Being scientific about science

The historian of science Steven Shapin, currently Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, produces this list of what he terms meta-scientific claims, ‘meta-scientific claims’ being statements about science:

1  There is no such thing as the Scientific Method.

2  Modern science lives only in the day for the day; it resembles much more a stock market speculation than a search for truth about nature.

3  New knowledge is not science until it has been made social.

4  An independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can neither be ascribed  to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.

5  The conceptual basis of physics is a free innovation of the human mind.

6  Scientists do not find order in nature, they put it there.

7  Science does not deserve the reputation is has so widely gained…of being wholly objective.

8  The picture of a scientist as a man with an open mind, someone who weighs the evidence for and against, is alot of baloney.

9  Modern physics is based on some intrinsic acts of faith.

10  The scientific community is tolerant of unsubstantiated just-so stories.

11  At any historical moment, what pass as acceptable scientific explanations have both social determinants and social functions.

The interesting thing about these statements is that Shapin draws them all from eminent practising scientists, some of whom are Nobel prize winners.The only way he has changed the quotations, he observes in  Never Pure: historical studies of science as if it was produced by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture and society, struggling for credibility and authority is to transpose ‘we’ to ‘they’, thus perhaps provoking the anticipation amongst some readers that they were made by some extreme academics opposed to the idea of science. Who makes which claims,  Shapin argues further, clearly makes a difference to how we interpret them.

The other observation Shapin makes is that meta-scientific claims by scientists vary enormously. He happens to have picked out some statements by scientists which sound as though they accord with a particular social constructivist point of view. He could just as easily have chosen others which sound as though they are supporting a more orthodox interpretation of what we might call high science. For example, the physicist Steven Weinberg says: ‘For me as a physicist the laws of nature are real in the same sense as the rocks on the ground.’

So while some scientists claim that there is one scientific method, others disagree. With the claim that there is one scientific method there is disagreement about what that method is. For Einstein science is ‘nothing more than the refinement of every day thinking’, while for Lewis Wolpert the biologist the claim that science equates to every day common sense arises from hostility or ignorance.

Natural scientists, it seems, disagree about how they understand what they are doing as scientists. Nor do they often attend classes on scientific method, as do social scientists. They might learn to use a mass spectrometer, or to use a microscope, but they spend far less time developing a theory about what they are doing. Shapin poses the roguish question as to whether natural science’s tremendous success might be partly due to weakness of its methodological discipline, rather than its strength.

While pointing to the dangers of pulling quotations out of context, Shapin reminds us that we should be more concerned with what scientists do, rather than what they say about what they do. In drawing attention to contradictions in the way that natural scientists make meta-science he is only making the point that scientists are often better practitioners of science than they are philosophers of science. And it is on this last point that his argument turns.

We have, he says, no more justification for believing what scientists say about  science in general than believing what a student of the history of science would say. This is not the same as questioning what they might have to tell us about photosynthesis, for example, where a student of the history of science might be on more shaky ground. what is important, argues Shapin, is to avoid shoddiness of research in whatever form it takes.

It is perfectly possible to point out the discrepancies in meta-scientific statements coming from any source, be they scientists or not, without the accusation being justified than one is being anti-science, Shapin argues. It does not indicate any inconsistency of approach to science to notice that some scientists, sometimes and in certain disciplines  have heated and extended arguments about what they think they are doing. The health of modern science depends upon a broad range of informed citizens taking part in discussions about what we think is going on, and historians and philosophers of science also have a part to play in this, since they take their work as seriously as do natural scientists.

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2 thoughts on “Being scientific about science

  1. W.J. Pels

    Read: Paul Karl Feyerabend (January 13, 1924 – February 11, 1994) was an Austrian-born philosopher of science best known for his work as a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked for three decades (1958–1989). His life was a peripatetic one, as he lived at various times in England, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, and finally Switzerland. His major works include Against Method (published in 1975), Science in a Free Society (published in 1978) and Farewell to Reason (a collection of papers published in 1987). Feyerabend became famous for his purportedly anarchistic view of science and his rejection of the existence of universal methodological rules. He is an influential figure in the philosophy of science, and also in the sociology of scientific knowledge

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  2. Pingback: The Giant’s Shoulders #25: 2nd Anniversary Edition! « The Dispersal of Darwin

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