Saturday, February 24, 2018

Thinking about science upon entering the field: Part I

Below is installment number one in a short series of posts by a current Penn State graduate student in Chemical Ecology, Tristan Cofer.  The thoughts are based on conversations we have been having, and reading he has been doing on these topics.  The idea of the posts is to provide reflections by someone entering the next generation of scientists, and looking at the various issues in understanding, epistemology, and ontology, as they are seen today, by philosophers and in practice:

For the past few weeks now, Ken Weiss and I have been sitting down over coffee to talk about our shared interest in the ‘philosophy of science’. Our conversation started last fall when I met Ken after he lectured in the genomics class that I was taking here at Penn State. I had just finished reading E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology at that time, and I was curious about its legacy in contemporary science. Ken was nice enough to share his thoughts with me on the subject and, after exchanging a few emails, we decided that a reading course on the history and philosophy of this thing called ‘science’ might be useful.

Since then, I have read through several good introductory books, alongside works from Paul Feyerabend, Ludwick Fleck, and others that I suspect many MT readers, and those of you who followed Ken’s Crochets and Quiddities column in Evolutionary Anthropology, may already know well. Of all the readings that Ken has recommended to me so far, perhaps none was more insightful, not to mention downright entertaining, than Paul Feyerabend’s book, Against Method (AM).

Feyerabend was a radical, and he knew it. But like any radical worth his salt, he was also too good to dismiss. In AM, Feyerabend challenges what he sees as our unhealthy fascination with defining an universal, atemporal scientific method. After taking a long, hard look at how science had historically been done, Feyerabend concludes that there is in fact no such thing as one, true, holy, and apostolic way to ‘do science’. Instead, what he finds is that folks tended to use whichever method worked best for them to accomplish whatever it was they were attempting to do. To quote, “…there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes’.

Many have criticized Feyerabend for being too extreme in his proclamation. And while maybe not ‘anything goes’, it seems reasonable to point out here that the standards that we use to decide what counts as science have indeed changed over the years. So then, where does this leave us? One possibility may be that science is not so much a methodology as it is an ideology.

An approximation of this idea was first proposed by Ludwick Fleck in the 1930s in his book, The Genesis and Development of Scientific Fact. Fleck’s thesis was that ideas could only develop in a society if they were styled in such a way that they conformed to the prevailing norms. New ideas that were accepted by what Fleck called the ‘thought collective’, were granted the status of ‘facts’. Ideas that were not, were ignored, dismissed, or outright attacked, often times alongside their creators. Facts became facts not because they were true, but because they were popular. There was no logical structure to the history of scientific knowledge; there was only an idealized average that came about through the interactions of different thought collectives falling in and out of vogue across time.

Fleck’s ideas were largely reiterated some thirty years later by Thomas Kuhn in his now famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Here, Kuhn uses the term ‘paradigms’ rather than ‘thought collectives’ to describe the conceptual framework on which scientific discoveries are made. In contrast to Fleck, Kuhn focuses less on the vague accumulation of scientific knowledge over time, proposing instead that paradigms ‘shift’ at distinct points in their history, thus giving way to previously unconceivable new ways of thinking.

Several questions came to mind after reading the various works mentioned above: How do we decide who gets to participate in science? Can we anticipate a Kuhnian paradigm shift, or is it really only observable after the fact? What credentials are required for membership into a thought collective and how are they awarded? Is there an initiation? Maybe a password or a secret handshake? I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.

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