Thursday, December 4, 2014
What is Science and What Can We Learn From it About Keeping Our Heads on Straight Generally.
Here are three posts trying to make some contribution to philosophy of science and to the public's understanding of it.
The first, What is A Machine? Natural Machines and Origins of Science tries to express something possibly original about the occasions when people have gotten a foothold on the path to a major branch of science. Before the scientific revolution there were, hidden amidst the blooming buzzing confusion of nature, a few "natural machines". Unlike the typical object in nature, they behave with predictable simplicity, although this may not be obvious for a long time -- until certain concepts and technologies aid in their analysis. These include a heavy dense projectile in (parabolic, as it turns out) flight, and the system of the Earth, Sun, moon, and planets (and their moons). Probably, I should say machines and mechanical processes, but I like the idea of a flying rock or cannonball as an ultra-simple machine.
The next essay, Finding Your Invisible Elephant. A Science Requires, and is Shaped by, a Tractable Subject Matter suggests that "scientific method", or other good epistemic processes such as peer review journals and conventions are not enough. Once a discipline, through a fruitful set of techniques, is able to repeatedly find its way to make contact with a coherent set of fundamental facts of nature, only then do the practices of academia give rise to a ratcheting mechanism that can make the diverse efforts of many autonomous individuals and groups converge on better and better understanding of some set of phenomena. This does not work for literary criticism, and its working in many fields of social science, such as sociology of scientific knowledge, is highly dubious.
The third essay, Global Warming and the Controversy: What is Scientific Consensus? Continental Drift as Example focuses on a case study of scientific consensus by a practitioner of the fairly new field of social epistemology, Miriam Solomon in her book Social Empiricism. It concerns the gelling, over several decades, of recognition of the phenomenon of continental drift, or plate tectonics. Many very diverse disciplines had to finally agree that they all had data pointing to the same surprising phenomena before it could legitimately be said that there was a scientific consensus.
Now, this falls short of what the title seems to promise, but is part of a project of trying to take small, sometimes painful steps in that direction.