Scientific Hedging

A favourite theme in disaster movies is the political figure who tries to keep the local population from being alerted to some impending catastrophe.  Usually, the political figure tries to impede the publication of findings by one or more scientists.  In real life, it is more commonly the scientists themselves who create a barrier that stands between them and non-scientists. That barrier, the 'hedge' is a linguistic device.

The scientists who deal with aspects of the human environment are probably the most cautious, the greatest exponents of the hedge. Unfortunately, the hedge has two major linguistic side-effects.  Firstly, hedged arguments are an easy target for the sophist.  Secondly, the desire not to appear alarmist will delay political reaction to any impending crisis, be it financial meltdown or global climate change.

Hiding Behind a Hedge.

Hedging is a rhetorical tool for gaining academic acceptance of claims.  If you search for advice on writing an academic paper you will find multiple instances of advice on how to 'hedge'.  Hedging is - or at least may be, or is thought to be by some, and any rational person must at least agree as a working hypothesis that hedging may be in at least some cases, hypothetically speaking - a linguistic art.  But it isn't science.  Academic papers are riddled with instances of 'it appears that', 'it may be that', and the irrefutable hedge 'it is possible to assume that'.  The problem lies with that single word 'academic'.  Any sceptic, on any topic, is entitled to treat the hedge as a linguistic device which 'proves' that what the academic has written is 'only a theory'.

The Scientific Method.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that our schools, colleges and universities tend to teach more of the big-S Sciences-plural than the small-s science-singular.  Big-S science is stinks and bangs, cold-cures and men-on-moon science.  Small-s science is philosophy, the smell and sound of nothing, the 'should-we?' as against the 'can-we?'.  At first sight, the teachings of philosophy are teachings about a mental chaos that contradicts scientific order.  But philosophy shows that even in apparent chaos we can observe order; it teaches us how to seek out that order.  It teaches us the scientific method.


Truth is not a marketable commodity.  Truth cannot be weighed or measured.  Truth cannot be seen or heard.  Truth is the middle part of a handclap - a dimly notional process ocurring along a path.  Truth is a path and a process towards knowledge: we '-ise' and '-ing' and '-ment' and '-tion' our way along the path to understanding.  We rational-ise; we say we are examin-ing some thing; we experi-ment; we engage in deduc-tion and induc-tion: these are processes, and truth is a path and a process leading towards knowledge.

Growing the Hedge.

Philosphy in the round demonstrates that there is no single ultimate truth.  For every philosopher who believes in things 'innate' or 'a priori' - (what one might satirise as 'ex pre facto' knowledge) - there is a philosopher who holds the contrary view.  The scientific method, in contrast, shows that, provided only that there exist uniform conditions for two independent observers, those observers will witness the same event as having the same cause.  It is implicit in the scientific method that the observers hold to the pragmatic, the 'it works for me' philosphy of everyday experience.  Common sense is the environment in which the scientist conducts experiments and assumes common-sense to be a universal, fixed and non-dependent variable in the experiment.

The scientific method recognises that a drawn point is not dimensionless, a drawn line has width, a square of material has thickness, no gas is 'ideal', and so forth.  But, for the sake of repeatability of demonstration, many such factors can safely be ignored, having been shown to have no bearing on the matter at hand.   It is not so with theory.  Theory is a specific kind of experiment - a 'thought experiment'.  The problem with the thought experiment, as has been demonstrated over and again, is the impossibility of showing that all extraneous variables are being held constant.  The more novel a theory, the less we know about the variables that it encompasses.  And so the cautious theorist grows a hedge.

Watering the hedge.

A common sophism is to say of any scientific theory that it is, after all, 'just a theory'.  But if any single arena of debate is taken as a ballpark within which truth may be found, and any stratagem to find truth is applied to the search, we may say of the stratagem, if we disregard the pragmatic results, that it is 'just a theory'.  Most ordinary people, and almost all philosophers will accept the universal truth or fact that '2 + 2 = 4'.   But it is just a theory!  The notion that '2 + 2 = 4' is a universal truth can never be proven.   Universal truth relies on the principles of uniformity.   Principles-plural!  To define the conditions under which all human observers will most certainly agree that 2 + 2 = 4 would require a lifetime's work in writing those conditions down.  One can prove that 2 + 2 = 3 in modular systems.  Where '2 + 2' means 'take two of any thing and then two more of the same thing, one has a free choice of what is meant by 'thing'.  One may then re-write as 2a + 2a.   If unspecified as to dependent variables, then 2 + 2 means 2a + 2a and so any answer whatsoever is possible.   If a = 1.25 then 2a +2a = 5.2 + 2 = 5 q.e.d.

The Hedge as a Gate.

Thanks to the devices of sophistry, no theory, no knowledge whatsoever, is immune from attack. A hedge is no defence against the sophist.  On the contrary, it is the wide open gate through which all of sophistry may enter.  If once the hedge can be seen to be an invitingly open gate, then it will not be built.

The Art of Not Building a Hedge.

Do not say: 'it appears that' - appearances are notoriously deceptive.  'In the absence of any other explanation' - the sophist will gladly supply one.  'Could' - equally it could not.  'Might' - by implication it might not.  Do not be over-cautious - sophists rush in where scientists fear to tread.  Do not be over-modest - never be afraid to say 'I' or 'we' if the context demands it.

Excessive use of 'it' is an irresistable invitation to the sophist:
" ... even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable--'

`Found WHAT?' said the Duck.

`Found IT,' the Mouse replied rather crossly: `of course you know what "it" means.' "

 Lewis Carroll.
But please do say: 'In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, one must conclude that ...''  The evidence strongly supports the conclusion that ... '  This form of argument specifies that the sophist must provide, not argument, but evidence.  This the sophist cannot do.  Experimental evidence is anathema to the sophist, it is tabu, not part of the doctrine the creed and the mantra.

Show Me Your Evidence

Sound evidence does not deserve to be kept hidden behind a hedge. It should be displayed prominently and publicly.  Argument is 'just a theory'.  Whether in science or in a court of common law, argument is not evidence.  In science and law, argument is the polished cabinet in which evidence is displayed.  In sophistry, argument is the roughly hewn tub against which a fist empty of all evidence is thumped.  Argument is not evidence.  However much an argument may 'cool down', however it may be 'condensed', it is never seen in anything other than the 'hot air' state in any laboratory.