Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts on Scientific Philosophy

Years ago in How to Sink a Battleship Phillip Johnson laid out the transformation of science from a tool of inquiry to a tool of naturalistic indoctrination.

I enjoyed some of his wry observations, highlighting the example of Richard Dickerson.

Richard Dickerson, a professor of molecular biology at UCLA, provides a good example of how the basis of modern science has been articulated. He states as Rule Number One of scientific investigation, "Let us see how far and to what extent we can explain the behavior of the physical and material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes without invoking the supernatural."

That's a rational project, but there's another sentence that has to be added for the rule to make any sense, and that is, "At some point we'll stop to audit the books and see how far we've gone." For example, if your investment advisor suggests plunging wildly in the corn futures market, then at some point you're going to want to know if you have anything left, or whether you've made any money. If he tells you "Let's just always assume that corn futures go up in value," you know you are giving your money to somebody who has lost touch with reality.

Yet Johnson also observes that not every scientist (perhaps not many scientists) would embrace such a dogmatic position. Speaking of Richard Feynman he wrote.

In his famous 1974 Commencement address at Caltech, Richard Feynman provided an inspiring counter-example of how science ought to be practiced. He began by warning against self- deception, the original sin of science, saying that "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." To avoid self- deception scientists must bend over backwards to report data that cast doubt on their theories. Feynman applied this principle specifically to scientists who talk to the public:

"I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you're talking as a scientist. . . . I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen."

That's such a magnificent statement, I wish it could be set to music. Richard Feynman's kind of science has the virtue of humility at its very core. Honesty and humility.

That is indeed a magnificent statement, and I hope that I have tried to act with the same principle in mind. I do note in real life that I tend to qualify many of my statements, trying to be careful not to go beyond what the evidence is able to support.

No comments: