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The Limits of Knowledge, Part IV: Too Clever for Its Own Good

(Last in a series; see Part I, Part II, and Part III)

“Clever Hans” was a mathematician who lived a century ago. He was also a horse, a genius horse who could add, subtract, multiply, and even calculate dates, giving the answer by tapping his hoof.

But it was discovered in 1907 that Clever Hans was in fact no better at arithmetic than any other horse.  Has was just reading subtle, unconscious cues from his owner,  tapping until he reached the expected answer.

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Is science real? Is it objective knowledge of a world independent of us? Or is it just a cultural invention, an arbitrary game, something we project onto the world, with scientists tapping out results until, like Clever Hans, we get the result we unconsciously want?

Some postmodernists think the latter is true, and point to experiments swayed by unexamined assumptions, including the “Clever Hans” effect in animal intelligence experiments.   They then conclude that all science is equally rigged.

The critiques have some validity, but the examples are heavily weighted towards the sociological and anthropological sciences; that is, we easily fool ourselves concerning issues that touch upon us as humans.

But on the other end of the spectrum the story is different.  Out among the cold reaches of the galaxies and nestled in the hearts of atoms, we have found disturbing truths so contrary to human experience that they can’t be the result of some Very Clever Hans, trying to please our subconscious prejudices. Read the rest of this entry »