The praise of unambiguity

My new article in CULTURICO. Enjoy reading!

One of the principles of critical thinking is to avoid excessive generalizations. The uncritical application of this principle in many cases leads to the formulation of ambiguous judgments about reality, which obscure what we can know and sometimes even falsifies it. This applies in particular to scientific assertions. The tendency to avoid unambiguous judgments is due to several reasons: fear of making mistakes, fear of responsibility, fear of confrontation, and confusion between tolerance and indifference. Forming unambiguous judgments in situations that require it supports the standards of scientific integrity and affords the epistemological agency we need to grow, change, create, and proceed.
We are all going to die, and in the meantime we have to pay taxes. Apart from this hackneyed assertion, it is difficult to formulate any other universal declarations containing such general quantifiers as “everybody,” “always,” “every,” or “nobody.” Despite popular opinion, absolute exceptions do not prove the rules, but rather categorically compromise them; thus, it is better to avoid unambiguous and categorical declarations, especially when formed with reference to our complex social reality. This approach is an element of critical thinking which most educated people follow, such that surely intelligent people see the formulation of unambiguous “universal truths” as something of a social faux pas.

However, when we begin to unthinkingly employ any kind of principle, albeit one based on critical thinking, we are prone to fall into a trap from which it is difficult to extract ourselves. In this case, what about the roles that unambiguity and rigidity play in science? In considering the science around cold fusion and neutrinos’ speed-of-light travel, only a brutal approach to evidence – not a cautious or ambiguous one – makes it possible to forgo equivocating and actually formulate theorems which allow us to put a space shuttle in orbit, reach our destination with the help of GPS data, or make calculations for the construction of an imposing suspension bridge across the bay. But unfortunately, many academics prefer to remain mired in the murky waters of ambiguity, professing an almost religious belief in its superiority and reacting anxiously in situations, which in the meantime, demand categorical unambiguity to progress the science forward and to make it useful.

Most of the social sciences also find themselves in this trap. We always hear of the need for “measured judgment,” “more discussion,” “refraining from unambiguous assessment,” and other similar demands whenever some scandal in the social sciences surfaces. Such was the case in 2018, when French documentarian Thibault Le Texier published his book Histoire d’un Mensonge [A History of Lie] (1), in which he showed that the famous Stanford prison experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo had been faked. I have yet to discover even one unambiguous assessment by a scientist of this fact. Most of them consider that during his experiment Zimbardo “very often” was faithful to the principles of honesty, and that statements about the unacceptable manipulation of subsidiary factors invalidating any of the research results are considered to be “too radical,” and that the problem is “more complex.” However I have read two declarations by renowned academics stating unambiguously that “they believe Zimbardo to be an honest scientist”.

The main reasons for falling into the trap that ambiguity is superior to unambiguity are our fears, of which we are barely aware and which are fuelled by social pressure. One of them is the fairly rational fear of making mistakes. This is particularly justified when we use the principles of probability in formulating certain properties, and this situation most often appears in the social sciences. However, this sometimes leads us to somewhat absurd conclusions, as shown by renowned statistician Jacob Cohen when he entitled his article “The Earth is Round (p < .05)” (2). However, despite the fact that a quarter of a century has passed since the publication of this renowned work, the majority of academics paying homage to ambiguity fail to perceive its ridiculousness.

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