The Times on Kansas
Yesterday's New York Times featured this article about the Kansas School Board's redefinition of the nature of science. Let's consider a few excerpts:
Once it was the left who wanted to redefine science.
In the early 1990's, writers like the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel and the French philosopher Bruno Latour proclaimed “the end of objectivity.” The laws of science were constructed rather than discovered, some academics said; science was just another way of looking at the world, a servant of corporate and military interests. Everybody had a claim on truth.
The right defended the traditional notion of science back then. Now it is the right that is trying to change it.
Of course, it was not “the left” who wanted to redefine science. It was a handful of terribly confused academics in the humanities who wanted to do that. Likewise, today it is not “the right” that wants to do anything. It is a small group of religious zealots who want to redefine science. But unlike the confused professors before them, the religious zealots have managed to obtain considerable political power. That makes them far more worrisome.
The article then describes some of the changes made by the School Board:
The old definition reads in part, “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” The new one calls science “a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”
Later we come to a characteristically insightful comment from Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg:
But many scientists say that characterization is an overstatement of the claims of science. The scientist's job description, said Steven Weinberg, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the University of Texas, is to search for natural explanations, just as a mechanic looks for mechanical reasons why a car won't run.
“This doesn't mean that they commit themselves to the view that this is all there is,” Dr. Weinberg wrote in an e-mail message. “Many scientists (including me) think that this is the case, but other scientists are religious, and believe that what is observed in nature is at least in part a result of God's will.”
Well said. Actually though, the part of the article that really caught my eye comes later:
When pressed for a definition of what they do, many scientists eventually fall back on the notion of falsifiability propounded by the philosopher Karl Popper. A scientific statement, he said, is one that can be proved wrong, like “the sun always rises in the east” or “light in a vacuum travels 186,000 miles a second.” By Popper's rules, a law of science can never be proved; it can only be used to make a prediction that can be tested, with the possibility of being proved wrong.
But the rules get fuzzy in practice. For example, what is the role of intuition in analyzing a foggy set of data points? James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, said in an e-mail message: “It's the widespread belief that so-called scientific method is a clear, well-understood thing. Not so.” It is learned by doing, he added, and for that good examples and teachers are needed.
One thing scientists agree on, though, is that the requirement of testability excludes supernatural explanations. The supernatural, by definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it cannot be tested. “The only claim regularly made by the pro-science side is that supernatural explanations are empty,” Dr. Brown said.
Actually, I think this has it precisely backward. In practice, most of the time it's perfectly clear how to distinguish good science from bad science. It is in theory that it gets hard to draw clear lines.
Of course, the inability of philosophers to devise a clear line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience simply reflects the fact that there is a continuum between the two. Some thing are clearly science, ohers are clearly pseudoscience, and then there are some things in the middle where things are less clear. But the fact is that Popper's ideas about falsification work pretty darn well most of the time.
As for Brown, he's totally wrong about the scientific method being unclear and not well-defined. There is indeed a well-defined scientific method and it's precisely the one we all learned in high school. It's the one where you gather all the relevant data you can, devise a theory for explaining the data, and then conduct further experiments to see if your theory can predict their results. Scientists, after all, seem to know what they're doing when they do their research. If the philosophers have been unable to describe the process to their own satisfaction, then so much the worse for the philosophers.
Alas, this subject is not solely of academic interest. The wishy washiness of certain philosophers of science on this issue has aided the creationist cause. They seize on statements like “There is no clear definition of science” to act like anything goes.
Philospher Michael Ruse famously testified, in the 1982 Arkansas creationism trial, that falsificationism is a major part of distinguishing science from nonscience. In doing so he reflected the views of most practicing scientists, and gave a criterion that works very well in most cases. After the trial he was castigated by fellow philsophers Larry Laudan and Phillip Quinn. Quinn and Laudan argued that Ruse's testimony was too simplistic, and then, with the sort of misapplied cleverness that is the stock in trade of professional philosophers, devised various examples to show that Ruse's criteria didn't always work.
On several occasions I've had creationists throw the rather florid prose of Laudan and Quinn at me to argue that there is no sound basis for declaring that creationism is pseudoscience. But Laudan and Quinn were wrong and Ruse was right. Very vexing.
There are many philosophers of science who are essential reading for anyone interested in evolution. Daniel Dennett, Elliott Sober and Michael Ruse spring to mind. But there are many others who seem to think their job is to create trouble where there isn't any. On this issue, this tendency leads to real harm.