Saturday, August 25, 2012

It’s Science Larry, But Not As You Know It

Real Science is far more precipitous than the test tube precipitating and spring extending view of science cares to admit. 

Biochemist professor Larry Moran often tells us that “Science is way of knowing”. Most philosophically literate people, however, understand the probationary status of all claimed human “knowing”. For this reason I myself would much prefer to opt for the quip: Science is way of reaching an understanding; an understanding that doesn’t necessarily entail authentic knowledge.

But Larry goes much further than just asserting that science is way of knowing; to him there are no other authentic ways of knowing. It is therefore no surprise to see him in this post taking exception to psychologist’s Maria Konnikova’s suggestion that the humanities aren’t science. My view own on Konnikova’s statement is that in a very generalised sense the humanities are science, but they are a far cry from the test tube precipitating and spring extending experiments of the physical sciences, sciences where we deal with relatively simple elemental stuff. In short we are talking here of the difference between hard and soft science. The fact is not all ontologies with which we have to grapple are on an equal level in terms of their amenability to scientific probing. Objects vary on a sliding scale according to their accessibility, repeatability, testability and complexity and this impacts the level of formalism, clarity, equivocality, and rigour with which conclusions can be drawn. In turn this reflects the amount of guess work and imagination that is brought to bear in arriving at an understanding (as opposed to a knowing) of less tractable phenomena. In fact, I suspect that the linear progression of data acquisition is swamped by the exponentiating complexity of some higher level objects (especially in psychology and sociology) and thus it is likely that science, when up against some ontologies, ultimately faces fundamental barriers to progress.

Biochemist Larry Moran may yearn for the level of unequivocation reached in the physical sciences but I think he is out of kilter when it comes to subjects like politics, sociology, history, psychology, and even evolution. Of course, people can refrain from stating anything at all in these domains until they have attained the standard of “proof” that is on a level with the relatively amenable material of the test tube precipitating and spring extending sciences. But given the hardness of the objects dealt with by the soft sciences this is likely to result in very little being said with any rigour; the choice is between saying nothing at all, or taking one's best shot. The fall back situation is the expedient of using the imagination to elaborate upon a paucity of agreed facts. The procedure in the soft sciences is less that of setting up predictive tests than it is retrospectively embedding a consensus of facts into a plausible theoretical framework, a framework that acts as a sense making structure for those facts. Hard predictions are hard to come by and the lack of the impartial arbitrator of reality stepping in to confirm predictions means that in the soft sciences (which includes large tracts of evolutionary theory in my opinion), arriving at a consensus of conclusions is a contentious business: Just what constitutes a “best fit” narrative is not dictated by any clear cut mathematical criterion; we are not simply trying to fit curves to dots.

The other issue some physical scientists are likely to stumble on is the question of testability. It is truism in my opinion that ultimately all claimed knowledge is empirical in the sense that it must meet the challenge of our experiences – see the short article on my side bar entitled “The Ideas-Experience Contention”. I would even go as far as to say that religion is thoroughly empirical in as much as it attempts to make retrospective sense of experience (although one has to admit religion is big on the imagination and small on the consensus facts it tries to integrate into a world view). With post-hoc sense making narratives the “test” of experience exists only in as far as one attempts to evaluate how well these narratives successfully integrate post-hoc experience. Unfortunately the objects this kind of science deals with are complex, and difficult to access and control; therefore experimental testing at will may not be an option. There is one other thing that adds a further complication: “Experience”, so called, often turns out to be the words of other texts and narratives that are set beside the theoretical narrative under test. This means that the divide between theory and experience is in fact blurred. Text is tested against text rather than direct laboratory observations and the upshot is that social reputation, kudos and a gamut of sociological factors figure prominently even in the hard sciences; not good news for Larry!

Using test tube precipitating and spring extending science as the definitive paradigm of scientific epistemology results in a view of science that fails to make sense of science in its broadest meaning, especially as it is practiced in the necessarily informal atmosphere of the humanities. In fact even physical scientists experience some of the ambiguity one finds in the humanities when it comes to evolution, a theoretical structure which posits a complex history of change and shares a boundary with sociology. Except in the most elementary of cases there is seldom a straightforward one-to-one mapping between our experience and our theoretical objects. Leaps of the imagination have to be employed (cautiously and with fear and trembling) in order to make progress. The upshot is that although science can’t, with any surety, claim to be a way of knowing, it can claim to be a way of understanding, and a successful way at that. And yes, I’m prepared to echo something of Larry Moran in saying that science is the only way of understanding, but then my vision of science may be just a little more inclusive than his version of scientific fundamentalism.


Posts that are relevant to the above subject matter can be found here:
1. Homunculus ID as a case study in the difficulties of making prediction with the naturally postdictive science of Intelligent Design:
3. Grappling with Larry Moran's views again here:

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