Thoughts on Sokal v. Lynch

The New York Times ran a debate between Sokal (of Sokal affair fame) and Lynch regarding the underpinnings of science, apparently sparked by Rick Perry's denial of evolution. I've read several "why science is better than religion" things like this, and none of them ever give what I see as the obvious proof, so I'd like to contribute it here.

If you have some theory which works 10% of the time, and you do one experiment, there's a 10% chance you'll falsely believe your theory is good. Do two experiments, and that probability drops to 1%. Three, four, ..., N experiments later, and the likelihood that you'll have seen all false positives is vanishingly small.

Another way of putting this is: the law of large numbers says that, if you do a large number of experiments, you'll tend towards the right answer. If evolution is supported by vast amounts of evidence, the probability of it being wrong is so small as to be inconsequential. This has nothing to do with experimental science, it's just a mathematical fact. QED.

I guess Prof. Lynch will tell me that the mathematical assumptions which underlie the law of large numbers are just as suspect as the assumption that the bible is infallible. Maybe, but it strikes me that few fundamentalists are claiming that 2 + 2 = 5, indicating that much progress could be made by making clear the mathematical foundations of science.

I'll leave you with what I think is Sokal's best argument (tragically not in that op-ed):

Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered your blog while perusing the web for philosophical discussions of coding, ontologies, etc. While I'm not quite convinced by your neat 'proof' of the validity of particular scientific theories--and not acquainted with the context of debate in which it is framed--I did enjoy the Sokal quote. I recently came across a reference to John Duns Scotus, who, quoting Avicenna, gave a similar argument in defense of first principles (the law of non-contradiction, etc.) and thought I'd be so bold as to provide the quotation.

    "For as Avicenna puts it ... 'Those who deny a first principle should be beaten or exposed to fire until they concede that to burn and not to burn, or to be beaten and not to be beaten, are not identical.' And so too, those who deny that some being is contingent should be exposed to torments until they concede it is possible for them not to be tormented."
    Wolter & Frank -- Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality. Washington, DC. (1997)