Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How Do YOUR Clothes Fit?

I love finding an opportunity to bring a gendered insight to bear, even on another feminist.

I assigned Ron Giere's piece "The Feminism Question in the Philosophy of Science" for one of my classes, and I'm enjoying re-reading it. Giere's central point is that just about any current theory of scientific theories allows for the possibility that influences on theory choice may include cultural background beliefs or individual bias.

This is obvious for post-Kuhnian theories. It's less obvious, but still true, for theories which rely on subjective probability (following Richard Jeffrey) because there are no constraints on how individuals assign initial probabilities to theories, and those initial probabilities may be conditioned by all sorts of beliefs. Likewise, for theorists such as Laudan and Lakatos whose historical theories of theory change impose stricter rationality constraints than those implied by Kuhn, there is still the possibility that one theory has become developed enough to be a serious alternative because of its relation to cultural values.

Giere goes on to build up his position of perspectival realism (which he later developed in his book Scientific Perspectivism). While logical positivists, as well as some contemporary realists, look for theories (in the form of statements) to be true representations of the world, Giere's perspectival realism abandons truth as a criterion for judging theories. Indeed, he rejects linguistic statements as representations for something more in line with scientific practice--it is models, not statements, which are representations. Judgments are made not about the turth of statements but about the degree to which scientific models fit the world.

Giere writes
Unlike truth, fit is a more qualitative relationship, as clothes may be said to fit a person more or less well.
I would point out that, for a typical man (other than David Byrne!), we can often quite easily say that his clothes fit more or less well. But for women, we need to know something else. Namely, we need to know what the fashion is this season.

I have a lovely Irish linen blouse, suitable for only dressy occasions, which I bought in the 1990's. According to the size label it should fit, but I'll have to wait for fashions to cycle around to the roomy end of the scale first.

The point is that judgments of truth cause difficulty for realists precisely because they are bivalent, and so realists reach for "approximate" truth (an idea which, in my opinion, does not fly). Being qualitative, fitness accommodates judgments about the degree of precision which is required for different models in different contexts. Nonetheless, one wouldn't expect fashion to be a factor in making judgments of fitness, though the analogy seems to invite this conclusion.

In the end, I'm not sure that Giere would be troubled by it. I'm not. It does seem to be the case that epistemic values vary from one scientific community and historical moment to another, and that epistemic values are an influence on judgments of which theories (or models) are best. Some communities look for simplicity, others look for breadth--either of these are bound to be considerations in making judgments about whether models fit the world.

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