Wednesday, November 16, 2005

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.

18 Comments:

At 5:39 PM, Anonymous Matt Daws said...

Interesting post. My, very limited, understanding of Quine's views is that he views science as large, interconnected web of beliefs, all of which support one another. (See, with usual caviats, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ontological_relativity). This might be quite far from what other people view science as, but surely ID still utterly fails this criterion. One fact which isn't mentioned as much as it should be in such debates is that evolution has clear links to things like geology and cosmology with regards to the age of the universe, the way the Earth has changed over time and so forth. To throw evolution out also requires us to rethink many other areas of science, and I think that Quine would view this as quite wrong.

 
At 3:33 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

When Brown says that the scientific method is not "a clear, well-understood thing", I suspect he means that there is no known general algorithm for getting from a set of data to a scientific conclusion. If that's what he means, then he's right. Intuition does play a role in scientific inferences.

However, I don't agree with Brown when he writes: "The supernatural, by definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it cannot be tested." I don't remember seeing a definition of the word "supernatural" that fits this description. If a god or ghost was constrained by any rules or regularities, would we consider it to be natural, not supernatural? I don't think so.

 
At 2:44 PM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

Richard<

I disagree with

"The supernatural, by definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it cannot be tested." I don't remember seeing a definition of the word "supernatural" that fits this description. If a god or ghost was constrained by any rules or regularities, would we consider it to be natural, not supernatural? I don't think so."

I think this quote could sum it up nicely:

The supernatural remains logically possible, and thus an option for belief, only because it is not susceptible to confirmation or disconfirmation on the basis of evidence. But this status is permanent--the metaphysical status of supernaturalism as at most a logical possibility will never change. To become more than a logical possibility, supernaturalism must be confirmed with unequivocal empirical evidence, and such confirmation would only demonstrate that this newly verified aspect of reality had all along never been supernatural at all, but rather a natural phenomenon which just awaited an appropriate scientific test. – Barbara Forrest

 
At 5:19 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

If we adopt Barbara Forrest's self-serving and deceptive definition of the word "supernatural", then we cannot rule out the possibility that gods and ghosts are "natural". So methodological naturalism is still no basis for ruling gods, ghosts or Intelligent Design out of science.

 
At 11:17 PM, Anonymous fred kontur said...

richard-
I think most scientists would agree that ghosts, gods and ID should not be a priori considered unscientific. They are unscientific because they disagree with well-established scientific theories or because they are untestable. Of course, if scientists should find that, for example, prayer has a measurable effect on future events, or if someone finds that rainbows really do end in pots of gold and leprechauns, then what was previously considered "supernatural" would be incorporated into naturalistic science.

 
At 4:11 AM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

Unfortunately, Fred, many critics of Intelligent Design--including many scientists--do insist that ID should a priori be considered unscientific because it is a "supernatural" explanation.

If critics mean that ID should be rejected because it disagrees with well-established scientific theories or because it is untestable, they should simply say so, and drop the misleading use of terms like "natural" and "supernatural".

 
At 4:48 PM, Anonymous jjramsey said...

The problem with the Barbara Forrest quote is that it defines "natural" and "supernatural" in ways that do not fit with how they are used in practice.

Actually, I can't say that I find anything wrong with Kansas' definition of science. If anything, the problem is that they have no intention of applying it to their curriculum, because if they did, ID wouldn't be a part of it.

 
At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If we adopt Barbara Forrest's self-serving and deceptive definition of the word "supernatural", then we cannot rule out the possibility that gods and ghosts are "natural". "

Well, we can't. If "gods and ghosts" were to be found obeying the laws of nature, even if newly discovered ones, they would by definition be "natural". A phenomenon is only supernatural until we can fit it into a system of natural laws. Once we can accurately describe and predict the behaviour of a phenonenon, then it must be "natural". That's what the word means - subject to the laws of nature. If it permanently resists such classification, either empirically (nothing yet has) or in principle (eg ghosts or the Christian God), then it is supernatural - not subject to the laws of nature. ID places no constraints on the designer, in practice or in principle, so it is a supernatural theory.

Ginger Yellow

 
At 6:19 PM, Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

Once we can accurately describe and predict the behaviour of a phenonenon, then it must be "natural".

This is simply wrong. This presumes that "nature" is simply whatever acts regularly enough to be predictable, which is just not how the term "nature" is used in practice.

 
At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" This presumes that "nature" is simply whatever acts regularly enough to be predictable, which is just not how the term "nature" is used in practice."

That is how it's used in scientific practice. Given that we're talking about a definition of science, I don't see what relevance popular usage has. Besides, what would your definition be? How would it distinguish between a "supernatural" phenomenon behaving regularly and a "natural" phenomenon we haven't explained yet?

Ginger Yellow

 
At 8:26 AM, Anonymous jjramsey said...

"This presumes that "nature" is simply whatever acts regularly enough to be predictable, which is just not how the term "nature" is used in practice."

That is how it's used in scientific practice.


No it isn't. "Nature" is identified with what we think of as the material universe: plants, animals, planets, atoms, quarks, stars, etc., and this is the case regardless of how predictable these things are. The supernatural is what we'd think of as magic, ghosts, angels, demons, fairies, gods, or God. If it were found that some of those things actually existed but were made of the same mundane stuff as what we usually think of as nature, then yes, we probably would end up considering them natural. If, however, it were found that some of those things actually existed but that they weren't made of matter or couldn't be analyzed in a lab, then calling them "natural" would be a stretch.

 
At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're talking gibberish, a result of confusing the popular usage with the scientific. If you want a dictionary definition, here's WordNet: "not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws". If you look in Websters or the OED you'll find a similar definition. We think of the things you list as "magical" because (as we imagine them) they don't obey the laws of nature. Nature is definitely not "mundane" - have you ever done any reading on quantum theory or proteins? Radio waves aren't made of matter, but they're natural. Neutrinos can't be analysed in a lab, but they're natural. We haven't a clue what stuff "dark matter" or indeed "dark energy" is made of, but that doesn't make it supernatural. Demons, if they existed, could be analysed in a lab. They'd still be supernatural if they weren't subject to the laws of nature. Conversely, if they did obey the laws of nature they would be natural.

Ginger Yellow

 
At 8:45 PM, Anonymous J. J. Ramsey said...

You're talking gibberish, a result of confusing the popular usage with the scientific.

"Nature" isn't a term with a rigorous scientific definition in the first place, so that sentence is nonsense. And, yes, in this context I do consider neutrinos, proteins, etc., to be mundane, though they can be fascinating in their own right. I am also well aware that radio waves aren't matter. That's why I used the more vague words "material" and "stuff" rather than "matter" per se, except for the hypothetical example of a supernatural thing being found to not be made of matter, a discovery that would be greeted much differently than the knowledge that radio waves aren't matter, if it were to happen.

Demons, if they existed, could be analysed in a lab. They'd still be supernatural if they weren't subject to the laws of nature. Conversely, if they did obey the laws of nature they would be natural.

And if these demons didn't obey what we now think of as the laws of nature but still acted in regular, predictable ways of their own, would you consider them "natural"? Judging from your previous posts, I'd say that yes, you would. I would say that this is a misuse of the term "natural."

 
At 4:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How would you distinguish mundane "material" from supernatural material, except by determining whether it has predictable properties? If as is likely it turns out that dark matter behaves like nothing else we know, will it be supernatural?

That's why I used the more vague words "material" and "stuff" rather than "matter" per se, except for the hypothetical example of a supernatural thing being found to not be made of matter, a discovery that would be greeted much differently than the knowledge that radio waves aren't matter, if it were to happen.

Why would it be? Humans (including Newton) thought for millennia that light was made of matter, or at the very least had to be carried through a medium. The discovery of its immaterial nature was a profound shock. And the discovery of quantum physics was a textbook example of supernatural behaviour by your definition - simultaneous action at a distance, acting at once like a wave and like a particle, seeming reverse causation. All these things contravened the laws of nature as we knew them then, but because quantum effects had discernable rules of their own, we came to consider them as natural as Newtonian physics.

And if these demons didn't obey what we now think of as the laws of nature but still acted in regular, predictable ways of their own, would you consider them "natural"?

That's my entire point. Genuinely supernatural things (such as the Christian God) are not constrained. You still haven't explained how you could distinguish between something supernatural and something we just haven't discovered yet. This is a fallacy that has operated throughout history, with earthquakes and illnesses assigned supernatural causes. It's rather reminiscent of Arthur C Clarke's comment that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

Ginger Yellow

 
At 8:15 AM, Anonymous jjramsey said...

You still haven't explained how you could distinguish between something supernatural and something we just haven't discovered yet.

In the case of a being like God, the answer is simple: He is not a part of the universe, period, and is supposed to be very much capable of being outside the universe. Such a being is easily described as supernatural because he can be outside just about anything we might think of as nature.

For ghosts and fairies and other "minor" beings that are the stuff of fantasy novels, it's a trickier question. The problem is that "supernatural" is well-defined as something that doesn't obey the laws of nature, but "nature" is not so well-defined. It is whatever we usually think of as being part of the material universe, but there is some level of elasticity in that definition. That said, we have come, however, to ascribe certain kinds of regularities to nature and not others. Say we found a being like a ghost that acted according to certain regularities. If these regularities could be described in terms normally used in describing what we call laws of nature, such as particles, waves, energy (the real kind, not the New Age kind), this would put the beings that had such regularities down to "our level," so to speak, and they probably would be considered a previously undiscovered part of nature. If the regularities were instead describable in terms that fit more with what we think of as magic, i.e. something happens when one says a spirit's "true name," then it probably would still be considered supernatural. Is this still somewhat vague? Of course. That is, however, how the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" would likely shake out in practice if something paranormal were to be discovered.

This is essentially an argument over semantics. What's going on, I think, is that you are assuming that since "supernatural" is defined in terms of not following (certain kinds of) regularities, then "natural" must be defined in terms of following regularities. Because of how language has evolved, however, this is not the case.

 
At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the umpteenth time, you're talking about popular usage. There is a precise scientific definition of these terms, for use in science only, and I've already quoted it. If we're talking about standards for science education, I think we should use the scientific definition. Similarly "nature" is perfectly well defined: it's the observable universe.

"In the case of a being like God, the answer is simple: He is not a part of the universe, period, and is supposed to be very much capable of being outside the universe."

He was in the universe when he was Jesus. Still supernatural, so far as we can tell.

"Say we found a being like a ghost that acted according to certain regularities. If these regularities could be described in terms normally used in describing what we call laws of nature, such as particles, waves, energy (the real kind, not the New Age kind), this would put the beings that had such regularities down to "our level," so to speak, and they probably would be considered a previously undiscovered part of nature. If the regularities were instead describable in terms that fit more with what we think of as magic, i.e. something happens when one says a spirit's "true name," then it probably would still be considered supernatural. Is this still somewhat vague? Of course. That is, however, how the distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" would likely shake out in practice if something paranormal were to be discovered."

In what possible way is "something happens when someone says a spirit's true name" more "magical" than quantum entanglement? Something happens when you say my true name.

 
At 11:01 AM, Anonymous jjramsey said...

For the umpteenth time, you're talking about popular usage. There is a precise scientific definition of these terms, for use in science only, and I've already quoted it.

For the umpteenth time, there is no precise scientific definition of "nature." The common definition is all we have to work with.

 
At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Richard Wein said...

Ginger Yellow wrote: If you want a dictionary definition, here's WordNet: "not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws".
Since that definition defines the word "supernatural" in terms of the words "nature" and "natural", it merely begs the question.

I notice you omitted the second definition of "supernatural" given by WordNet: "(not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws; not physical or material)" (my emphasis)

Since WordNet seems to be your preferred source of defintions, let's see how it defines "natural": "existing in or in conformity with nature or the observable world; neither supernatural nor magical)". Again, nothing here to support your claims, Ginger Yellow.

 

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