Things Philosophers Know About Science That You Don’t

What do philosophers know that others don’t? This post intiates an occasional series that asks philosophers to engage with the “conventional wisdom” on various topics by sharing strongly-supported or widely-held philosophical insights and ideas about them.

This first installment is about science.

L. Alcopley (Alfred L. Copley), “Mirrors”

The series is prompted by “Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don’t” by political scientist Hans Noel (Georgetown). This article was brought to my attention by Jason Brennan (Georgetown) in a comment on the “Philosophers On the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.”

Noel’s list takes up matters of existing interest to policy practitioners, pundits, journalists,  and other people who follow politics—that’s who the “you” is in his title. He focuses on well-known topics about which people tend to have opinions, and brings in research in political science to give a sense of the professional consensus, admitting that there are political scientists who will dissent from it. It includes:

  • “It’s the fundamentals, stupid… Voters are influenced by the world in which they are living—more so than any campaign stunt.”
  • “The will of the people is incredibly hard to put your finger on” as “most people are not very ideological” and “most people do not have strong political opinions.”
  • “The will of the people may  not even exist” (Arrow’s impossibility theorem)
  • “There is no such thing as a mandate”
  • Duverger’s law: “The simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system.” Corrolary: “voting is not about expressing your opinion. It is about coordinating with other voters. And your institutions determine how you must coordinate.”
  • “Most independents are closet partisans”

Perhaps most important on Noel’s list is what he saves for last: “We do not know what you think you know”. He elaborates: “All of these previous findings are part of rich research agendas. All require caveats, in many cases more than I have provided. But I suspect that they are a step closer to the light. If we are doomed to have pictures in our heads that do not live up to the world outside, these particular pictures are still pretty good. So the biggest challenge political science may give to practitioners might be that we acknowledge what we do not know.” He then goes on to list various elements of conventional political wisdom for which political scientists have “at best found mixed evidence for.”

Philosophy is full of surprising insights, ideas, and arguments about a wide array of subjects on which there is a mistaken or misleading “conventional wisdom,” and it would be good for those who think about, comment on, or engage in practices relevant to these subjects—“you”— to be aware of them. This series asks philosophers to share these insights, ideas, and arguments. They may be claims about what philosophers specializing on those subjects know that most others do not, but also, of course, claims about what philosophers know we all don’t know even though others think they do.

We start with science.

What do philosophers know about science that you don’t?

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