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We're doing it again! This time we are biking from Petra in Jordan up to Nazareth in Israel, to raise money for the Nazareth Hospital Dialysis Unit. Last year we raised over £50,000 for the Children's Unit! Nazareth is the largest Arab town in Israel; the people are lovely, and the kids are awesome. Nazareth also treats kids in the West Bank of Palestine who have very limited access to healthcare. They need your help! Go to my sponsorship page to find out more and see what you can do! Maybe even join us..? http://justgiving.com/shanenaz

20 October 2011

Philosophy of Science

@John_S_Wilkins (whom I respect a great deal) suggested I may have been shooting my mouth off a bit in abject ignorance in some of my recent Twitter attacks on the discipline of the Philosophy of Science. OK, he was a lot more subtle and polite than I've framed it. I confess - my knowledge of, and irritation at, the field does not stem from an in-depth analysis of what people have actually been writing (apart from reading a load of Popper in my tender years), but from various articles (pro and con) in the popular press, or opinion pieces in journals, or in media interviews etc. I may have been a little hasty.
Don't get me wrong - the way some philosophers like to classify everything into "isms" is really fecking irritating to a scientist or even a visual thinker, and leads to fallacies and boundary errors galore. Also, some people like Stevie Fuller or John McGrath, who pretend to be PhilsOfSci as a front to misrepresent and subtly attack science in the name of theism, give the field a bad name. In my line as a geneticist, it's creationists that I run across most frequently, so I'm perhaps guilty of tarring some very capable and wise thinkers with the same brush I use for outright loons.

Many great philosophers of science ARE or WERE great scientists, and many amazing scientists (Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman for example) have contributed a great deal to how we think about science and the scientific process.
So I have a contrite question: what should I be reading that will mend my view of the Philosophy of Science as the discipline currently stands? Am I focusing on bad apples? Is there such a thing as a good Philosopher of Science who has never been in the lab? Are there good apples? Give me some pointers, folks!

5 comments:

  1. Don't get me wrong - the way some philosophers like to classify everything into "isms" is really fecking irritating

    Isn't that antiismism?

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  2. I think you're confusing two different things. What irritates you (based on our previous discussions) is the post-modernist field of Science Studies, which can be pretty full of itself and clueless as to how science is done in the real world (rather than their hypothetical perfect world). Philosophy of science is more about how we know what we know and what knowledge and the quest for knowledge actually are. A good book in this respect is Pickstone "ways of knowing" (2000 - Manchester University Press). It's a bit of history of science and bit of - what the title implies - how the notion of Knowledge has changed.
    Within the field of Science Studies, a very illuminating - and surprisingly sane and balanced - book, specifically about Evolutionary Biology is Ruse "Mystery of Mysteries" (1999 - Harvard University Press). Ruse asks "Is evolution a social construct?", and reaches the conclusion that no it isn't, but the kind of questions evolutionary biologists ask, and the way they approach them is very much dependent on their personal background. This is a good and valid point, which has been made by some notable evolutionists about themselves (Maynard-Smith, Lewontin), and is also pointed out by Wallace Arthur in his latest book.

    Ariel

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  3. Thanks Ariel - I was hoping you'd pitch in here (btw, I hope you enjoyed our fair isle and had a nice time at the conference. I got good reports about you :-). Yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head here. It's not "Philosophy of Science" per se that I have the problem with. When scientists step back and critically analyse science from the viewpoint of how we can say what we say, and what the limits might be to our understanding, our methodologies, etc - all that is OK. However, I *do* have a problem with outsiders who have never set foot in a lab, who have never had any formal scientific training or experience, who can't speak the *language* of science, making pronouncements from what they perceive as a lofty and objective vantage point about the nature of science and the character of scientists. It's like back-seat drivers, only worse. They not only can't understand the process, they can't communicate meaningfully, and their observations are either trite or off-beam.
    So a rephrasing of the question should perhaps be: "Is Philosophy of Science" best left to scientists rather than sociologists?

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  4. "Is evolution a social construct?", and reaches the conclusion that no it isn't, but the kind of questions evolutionary biologists ask, and the way they approach them is very much dependent on their personal background. This is a good and valid point,

    I happen to think that this is a strength of modern science. It is precisely by asking different kinds of questions and taking different approaches to problems that we generate new insights.

    By encouraging the release data and methodologies, science allows different questions and approached to be undertaken.

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