Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Limits of Science

Philosophy of science in the public domain:
I think Gotliebb is a bit unfair to the skeptics, but still pretty decent stuff.


  1. "If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?"

    That's a puzzle? Hardly. He's suggesting scientists "writ large" aren't skeptical about science - many certainly are.

    Otherwise, decent stuff :)

  2. I think the point is that those scientists that pontificate in public (clearly a largely self-selected group) don't evince much skepticism, especially when the science is offering policy-advice.

  3. The article illustrates just how hard it is to write about the awful howlers of past science without presupposing the truth of current science. For instance:

    "Examples from recent decades of scientific consensus that turned out to be wrong range from the local to the largest possible scale: acid rain was not destroying forests in Germany in the 1980s, as it was said to have been, and the expansion of the universe has not been slowing down, as cosmologists used to think it was."

    Those silly environmentalists and astrophysicists! If only they had the privileged access to the truth we have now!

    Of course, the trouble is that, if one tries to frame the pessimistic induction less vividly and more cautiously -- in terms of current science being incompatible with past science -- it doesn't sound half as pessimistic. It's just stating the obvious. It's only when we emphasize the apparent naivety of past science that the induction becomes pessimistic, but in so doing we presuppose a privileged vantage point.

    One traditional response has been to frame the PI as a reductio of the premise that our current theories are true. But I think it loses a lot of its intuitive pull that way. For starters, it's not an induction any more. We should rename it the "Pessimistic Reductio".

    This leads me to think that Kyle Stanford's "New Induction" was always the right way to frame the PI. For Stanford, the induction concerns the ability of past scientists to conceive of serious alternatives to their current theories. I suspect that this is always what has bothered people about the history of science: not the falsity of the theories, or their incompatibility with current science, but the apparently naive dogmatism of the scientists.

    Have there been any popularizations of Stanford's version yet?

  4. It's worth situating that Belloc quote in its context, both of the poem and the book.

    Skepticism is to be discouraged on the model of the Bad Child's Book of Beasts????? (Okay, it's actually from the less hyperbolicly titled Cautionary Tales for Children)

    Here's the whole final stanza:

    "When Nurse informed his Parents, they
    Were more Concerned than I can say:--
    His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
    Said, ``Well--it gives me no surprise,
    He would not do as he was told!''
    His Father, who was self-controlled,
    Bade all the children round attend
    To James's miserable end,
    And always keep a-hold of Nurse
    For fear of finding something worse."

    I.e., "Don't be a skeptic. Do as you are told!"

    Perhaps a more adult attitude can be found in Shakespeare, where

    "...the dread of something after death,
    The undiscovered country from whose bourne
    No traveller returns, puzzles the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
    And thus the native hue of resolution
    Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action."

    I certainly have no intention of telling my children to see science as their "nurse".

  5. Don't most science popularizers present science as a dogma to be believed because of its alleged omniscience? Does anyone else see this as dangerous?