Science should be skeptical of science

according to this Economist essay. Excerpt:

If the past is any guide—and what else could be?—plenty of today’s science will be discredited in future. There is no reason to think that today’s practitioners are uniquely immune to the misconceptions, hasty generalisations, fads and hubris that marked most of their predecessors. Although the best ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Darwin, Einstein and others have stood the test of time and taken their place in the permanent corpus of knowledge, error remains inherent in the enterprise of science. This is because interesting theories always go beyond the data that they seek to explain, and because science is made by people.

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3 thoughts on “Science should be skeptical of science

  1. Michael Thomas

    I love Bacon’s four idols:
    Tribe, cave, marketplace, theatre

    Description here: http://www.sirbacon.org/links/4idols.htm

    I often fall prey to the temptation to consider people like Bacon cute and nieve about the world. It makes me think much more carefully about the source of the arrogance of “experts.” I read an essay about Bacon’s interpretation of Machiavelli last night, followed by a total intellectual high.

    Even thought we now know Newton (and Bacon) to be wrong about important things we still must thank him for starting the intellectual cheerleader’s pyramid that we are standing on.

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  2. Sandi

    Kleiner and I were just visiting about the ramifications of the degree to which science has become the dominant and even authoritative voice on all matters in the western world and beyond.

    While science offers valuable insight into the nature of things, I fear that the consequences of science “over-stepping” its bounds will, at some point, be embarrassing, if not devasting.

    A side note: It seems to me that components of the general public have done more to inflate the status of science (employing it as proof of their idea of how the world has to be) than scientists themselves have. Generally speaking scientists are in a primary position to comprehend and many of them openly acknowledge the limitations of the scientific tools and constructs which they employ as they probe nature for definative answers. In other words, all of scientific research is designed to disprove or falsify theories–the inherent assumption is that all their hypotheses might be wrong. Even theories that, for all practical purposes, are assumed to be fact–i.e. the “laws” of thermodynamics–because of their unrelenting reliability/predictability are infinitely suspect. The problems of scientific inquiry become the more serious problems of society when we exchange traditional dogmas for scientific ones as means of spiritual guidance. In such matters one is better served, in my opinion, if they simply think!

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    1. Michael Thomas

      I love this response. I wonder if we could develop a clearer picture though.

      Science, I would argue, is correctly understood as the language of reason. For reason to hold any value we have to imagine some “standpunkt” occupied by an “impartial spectator,” to borrow from Adam Smith. We can judge the progress of astronomy, to again borrow from Smith, from this position. The Ptolemaic system gives way to the Copernican and then to the Newtonian system. Since Smith we have moved again to replace what Newton knew. Explicit in this “progress” is the study of elliptical paths of planets. The whole game can be judged from our place on earth in relation to the reflection of light from these planets.

      What is most interesting about this standpunkt is that it is unoccupied. We submit evidence in a sort of cosmic trial of sorts to convince this impartial spectator of the validity of our understanding. Science recognizes the tentativeness of the evidence. Even in a finite world of sufficient size we recognize the usefulness of approximation to infinity.

      I wonder about the phrase, “simply think” and the extent to which knowledge is intuitive. Certainly the articulation of certain truths is fundamentally tacit in that it cannot be articulated completely. I start to get suspicious however when we think of science as a private language; however, since this would bite many of the critiques that Wittgenstein enumerates.

      To invoke Aristotelean norms, there seems to be a balance between the extremes of intuition as a guide and the colonization of science by pet methodologies.

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