Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Review: A Tale of Seven Scientists and a New Philosophy of Science

I feel like I'm coming late into a discussion already well underway by reading this book, and it's a fascinating subject. How does science work? Here Eric Scerri asks that question in the context of how the periodic table was built (one of his specialties). In freshman chemistry, this is taught through the Great Thoughts of a few Great Thinkers: Planck, Bohr, Fermi, etc. But Scerri tells the story of seven other thinkers who thought other thoughts. The Great Thinkers cobbled their own thoughts together from these other seven scientists, who in some cases were wrong in everything but one creative thought, and in other cases weren't even really scientists. In all cases, the seven scientists of the title were more or less forgotten, to the extent that Scerri had trouble even tracking down a photograph of one of them.

Scerri makes a convincing cases for the unique value of the small contributors, and of the creative potential of being wrong. I want to teach the periodic table this way, but it would only be appropriate for advanced students or an in-depth, focused course at the lower division, because you need more bandwidth to be able to follow the wrong turns and almost-there-but-not-quite theories. If there's a way to do it with students in general, I'd like to figure it out, because it's the way it happened.

The larger implications are what's particularly interesting here. Since the discovery of the periodic table worked this way -- smeared out over decades and dozens of thinkers -- what does that say about how science in general works? One thing's for sure, it's not through abrupt Kuhnian paradigm shifts. Scerri points out early that not even Kuhn proposed the absolute kind of paradigm shifts that are given his name in current discussions. Rather, Scerri enlists Kuhn himself to promote science as a more gradual, evolutionary process. Priority conflicts are manifestations of a convergent evolution of ideas. Since convergent evolution is one of my own personal fascinations, I'm only too happy to apply it to scientific knowledge as well (yes, yes, observer bias, I know!).

This is where I start to feel like I'm missing part of the conversation, having not participated in the "Science Wars" that have apparently raged over the past few decades. I'm with Scerri up to the point that he starts talking about truth:

"Similarly, I suggest, scientific theories evolve in order to adapt to the particular times that they exist in, rather than in order to conform to some objective or 'out there' criteria of eternal truth. To the extent that one can speak of theories describing the 'truth' it would have to be that theories provide the best description of the world as it happens to exist at a particular point in time." (p.191)

This gave me cognitive dissonance because it sounds so much like the ending of C.S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, which is the part that gave me the most trouble in that book. Both authors sound awfully close to saying we get the truth we ask for, which is very close to saying truth doesn't matter as much as what we ask for. I'm not able to go there.

"Scientific knowledge is never right or wrong, because it is not proceeding toward an external truth. It is driven from within, essentially by evolutionary forces, which look back to past science." (p.196)

I object. Just because we don't know the future doesn't mean we don't hypothesize about what will happen. Such projection into the future is part of what makes us human. I realize that this hardly ever happens in a pure form, but overall results on science are not completely determined by the past + random walks. Some projection and expectation must be taking place, and isn't that expectation more likely to be fulfilled if it is "right"? Some extrapolation must occur, and that implies that something true is "out there" that is being dis-covered by experiment. Of course, on the next page Scerri states "This is not to say that the world does not constrain our theorizing. ... But ... the scope of our theories is not determined by nature in advance of our inquiring about them." (p.197-8)

This is where is starts to sound like the constraints on evolution, like I talk about at length in A World from Dust and which also overlaps with Terrence Deacon's absential knowledge. The question seems to be whether the constraints are to be identified with the truth, and whether they are loose or tight. (I think "yes they are" and "pretty tight", by the way, both for evolution in biology and of scientific knowledge.)

In the end, this book presents a view of science that I like, and that is engaging to talk about and teach. It feels like some arguments go all the way back to the ancient stoics. Science works in some ways like a living thing. We make a lot of mistakes and think a lot of wrong thoughts on the way to getting to the right ones. We do a disservice to history when we turn a few men (and it's usually men) into the Great Thinkers while ignoring the smaller ideas they built from. Not shoulders of giants, but the shoulders of humanity.

I think the crucial difference may be whether the reality inside our heads corresponds exactly to the reality of outside our heads. I think it does, and so I'm comfortable with a lot of truth claims in a way that Scerri is not. I also have a higher view of language than Scerri does, and wonder if our "pre-linguistic" ideas (p. 210) aren't truly ideas until they are codified and communalized with words, if words play a part in the origins of thought and consciousness.

But I don't know if my beliefs in these two areas had a particular negative role to play in the Science Wars. That wasn't my war. Maybe I'm unknowingly wading in where angels fear to tread even now. Whatever, this is fascinating history and fun to think about, let's ask these questions.

The bottom line is that Scerri says that we should study how science works not through analytic philosophy but through the empirical investigation of how particular scientific theories were made. I am fully behind this bottom-up mode of investigation. It's not just more accurate and less prone to observer bias, it's also more interesting to study real people rather than abstract ideas. In general, this is the way forward, and more studies like this will help us figure out these big philosophical questions that we haven't yet figured out. One's reach must exceed one's grasp, after all.

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