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What is science? I’d rather not say, thank you

June 22, 2013

This blog is mostly about remembering things I’ve read or figured out. For example, this post is just a collection of philosophy of science I’ve been reading/watching lately.

It seems important to be able to distinguish science from non-science (e.g. should creationism be taught in schools?). I like Susan Haack‘s take on this, which is that its more important to distinguish serious and honest thinking from partisan and dishonest thinking. Rather than just saying, well creation science is actually just pseudoscience, Haack would rather people point out specifically what is wrong with creation science. She talks about Popper trying to demarcate science and non-science by emphasizing falsification. Her take is that, well he’s right that honest self-criticism is the mark of good science, but its also the mark of any serious and honest thinking. There are plenty of scientists who don’t honestly self-criticize and there are plenty of non-scientists who do. I like her strategy of defending science, within reason. What is science? Haack would rather not say.

Speaking of Popper, I’ve recently checked out his myth of the framework. In it he criticizes claims that productive discussions are impossible unless the discussants all share the same framework (i.e. share vocabulary/worldview). He claims to the contrary that productive discussions are more likely among people with different frameworks. This reminds me of all the high-fiving that can happen at plenary sessions at evolutionary biology conferences. I really like his point that discussions and debates aren’t for winning…they are for exposing the weaknesses of everyone’s positions. This makes a lot of sense to me. I always really appreciate generosity from those with whom I argue. I’m often criticized as being too passive in person, but I think this is a good thing. I’m not trying to win, I’m trying to figure things out. Not that I can’t slip into trying to win — I’m trying to make a living at research. In fact, in print I often tend to be a little too aggressive that reviewers rightly get annoyed with my unjustified tone of confidence. Note to anyone who reviews my work: trust me, I respect your position and am just trying to push the issue. Totally agree Popper…discussions shouldn’t be about winning — not to say that certain positions can’t bore us sometimes or just be clearly wrong.

The myth of the framework makes me wonder about peer review. We often feel like we are unfairly judged because the reviewer doesn’t ‘get it’ (i.e. they have a different framework). I think Einstein often felt this way, right? The problem here, I think, is that peer review isn’t enough of a conversation. When talking across frameworks you need to be able to respond to questions and make clarifications. But there’s too much of an imbalance of power in peer review. On the other hand, if you get reviewers in your framework, and don’t make any really bad mistakes, then you’ll probably get a good review even if your work isn’t that interesting to others outside of your framework. Just some thoughts…I’ve got no solutions, as is usual with discussions of peer review.

Speaking of talking across disciplines, philosopher Nancy Cartwright has been doing some interesting work on randomized control trials in public health/medicine. Apparently (3:56) she has been having trouble with researchers outside of her field. Still, I really like her point that RCTs *can* be used to discover the causes of things, but that those causes are usually (always?) local. That is, we *can* discover that a particular treatment causes a particular benefit in a particular village, but that stronger assumptions than the usual ones associated with RCTs are necessary for determining if this treatment will also cause the same benefit in another village. Its essentially the extrapolation problem in terms of causation in RCTs. It reminded me of a similar problem with information criteria pointed out by another philosopher.

I really liked Cartwright’s ‘How the Laws of Physics Lie’ when I read it a while ago. A central theme for Cartwright is that scientific knowledge is local. That is, even if there are ‘universal laws’ (a claim that Cartwright isn’t so sure about), we still need a good understanding of the particular place and time in which we try to apply such laws (e.g. sure gravity is a general principle, but if you don’t consider air resistance you’ll miscalculate the rate at which a feather falls to the ground). This is especially true in sciences like economics, public health, and ecology. Cartwright argues that we not only need good general theories, but also good local theories. Local theories are things like an understanding of the culture of a particular village, or the pollution history of a particular ecological study site. This is why I’m generally a supporter of natural history, something I don’t do. Jeremy Fox, for example, agrees but prefers natural history to be something that needs to be done but not written about in our best journals. I don’t quite agree but understand where he’s coming from and still don’t quite understand what rubs me the wrong way.

In any case, I think that creating good local theories is very important, maybe because that’s essentially what my own research concerns. Observational descriptive studies are important because they teach us about the kinds of states that ecosystems, populations, and communities actually find themselves in. I interpret Cartwright as justification for needing both rigorous causal studies (e.g. RCTs, ecological microcosms) and observational descriptive studies (well-parameterized empirical models). These aren’t novel ideas I’m having, but Cartwright brings new excitement to them for me. I like the way Cartwright refers to ‘local theories’ (an example of which I take to be observational statistical modeling) rather than the more pejorative ‘descriptive studies’.

Enough rambling, but I’m glad to get that off my chest.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2013 8:19 pm

    Good one Steve, very good.

  2. June 22, 2013 8:58 pm

    Thanks for enlightening me about the myth of the framework. I didn’t know it, but I find highly productive to discuss “pollination” issues with “bird people”, as we do slightly similar things on very different frameworks. We usually end up cross-pollinating both worlds with the strengths of each approach.

    • June 23, 2013 3:21 am

      Thanks. Re birds and bees: I imagine that framework space is continuous, and that the closer together two frameworks the easier it is to find common ground, but also harder for any big leaps forward to result from the interactions. Maybe birds and bees are near to the optimal distance apart?

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