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Hefer '12: Science and relativism

Here at Brown, we love other cultures. There are student groups celebrating the Taiwanese, German and Greek cultures, among many others. According to the University website, this entire year is dedicated to the "history, politics, culture, arts and economy of China." You can practically smell the multiculturalism in the air — minute particles of Pacific Island art bouncing off each other and up your nose.

A healthy respect for these cultures goes hand in hand with appreciating them. Things would be very different if we looked down on people with other institutions and art as quaint or cute. And we accomplish this admirably. Brown students learn about and love the Other without unduly exoticizing him or her.

But in an attempt to be properly respectful, many of us go a step too far and take on a certain sort of relativism, claiming that there are many valid ways of looking at the world, and that no one has privileged access to the truth. Because of facts about our own culture, the claim is most naturally that science is not necessarily a better way of discovering truths about the world than any other method. This is both false and more disrespectful of non-scientific cultures than admitting that they are wrong and we are right.

To take a specific case, let's look at a belief popular in certain areas of Africa. While we have long since concluded that there are no witches, many people in Congo, Ghana and Kenya believe in witchcraft to this day. Some are tempted to say that while witches don't exist for us, they do exist for the Africans concerned, and neither of us is wrong. This is not supported by the facts.

Rudimentarily, science is based on two modes of reasoning, induction and inference to the best explanation — called abduction. Induction allows us to generalize from particulars and infer about the future. After seeing the sun rise day after day, we conclude that the sun will rise tomorrow. It is famously hard to justify the use of induction. No group that I am aware of denies induction across the board, so that isn't really on the table.

Abduction is where the action is. We seek the simplest and most powerful explanation that fits our observations and what we know about the world more generally. If two explanations both fulfill the criteria, we go out, collect more data and revise appropriately. This is where non-scientific cultures fail.

The witch-believers know that people suffer. They abduce and conclude that witches cause suffering. But there is more data available, and if by "x causes y" they mean anything like "y wouldn't happen without x," their explanation is no good because people get sick even after the witches are stopped.

Other beliefs are subject to similar attacks. Divination is usually incorrect. Good times do not stop when libations or sacrifices do. If a belief cannot be put to the test, such as vague prophecy or spiritualism, Occam's razor cuts it away. Almost tautologically, it is unreasonable to believe in something when there is no positive reason to do so.

There is no reason to believe that comforting explanations that fit with one's culture have any bearing on the reality of the situation, whereas by induction, we have reason to believe our abductive inferences are good. Technology based on science allows us to wield a certain power over the world that would be inexplicable if science were just one good practice among many.

To say that we are both right is patronizing. Treating another person like a reasonable adult requires taking their disagreement seriously and saying they are wrong when they are. And they do mean to disagree with us. After all, if you told a witch-believer that there are no witches, they would contradict you. If you are satisfied to say, "Well then witches exist for you," you are failing to give them due respect. After your encounter, you'd go about your regular life, never fearing the witch around the next corner. How is this any different from allowing a child to believe in Santa Claus for fear of interfering with "child culture"?

One might object, saying that since our culture is scientific, we too are looking for explanations that conform to tradition. I happily grant this, but note that science has caused many Westerners to give up deeply held cultural beliefs, including geocentrism, spiritualism and — almost paradigmatically — witchcraft. If, in the future, we choose a comforting explanation instead of a scientific one, that will tell only against us.

In summary, a scientific worldview offers us a way to get at the truth that other approaches do not. This does not mean anyone is better or worse than anyone else nor that we should aggressively introduce science to the non-scientific, which is colonialism. That said, it is irresponsible and disrespectful to give everyone a medal just for participating.


David Hefer '12 is a philosophy and math concentrator who secretlybbelieves some cultures are just better than others. He can be reached at



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