In an earlier post about a scientific study showing that “the absence of reward produces inequity aversion in dogs”, I leapt from the claims of the carefully worded abstract to more freighted language: from “inequity aversion” to “justice matters” and from “refusal to participate” to “spirited anger in the face of injustice.” I don’t propose to defend my “anthropomorphization” of dogs here, although if it’s an easier transmogrification, you may choose to “canimorphize” yourself instead. There is more of the monkey and dog in our psyches than is dreamt of in (most of) our philosophies and science.
Instead, I want to question the rather amused and admittedly superior response one may have to some of science’s findings, specifically, those I’m tempted to file under “Annals of the Obvious.” Many scientific findings do not belong in this category, as anyone who has gone to the trouble of acquainting themselves with Einstein’s special theory of relativity knows. Still, many findings do belong in this category. Showing that dogs are averse to being treated unfairly is one; another is any study in geriatrics that shows, for example, a positive correlation between exercise and decreased risk of falls. (Falls are a common and serious problem for the elderly. Accordingly, there are large geriatric research centers that focus on falls. See for instance this center, and this website.)
But even though the results turn out to be obvious, they’re worth having, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment. That said, I do reserve the right to express mock surprise if a scientist of the obvious hubristically claims to have “discovered”, say, that a condition of my dog’s cooperation is fair treatment. (This is very old news, on the order of 10,000 years old.) They have, rather, confirmed the common wisdom. Yet the confirmation has value because it comes through applying scientific standards of evidence and reasoning. When there’s any actual discovery in such cases, it’s the discovery of causal mechanisms that underlie a long-observed correlation (the commnon wisdom).
Besides the fact that scientific investigation may lay bare certain causes in the course of proving the obvious, I can think of another reason to sing the praises of doing apparently obvious science. For, as has often been observed, correlation is not causation. The fact that one event is consistently followed by another (correlated) tempts the mind to conclude that the first event is the cause of the second. However, just because the rooster crows before the dawn doesn’t mean he causes the sun to rise. More generally, how things appear is not necessarily how they are: that the sun appears to move around the earth is not reason enough to conclude that in reality it does. Part of science’s power comes from questioning such inferences rather than taking them for granted.
At their best, philosophy and science share this refusal to take the conventional wisdom for granted. Their insistence on questioning the commonplace and obvious has led both to be mocked; it has also led both to revolutionary discoveries. So while it’s easy to mock the studies asking whether people in better physical shape will have more control of their bodies, it’s harder to say where such investigations may ultimately lead. Socrates was also easy to mock in this respect, questioning as he often did matters others took for granted: of course there are gods, of course the city is the ultimate judge of what’s just. Yet, by a series of simple questions and observations, his interlocutors often found themselves led to doubt the truth of what only minutes before had been obvious.
So one reason I honor these candidates for the Annals of the Obvious is because they remind me, yet again, that there is a difference between how things appear and how they really are. Another reason I honor them is because it’s the familiar and obvious things, the things closest to us, that we often don’t see as clearly as we might. Sometimes the obvious place to begin in one’s observations and reflections is with the obvious.