Thursday, January 15, 2004

Philosophy of Science or Scientific Facts Are a Figment of Your Imagination

The philosophy of science is an interesting topic. I had no idea there was such a thing until my husband, who majored in philosophy, pointed it out. Here's a great article on the philosophy of science by a college student named Wade A. Tisthammer. I've included a few excerpts, but read the whole thing.

Scientists are unbiased observers who use the scientific method to conclusively confirm and conclusively falsify various theories. These experts have no preconceptions in gathering the data and logically derive theories from these objective observations. One great strength of science is that it is self-correcting, because scientists readily abandon theories when they are shown to be irrational.

This first part had me rolling on the floor. Scientists unbiased? Hah! Fortunately, that was just a lead-in for the rest of the article.
Although such eminent views of science have been accepted by many people, they are almost completely untrue. Data can neither conclusively confirm nor conclusively falsify theories, there really is no such thing as the scientific method, data become somewhat subjective in practice, and scientists have displayed a surprisingly fierce loyalty to their theories. There have been many misconceptions of what science is and is not. I'll discuss why these misconstruals are inaccurate later, but first I'd like to begin by talking about some of the basics of what science is.

Hmm...intriguing. Just who does this fellow think he is saying scientists can't conclusively confirm or falsify theories? And is misconstruals a word?
Science is a project whose goal is to obtain knowledge of the natural world. The philosophy of science is a discipline that deals with the system of science itself. It examines science's structure, components, techniques, assumptions, limitations, and so forth.

Well examine away, Wade. He then outlines the basic structure of science, composed of data, theories, and shaping principles. Data is empirical information about physical processes, theories are ideas about how physical processes occur based on data, and shaping principals are non-empirical factors and assumptions used to shape a theory. This is a good introduction to the scientific method and how it has evolved throughout history.
Mistaken Beliefs of the Scientific Method
Many students (including me) were brought up with a somewhat eminent view of science, or at least a fairly eminent view of science as it should be done. As I have found however, the status of science which most of us were taught may have been a bit misleading. Some ideas of what "the scientific method" is have also been erroneous. This is perhaps because scientists themselves tend to be ignorant of the philosophy of science.[5] Changes have been made in history about what science is and how it should be done.

This is absolutely true. I think it would be helpful if science students were required to take a course on the philosophy of science and logic. I think it would help student realize the limitations of science and to reduce the amount of that goes on in the scientific community.
In the early years of science, the system of acquiring knowledge was viewed as completely objective, rational, and empirical.[6] This traditional view of science held that scientific theories and laws were to be conclusively confirmed or conclusively falsified based on objective data. This was supposed to be done through "the scientific method." Apparently some sort of method was necessary because humans seemed to have a variety of tendencies and feelings that were not very trustworthy, including biases, feelings, intuitions, and so forth. These kinds of things had to be prevented from infecting science so that knowledge could be reliably obtained.[7] Rigorous and precise procedure ("the scientific method") was to be followed so that such imperfections of humanity would not hinder the process of discovering nature.

Yes, it's true that such human imperfections such as Gargantuan Cranium Syndrome often hinder the progress of science.
Shaping Principles
It is evident that theories and data by themselves are insufficient for science to work, and thus other factors are needed for science to operate. This group of factors in the nature of science is that of shaping principles, which can be used to select theories and form the foundations of science. Many assumptions are made in science. One example is the uniformity of nature. That is, the belief that natural processes operate in a fairly consistent manner. This shaping principle is the basis for the idea of natural laws. For example, Newton's laws are said to apply throughout the universe.[33] This is believed even though scientists have not actually tested the laws everywhere in the universe. Natural laws could not exist in science without assuming the uniformity of nature. Other assumptions made for science to operate include that there exists an external objective reality, that our senses are generally reliable, and so forth.

So what makes one assumption or shaping principle better than another? Consensus? "Common" sense?
Limitations of Science as a Result of Scientists (Snicker! -ed.)
Some have pictured the scientist as a completely objective individual who is free of bias and preconceptions, and who is willing to quickly abandon even the most well accepted theory if it were shown to be scientifically inadequate. This belief is not close to the truth.[44] The reality is that scientists are humans, and humans are fallible beings. They have weaknesses just like the rest of us. For one thing, a bias towards favored theories is actually built into all scientific research.[45] (Recall the necessity of background assumptions to make predictions and test theories.)
A related imperfection, and to many a startling one, is a shaping principle called tenacity (also referred to as belief-perseverance by psychologists).[46] Scientists throughout history have shown a surprisingly severe loyalty to their theories, even with theories that are in trouble with the evidence.

Furthermore, this sort of tenacity persists in scientists for rather long periods of time.[47] Why is this the case? The reasons become clear when one considers what scientists do in their field of work. When people put enormous amounts of effort into something over great lengths of time, as scientists often do with their theories, they have a tendency to become attached to it. Scientists in such cases have an inclination to want the theory to be true and it becomes psychologically more difficult for them to reject it as false, even if they are presented with strong evidence against the theory. ...Needless to say, not everyone has been aware of this, including scientists.[50] How is it then that new theories emerge in science? Nobel prize winning physicist Max Planck has said, "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."[51]

Yes, it's true. Scientists become attached to their work and their pet theories. I myself am quite attached to my wee mutant flies and my own theory as to what's going on inside their beady little eyes. But if my theory turns out to be wrong based on my interpretation of the data, oh well. It's back to the drawing board.
However, tenacity is not necessarily a bad thing.[52] Ironically, belief-perseverance is one of the reasons science has advanced as far as it has. This is because scientific theories are not perfect, and the only way to make real progress with a theory is to be committed to it.[53] Virtually every scientific theory has some sort of problems with the scientific evidence; which are sometimes explained away by ad hoc hypotheses, at times there is some waiting for the problems to be eventually solved, sometimes the problems are unnoticed, at times they are simply ignored, and from time to time a theory is kept because there is no better alternative. If science abandoned every theory that had contradictory evidence, science would barely have any theories at all. Furthermore, if a theory's problems are eventually solved, then we have tenacity to thank for preventing the premature abandonment of the theory.

So even though there are some problems with the scientific method, it's the best we got right now. Scientists would be wise to show a little humility from time to time and acknowledge the weaknesses in their various theories.
Another imperfection is that of observation. Because scientists are human, we cannot obtain completely objective observations even if there could be total theoretical neutrality. One time it was believed (because of direct observation) by Thomas Huxley that he discovered a being halfway between a living organism and a dead one. Many other scientists made observations that came to support that view. Later, however, it was discovered to be purely mineral.[55] Over a hundred independent observations corroborated Rene BlondlotÂ’s concept of N-rays, but later it was discovered that there were no such things as N-rays.[56] These are, of course, extreme cases, but it does demonstrate that data are not totally uncontaminated by humans. In practice, data are somewhat subjective. This is because shaping principles influence the data we perceive, and also because of the tendency for the mind to unconsciously fill in patterns based on these notions. Such human contamination is called internal theoretical orientation of data.[57] As a result, totally objective data cannot be obtained.

Here's where peer-review helps a lot. Reviews of experimental results by other scientists can help uncover biases unsupported by the data.
Besides honest confusion of data, there is also deliberate distortion. Often times the scientist who commits the fraud thinks he knows the answer.[58] Some people may have justified faking the data by thinking they were just speeding up the process. Some examples include that of Cyril Burt; a psychologist who forged data on identical twins to support the idea that intelligence was inherited.[59] It is possible this was done because finding thirty-three identical twins who were separated at birth would be a bit tricky. A more famous case would be that of Piltdown man, an alleged missing link in human evolution. This is also an example of internal theoretical orientation of data, because the fraud was an obvious one[60] and yet persisted for over forty years. Of course, these things do not happen all the time, but it should be noted that scientists are not perfectly moral beings either, and sometimes this can have a debilitating effect on science.

There was recently a report in the journal Science about a Korean physicist who plagiarized whole papers from foreign language journals and republished them under his name. Guess he didn't think that some scientists might be able to read physics papers in more than one language. Doh!

Some have believed that science has been successful in acquiring knowledge, yet there really is no way of verifying this. Data are incapable of conclusively proving theories, and we can't exactly read an omniscient "book of truth" to see how often our theories have been correct. Historically speaking, almost every theory in science eventually becomes discarded as wrong.[82] Consequently, there have been so many false starts in science that it would be rather incredible if we were the ones who are finally on the right track.[83] It would be especially amazing considering that the theories that we've already discarded have not even been conclusively falsified by the data. Even so, this is not to say science isn't worth having around.

On the contrary, science provides significant benefits for humanity. For one thing, science has helped us to alleviate the struggle to survive.[84] Whether or not we are on the right track, it seems clear that science is conducive for useful technology. Various aspects of science can be used for the needs of people, understanding ourselves and even our place in the universe.[85] Although there is a very real possibility of being wrong, we can increase our chances of being right through further accumulation of data. Despite all its imperfections and limitations, science may very well be the best tool we have for discovering nature.

Overall, I thought this essay was thoughtful and brought up many good philosophical points. Wade's writing style is a little repetitive and he needs to chop up this essay in to smaller, more concise paragraphs, however. Humongous paragraphs are a pet peeve of mine. Now I dare you to go watch a Discovery channel documentary (especially on archeaology or paleontology) and try not to snicker every time the haughty narrator says "we know x" or "z proves y."

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