Monday, November 29, 2010


Distinctive Science

Via John Wilkins, the journal Biology and Philosophy has, at least for the time being, an article (pdf) summarizing David L. Hull's work in the philosophy of biology that is not behind a paywall. From there comes the following which, I think, cogently replies to those who "construe science broadly—as 'empirical investigation combined with reason'."

Scientists are curious about the world, as many people are, but what is distinctive about them is the reward system they are embedded within and usually come to embrace. Scientists want credit. They want their work to be recognized, and especially to be used by others. This involves citation. Many features of science, as Hull saw it, stem from the interaction between this reward system and its social context. Each scientist inherits the ideas and methods of their field from earlier workers. To achieve anything significant, a scientist must enter into a system of cooperation and trust. Doing good work of one's own requires using the work of others, and using their work in a way that provides real support for one's own requires giving citations. Scientists trade credit for support, in the hope that others will do the same for them. Real criticism of an idea can be expected, but it will tend to come from those invested in rival ideas or uncertain whether the idea can be safely used. ...

In his treatment of the relations between the social and the epistemological, Hull took a number of things for granted. He assumed that observational evidence can show that a hypothesis is wrong, and can also provide positive support for a hypothesis. The fine-structure of the workings of evidence were not a major preoccupation for him. Instead he assumed some fairly common-sense views on these topics, trusting that sense could be made of them. But as Hull saw, these fundamentals are not enough to give us much of a story about how science works, even when epistemology is our focus. For that, we also need an account of the blend of competition and cooperation, and the roles of credit and use. These, together with basic features of evidence and testing, generate the features distinctive of science, especially an unusually good relationship between the motivations of the individual scientist and the epstemic goals of science as a whole.

- Peter Godfrey-Smith, "David Hull," Biology and Philosophy, November 26, 2010
Incidentally, you can find a wealth of material by and about Hull by searching the Springer site, including Wilkins' own article (pdf) about Hull's work, "The adaptive landscape of science."

It's largely an argument about semantics, but I like the taxonomy recently expressed by Russell Blackford, in which "science" is a disciplined, institutionalized and domain-restricted subset of "rational inquiry".
I don't have much problem with Russell's taxonomy but I think he undervalues the non-rational aspects of the humanities. They aren't important simply because they can be approached, in some ways, in a science-like manner but because they can also speak to us directly without the intercession of the rational mind.
Speak of the devil.
" to those who "construe science broadly—as 'empirical investigation combined with reason'."

Never mind them, you've got Larry Moran who, when it suits, wants to drop the requirement that the investigation be empirical so he can include math as part of science.
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