Monday, July 23, 2012

Science Broadly Defined

Many, maybe most, writers on science define science pretty much as something Europeans have done since Galileo. Some of them mention Francis Bacon occasionally. The focus is on scientific method, defined in practice as controlled experiments. In this view, there not only weren't professional scientists but there were no amateur scientists before the Italian. They are generally particularly careful to explain that the ancient Greeks didn't do science.

But is this true? Aristotle did dissections. Those are not controlled experiments and don't fit the European science model. Measuring instruments were also pioneered by the ancient Greeks, as the Tower of the Winds shows us. Nor is that a controlled experiment. Aristotle earned eternal contempt from philosophers for his insistence on making lists and categories and principles, dutifully cataloging facts, a noxiously low-minded, dull and painfully exact practice. Nor is this a controlled experiment. Some people avoid the issue by using the phrase formal science. This would be okay if it didn't avoid the issue of whether people like Aristotle et al. were doing science, formal or not. This matters because it confuses the issue of what "scientia," that is, knowledge really is.

May I suggest that science is any systematic way of organizing and acquiring new knowledge, information that is verified as corresponding to reality? As every devotee of the sweet science knows, any field can have its lore organized and verified in practice. Systematic observation, making allowances as best as possible for error and bias, including different perspectives and critical analysis of conflicting testimony, recorded for comparison and analysis; collections of specimens; mapmaking; taxonomy; generalization and such have led to major advances, for instance the discovery of the fossil record and its associated law and other principles. This kind of thing is looked down upon as lowly induction. My reading of the history of science however has been that the greatest problem in the end has been statements and beliefs falsely attributed the status of fact. The explanations can be modified or replaced, but for sheer total confusion a false impression is pretty much impossible to beat.

Closely related, obviously, is the advance of instrumentation for measurement. Creating the microscope is not a controlled experiment. Nor for that matter is examining everything you can under it. Nonetheless the advent of new instruments (and maps and other graphical aids involved in presenting the information) has been the driver of far more scientific discovery than the desire of faslfiying an hypothesis. J.D. Bernal, whose work is pretty much abandoned, documents the process much better than I could. I believe it is ignored because it is unwelcome not because it is refuted.

Phrasing this another way, induction is far, far more powerful a tool for scientific investigation than is popularly conceded. Cartography and taxonomy are not experimental sciences in the formally philosophical way, but in their engagement with experience are crucially empirical. They emphasize getting all the evidence, presenting the evidence as clearly as possible and getting the facts right. Most people do not do this. By contrast they are pragmatic; seeking only the information to hand; oftentimes consulting any authority; quitting when they get confirmation; making no argumentation at all, merely presenting conclusions as if by fiat; rarely analytical or critical. In the daily routines of life this is natural enough. Also, since science is now professionalized, many people merely consult scientific authorities.

Nonetheless, these practices are I believe a huge component of scientific investigation, and the lowly simple facts and (obvious?) inductions comprise a huge portion of the corpus of scientific knowledge. Of these inductive generalizations, some of vitally important ones include such notions as naturalism, causality and the consistency/regularity/lawfulness of nature. These hugely important concepts are justified a posteriori, not a priori. And they are the real demarcators of science, both narrowly and broadly defined. 

The importance of defining science broadly is two fold. First, it highlights the importance of inductive knowledge. Darwin did not provide experimental evidence for natural selection. Wegener did not provide any mechanism at all for continental drift. "Strata" Smith did not do experiments to
show how fossil order could have arisen. Nonetheless, despite not doing formal controlled experiments these men did good science. The failure to find any evidence of anything that acted remotely like the crystal of the celestial spheres, or signs of forces that could move said spheres, could have been (and should have been) read as a sign that the Ptolemaic model was incorrect, that the hypothesis of the spheres was an unjustified ad hoc element. Newton's incorrect notion of an absolute time was not sufficient reason to reject the empirical success of his laws of gravitation and motion. The radical changes that sometimes occur in the formulation of explanations is never accompanied by similarly radical changes in the corpus of knowledge. New ideas may be necessary, but old ideas never come back, because they've been refuted. The corrigibility of science will never, never permit the return of astrology or other religious ideas, no matter what. In that sense, the corrigibility of science is wholly irrelevant to a simple (but to some bitter) truth: Science is knowledge.

Second, the numerous tools in science broadly defined are obviously found in many social studies. It is not universally the case. Many historians for example have difficulties with the idea of causality! Others insist on attributing strange powers to nonmaterial abstractions, such as ideas or the Zeitgeist. But it is equally obvious that many social scientists are in fact scientists, even if the subject matter does not permit much in the way of formal controlled experimentation. The resistance to allowing that there may be such a thing as social science, and the insistence on narrowly redefining science to exclude it, seems almost universally to be motivated by a desire to remove any social belief from claiming the status of knowledge. Considering that social beliefs include such notions as racism, it is hard to have much respect for this stance as protecting the gullible public from scientistic blindness to the richness of social life and the complexity of moral/political questions!

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