Monday, 23 September 2013

Why scientists need philosophy

Trainee scientists in their natural habitat
There has been something of an argument raging in the science world. This may seem surprising when we often portray scientists as cold calculating types, but of course there is every bit as much backbiting and antagonism there as in any other competitive discipline. The dispute seems to be between those who think that science has flaws that should be widely understood, and those who think they should be swept under the carpet.

There seem to be three prime points of argument. What science does, whether one can dare to question Richard Dawkins (probably the most heinous of the three in some people's eyes) and whether it is acceptable to equate science with religion.

Before looking at these points in a little more detail, I think it's telling that those who seem to think science is beyond criticism are primarily biologists. I suspect this is because biology has only been a proper science for such a short time. Pre-Darwin, I think few could argue with Rutherford's telling jibe, largely aimed at biologists, that 'all science is either physics or stamp collecting.' For many biologists, science is a fervently believed truth. Physicists have had to live through the traumatic 20th century when most of our best-loved theories (think Newton's laws of motion, for instance) were shown to be wrong or at best inaccurate. For that reason, even though I love relativity as it stands, I accept that it may be necessary to replace it with something better if we are to get a working theory of quantum gravity. Biologists rarely have this perspective.

So, first let's take the biggie. What science does. It might seem obvious that scientists would understand this, but all the evidence is that many don't. When, for instance, Stephen Hawking pronounced there was no more need for philosophy, he was demonstrating his own ignorance of the nature of science, because we need philosophy of science to understand the role. And what is that? Scientists build models that predict outcomes that match what is observed in the world. Over time those models have got better - some, including the modified versions of evolution, are superb. But it is pure ignorance to say that science is about truth or about describing reality. All science can do, and it does it very well (and nothing else will ever do it as well), is produce models which are a good match to the observed outcomes of reality.

As shorthand, scientists tend to speak as if their theories are the truth. It's easily done. I've done it myself when speaking about the big bang, say, because it's too clumsy to do otherwise in a few words. But when writing a book about it, I am careful to emphasize that this is just our best theory at the moment based on the data we have at the moment. It isn't the only theory, it may easily be disproved by new data, but it is the best we have at the moment. And given that it is the best, why would you want to say anything else is 'true'? But equally you have to be aware of what you are doing if you say the big bang is what happened. Because there is no basis for doing that.

The second problem is over Richard Dawkins' approach. Dawkins is a great science writer. I love his science books. But he seems to have no understanding whatsoever of psychology, which means he was an extremely poor Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. Dawkins probably puts more people off science than any fundamentalist religious preacher. He has made so many insulting remarks about people who disagree with him that he inevitably puts people off science before they get a chance to look at the evidence. I am always reminded of a remark Dawkins is alleged to have made to someone before a TV programme about psi phenomena. 'Don't you want to look at the evidence?' he was asked. 'I'm not interested in evidence,' Dawkins is said to have replied.

Which neatly leads me on to the third point about whether science can be equated with religion. It is certainly true that when scientists assert that science is 'the truth' (and quite possibly 'the way and the light') or, like Dawkins, scientists say they are not interested in evidence, then science is opening itself up to the accusation of acting like a religion. And the kind of attack that all too often comes whenever anyone dares to suggest science is fallible just shows how much that 'must not be questioned' part is true.

I think a rational scientific (!) assessment of science must come up with the understanding that it has a lot in common with religion. It has one huge benefit over true religions, in that it has a mechanism for disproving things which (on a good day) it considers more important than the established body of writing, but there are certainly many similarities. After all, science is a belief system. It is by far the best belief system, but all of us, even working scientists, have to take 99.99% of science on trust. We have to believe what other people tell us, because we can't go and check whether or not what they say or write is true. If any biologist does not agree with this, I would ask them how they personally would check to see if the evidence supports the existence of the Higgs boson to the p levels advertised.

Operationally, science is not a religion, but there are many (again, more biologists than from any other discipline) who treat it with religious fervour and who take what might be considered a fundamentalist attitude. Like most religionists don't understand the nature of religion, so these scientific fundmentalists don't understand the nature of science.

What it is important to do is to accept that there are ways that science gets it wrong. It doesn't stop science being wonderful. It doesn't stop science being the only way to get a better understanding of how the world behaves. It doesn't stop science being essential both for expanding pure knowledge and in the way it feeds technology and medicine. But pointing out the flaws is not heresy, it is important for an understanding of science. Those who can't accept this are not being scientific about science. They are pretending things are not the way they are. And people who do that really don't deserve to call them selves scientists.

Image from Wikipedia

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