Science knows and how it knows it

James Franklin presents us with a defence of reality and common sense
against the attempt by post-modernists to dismiss science as just
another form of colonial, white male oppression. Irrationalists love
to pepper their works with quotation marks around such success terms
as “facts” or “proof” as a way of downplaying their value.

few moments of reflection are sufficient to show that post-modernist
scepticism is as dim-witted as the liberation group in Monty Python
railing against the Romans: ‘what has science ever done for us?
Nuffing!’ ‘Well, there is penicillin, adult stem cell cures, the
internet, awareness of the importance of eco-systems and
biodiversity, a tripling of the average life span…’ Science is
not Voodoo. Science is a systematic practice that leads to knowledge
about the world, much of which seems pretty straightforward once it
has been pointed out to you. Theses like ‘sex can lead to
conception’ or ‘the blood of animals circulates’ were not
always known knowns among our ancestors but they can be easily tested
and are not about to be falsified.

rationality of science rests on the validity of induction and thus on
probabilities rather than metaphysical certainties. If the sun has
risen everyday in the past, and no blackhole is in the vicinity, it’s
a safe bet that it will rise again tomorrow too. An analysis of π’s
first million decimals reveals randomness.

inductive certainty that the next million decimals will also be
random is a strong one. Induction even applies in the social sciences
where human free will is involved – be it rates of suicide or
traffic flow – since patterns can
detected and thus predictions made when the underlying causes stay
much the same. Science does not provide us with metaphysical
certainty, metaphysics does, but the odds can sometimes leave no room
for reasonable doubt.

queen of the sciences is mathematics. Franklin the Mathematics
Professor is at pains to show maths reigning not as an aloof monarch
but more like Boadicea as head charioteer. Numbers are not
Pythagorean idols from a mystic realm nor should they be restricted
to some Platonic world of ideas. Maths can be about real things and
impact on real things. Formal sciences like Operations Research are
as practical as they come.

there limits to scientific progress?

there are limits to the advance of science? Scientists are happy to
talk about ‘God’ particles, the mind of God and General Universal
Theories of Everything. They are not so quick to say that they just
don’t know. The 1902 supplement to the ninth edition of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica was not afraid to conjecture on why the sun
is hot at a time when no one actually knew. Even today our poor
understanding of the causes for the fluctuation of the climate record
has not impeded scientists from making confident announcements about
future change. Correlation alone does not prove causation (either
way) and there can always be a third underlying factor that explains
both phenomena. This happens when one has to infer from natural
systems rather than rely upon randomized trials. Does CO2
follow rather than cause the earth’s warming? Does the sun drive
the changes? Sceptics deserve to be listened to politely.

areas of science are rock solid – atomic structures in chemistry.
Others are in flux – the origin of the species in biology. The weak
point in Darwinian evolution is that 4 billion years seems too short
a time to explain the complexity of life arising from small
mutations. There is no ‘bits per generation’ complexity that we
can mathematically model to estimate the actual time required.
Moreover, if there are punctuated equilibriums then we need an
additional theory to explain the jumps. Still, as a competing theory,
irreducible complexity seems, well, irreducibly complex. Besides,
some of the ‘irreducible’ parts in the development of an organism
may be reducible to other functions that had been useful elsewhere –
cooptation. The jury is still out but Darwin’s lawyers are pressing
a more convincing case.

Dawkins of
The God Delusion

infamy is a modern day exponent of the ‘science explains
everything’ attitude which is, in itself, a philosophical claim.
Indeed, to say that science now explains what we used to hold by myth
is open to the reverse objection that what science has not been able
to yet explain must, therefore, be especially intractable for science
to know. Human consciousness can be subject to certain degrees of
measurement – knock me on the head and I’ll go batty – but it
cannot access raw feels or qualia
ie, what it is actually like to be a bat. Professor James Franklin is
under no delusions “We cannot believe that what science knows is
all there is.” The human sciences populate a separate domain to
science per se. They call for verstehen,
an ability to imaginatively understand others’ minds in the way
they arrived at their decisions.

sociological study of science is needed

acknowledges that there is plenty of room for a sociological study of
the practices and practitioners of science. Time poor academics who
are too busy spruiking for grants do not undertake peer review with
the rigour we might expect. Worse still, when a particular group
finds it hard to get published by current journals they can always
set up their own and then ‘peer review’ each other into
publication. Such limitations are not without remedy. As with cases
of hacked e-mails from East Anglia University or alleged cloning by
South Korean scientists, frauds tend to get flushed out by competing
interests: “suspicious competitors, aggrieved postgraduate
students, incredulous promotions committees and jilted lovers”.

well do the sociologists fare when their own practices are subjected
to a bit of scientific ‘scrutiny’? In the so-called Sokal hoax,
the scientist in question posited the hypothesis that most social
“science” was meaningless verbiage. To test the hypothesis he
submitted some deliberately jazzed up drivel to the ‘peer reviewed’
post-modernist journal Social
to see how far it would run. It went all the way, they published it.
OK, while that hardly rates as evidence from a double blind random
control, no post-modernist has ever been able to deliberately fool a
peer-reviewed science magazine.

criticism I would make about What
Science knows and how it knows it

is that some of the vignettes he includes need comment. Clifford’s
Ethics of Belief argument, that “it is wrong always, everywhere,
and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is
not criticised for failing its own requested standards of evidence.
Furthermore, Paley’s intelligent design analogies between a watch
on the heath and the order of the universe are not subjected to
Hume’s critique of analogy nor to Darwin’s discovery of natural
selection. We may only infer as much causal power as is needed for
the effect and there are many phenomena in nature that chance has
fashioned into something quite amazing.

would also be reticent to ground Franklin’s separation of ethics
from science on Hume’s ‘is-ought’ distinction: that no ought
can follow from an is.
Neo-Aristotelians are comfortable with analysis of what makes for the
flourishing of a species, or the recognition of a good exemplar of
that species, on the basis of what that species shows itself to be.
As agent members of the human species scientists should be ethical in
any work they undertake. With these minor caveats, What
Science knows and how it knows it,
is a must read for undergraduates seeking to combat relativism in
their university courses.

Umbers teaches philosophy in Sydney