Friday, March 19, 2010

Philosophy of Science? Get Over It!

Jon Butterworth of high-energy physics addresses philosopher of science Nick Maxwell in the pages of the Guardian:
"Come on philosophers of science: you must do better than this!"

The play:
Act I--Writer and political activist George Monbiot, in his Guardian column, contemplates why so many people are so slow to believe in and act on climate change, despite the massive amounts of data that have been available for years.
"The trouble with trusting complex science: There is no simple way to battle public hostility to climate change research. As the psychologists show, facts barely sway us anyway."
Act II--Philosopher of science Nick Maxwell interprets the problem that Monbiot is getting at as being that we can't trust scientists about climate change data because they deceive us even about the nature of what they're up to.
"Scientists should stop deceiving us: In holding that the aim of science is truth alone, they misrepresent its real aims."
Act III--Particle physicist Jon Butterworth calls Maxwell out with "Come on, philosophers of science, you must do better than this."

I have to say, I really do like Butterworth's piece, from its start:

I strive to retain respect for philosophy and philosophers, really I do. Some of my best friends are philosophers. I would hate to dismiss a whole area of intellectual endeavour as a sterile playground for clever people creating and demolishing pointless academic fashions.

To its finish:

Science often falls short of its ideals, and the climate debate has exposed some shortcomings. Science is done by people, who need grants, who have professional rivalries, limited time, and passionately held beliefs. All these things can prevent us from finding out what works. This is why the empiricism and pragmatism of science are vital, and why when scientific results affect us all, and speak against powerful political and financial interests, the openness and rigour of the process become ever more important.

All three of these have something right--and righteous--to say.
  1. Monbiot is here repeating a thought that gets passed around from scientist to philosopher to political activist like a lucky coin. Namely, the science of climate change has been certain enough for a decade to justify strong political action. What has been needed is not more science (not that more science hasn't been worth doing!), but rather, more insight into motivating people and politicians and economic systems to do the compassionate and rational thing. If the problem is that anxiety causes selective disbelief, then only treating the anxiety will lead to rational action.
  2. So I'm not sure why Nick Maxwell takes this as an opening to point out that there is a distinct difference between how science actually operates and the popular mythology of scientific method. Perhaps his idea is that if folks saw science as being driven by values but nonetheless a rational and trustworthy enterprise, then seeing a relation between scientists' results and their values wouldn't lead to distrust. Surely Maxwell is right that values do play a role in science--and thank goodness for that, because it is the guidance of social values that leads scientists to investigate questions like whether climate conditions could make life hard on many people rather than questions like how many grains of sand there are on the beach at Cape Cod.
  3. At any rate, it's clear that there are times to do philosophy of science and other times to fight the fight. Butterworth is right: "Science is a form of systemized pragmatism." The irony here is that one need not disagree with the general thrust of Maxwell's argument to agree with Butterworth that the point misses the point. This is certainly not the only time I've seen philosophers of science think that scientists have failed to examine their own assumptions and methodologies.

1 comment:

Noumena said...

I think the key to interpreting the Maxwell piece is to notice the contrast between the ideal or myth of value-free science, mentioned in the third paragraph, and the essential role values actually play, mentioned in the fifth paragraph. Plus the context of climategate. Most of the members of my girlfriend's family are conservative, and skeptical about AGW, though none of them are scientists in any way. (That's neither criticism nor praise, just some relevant facts.) While we were visiting for Thanksgiving, climategate broke, and I think their reaction was pretty typical: thinking good science is non-political and value-free, and seeing in climategate evidence that climate science is both political and not value-free, they concluded that climate science is bad science. The reasoning is valid; it just involves a false yet widespread premise.

Then, I take it, Maxwell claims that scientists themselves are responsible for this false premise being so widely held. Following Butterworth (although he says exactly the opposite -- viz., that this premise is actually true) you appear to suggest that now is not the time for philosophers of science to challenge that false premise and promulgate an alternative, more accurate premise.

I disagree with both of those points. Scientists may have promulgated that false premise, but, I think, as public intellectuals, in roles much more like philosophers of science than bench researchers. (The role, for example, that Butterworth is playing.) And that suggests that the people best suited to publicly challenging and replacing the false ideal of value-free science are philosophers of science. My biggest problem with Maxwell's piece, then, is that it was far too short to communicate even a minimal alternative.