Everything we know is provisional


Dogs flew spaceships.The Aztecs invented the vacation. Men and women are the same sex. Our forefathers took drugs. Your brain is not the boss. Yes, that’s right: everything you know is wrong. — Firesign Theatre

In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman says most of what we know will be replaced, eventually, by new and better facts.

Let’s not argue Arbesman’s case either way. Instead let’s admit that there is at least some truth to it — a rightness: something we can agree on, even if we believe he’s wrong in some ways. After all, he’s talking about science.

Science is both a body of knowledge and a formal approach to growing it. In science, settled knowledge is organized into piles of agreements, many of which are about truths that are lacking in facts, or supported by facts that will be replaced with others, no less provisional than the originals.

In this sense science is a belief system; but hardly a religious one, since every belief might be less than a matter of faith than an operating assumption that will have to do for now.

On the whole we tend to believe scientists who have earned their greatness, or come close enough. What we grant them is authority.

It is interesting to approach the subject of authority by looking at the noun information, which is derived from the verb inform, which in turn is derived from the verb to form.

If you tell me something I didn’t know, and it becomes part of what I know — my own belief system — you haven’t just “delivered” to me a sum of unseen substance called “information,” as if it were container cargo. You have formed me. I am not exactly as I was before. I am larger, at least in the sense that humans are learning animals, best improved by learning until the moment they die. (“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever,” Gandhi is said to have said.)

Therefore authority is the right we grant others to form us. Put another way, we are all authors of each other.

Yet even our idols walk on clay feet when that’s the only way to get around. In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee reports that the geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes once asked his friend and colleague W. Jason Morgan what he would do for an encore to Rises, Trenches, Great Faults and Crustal Blocks, Morgan’s landmark paper in the founding canon of plate tectonics. “Morgan said he didn’t know,” McPhee writes, “but possibly the most exciting thing to do next would be to prove the theory wrong.”

Though it be canon, the theory of plate tectonics is provisional, even to its primary authors. But for now it’s the working model we call a paradigm.

Before plate tectonics, the encompassing paradigm for geology — its canon — was the geosyncline. It was, in a three word phrase that will be with geology forever, “not well understood.” Plate tectonics is better understood than was the geosyncline, but there are still lots of gaps in it, filled mostly with working assumptions, about which there are plenty of disagreements.

Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher (in that order) says science moves toward its settled facts by a process of creative guesswork that relies far more on tacit rather than explicit forms of knowing. His only quotable line, “We know more than we can tell” summarizes what he means by tacit. But that ain’t enough.

To unpack it a bit more, tacit knowledge is how we can far more easily recognize a person’s face than describe it.

We rely on tacit knowing when we make things explicit as well. Consider this: we usually don’t know know how we will end the sentences we start, or remember how we started the sentences we are ending, yet we somehow communicate meaning anyway. That meaning is mostly tacit as well.

All these things are high on my mind because lately I have been entering discussions on science, and feel a need to dump my brain (or what little I can make explicit of my tacit knowing on the subject). I also feel compelled to add one observation and a one story — about my own guessing on the subject of how the Rockies got there.

Here is the observation: There is no urge more human than the one to alter a permanent structure. Think about it. The first thing anybody moving into a new house wants to do is change it. Enclose the porch. Move a door. Change the flooring. Put in a new bathroom off the back hall. The best book ever written on this subject is Stewart Brand‘s How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They Are Built. It came out in 1994 and is no less brilliant now than it was then. Get it if you’re even thinking of buying, building or remodeling a house.

(Less great but no less useful to my wife and I, when we were remodeling our first place in the mid-’90s, was Your New House, by Alan and Denise Fields, now available for 1¢ on Amazon. I don’t have it with me, and the “look inside” thing doesn’t reveal the whole text, but here’s what I remember from it: “Your builder is not Bob Vila. Your builder is a crew of drunks, ex-felons and misfits who show up on alternate Thursdays.” While not true, it’s close enough.)

Now for the Rockies. In Annals of the Former World, John McPhee writes, “Plate tectonics theorists have been more than a little inconvenienced by the great distances that separate the mountains from the nearest plate boundary.”

At the time McPhee wrote that, it was generally assumed that when one plate subducted under another, it was at a deep angle. Flying over the Rockies many dozens of times after first reading that in the ’80s, I developed my own theory: that the Farallon plate (a former Pacific sea floor) didn’t dive under the western edge of North America, but instead slid under it at a shallow angle, like a piece of plywood under a rug. So I felt pretty smart about that until I later read that real geologists, William R. Dickinson and Walter S. Snyder, had theorized “flat subduction” (perhaps best explained here), in 1978, as an explanation of the Laramide Orogeny, which produced roughly the Rockies we know, within a few dozen million years.

(It’s actually messier than I thought. Or seems to be. Here’s what NASA says has become of the subducted Farallon, now deep in the mantle. By the way, what got scraped off the top of the plate as it went into the trench is what we call the Bay Area. Or, in geo lingo, the Franciscan assemblage.)

My purpose with this isn’t to brag on something I thought up (and turned out not to be original) but rather to point to contributions of greater substance I’ve been making to geology ever since, in the form of aerial photographs that geologists can use. Many do. So do Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.

“Make yourself useful,” Mom used to say. So I do.

To sum up, my provisional conclusion about science is that it’s all provisional: as functional and temporary as scaffolding. And now, thanks to the Internet, we can all take part in raising scientific barns of a countless kinds, and then re-raising more and better ones as we gather more facts, learn more stuff, share more knowledge, and better author each other in the process.

Bonus link: David Weinberger‘s Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. My short review: it formed me.

1 comment

  1. T.Rob’s avatar

    The Firesign Theatre quote dragged me in to find one of your best posts yet. Thanks, Doc!

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