Saturday, 11 June 2011

Good advice?

In the above clip, the behavioural  psychologist B F Skinner describes an important aspect of language - that of giving advice or passing on directions or instructions. This is something animals can't do, this use of language to pass on advice or directions so that everyone doesn't personally have to examine all the alternatives. Advice obviously applies to a vast range of everyday situations, but I want to concentrate on one.

About halfway through the clip, Skinner notes in passing that in his view, governmental and scientific laws are of this nature. They are forms of direction, instruction or advice designed to shape behaviour. In the case of government laws the consequence of not following legal instructions, or laws as we call them, will usually be some form of punishment. But what about scientific laws? Are we to accept that scientific laws are merely forms of advice?

As a scientist I'm quite happy with the idea that science is nothing more than a way of disseminating advice about the material world. If nothing else, it avoids the high-flown fantasies. Scientific laws are advisory statements about the material world and that's all. Why embark on a futile attempt to dig deeper? It doesn't work anyway, because we always reach a point where the spade turns as Wittgenstein said. In science we advise others on what we did, why we did it and what we found so they may do and find the same.

It's why we don't have to be scientists before we accept or reject scientific advice. There are always other criteria to take into consideration. To claim that scientific laws are 'true' is to claim they are good advice about an aspect of the material world, but that's all. 'True' merely means 'worth taking note of'. Even so, we may have perfectly good reasons to ignore what is being claimed on behalf of scientific 'truth', or we may take it with a pinch of forbidden salt, but that's another story.


James Higham said...

I can't see that Skinner and Chomsky can't both be right on language. I know it's been presented as a conflict but to me, it's two perspectives of different parts of the same process.

In science in general, there do appear to be absolutes, in the context of our ability to observe [i.e. our observational equipment] and that's as far as we can go.

It's as far as we need to go because it serves us well by and large.

A K Haart said...

I go with Skinner - I think his view of human behaviour has a better empirical basis.