Thursday, May 31, 2007

"What is this thing called Science?", by A. F. Chalmers.

There are few books which I find both reinforcing and clarifying my views, but Chalmers has certainly done this. Chalmers is trained as a physicist and uses examples near and dear to my heart given my mechanics specialty in Engineering Science. Historical examples are the framework that is used in an attempt to look at the patterns of science and especially the interaction between science and experiment. In my 25 years of experience with experiment and theory, but especially due to my specialization in scientific/engineering computing where I can rapidly contrive both experiment and theory, the various observations that Chalmers documents are invariably things that I have experienced first hand. Is the problem with the theory or the experiment? Does the theory really match the experiment, or am I merely deluding myself? If my theory predicts a novel experiment, is this really useful? Or is there some conflicting theory which also predicts the novel experiment and is better in general? On and on it goes.

It seems that all of the theories of science mentioned and the reasons for their refutation have all passed through my head before. The effort to systematically sort through the theories, carefully define them and give them names that can be used to communicate between people, however, is extraordinarily useful and something that I haven't seen before. The reading of this book may or may not be useful for science practitioners, but as a framework for discussion about science it is invaluable. The need for a balance between respect of science and skepticism is extremely important to me. Chalmers undoubtedly has a different balance than I do, but overall, the analysis is something nearly identical to what I have been using.

Here are some of the routine science topics that come up and how they would be addressed from this framework:

0) Science is based on Facts + Logical deductions. Usually, only a creationist is suicidal enough to challenge this, but Chalmers trashes this in the first few pages. I doubt that he is a creationist. What we see as facts is affected by our education and upbringing. The tools of logic are insufficient to get any kind of science off the ground. The real situation of science is vastly more complex and chaotic than what we are taught as children in school.
1) Sherlock Holmes: "when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". Sorry, Sherlock (and Dawkins), but this wasn't a paradigm that was even considered for refutation purposes. Induction was a paradigm, but Dawkins version is: sonar uses echo location, radar uses echo location, bats use echo location, therefore bats are designed by evolution. This deserves nothing more than a "huh?".
2) Faith vs. Science. I have argued many times in the past that science without faith is impossible. Don Quixote had more success against the windmills. Now we are treated to Beyesian theory where belief (i.e. faith) is assigned a numerical value between 0 and 1! We have interlocking webs and paradigms with Kuhn where the truth of what we see is based on the truth that others see and we are stuck with faith in the community.
3) Evolution. Chalmers studiously avoids bringing evolution into the discussion. The falsification methods of Popper arose due to the problems of Marxism and astrology. How can these be distinguished from true science? The primary complaint was that both Marxism and astrology were "vague and multifarious". In terms of both "vague" and "multifarious", evolution exceeds both Marxism and astrology! Given the multi-million year time frames needed to conduct macro-evolution experiments, a large portion of the theory is in the category of "unfalsifiable". Dawkins, however, mentions a "falsification" item where two widely separated organisms per evolution theory have a nearly identical gene. Immediately an ad hoc modification is employed where it is assumed that a virus moved the gene from one organism to the other. All of the elements of bad science are exhibited here. Why is it even a candidate for science?
4) Intelligent Design. As with evolution, creation science would fail misreable. ID is a different matter. Chalmers has little to suggest regarding "what new theory should we try?" or "what new experiment should we perform?" or even "what new theory of science should we ponder?". Intelligence is what answers these. We bring together pattern recognition, analogies, induction, logic and experience in an unkown process within our heads and answer these questions. Clearly ID is the paradigm that is above both the scientist and the science philosopher. Given that engineering = science+ID, the notion that ID doesn't exist or isn't real is incomprehensible.
5) Does a theory of science exist? The answer from this book is that there are multiple theories with pros and cons, but no general theory that applies to all science throughout history. Chalmers goes further to note that there may be different scientific methodologies in different disciplines.
6) Galileo. If only fundamentalists could discuss science without hearing about flat earths, stupid church leaders and inquisitions! It is soooo refreshing to have a discussion of Galileo and his conflict with the Aristotelians that doesn't require one year of remedial history instruction for the non-fundamentalists!
7) Complexity. Experiments depend on theories and theories on experiments. This is acknowledged throughout the book. What isn't mentioned is that things are becoming exponentially more complex: Experiments depend on more and more theories and assumptions as well as sub-experiments, while theories also take more and more experiments to be confirmed. Does our confidence remain the same in an era of "big science" where some fusion experiments cost more than $1 billion? There is much more to this which affects are political choices.

In conclusion, I loved this book and would strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to actually think and discuss science rather than ignorantly rant about it. Thanks again to Byron for recommending this.

1 comment:

byron said...

Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the review. It's been a few years since I last read it, but you reminded me of a number of things.