by Federico N. Fernández
The recent events in Houston with the Hurricane Harvey have brought -once again- the issue of climate change to our attention.
Political figures such as Jean Claude Juncker, Al Gore, and Barack Obama, just to name a few, often referred to a survey that asserts that 97% of world’s scientists believe in man-made climate change. This assertion is questionable and under severe scrutiny. But more importantly, even if it were true that a vast majority of scientist agree on any given subject, would this consensus be a valid knowledge claim?
Karl R. Popper believed that one of the most extraordinary features of Western civilization was that it gave birth to the critical tradition. He liked to think that the pre Socratic Greek philosopher Thales said to his pupils: “This is how I see things — how I believe that things are. Try to improve upon my teaching.” This claim was based on the fact that generation after generation the members of the Ionian school criticized their masters and proposed alternative explanations.
Popper’s philosophy is against authorities – epistemological and political. This includes the authority of “Science” and of scientists. Popper was in favor of a science without capital letters – a humble human project that pursues the growth of knowledge. Since we do not possess any method to prove we are right we cannot rely on any certainty. Certainties for Popper are nothing more than a product of self-suggestion. He identified reason with criticism. We are rational when we exercise our critical powers. Science –and knowledge in general– is not about creating unquestionable orthodoxies but about fallibilism and criticism. Our knowledge is conjectural. It is always opened to critical revision and refutation. Therefore, no scientific statement should be put in the category of epistemological “dogma.”
Popper proposed a philosophy named critical rationalism. Perhaps this philosophy is best described as an attitude. A critical rationalist does not leave any statement out of the reach of criticism. We can exercise our critical powers in every aspect of the human life. We must always try not to defend our views but to challenge them and replace them with better ones. Consequently, Popper’s ideas are not reducible to the methodology of science. Falsificationism in science is a methodological decision that follows the broader horizon of fallibilsm. And this means that we can no longer be certain. But far from being an epistemological catastrophe, this situation can be interpreted as a blessing for, as Steve Fuller says, “we can always do better.” There are no definitive stances in our knowledge.