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Unusual Method

A Conversation with Steve Fuller About the Philosophy of Science


Wednesday, September 4, 2013
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Science is rightly lauded today as an engine of progress and increased knowledge. Knowledge is always a double-edged sword, but I for one feel strongly that more knowledge, rather than less, is unequivocally beneficial — even if we can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge at our fingertips today.

Given the highly important role of science in today’s world it is surprising that not more attention is paid to how science is done, how scientific theories change over time, and how scientific methodologies change over time. These questions are addressed by the philosophy of science and the sociology of science. Unfortunately, key ideas and observations in these fields are too often simply ignored by working scientists.

Tam Hunt

Most scientists have their hands full just keeping up with their field, fundraising, conducting studies, writing, mentoring students, and managing their private lives. So perhaps it’s not surprising that most scientists have little time for outsiders’ opinions on how their field operates or should operate, particularly when the outsiders’ opinions aren’t necessarily aligned with their own views about their field.

As discussed in the interview below, the philosophy or sociology of science, when done well, should be considered as much science as physics or biology, and not relegated to being “just philosophy.” This is the case because the object of empirical study for these fields is the realm of scientific theories and ideas. Where evolutionary biology, for example, studies populations of organisms, the philosophy and sociology of science study populations of ideas.

If we are to be good scientists, it would seem that understanding how one’s profession evolves over time would be helpful! And yet, too often, working scientists know little to nothing about how their professions change over the course of decades, or what theories of scientific change are competing for mind space in those who study the evolution of science itself.

Steve Fuller is one of those people who have spent a lot of time thinking about how science works and how it evolves. Fuller is a sociologist of science at Warwick University in England. He holds the August Comte Chair in Social Epistemology. He’s American by birth but has lived in England for decades and has been corrupted by English spelling habits, as the below responses make plain.

I learned of Fuller’s work in searching for books on contemporary philosophy of science. Fuller is the author of Kuhn vs. Popper: Revolutions in Science, a collection of short essays musing on the differences between these two giants of the philosophy of science, as well as over a dozen other books.

Thomas Kuhn was an American philosopher with a PhD in theoretical physics from Harvard. As a fellow at Harvard, he decided to switch from physics to the philosophy and history of science. Kuhn’s highly influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is still widely read today — even though its main conclusions seem to be denied by most working scientists (see, for example, my recent interview with Lawrence Krauss). Kuhn’s book popularized the term “paradigm shift” and suggested that major changes in theories, which constitute the essential part of a paradigm shift, don’t happen incrementally and entirely logically. Rather, like all human endeavors, much of science is engaged in closed-minded defense of prevailing paradigms and too often ignores contrary evidence. When the evidence becomes too great, however, the prevailing paradigm eventually comes crashing down and a new one is put in place. Then scientists reconstruct the history of their field, in textbooks and their field’s lore, to make it seem as though the transition was natural and incremental. Or so Kuhn argued.

Karl Popper was an Austrian who spent much of his adult life in England. He was also highly influential and is cited widely today for his ideas on “falsification.” For Popper, the gold standard of science is falsification, not verification. No theories can be verified, Popper asserted. They can only be supported or falsified. His most influential book, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, was published in Germany originally in 1934 and only made it into print in English in 1959 — just three years before Kuhn’s Structure.

The essence of the debate between Kuhn and Popper, best described in Kuhn’s 1965 contribution to Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, edited by Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, centers on how science evolves. For Kuhn, falsification may be the gold standard, but it’s not how science really evolves. Rather, it’s a much more organic and messy process.

In Kuhn vs. Popper, Fuller defends Popper’s notion of how science should be done and how it could become a more natural and complete ally to liberal ideas about human progress. Fuller feels that Kuhn has generally won the broad debate between Kuhn’s and Popper’s notions of science and progress, but he wishes that Popper would win, eventually.

Fuller’s book is interesting and controversial. It’s not for a beginner, but I highly recommend it for those who have some background in science or the philosophy of science. I had the pleasure of interviewing Fuller by email from his home in Coventry, England.

Why does the philosophy or sociology of science matter?

If you go into a lab, you’ll see a lot of technically skilled people working on specialised problems and speaking in ways that are far removed from what is encountered in everyday life. Philosophy and sociology provide a set of larger intellectual and cultural contexts for regarding such activities as more than merely the preoccupations of a bunch of nerds. Indeed, the popularisation of such philosophical and sociological judgements gives science the significance it enjoys as a source of knowledge in society.

Why do so few scientists today take philosophy seriously? Many of the great physicists of the 20th century, such as Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, all seemed to take it quite seriously and even contributed their own works in this area. But today you have people like Lawrence Krauss (in his public spat with David Albert at Columbia), Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (in their book The Grand Design) belittling philosophy as unimportant or even “dead.” Why can’t philosophy of science get no respect from scientists?

From the standpoint of philosophers, the situation is ironic, since philosophers of science over the past half-century have celebrated their role as ‘underlabourers’ to scientists, to recall the phrase that John Locke used to describe his relationship to his friend, the ‘master builder’ Isaac Newton. The idea here is that philosophers do not themselves do science but rather a kind of high-minded PR for science by clarifying scientific language so as to prevent misunderstanding and confusion. However, many scientists see such mediation as just so much interference that fails to appreciate the fluidity of scientific thought. But of course, other philosophers — especially those influenced by continental European trends — are all too eager to pounce on recent scientific breakthroughs as harbingers of new metaphysical insights, say, relating to indeterminacy, complexity, or chaos. Scientists find this tendency just as irksome, if not more so.

Do scientists today, say physicists, have a good historical understanding of how their profession operates in terms of paradigm shifts, revolutions, normal science, etc.?

Not at all! Textbook history of science is still taught as a narrative of seamless progress (i.e., whatever happened in the past was aiming for where we are now). My guess is that most philosophers wishfully misread the scientists who welcome their efforts. The welcome is extended in the spirit of a fellow-traveler in a parallel universe, not of someone who might have some standing in defining the future pursuit of science based on knowledge of its past.

Isn’t it the case that philosophy of science could just as well be called the science of science (“science-ology”?) and be just as empirical as any other science because good philosophy of science takes as its domain the evolution of scientific ideas? So where, for example, biology studies populations of organisms, the philosophy of science studies populations of ideas/theories.

You’re right, and the Marxists got there first. The idea of a ‘science of science’ was first promoted by the leading British Marxist scientist of the 20th century, J.D. Bernal, who basically understood the history of science as a cybernetic process that fed back into the current conduct of science. In this spirit, the Soviet Union practiced ‘science of science’ in the very name, which was adapted for America’s more market-friendly sensibility by Eugene Garfield, when he set up the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia, the home of the Science Citation Index. In the golden age of Western history, philosophy, and sociology of science, roughly 1962 to 1982, all the major theoretical and methodological innovations in the conceptual and empirical study of science were laid down. Indeed, the potential policy import of these then-innovative approaches was quite tightly conceived in a way that is generally lacking today.

Do we have a robust empirical philosophy/sociology of science at this point? Or is it still a work in progress?

There’s already more than enough research in the philosophy and sociology of science. In fact, a cynic might say that these fields have become a make-work scheme for humanists and social scientists who don’t mind being used as glorified market researchers for would-be science innovators. What is really needed at this point are more opportunities for public engagement with the implications of all this research, so that people can decide in an informed fashion — ideally with the scientists present — on the future policy for science.

How do we assess/quantify a paradigm shift? Is a textbook survey the best way?

You’d need to compare two textbooks, one ‘before’ and one ‘after’ the purported paradigm shift. For example, the last Newtonian textbooks in physics had Einstein as a footnote to Henri Poincaré, who also came up with a theory of relativity to deal with the sort of problems that concerned Einstein but saw it merely as a correction to Newton, not as the basis for a new way of understanding physical reality.

Why do you think Popper is ultimately right in the long-standing debate between Popper and Kuhn about how science really progresses, as you argue in your book Kuhn vs. Popper?

As I see it, a philosophy of science should show what makes science a distinctive form of knowledge that merits the sort of authority it has enjoyed in modern society. Popper actually addressed this problem directly, which means that he focuses on ‘best practice’ — that is, when science has quite self-consciously moved against established opinion, so as to open up new opportunities for inquiry and expand our understanding of reality. Kuhn, in contrast, tended to stress the aspects of science that make it seem like any other self-organizing, relatively closed knowledge community. Of course, Kuhn may have caught ‘average practice’ in science reasonably well, but if that were all that science is capable of, then it would not merit its high status.

Is the Popper vs. Kuhn debate more about prescriptive (Popper) vs. descriptive (Kuhn) approaches than any other disagreements? That is, wasn’t Popper always more concerned about how science should be done, as opposed to Kuhn, who was more focused on how science was actually done?

As a first approximation, you’re right. However, Kuhn muddied the waters because he was also claiming that science could not survive other than as he has described it, because if science regularly engaged in the questioning of fundamental assumptions that Popper advised, then there would never be sufficient agreement to motivate the nitty-gritty technical puzzle-solving that constitutes everyday ‘normal science’.

How can philosophers and sociologists of science improve how science is done?

Probably the single most effective way is by suggesting avenues of inquiry that the scientific practitioners themselves may have overlooked because they are not sufficiently familiar with the histories of their own fields. If there is one thing that historians, philosophers, and sociologists can agree on is that it is purely contingent that certain theoretical perspectives and lines of research come to dominate over others. The relevant contingencies may be very mundane — e.g., lack of funds and champions, unfortunate political associations, etc. Nevertheless, they have serious longterm intellectual consequences in channeling scientific effort. Here philosophers and sociologists can try to redress the balance by opening up scientists’ minds to these lost opportunities.

How do we reduce the distorting effect of money in science? Is this becoming more of a problem than it has been historically or has it always been a big issue?

Presumably, given the times we live in, we’re talking about the distorting effect of private/corporate money. I suppose public money is not seen as distorting science because an institution like the U.S. National Science Foundation doles out money based on the advice of the relevant scientific peers. However, it’s worth recalling that during the Cold War, there was much concern about public money distorting science, especially when the Pentagon was the biggest single funder of American science. I believe that to deal with this matter sensibly, we need to admit that money starts to become a problem for science funding only when it is both concentrated and unaccountable. Nevertheless, the exact magnitude of the problem needs to be understood in light of history.

Take, say, the Rockefeller Foundation on the private and the Pentagon on the public side. Both invested loads of unaccountable money in science in the 20th century. From the former we got molecular biology, from the latter the information technology revolution. (And yes, lots of other dodgy stuff, too.) However, it is unlikely that they would have come about without the size and shape of their funding. Democratic public bodies would have probably vetoed these things as too risky, wasteful, speculative, etc. So I am inclined to treat all charges of big money ‘distorting science’ as really veiled complaints about the political motives of the funders, something that should be done more straightforwardly without getting into dubious arguments about ‘distorting science’.

You write in your book that “scientists are not taught to be mentally flexible.” While I’m inclined to agree with you, I wager most scientists would strongly disagree with you. What do you mean by this phrase?

Here Kuhn is right. Scientists are trained to think about their research in purely technical terms, that is, by assuming a lot of theoretical and methodological baggage about how new knowledge is to be discovered. It is only when scientists come across major violations of their expectations that they are forced to become more open-minded and start to question those fundamental assumptions. In a sense, the ‘narrowness’ of normal science is one of the signs by which scientists are reassured that they’re doing science.

What do you recommend for the right balance between remaining open to new ideas and new paradigms but not remaining so open that science becomes flaky or “dodgy,” as you Brits might put it?

I suppose my main proposal along these lines is that we should break the Kuhnian spell that leads scientists (and society) to think that science is impossible without deep and widespread agreement over fundamental principles of theory and method. On the contrary, all that should be required for someone to potentially contribute to science is that they know the background of the field to which they would contribute and then present some research that is open to scrutiny by people who claim to be operating in that field — even if the intent is to overturn what most of the field’s practitioners are likely to believe.

Kuhn, interestingly, wrote in his 1965 essay critiquing Popper: “Scientific theories, it must be remembered, attach to nature only here and there.” Kuhn is suggesting with this quote that scientific theories are as much or more about aesthetics and personal intuitions as they are about empirical support. Was Kuhn right on this?

Here I don’t see Kuhn and Popper as so far apart. Both realized that what enables a paradigm or theory to perceive certain aspects of the world very clearly is also what obscures their perception of other aspects. The question is whether we can improve the overall degree of clarity over obscurity over time. Popper was much more sanguine on that point.

Kuhn analogizes in Structure between evolutionary biology and the evolution of ideas. He seems to take the ideas regarding “contingency” and lack of any necessary progress in evolution, championed by Gould, Lewontin, and others, as emblematic of the development of science in his suggestion that science isn’t necessarily going anywhere, isn’t necessarily progressing. Is this a problematic comparison, in your view? I, for one, see much evidence of progress in biological evolution (for example, toward ever greater awareness and consciousness in most animal phyla), and it certainly seems that in the long term we see much progress in science, even if progress in the short and medium term is never assured.

Kuhn is right about seeing his own view of scientific evolution as akin to the purposeless view of evolution that one finds in Neo-Darwinism — it is a progress ‘from’ but not a progress ‘to.’ Nevertheless, whatever we might wish to say about biological evolution, it’s a little odd to think of science as purposeless, given that science is expressly dedicated to arriving at the most comprehensive and accurate understanding of reality. I suppose the most interesting way to think about Kuhn in this context is as forcing people (like myself) who believe in the purposefulness of science to explain why science is not optimally organized for that goal. After all, Kuhn holds that a paradigm-centered science is designed to keep its worldview entrenched as long as possible, that is, until the accumulation of ‘anomalies’ forces a scientific revolution.

What is your response to critics of your book? For example, Rupert Read’s criticism that you present “a cartoon opposition of a fake ‘Popper’ to a fake ‘Kuhn’”?

Kuhn is much more popular than Popper, largely because people have lost their faith in science to redeem humanity. A closed-minded view of science helps to explain scientists’ historic blindness to some of the major consequences of their words and deeds. From this standpoint, Popper looks hopelessly idealistic. In terms of specifically Rupert Read as a critic of my work, it is worth observing that while he is a professional philosopher, he is also a prominent politician in the UK Green Party — perhaps the most sceptical of the established parties when it comes to science.

Last, are you generally optimistic about the ability of modern science to continue to improve the human condition through increased knowledge and new technologies?

Yes, but I say this with open eyes: No pain, no gain. Science makes the most progress by taking the most risks — both in terms of theoretical speculation and experimental design. The outcomes can be glorious or disastrous, and often a little of both. The key thing is not to be deterred. We did not end genetics because of Nazi genocide, and we did not end nuclear energy because of Hiroshima. It’s that sort of steely resolve about humanity’s capacity to respond proportionally to unforeseen circumstances that informs my general optimism about science.

Tam Hunt is trained as a lawyer and biologist and has studied philosophy for decades. He is a renewable energy consultant and lawyer by day, and avid reader by night. He also teaches part-time at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. He lives in Santa Barbara, plays tennis, and strums a guitar occasionally.

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If philosophy of science were really a “science” of science, then, if one were to be a follower of Popper, one would have to show how its claims could be empirically falsifiable. This conversation is too muddled to give any sense of how this would be done.

Fuller’s response to Rupert Read being a critic of his work is ridiculously useless: “while he is a professional philosopher, he is also a prominent politician in the UK Green Party — perhaps the most sceptical of the established parties when it comes to science.” So?

Anyone further interested in a broader view should of course read his work but also check his Wikipedia article, which cites, in addition to Read's criticism, one reviewer as saying that one of his books is "a truly miserable piece of work, crammed with errors scientific, historical, and even theological,” of presenting an "analysis of the intellectual disputes over contemporary ID creationism [that] is almost vacuous," based on “an idiosyncratic interpretation of the history of philosophy” and “a limited grasp of the history of science”; and reviewers of another of his books as finding it to be “an epoch-hopping parade of straw men, incompetent reasoning and outright gibberish… intellectual quackery … that gives philosophy of science a bad name," as "completely wrong and … backed by no sound scholarship whatsoever,” and as showing a “mark of ignorance and historical short-sightedness.” Etc.

pk (anonymous profile)
September 7, 2013 at 9:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

pk, why not address the issues addressed in this article rather than culling the worst critics' statements on matters not even addressed in this interview? Why go ad hominem when we're discussed ideas about the evolution of science? How are Kuhn, Popper, Fuller right/wrong on their ideas about the evolution of science?

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
September 7, 2013 at 11:52 a.m. (Suggest removal)

interesting piece, Tam, am mulling it over. However, Adam Gopnik in this weeks NEW YORKER has an almost parallel piece about the new "neuroskeptics" ["Mindless"] -- reviewing a slew of books taking down the "rule of neuroscience" in so many fields. As a longtime teacher, I've become tired of the "latest" fMRI or other new scientific "process", then the author grandly tells us all about teaching adults or children. It IS a form of hubris and arrogance, and leads into "scientism". All the very best scientists that I know, e.g.some at MSI at UCSB, really are humble and realize their findings add a few grains to our sum of knowledge.
I agree that part of the problem of modern philosophy is that many of them see themselves as doing a kind of "high-minded PR for science". Like Locke's comment about Newton. But it's also changing when we have top scientists like R. Dawkins [The God Delusion] and EO Wilson [Consilience and others] venturing out of their fields of narrow expertise and philosophizing badly. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk annihilates them, and here is a genuine philosopher.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
September 7, 2013 at 2:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Thanks DrDan. I'll check out the article you mentioned. Which piece of Sloterdijk's are you referring to?

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 12:24 p.m. (Suggest removal)

currently working through his 2010 CHANGE YOUR LIFE tome, Eng. translation since the German is way too tough for me. His idea of the acrobat is interesting, as well as the aspect of "secession of the elites" which we see today in the various 1%ers.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 3:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

DrDan: I'm not sure the exact quote but it was something like "French takes thirty days to learn; English takes thirty weeks to learn, but German takes thirty years to learn." -Mark Twain-

billclausen (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 4:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

yeah, very tough; Sloterdijk's book title is a riff on the famous line in Rilke's poem: man muB sich sein Leben aendern.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
September 8, 2013 at 5:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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