. There is a world of appearance. And there is a world of truth. Truth is not available through the world of appearance.

Two weeks ago I had the odd experience of traveling through time. It was, I believe, 1988 or 1989. I was at the old Natural Science Museum in Golden Gate Park. I had my sleeping bag, my pillow. My wife was there, but she was not my current wife. And there before me was Scoop Nisker, he of KFOG, guiding us through the Winter solstice. Wow! But, now I am at Spirit Rock and the woman next to me is my real wife. But, there in front of me, once again, is Scoop Nisker; only now his name is Wes. But he is telling me two disparate things: (1) the true is not the real; (2) the real is not the true.

The message was like a splash of cold water. Suddenly I understood the thin but deep cultural connection between right and left in the United States; but also the fundamental difference between, say, the US and Canada or Germany or Italy.

It’s all relative isn’t it? Or is it?

2 thoughts on “Everything is Relative . . . to what?”

  1. the scientific method is not always applicable to all areas of study. It’s a tool that has to be used appropriately.

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