Wednesday, 30 January 2013

What is science?

The mainstream media view of science seems to be :-

  • Science is what scientists do.
  • What scientists do is science.

 Doesn’t quite work does it? In too many cases, faith in science appears to be just that – faith. Or maybe another case of credentialism?

It may well be impossible to come up with a definition of science which always fits the real world, but credentialism has given us some dire science and shows every sign of delivering lots more. Yet we still have useful principles available to stop the rot, such as positivism.

I first came across positivism in my late teens, via A J Ayer’s book Language Truth and Logic. Ayer’s uncompromising view on meaningful discourse seems extreme to me, but since then I’ve always been a positivist even though it appears to have drifted into a philosophical backwater.

Which is a pity, because positivism provides us with a good working yardstick of what is and isn’t science. Falsifiability associated with Popper has its advantages too, but in many cases we seem to end up with credentialism – verifying credentials rather than physical reality. It is insidious too, because my references to Ayer and Popper could be seen as credentialism.

From Wikipedia :-

Positivism is a philosophy of science based on the view that in the social as well as natural sciences, information derived from sensory experience, logical and mathematical treatments and reports of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authoritative knowledge.

Suppose we replace authoritative with scientific to avoid at least one minefield of fruitless wrangling. If so, then among other advantages, positivism accounts for the basic similarities between science and engineering. Both are based on what works in a testable way in the real world. Both accept the need for new ideas if physical reality blows away the old ones. The similarity is no coincidence.

So why isn’t science as rigorously positivist as engineering?

I think it is because science has expanded as both a business and as a tool of political advocacy. For an early example of science as a business we need look no further than Sigmund Freud and the so-called science of psychoanalysis leading to psychotherapy.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Freudian psychoanalysis, it most certainly became a business which at best aligns itself only weakly with positivism. The id, ego and super-ego are not concepts amenable to physical verification.

Whether or not psychoanalysis was a model for other areas of science to expand beyond positivism I don’t know, but it may well have provided a paradigm of what is possible.

There are many complexities to what we call science, much of down to our excessive reliance on credentialism plus a lack of rigour when it comes to insisting on physical verification. Wouldn’t it be splendid if science journalists had a bash at verification before publication?

However, many scientific enterprises successfully mix positivist science with business science. In other cases, the business pushes the positivist principles to one side. It varies from field to field and even within disciplines.

Physics for example. Multiverse theories and string theories do not sit well with positivism, although they are not businesses either. Unless of course one is cynical enough to count them as entertainment.

For science as a political advocacy tool we have climate change, passive smoking and drugs policies. In these cases, positivism would introduce much needed rigor into the political exigencies. The unsurprising result is that these fields tend to attract scientists who pay more attention to credentials than physical reality.

So it’s a complex picture, but easy enough to see how the sidelining of physical principles such as positivism has led to problems with certain sciences. Unfortunately many people do not understand the rigor of positivism, nor its powerful methodological advantage. Too many scientists are not rigorous positivists.

Are they still scientists?


Demetrius said...

Is political science a contradiction in terms?

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes (: