Authority and Experience

For us, to whom the privileged status of eyewitnesses seems obvious, this great revolution [in epistemology, privileging experience over authority] has ceased to be visible, and it is almost impossible to conceive of ourselves living in a world—a world that was never real, but always imaginary—in which garlic disempowers lodestones and goat’s blood softens diamonds” (David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution [Harper Collins 2015], 283).

However: quarks. (To quote Wallace Stevens again: “pages of illustrations.”)

However: quarks supposedly are based on a chain of inference & testimony that begins in—is founded on—direct experience, replicable and falsifiable, consistent with other observations and experiences, and so on. Continue reading


Some Speculations

I. Aliens on Earth

A few months back I was pleased to see a description in print of an idea that’s been kicking around in my brain for a while now: if the earth is so old, why couldn’t there have been other intelligent species before us who have simply gone extinct, vanished without a trace, their fossils erased by the epochal movement of the continents? I mentioned this to a friend over beer and he raised the objection that some trace of these creatures would surely have remained for us to find; look at the extent to which we’ve transformed our environment in ways that won’t disappear for an extremely long time. Continue reading

Everything You Know Is Wrong: Reflections on Epistemological Anxiety

Here’s an essay on what we think we know and why we shouldn’t be so sure. After I wrote it I read and enjoyed Jonah Lehrer’s piece “The Truth Wears Off: The Decline Effect and the Scientific Method” in the New Yorker, which explores similar themes. As an aside, this essay might help explain why I was a lot less inclined than many of my lefty friends to mock Donald Rumsfeld for his famous “known unknowns” remark, though I did appreciate the rendering of that remark into free verse.

In 1813, the noted ornithologist John James Audubon witnessed a phenomenon that has become legendary, both for its size and for its somber lesson: the passing of a flock of passenger pigeons. It lasted for three days and nights, stretching from one horizon to the other, darkening the sky like an eclipse. Branches and small trees broke under their weight, and many were crushed by those that landed above them. Their poop fell like snow. These flocks were “more like storm systems than assemblages of birds,” writes William Souder in Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America. They inspired a gargantuan slaughter by the farmers and recreational hunters of antebellum America, one that continued for decades until the species was nearly extinct, no longer able to sustain itself. The last one died in a zoo in 1914.
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