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Tuesday
Jun262012

Nullius in verba? Surely you are joking, Mr. Hooke! (or Why cultural cognition is not a bias, part 1)

Okay, this is actually the first of two posts on the question, “Is cultural cognition a bias?,” to which the answer is “well, no, actually it’s not. It’s an essential component of human rationality, without which we’d all be idiots.”

But forget that for now, and consider this:


Nullius in verba means “take no one’s word for it.”

It’s the motto of the Royal Society, a truly remarkable institution, whose members contributed more than anyone ever to the formation of the distinctive, and distinctively penetrating, mode of ascertaining knowledge that is the signature of science.

The Society’s motto—“take no one’s word for it!”; i.e., figure out what is true empirically, not on the bias of authority—is charming, even inspiring, but also utterly absurd.

“DON’T tell me about Newton and his Principia Naturalis,” you say, “I’m going to do my own experiments to determine the Law of Gravitation.”

“Shut up already about Einstein! I’ll point my own telescope at the sun during the next lunar eclipse, place my own atomic clocks inside of airplanes, and create my own GPS system to ‘see for myself’ what sense there is in this relativity business!’ ”

“Fsssssss—I don’t want to hear anything about some Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Let me see if it is possible to determine the precise position and precise momentum of a particle simultaneously.”

After 500 years of this, you’ll be up to this month’s Nature, which will at that point be only 500 years out of date.

But, of course, if you “refuse to take anyone’s word for it,” it’s not just your knowledge of scientific discovery that will suffer. Indeed, you’ll likely be dead long before you figure out that the earth goes around the sun rather than vice versa.

If you think you know that antibiotics kill bacteria, say, or that smoking causes lung cancer because you have confirmed these things for yourself, then take my word for it, you don’t really get how science works. Or better still, take Popper’s word for it; many of his most entertaining essays were devoted to punching holes in popular sensory empiricism—the attitude that one has warrant for crediting only what one “sees” with one’s own eyes.

The amount of information it is useful for any individual to accept as true is gazillions of times larger the amount she can herself establish as true by valid and reliable methods (even if she cheats and takes the Royal Society’s word for it that science’s methods for ascertaining what’s true are the only valid and reliable ones).

This point is true, moreover, not just for “ordinary members of the public.” It goes for scientists, too.

In 2011, three physicists won the Nobel Prize “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.” But the only reason they knew what they (with the help of dozens of others who helped collect and analyze their data) were “observing” in their experiments even counted as evidence of the Universe expanding was that they accepted as true the scientific discoveries of countless previous scientists whose experiments they could never hope to replicate—indeed, whose understanding of why their experiments signified anything at all these three didn’t have time to acquire and thus simply took as given.

Scientists, like everyone else, are able to know what is known to science only by taking others’ words for it.  There’s no way around this. It is a consequence of our being individuals, each with his or her own separate brain.

What’s important, if one wants to know more than a pitiful amount, is not to avoid taking anyone’s word for it. It’s to be sure to “take it on the word” of  only those people who truly know what they are talking about.

Once this point is settled, we can see what made the early members of the Royal Society, along with various of their contemporaries on the Continent, so truly remarkable. They were not epistemic alchemists (although some of them, including Newton, were alchemists) who figured out some magical way for human beings to participate in collective knowledge without the mediation of trust and authority.

Rather their achievement was establishing that the way of knowing one should deem authoritative and worthy of trust is the empirical one distinctive of science and at odds with those characteristic of its many rivals, including divine revelation, philosophical rationalism, and one or another species of faux empiricism—should be aknowledged as authoritative.

Instead of refusing to take anyone's word for it, the early members of the Royal Society retrained their faculties for recognizing "who knows what they are talking about" to discern those of their number whose insights had been corroborated by science’s signature way of knowing.

Indeed, as Steven Shapin has brilliantly chronicled, a critical resource in this retraining was the early scientists’ shared cultural identity.  Their comfortable envelopment in a set of common conventions helped them to recognize among their own number those of them who genuinely knew what they were talking about and who could be trusted—because of their good character—not to abuse the confidence reposed in them (usually; reliable instruments still have measurement error).

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Now we are ready to return to why I say cultural cognition is not a bias but actually an indispensable ingredient of our intelligence.

Part 2

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Reader Comments (12)

Nullius in verba

“Take no one’s word for it.” Could be, but in this context its actual meaning (in my opinion) is “on the word of no one “there is a subtle difference, this is the meaning that most fellows of the intuition would subscribe, in practice it embodies the principle that the institute as body will express no opinion on matters scientific, in other words, it will not present itself as an authority on any particular issue because to do so would lend the collective authority of the fellows, which is not the purpose of institution.

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShinobiYaka

ShinobiYaka-- I don't buy it.

This is how the Royal Society itself puts it: "The Royal Society's motto 'Nullius in verba' roughly translates as 'take nobody's word for it'. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment."

As for the idea that the Royal Society shouldn't offer opinions --in fact, it issues lots of very opinionated reports. "Most fellows" -- probably the overwhelming majority -- see it as completely appropriate for the Royal Society to communicate the considered view of science for the benefit of society at large. The National Academy of Sciences, which issues "expert consensus" reports, obviously agrees. I certainly believe that both bodies are right to feel this way, too!

But nothing actually turns on how to interpret this phrase. The notion that science is inconsistent with authoritative certifcation of truth is a powerful cultural meme. It's wrong -- or really just incoherent. But if one doesn't recognize its appeal -- its centrality to how scientists and members of modern liberal democratic socieites generally think about knowledge -- then one will definitely have a hard time understanding modern science communciation and even harder time communicating science to modern people.

July 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

It's quite true that from a practical point of view, the requirements of science cannot be achieved. But the motto is really a statement of the principle, that everything is open to question.

The usual approach in science on being told something new is to first subject it to a cursory plausibility check - a 'sniff' test. Does it fit with what is already known? Do extreme or boundary cases make sense? Are derivations and experimental results available? Has someone independently checked it?

If it passes the plausibility check, it is generally accepted provisionally, and may be used without being caveated.

But if someone subsequently challenges it, and the challenge passes the same sort of plausibility check, then the conclusions built on the result are considered unsafe until the question has been resolved. Then the scientist will dig in to the background to the result in far more detail, examine the evidence, the logic, replicate experiments, consider and test alternatives, until either the challenge is dismissed, or an improved result is developed, along with an explanation of what went wrong previously to learn from. And then everything else that had been built on the result may need to be reconsidered too.

The point of the motto is not that everything must be re-examined, but that everything can be re-examined. There are no statements anywhere that cannot be challenged, and when challenged you cannot simply take someone's word for it that it is true. You have to check.

Because what 'Nullius in Verba' is really about is the insight that established/traditional knowledge can be wrong, and this is a safeguard against the slow corruption of our body of knowledge. It is the immune system of science constantly searching for infections and destroying them. Most of the time, you can accept standard results fairly safely precisely because they have been combed over by this mechanism so many times before. It is the reason and mechanism by which belief in science is rationally justified. But you must never forget that this is a pragmatic compromise with scientific principle, one that is technically illegitimate, and there is no result so standard that it would not have to be re-examined again from scratch if plausibly challenged.

July 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Niv: Would you accept this --

What’s distinctive of scientific knowledge is not that it dispenses with the need to “take it on the word of” those who know what they are talking about, but that it identifies as worthy of such deference only those who are relating knowledge acquired by the empirical methods distinctive of science.

If so, would you happen to know how to translate *that* into Latin? There's plenty of room on the RS's Coat of Arms!

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

From Locke:

"The first is, to allege the opinions of men, whose parts, learning, eminency, power, or some other cause has gained a name, and settled their reputation in the common esteem with some kind of authority. When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it. This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer. Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. This I think may be called argumentum ad verecundiam."

That's how I'd translate it, too.

It means you take nobody's word for it. Nobody is due such deference. It's harsh, I know, but it's the only thing that works.

Or as somebody else once put it: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

July 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV: Very nice! Thanks for bring that quote to my attentio n& into this discussion. (I see it is from an Essay Concerning Human Understanding; I haven't read that in in 25 yrs. but am still chagrined not to recall the passage!)


I think a modest reading of Locke's point would be that arguments that appeal to authority of esteemed or authoritative figures is a poor form of *argument* and resistance to challenge of their views a poor social convention.

But I see why you read it as you do: that one can't believe anyone based on that person's character, history, qualifications, etc. Read that way -- a way that reflects the spirit of nullius in verba -- it is indeed what I mean to be pointing out is just plain silly. My point is that there's no credible sense of human rationality -- of the sort that science empowers -- that doesn't understand the place of authority, and trust in the formation of collective knowledge. There is no possibility of collective knowledge without the reliable exercise of a faculty of reliably who knows what about what. Tracing out how early scientists did not at all dispense with trust of that sort but rather reoriented their sense of trustworthiness to reliably point out those who knows what as science knows it -- that is what Shapin so elegantly does. STill, bot to recognize, though, that it has a strong positive cultural resonance in societies that have adopted science's way of knowing as the best and most authoritative would make me worse than silly; it would make me a fool.

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I agree with you that a credible description of human rationality must include and take account of our limitations and flaws. The practice of science is human enterprise. People trust authorities, make guesses and estimates, approximate, use paradigms and models they know to be flawed, often without considering whether their use is valid. They make judgements based on their prior beliefs, their preferences, their ambitions, their loyalties, and on what would attract the fame and funding. Scientists have careers, they need to pay the bills, feed their families. And they have to fight the limitations of the equipment and the materials and the techniques - sometimes you don't have the capability to do it properly, so you do the best you can, wrap it up with gaffer tape, and hope.

Science being a human enterprise, it is fallible. The philosophy of science is built around certain measures that justify our rational belief in its results, and if those measures are not followed then the justification fails. It may be excusable, it may be the best that can be done, but reality doesn't care. If it's not done right, errors and problems will inevitably result. And they do.

Trust in authority in science is based on the knowledge that the reasons for belief are always there and available if we ask, and our confidence that they *have* been sought and checked many times in the past. With a textbook with theorems and proofs, that you know has been used for many years, you might take the theorems on trust without working through the proof. But you're not doing so because "it's a textbook", you're not doing so because it's written by an eminent authority, who you trust, you're doing it because you can see directly that the proof is *there*, and that in the classroom lecturers and students *will* have gone through the proof.

It's a paradox - it's trustworthy only because it is not trusted. Scientists can trust authorities precisely because they know that scientists don't. Essentially, they trust other scientist to do what they have chosen not to. They base their conclusions on the belief that others will have done what they consider to be impractical. It violates Kant's formula of the categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." Authority works for those who use it only because of the actions of those who don't.

Thus, it is important in understanding scientific authority to know that its reliability is dependent on the existence of sceptical critics - of people who doubt or disagree, and are motivated to seek fault with it. Absolute consensus renders authority unsafe. Only with a diversity of respected opinions, and only by taking unorthodox/dissenting views seriously, can justified authority develop.

The fantastic capabilities of science are like the speed and graceful agility of the gazelle - they only exist because of the lions, and would not last long without them.

August 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Hello Mr Kahan

An exchange with NiV in another blog prompted me here.

My impression is that you're un-necessarily constraining one's decision around the idea of "authority". This in turn forces the concept into the absurdity you describe.

In fact, I doubt anybody does "take people's word for it", apart from in certain rather unhealthy sects. The original by Horace is about "iurare", ie "swearing allegiance" to somebody, in the sense of feeling personally obliged to take as Truth whatever that somebody says no matter what. Like a slave obeying orders, "taking it on words" without thinking about them.

That's what blind faith is about.

Instead almost everybody, as a human being, listens to an argument and decides if it makes sense or not.

The basis for deciding then what is sensible and what isn't, is a subjective matter. That's where the "authority" argument comes in. For you, if a person you consider as an authority in their field says something, you accept it as "true". This is an easy way of conducting oneself, and recent Popes have made a point about it too. The problem is passed on to how to decide whom to consider an authority.

Others might have other ways to decide regarding "truth". For example, gravity being the same at the same distance from a planet -> force strength decreasing on the surface of an expanding sphere -> surface is 4*pi*r_squared. Hence Newton's inverse square law makes sense (=is taken as "true") without knowing much about it, for anybody with a knowledge of geometry. In fact in this example there is no need to know who Newton was, or to provide him with any "authority".

This way of thinking avoids the pitfall of finding oneself a follower of Newton down the alchemy route. For another example: it seems more...sensible to use the "authority" argument the other way around. Once one discovers that another person is a fool who speaks about stuff they cannot possibly know a thing about, then anything the fool will say (on that topic, at the very least) will be considered as "untrue".

The motto should then be "Nullius in verba, omnia in sensu, ignorantes ignorandum".

September 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteromnologos

If this is a quote from Horace's :"Nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri, - quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes."

Then the better meaning would be : "Sworn to none"

Now that's a true motto !

December 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGerra

I think you misinterpret the motto and make it absurd by taking it over-literally. It is not absurd when good sense is applied. The intent is to emphasise the empirical and mathematical/logical principles on which science is built, not to suggest that one should dismiss sensible and honest reports of either principles or empirical fact.

I may have never performed an experiment in quantum mechanics, but I do not dismiss the many substantiated reports of experiments in quantum mechanics and I do not need anyone's word to follow the mathematical demonstration that the axioms of quantum mechanics are just such as to account for the results of those measurements, because mathematical argument is objective. On the other hand I do dismiss the notions of creationists, because I know that they are only supported by word.

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCharles Francis

Cultural Cognition is an interesting conjecture of Dan Kahan's. It almost seems similar to Groupthink Theory or Collective Intelligence Theory, but Cultural Cognition isn't a theory (a idea or set of ideas meant to explain a phenomenon and upheld by multiple empirical tests of hypotheses pertaining to the ideas put forth to explain the phenomenon). See the wikipedia page for Cultural Cognition, it cites Kahan almost exclusively. He has an interesting idea, but where is the data? He offers philosophical arguments where I need empirical evidence, Nullius in verba. His criticism of science has some truth, especially given the state of the art: with all the knowledge that has been amassed by the scientific method, we often have to take the experts' "word" for it as opposed to the "collective cognition". If you take the collective cognition, then the you have to take into consideration the average person's (who would have one breast and one testicle by the way) understanding of complex topics. Take mathematics for example: if we relied on cultural cognition, would our culture be able to solve for x in the simple algebraic equations? Kahan used Climate Change and vaccinations as examples where we should take the cultural bias into account. How many people have looked at the CO2 data from Mana Loa, have studied carbon chemistry, seen the clear data of a steady warming pattern seen in the oceans (collected at sites all over the globe), understand the link between ocean circulation/temperature on climate, and so on and so forth...very few, but the consensus of thousands of empirical tests that have been published in peer-reviewed journals offer overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and is in part linked to anthropologic causes. The real "inconvenient truth" is the groupthink that has led conservatives to decry science as a scam and declare controversy where there isn't due to economic fears. It's like the NFL putting up pseudo-science that says head collisions don't cause lasting damage, which has now been totally debunked. As for vaccinations, there was one study that linked them to autism, but there were many more studies that debunked that idea. Yet, there remains a cultural cognition dilemma, or really groupthink. Nullius in verba and Newton: Kahan mocks this fascinating bit of history with “DON’T tell me about Newton and his Principia Naturalis,” you say, “I’m going to do my own experiments to determine the Law of Gravitation.”. No need to repeat any experiments, rather there is a need to evaluate the data and formulae he put forth. When further questioned, it lead to a body of knowledge that enabled humans to leave earth and explore space. Gravity is just theory, right? Yes, and it's a fact that gravity is keeping us pinned down to the Earth and causes the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Repeated tests have failed to reject the hyoptheses upon which the theory rest. The same goes for the most profound break through in human understanding of the natural world, the Theory of Evolution. With our ability to date fossils, peer into the genomes of all living beings and comparatively show they are related, and witness the evolution of anti-biotic resistance/pesticide resistance/viruses there is irrefutable evidence. EVERYTHING is not known about the theories gravity or evolution, yet there are ideas about the theories that are facts and ideas that remain to be empirically proven. To suggest that the laws of physics, chemistry, mathematics, or biology should take into account beliefs (cultural cognition) does not make sense. Beliefs don't change facts. People believed the Earth was flat, and thanks to NASA we've see the picture (data) and know for a fact it's round. The tone of this rant may seem professorial and passionate, but I enjoy talking about this stuff and find it extremely appropriate to have the Royal Society's motto as a theme for the discussion. I concede that my beliefs are based on facts that I duly researched as well as notions I deem plausible without rigorous evaluation. The beauty of science is when those beliefs are challenged with sufficient evidence, I have to change my beliefs. Those changes are usually painful and filled with skepticisms. I apply this approach to politics as well: I have learned that I can not put faith in a single party, rather candidates affinities to my priorities. So in a sense I am wary of groupthink. I am skeptical about Cultural Cognition, which seem like a tautology (an expert arguing to take his word for not take other experts word); furthermore, I'm am skeptical because I feel it serves an anti-science agenda rather than an ernest academic attempt to expand cumulative knowledge.

March 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Craft

There is no need to take Newton's, or any scientist's, word for it. As all scientists do, Newton reported his evidence.

July 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bell

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