Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Idea Of Nature

It surprises me how often people who are not scientists seem to view science as something apart, an area of human knowledge they are not competent to judge. Yet we show much less restraint with the humanities, being happy to wade in and spray our opinions around whatever our level of expertise. At least I am.

Certainly there is an enormous body of factual information and theory in science and that is certainly a barrier to entry. However, we are not necessarily concerned with barriers to entry.

For example, it is often easy enough for anyone to judge scientific work if consequences are part of the public domain. Solar eclipses and the health consequences of smoking for example. Scientific veracity becomes a matter of public record, part of our social history.

A scientific theory not only rests on certain historical facts and is verified or disproved by certain other historical facts; it is itself an historical fact, namely, the fact that someone has propounded or accepted verified or disproved, that theory.
R G Collingwood - The Idea of Nature (1945)

If you ever come across Collingwood’s slim volume in a bookshop it is worth a browse. He takes the reader through an interesting tour of human ideas about the natural world beginning with Greek cosmology. 

To my mind Collingwood makes a good point about the historical nature of science. Once scientists enter the public domain via their predictions, offering health advice, supporting official policy and so on, then the general public may judge their claims on the historical record. Whether the claims are right or wrong may be indeterminate, but that too becomes part of the historical record.

So today, when the Royal Society claims certain climate events will occur by 2090, then from Collingwood’s perspective the claim is not necessarily scientific. It depends on the history of similar predictions, on what the historical record says about their success or failure.

Has the Royal Society made similar long-term climate predictions which proved prescient? Obviously not, the RS has no track record whatever in this area. Neither has anyone else. So from Collingwood's perspective the Royal Society isn't being scientific, but something else. 

Nobody needs a scientific background to see it.


Sam Vega said...

Interesting that the prediction is about 2090, when most of us who are currently able to understand it will be long dead. Presumably, if a trend is discerned, then they would be able to make a falsifiable prediction for (say) 2024. This shouldn't be too difficult. Admittedly, the trends will not be as advanced; but on the other hand, there will be fewer unknown emergent variables to complicate matters.

"We reckon the following things will happen by 2014. If they don't, then you'll hear no more from us at the RS on this particular topic".

graham wood said...

What have ANY predictions of the future to do with science?
Strictly, science can only examine and test the present not the past or the future.
The definition of ‘science’ has haunted philosophers of science in the 20th century. The approach of Bacon, who is considered the founder of the scientific method, was pretty straightforward:

observation → induction → hypothesis → test hypothesis by experiment → proof/disproof → knowledge.

Modern scientists seem more and to be in the prediction stakes, especially the 'warmists' pseudo scientists.
How do they know that "in future we must expect more extreme weather patterns.. hurricanes, floods" & etc.
Their crystal ball gazing is so no better than anyone else's - except that they have the arrogance to make their solemn predictions in the name of science.
Bah, humbug!

James Higham said...

It also depends on agenda and that's political history.

Demetrius said...

According to stuff I recall from the late 1940's we were all supposed to be flitting about in our own flying devices and living and eating totally detached from nature and its inconveniences.

A K Haart said...

Sam - I don't think the RS is interested in falsifiable predictions. However there may be some interest in shifting the focus to weather where there is more scope for obfuscation.

Graham - bah humbug indeed. When predictions are located beyond retirement age then one is entitled to be suspicious. When located beyond the grave...

James - yes it's just an agenda. Those who pay the piper.

Demetrius - I think the RS is totally detached from nature already. It's a state of mind, but we were never told that.