Currently I’m reading Alan Chalmers’ What is this thing called science?, with specific interest in the questions of expertise and the uniqueness of science as a foundation for knowledge. (Coturnix’s recent post on Information, Knowledge, and Experience helped crystallize my thoughts – check that out as well.)
Philosophy of Science has come a long way since the days of Popper and Kuhn, and I was suggested to read Chalmers about six months ago. This is a very good book, clear and well written, and provides an excellent overview of philosophy of science (including all the major players: Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Laudan,) and the problem of demarcation between science and non-science.
I haven’t yet reached the chapters on Bayesianism and New Experimentalism. Most philosophers of science share concerns about falsificationism versus verificationism (or deduction versus induction) – and Bayesianism and Experimentalism provide some sort of response to these concerns, or so I’ve been told.
The opening chapters however nicely clear away some popular misconceptions about science, by contrasting what science is with what it is not.
The experienced and skilled observer does not have perceptual experiences identical to those of the untrained novice when the two confront the same situation. This clashes with a literal understanding of the claim that perceptions are given in a straightforward way via the senses.
…observers viewing the same scene from the same place see the same thing but interpret what they see differently. I wish to dispute this… These experiences are not uniquely given and unchanging but vary with the knowledge and expectations possessed by the observer. (page 8 )
Chalmers is tearing down the notion that the acquisition of facts precedes the formulation of laws and theories. While many scientists may not care much about philosophy of science, and assume that facts come before theory, all scientists at least implicitly understand this situation.
According to our modified stand, we freely acknowledge that the formulation of observation statements presupposes significant knowledge, and that the search for relevant observable facts in science is guided by that knowledge. Neither acknowledgement necessarily undermines the claim that knowledge has a factual basis established by observation. (page 13)
While science is in part a method, it is also an ediface of knowledge that acts as a starting point for discovery.
In the specific case of the molecular biologist, every hypothesis and experiment is founded on volumes of information which must be assumed. It is, in fact, falliable to some degree. How than can science be made more reliable?
The point that action can be taken to explore the adequacy of claims put forward as observable facts has the consequence that subjective aspects of perception need not be an intractable problem for science. Ways in which perceptions of the same scene can vary from observer to observer depending on the background, culture and expectations were discussed in the previous chapter. Problems that eventuate from this undoubted fact can be countered to a large extent by taking appropriate action. (page 21)
According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting a basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible. They are objective insofar as they can be publicly tested by straightforward procedures, and they are fallible insofar as they may be undermined by new kinds of tests made possible by advances in science and technology. (page 25)
I read this as a strong rationale for not just standard modes of knowledge dissemination such as the published literature and attending symposia, but for the extreme case of Open Science. That is, the greater the transparency and openness of the discussion over relevant data, the more objective we can claim the current state of scientific knowledge.
According to the unqualified inductivist, observation statements that form the factual basis for science can be securely established directly by careful use of the senses. [...]
Attractive as it may have appeared, we have seen that the inductivist position is, at best, in need of severe qualification and, at worst, thoroughly inadequate. We have seen that facts adequate for science are by no means straightforwardly given but have to be practically constructed, and in some important senses dependent on the knowledge that they presuppose… (page 57)
This is the pragmatic empiricist position, that science is not exclusively inductive or deductive. It is, in fact, quite a bit of both. And again, neither can operate in a vacuum free from pre-supposed knowledge.
Which brings me to a passing note on creationism, which seems to misrepresent or ignore the existing body of literature. And those few creationists who do attempt to insert their inductions into the scientific literature (e.g., Stephen Meyers and Jonathan wells) have completely refused to do anything deductive to back up their fundamental inductive observations. That is, the falliability of their observations cannot be seen independently and corroborated practically.
Thus far, the What is This Thing Called Science has been more about what science is not however. I can’t wait to get to some more intruiging sections about what science is – and New Experimentalism and Bayesianism in particular. Be sure to check back.
For more: Biology and the Scientific Method.