Necessity and sufficiency

With apologies for recalling horrible people early in the day: I chanced upon this article quoting Lawrence Krauss talking about his friend Jeffrey Epstein from April 2011, and updated in July 2019. Excerpt (emphasis added):

Renowned scientists whose research Epstein has generously funded through the years also stand by him. Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist …, has planned scientific conferences with Epstein in St. Thomas and remained close with him throughout his incarceration. “If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Well, of course he felt raised by his friendship with Epstein. But more importantly, the part in bold is just ridiculous, and I hope Krauss was suitably slammed for saying such a stupid thing at the time.a It’s a subtle form of scientism commonly found in conversations that straddle two aggressively differing points of view – such as the line between believing and disbelieving the acts of a convicted sex offender or between right- and left-wing groups in India.

Data is good, even crucial, as the numerical representation of experimental proof, and for this reason often immutable. But an insistence on data before anything else is foolish because it presupposes that the use of the scientific method – implied by the production and organisation of data – is a necessary as well as sufficient condition to ascertain an outcome. But in truth, science is often necessary but almost never sufficient.

Implying in turn that all good scientists should judge everything by empirical evidence isn’t doing science or scientists any favours. Instead, such assertions might abet the impression of a scientist as someone unmoved by sociological, spiritual or artistic experiences, and science as a clump of methods all of which together presume to make sense of everything you will ever encounter, experience or infer. However, it’s in fact a body of knowledge obtained by applying the scientific method to study natural phenomena.

Make what you will of science’s abilities and limitations based on this latter description, and not Krauss’s insular and stunted view that – in hindsight – may have been confident in its assertion if only because it afforded Krauss a way to excuse himself. And it is because of people like him (necessity), who defer to scientific principles even as they misappropriate and misuse these principles to enact their defensive ploys, together with the general tendency among political shills to use overreaching rhetoric and exaggerated claims of harm (sufficiency), that the scientific enterprise itself takes a hit in highly polarised debates word-wars.

a. If Krauss insists on sticking to his scientistic guns, it might be prudent to remind him of counterfactual definiteness.

Epstein’s friends from the ‘Reality Club’

New York magazine has published an alphabetised list of the names of people that find mention in Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘black book’, a log book of sorts in which he kept track of the people he entertained, including at his residence and onboard his private jet, both venues of Epstein’s horrible exploitation of young women. The first name on the list is “Allen, Woody” and the last, “Zuckerman, Mort”; somewhere in between, there’s this about the ‘Reality Club’:

What seems new, in flipping through the reams of society photos of perhaps the world’s most prolific sexual predator that have been circulating over the past few weeks, is not the powerful and the beautiful who surrounded Epstein, but the intellectuals — the Richard Dawkinses, the Daniel Dennetts, the Steven Pinkers. All men, of course. But the group selfies probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — documents of an age in which every millionaire doesn’t just fancy himself a philosopher-king but expects to be treated as such, and every public intellectual wants to be seen as a kind of celebrity.

On point. The rituals of scholarship haven’t spared any man from the temptations of misplaced self-importance, if not outright power; in fact, on many occasions they have been the means to accrue it. Just ask Jorge Domínguez, Jeff Galindo, William V. Harris, Jason Lieb, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Katze, Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, Thomas Pogge, John R. Searle or, perhaps most recently, Inder Verma – all of whom were passively protected by a network of academic institutions that financially benefited from the presence of these men on their campuses even as they continued to sexually harass, allegedly or decidedly, their coworkers and/or students. (Pinker and Dawkins have only helped this conclusion along with their displays of “poor scholarship” and “unthinking certitude”.)