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What science knows and how it knows it
A defence of rationality and common sense from an Australian mathematician is a must-read as an antidote to post-modernist scepticism.
In What Science knows and how it knows it James Franklin presents us with a defence of reality and common sense against the attempt by post-modernists to dismiss science as just another form of colonial, white male oppression. Irrationalists love to pepper their works with quotation marks around such success terms as “facts” or “proof” as a way of downplaying their value.
A few moments of reflection are sufficient to show that post-modernist scepticism is as dim-witted as the liberation group in Monty Python railing against the Romans: ‘what has science ever done for us? Nuffing!’ ‘Well, there is penicillin, adult stem cell cures, the internet, awareness of the importance of eco-systems and biodiversity, a tripling of the average life span...’ Science is not Voodoo. Science is a systematic practice that leads to knowledge about the world, much of which seems pretty straightforward once it has been pointed out to you. Theses like ‘sex can lead to conception’ or ‘the blood of animals circulates’ were not always known knowns among our ancestors but they can be easily tested and are not about to be falsified.
The rationality of science rests on the validity of induction and thus on probabilities rather than metaphysical certainties. If the sun has risen everyday in the past, and no blackhole is in the vicinity, it’s a safe bet that it will rise again tomorrow too. An analysis of π’s first million decimals reveals randomness.
The inductive certainty that the next million decimals will also be random is a strong one. Induction even applies in the social sciences where human free will is involved – be it rates of suicide or traffic flow – since patterns can be detected and thus predictions made when the underlying causes stay much the same. Science does not provide us with metaphysical certainty, metaphysics does, but the odds can sometimes leave no room for reasonable doubt.
The queen of the sciences is mathematics. Franklin the Mathematics Professor is at pains to show maths reigning not as an aloof monarch but more like Boadicea as head charioteer. Numbers are not Pythagorean idols from a mystic realm nor should they be restricted to some Platonic world of ideas. Maths can be about real things and impact on real things. Formal sciences like Operations Research are as practical as they come.
Are there limits to scientific progress?
Surely there are limits to the advance of science? Scientists are happy to talk about ‘God’ particles, the mind of God and General Universal Theories of Everything. They are not so quick to say that they just don’t know. The 1902 supplement to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was not afraid to conjecture on why the sun is hot at a time when no one actually knew. Even today our poor understanding of the causes for the fluctuation of the climate record has not impeded scientists from making confident announcements about future change. Correlation alone does not prove causation (either way) and there can always be a third underlying factor that explains both phenomena. This happens when one has to infer from natural systems rather than rely upon randomized trials. Does CO2 follow rather than cause the earth’s warming? Does the sun drive the changes? Sceptics deserve to be listened to politely.
Some areas of science are rock solid – atomic structures in chemistry. Others are in flux – the origin of the species in biology. The weak point in Darwinian evolution is that 4 billion years seems too short a time to explain the complexity of life arising from small mutations. There is no ‘bits per generation’ complexity that we can mathematically model to estimate the actual time required. Moreover, if there are punctuated equilibriums then we need an additional theory to explain the jumps. Still, as a competing theory, irreducible complexity seems, well, irreducibly complex. Besides, some of the ‘irreducible’ parts in the development of an organism may be reducible to other functions that had been useful elsewhere – cooptation. The jury is still out but Darwin’s lawyers are pressing a more convincing case.
Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion infamy is a modern day exponent of the ‘science explains everything’ attitude which is, in itself, a philosophical claim. Indeed, to say that science now explains what we used to hold by myth is open to the reverse objection that what science has not been able to yet explain must, therefore, be especially intractable for science to know. Human consciousness can be subject to certain degrees of measurement – knock me on the head and I’ll go batty – but it cannot access raw feels or qualia ie, what it is actually like to be a bat. Professor James Franklin is under no delusions “We cannot believe that what science knows is all there is.” The human sciences populate a separate domain to science per se. They call for verstehen, an ability to imaginatively understand others’ minds in the way they arrived at their decisions.
A sociological study of science is needed
Franklin acknowledges that there is plenty of room for a sociological study of the practices and practitioners of science. Time poor academics who are too busy spruiking for grants do not undertake peer review with the rigour we might expect. Worse still, when a particular group finds it hard to get published by current journals they can always set up their own and then ‘peer review’ each other into publication. Such limitations are not without remedy. As with cases of hacked e-mails from East Anglia University or alleged cloning by South Korean scientists, frauds tend to get flushed out by competing interests: “suspicious competitors, aggrieved postgraduate students, incredulous promotions committees and jilted lovers”.
How well do the sociologists fare when their own practices are subjected to a bit of scientific ‘scrutiny’? In the so-called Sokal hoax, the scientist in question posited the hypothesis that most social “science” was meaningless verbiage. To test the hypothesis he submitted some deliberately jazzed up drivel to the ‘peer reviewed’ post-modernist journal Social Text to see how far it would run. It went all the way, they published it. OK, while that hardly rates as evidence from a double blind random control, no post-modernist has ever been able to deliberately fool a peer-reviewed science magazine.
One criticism I would make about What Science knows and how it knows it is that some of the vignettes he includes need comment. Clifford’s Ethics of Belief argument, that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is not criticised for failing its own requested standards of evidence. Furthermore, Paley’s intelligent design analogies between a watch on the heath and the order of the universe are not subjected to Hume’s critique of analogy nor to Darwin’s discovery of natural selection. We may only infer as much causal power as is needed for the effect and there are many phenomena in nature that chance has fashioned into something quite amazing.
I would also be reticent to ground Franklin’s separation of ethics from science on Hume’s ‘is-ought’ distinction: that no ought can follow from an is. Neo-Aristotelians are comfortable with analysis of what makes for the flourishing of a species, or the recognition of a good exemplar of that species, on the basis of what that species shows itself to be. As agent members of the human species scientists should be ethical in any work they undertake. With these minor caveats, What Science knows and how it knows it, is a must read for undergraduates seeking to combat relativism in their university courses.
Richard Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney
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