Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Science Wars

A thought:

Since Kuhn's work, there has been an intense debate about many of the issues he raises. The stakes are high in any debate about science because, as I have emphasised, what we regard as scientific has such an effect on our lives. It is not clear what exactly the sides are in the so-called science wars, but unfortunately, as with so many issues, we can approach this one by considering the extreme positions on each side. On the one hand are those who hold science up as the source of all knowledge, and the only intellectually legitimate form of inquiry. According to them, not only are the teachings of the book of Genesis scientifically proven to be wrong, but we have no need of the myths of any culture, because modern science gives us a comprehensive account of most natural phenomena and the history and geography of the Earth and the entire universe. Of course, scientists vary in their evangelism, but in any bookshop one can find texts offering grand scientific explanations of language, the mind, ethics, human behaviour, the creation of the universe and so on. The most extreme defenders of science think their opponents are superstitious and irrational. On the other hand, there are those who argue that there is nothing special about science, and that indeed it may be worse, or at least no better, than creation myths.

However, it is quite possible to defend the rationality of science without being committed to reductionism about the mind, atheism, the invalidity of other forms of inquiry and so on. Furthermore, a defender of scientific rationality might at the same time be highly critical of the contemporary practice of some or all of the sciences, and highly sceptical about some particular scientific theories. Someone who has a definite account of when science is being conducted properly is able to criticise a particular scientific community on a principled basis. For example, it is plausible that the free exchange of ideas and information is an essential feature of good science. Hence, if the commercial interests of their sponsors are interfering with scientists' freedom to communicate, this can be criticised as unscientific.

Kuhn's history of various scientific revolutions shows us that individual scientists do not live up to the philosopher's ideal of maximally rational agents, always making decisions based on the evidence independently of their own personal interests and goals. On the contrary, according to Kuhn, scientists are often very much attached to a paradigm, and sometimes particular individuals will do almost anything to retain it in the face of contradictory evidence, including perhaps, distorting experimental data, using institutional power to stifle dissent, using poor reasoning and bad arguments to defend the status quo, and so on. Indeed, sometimes the established scientists will refuse to adopt the new paradigm and, rather than being persuaded by rational argument, eventually they simply die out, while the next generation get on with developing the new approach. Of course, disreputable behaviour and fallacious reasoning seem to be features of all spheres of human life, so it would be pretty surprising if they were never found in science, and clearly the idea that all scientists are saint-like pursuers of the truth is unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous.

- James Ladyman, Understanding Philosophy of Science

Are we to assume that Ladyman thinks that he is a saint-like pursuer of the truth?

He does seem to accept myths about science, such as that science changes only when the old-timers die off.

To be fair to Ladyman, he is giving the various sides of these arguments and that may not actually be his position.

His entire book (which I recommend for the clarity with which he lays out the disputes in the PoS) proceeds that way. Indeed, shortly after the passage I gave, Ladyman said:

In the light of the preceding discussion some scepticism about scientific knowledge seems inevitable. Not even the most realist and rationalist philosophers of science would argue that all established scientific theories are proven to be true beyond any doubt, nor even that they are all probably true.
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