Monday, July 30, 2012

The Collective Enterprise of Science and Ethics

Thinking about such manifestly social phenomena as paradigms reminded me that the collective nature of science is far too often omitted. The middle school textbook portrayal of the scientific method as problem, hypothesis, experiment and conclusion is often modified by specifying controlled experiments or by substages, as adding library research as part of hypothesis formulation, or publication as part of conclusion. They may even make so bold as to add a feedback look from experiment to hypothesis.

What they rarely ever point out, correct as this thumbnail description of scientific process is in toto, if you imagine that one person does this, you are just wrong. Any single person may engage in any part of the process, coming in at any stage. They may engage only in asking the question/posing the problem or they may merely report result to others. The sequence is often visible only in hindsight. In addition to the implicit suggestion that the steps in the process are programmatically linear, the omission of the importance of collective analysis is extraordinarily misleading. Unlike philosophy, which is concerned with the validity of logical a priori arguments posed by an ideal ego, science is concerned with correspondence to fact (truth.) In practice, verification of facts requires repetition of measurements by others. Even qualtitative observations often require verification in multiple perspectives. What is true of supposedly simple matters of fact is often true of the explanations (theories.)

As a communal enterprise, therefore, ethics (which we could describe as the way people behave towards each other) is an inescapable part of science as it is, if not philosophy of science. Integrity in making and reporting o measurements and other observations, indeed, the obligation to report results, as well as maximum possible objectivity in the analysis are straightforward. If these things are not done, science is not done right. Science's relations to technology have been fruitful of material advantages. Simple utilitarian considerations justify making these norms. Less obvious, but still true is the obligation to advance science by fullest use of resources. This includes, trivially, not wasting material resources. Not so trivial is the wastage of human resources. This takes place notably in the de facto exclusion of women and other oppressed groups (the working class and oppressed racial/ethnic/religious parts of the population.)

An even less obvious breach of scientific ethics is importing philosophical errors into scientific work. One of the commonest is the natural scientists' collaboration in denying causality etc. in the social sciences. Natural scientists who are outraged at the covert importation of theism into biology will blithely congratulate themselves for their profound understanding of science in allowing veiled versions of the same in the social sciences.

For instance, natural scientists will join ranks with the evolutionary psychologists because there are experiments, ignoring the seemingly universal highly selective use of evidence in the theories in that field. They will accept the authority of economics couched in mathematical form without troubling to see whether the currently popular economic theories explain very much (if anything) about economic life. They don't have to, they think, because they don't really accept the notion of causality in social science. They have vague notions about overdetermination. Or about the impossibility of reduction of social events to measurable processes or conversely the necessity to reduce social events to psychology (sometimes it seems both at once!)

In practice, many scientific fields make progress by concentrating on the questions that are currently approachable by the technology and concepts at hand. Part of their training is acquiring the habit of refusing to ask certain questions. However curious a paradox this may seem it is often true, particularly of foundational questions. Despite the ultimate necessity of considering these questions, there is much useful work to be done that would simply be distracted by trying futilely to answer these questions prematurely. Although this practice certainly is not required to carried over to other fields, where most scientists are not much better than lay people themselves, it seems to be customary.

This stems from the notion that authority in the sciences is attained by thorough knowledge of the field, as certitified by established success in the collective analysis of the results of one's work. To engage in scientific critique in another field without being prepared is a waste of resources if nothing else. And it tacitly reopens settled questions. Real progress in science leaves certain old ideas permanently refuted, never to return. Opening a field of study to the uninformed critique of outsiders can seem like tacilty denying this simple fact. Obviously there is something to that. In practice, I think, the real difficulty lies in the covert return of anti-materialist notions in one disguised form another. Part of the problem scientists in one field can have with outside criticisms and questions lies in the inability to properly understand the nature of those errors. Probably the majority of scientists adhere to philosophical positions, such as the notion that science is not knowledge about reality, that reneder them impotent to spot errors or refute them easily and quickly.

Unfortunately we have already passed the point where any single individual is going to comprehend all science and show how the various effective theories interweave, where they fail and must be revised and what general priniciples can be elucidated. Therefore scientists must interact with other fields, even those where they are not entirely competent. Most scientists of course concede the need for interdisciplinary study, but that seems in practice to mean a handful of people from different disciplines having seminars. So far, the only philosophical framework that could give such work practical unity is materialism, which is explicitly rejected by (probably) most scientists. No, a natural scientist who thinks that stuff just happens in society has explicitly rejected causality.

Now, what is difficult enough with professional scientists in different fields must be even more difficult with lay people who are apt to be openly irrationalist in every branch of science. Nonetheless, it is generally these other people who pay for the scientific enterprise. There is a starkly utilitarian normativity to transmission of the results of science to those who pay for it. The commonest justification is that it pays off in technology. Commonly enough, it is the technology that makes the science possible, not the other way round. Nor, despite the bland assurance, is it a bit obvious that science somehow causes technological improvements. There's Henry's assistance to telegraphy, Einstein's proposal of the stimulated emission of radiation and I'm already running out of good examples. Perhaps it's just my ignorance. Notoriously genetic research hasn't led to astonishing technological improvements in the treatment of cancer. Further it is very possible to improve technology without doing basic research. Applied research (a distinction Bunge for one explained) is quite enough. The long run importance of science to technology is undeniable I think, but, but, the long run is always postponable for short run considerations! Or, sadly, so will someone always argue. There is no principled argument against this, save that if not now, when? (Murmurs from audience, "Later.")

If you consider that the probable majority of scientists also deny that science leads to knowledge, we see that justification of science is, as the slyly sardonic say, problematic. Further, it seems that most scientists have strong dislike for popularizing science. Certainly every standout popularizer is resented as a publicity hound. The advent of internet blogging is no help: When I criticized Sean Carroll's award to Cosma Shalizi, he posted a set of internet comment rules that made it quite clear that his blogging was really about nothing but what he wished to say. He claimed that questions were welcome but I think not all are. Beyond my personal feelings, one way communication is not actually communication. Selected two-way communication is like deliberately introducing sampling error. The difficulties of incorporating things like blogs into the task of communicating science to the population are surely difficult. But treating the exercise as a means of self-gratification just will not work.

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