Re: "What is Science" FAQ, draft 2
Sat, 11 Sep 1999 20:38:07 EDT

This was a valuable thread for me. Thank you for staring it -- I came in late; September 9th. I have been a scientist since 1976, MEAS-MS microbiologist. By my anecdotal observations, scientists over this time period in have had little, if any education in their own philosophy.

In a message dated 99-09-09 10:00:57 EDT, you write:

<<To reduced the risk . . . The formal method of doing this is by publishing

articles in peer-reviewed journals.>>

Add: "This still does not guarantee the method, nor the observations, are valid."

<< Observation is the basis of science.>>

No, I do not think so . . .
To keep in line with your thoughts on (Karl Popper's) falsifiability, I don't think you should say "observation" is the _basis_. Observation is a useful tool, even an essential element to invalidate erroneous theories, but is the "basis" for only half of science (inductive/empiricism). It is only a _basis_ to an _empiricist_, not to a rationalist like Karl Popper . . .

You could say: "Science is based on two complementary philosophies of reasoning: empirical/inductive and rational/deductive. The differences are:

<< * Prediction: through the use of mathematical description of

      interactions coupled with the design of experiments intended to
      test predictions.  Predictions are attempts to generalize
      descriptions so that they may be extrapolated to new situations.>>

<< * Explanation: through the use of

peer-review and the demand that

explanations account for all known observations>>

  1. peer review is not a guarantee one can be differentiated from another explanation. 2) NOT accounting for all observations is often the reason the paper is published, to stimulate new explanations or correct errors in old ones. You might want to say:

*Explanation: the significance of an experiment's observations by peer review and the and is used to stimulated further experiments or falsifiable predictions that allow them to be differentiated from

other explanations.>>

<< Q: How does science add to our knowledge?

  1. The branch of philosophy that concerns itself with how we obtain knowledge is called epistemology. One of the concerns of epistemology is determining whether a particular method of obtaining knowledge can obtain certainty>>

No. That is not what any part of epistemology does. In fact if you say that science has lost-out to an "absolutely certain" religious ideology. In fact you say that in your next paragraph:

<< by giving us absolute

assurance of the truth of the knowledge.

Science does not provide such certainty>>

What you can say is:

Epistemology studies the extent and veracity to which knowledge is valid, truthful and helpful.

it would be nescessary to observe everything over all time . . .

necessary to have observed everything over all time to be able to completely describe all knowledge. To the extent that scientific knowledge is incomplete it must remain uncertain. This is true of any program that wants to be scientific.

<< The resulting epistemology of western science is often called

"empirical pragmatism.">>

No. The epistemology of western science not "empirical pragmatism" which is only a recent American invention of the 1950s by John Dewey. His theories were set forth in a number of books, including 'Reconstruction in Philosophy' (1920), 'Experience and Nature' (1925), 'Art as Experience' (1934), and 'Freedom and Culture' (1939). You would be more accurate to say the epistemology of American biological_ science is empirical pragmatism.

Currently, I would vote for "critical rationalism" from works of is Sir Karl Popper (the originator of falsifiability) as the predominant western scientific philosophy.
It is still evolving since his death in 1994. Critical rationalism was modified by William Warrem Bartley, III into "pancritical rationalism" in 1984 (which has NOT taken hold in mainstream science (yet), but I think (hope) it should someday.

  1. Empirical pragmatism is 1950s _American_ science not the whole of western science: for example, even American physicists use deductively based rationalism (not empiricism), so does most continental European science -- originally based on Decartes, Spinosa and Leidnitz and currenty by Popper and Bartley.
  2. Physicists use deductively based rationalism, empiricism; one possible exception: plasma cosmologists opposed to the Big Bang theory. Biologists (I am a micro-biologist) use empirical pragmatism, but that should change if biological laws are even found where deductive reasoning can be used to formulate theories. Right now, I think inductive reasoning is used because biologists have such poorly controlled experimental designs.

(You could say American Biological Science is based on empirical pragmatism, but that would be an insult not a compliment.)

<< This philosophy is grounded in the

understanding that all scientific knowledge is *provisional* knowledge and that any scientific knowledge may be rendered obsolete by a future observation.>>

This is more like Karl Popper's critical rationalism than empirical pragmatism.

<< It recognizes that, in order to

make any progress at all, science must take as given certain assumptions that can not be validated, but that have been very reliable for a long time, and so, will be used until they are invalidated.>>

And, this is the _problem_ with empiricism and why rationalism is in general superior. That's my opinion. Read and decide for yourself:

See, Popper's most significant papers in _Popper Selections_ by David Miller (1994) -- the failure of inductive logic, refutation of empiricism, knowledge without resorting to authority, Subjective vs. objective knowledge, etc. Also: _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_ (1934 and 1959) -- falsifiability, _Conjectures and Refutations_ (1989 5th edition), _Objective Knowledge_ (1979), _Realism and the Aim of Science_ ( 1983), and the (three volumes) _Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery_ (1981-82).

In fact, pancritical rationalism (Bartley, 1984, Retreat to Commitment) has no assumptions needing validation at all. This makes the philosophy more objective and self-consistent than empiricism.

<< * objectivity: [needs a good, short, definition]>>

<< * scientific induction: the belief that a sufficient number of

observations of similarity can be used to generalize,>>

This, induction, is a highly subjective -- non-objective system. Induction is easy to refute as a way to knowledge compared to deduction. Certainly science uses deductive reasoning whenever possible over induction. We should NOT be promoting induction over deduction. I think I would add scientific deduction to this list and add a statement deduction is the preferred reasoning over induction. I took a class on critical reasoning and induction was blasted out of existance, not that is the best thing either. They should be at least complimentary. See my definitions and comments above.

<< * extrapolation: the belief that certain observations that have

been true in the past will remain true in the future.>>

No, wrong. This definition this is more properly for "isotropic universality."

(Do not forget interpolated prediction is accepted as preferable to extrapolated prediction.)

<< Each of these beliefs has served science well, and each is

constantly tested against the known observations.>>

<< Difference between a theory and a fact? >>

I wrote a 5000 word article on this, my "pet peeve" against other scientists. You did a good job on this subject, in fact the whole FAQ is good . . . just add a more few things . . . and you too can be as confusing and long winded as I have been ;-)