Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

Philosophy Puts Brakes on Simplistic Science
CEH ^ | October 5, 2009

Posted on 10/06/2009 8:38:25 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts

Oct 5, 2009 — Three stories touching on philosophy of science were reported recently.  They show that simplistic ideas, and even terms deployed, can be misleading.  That’s why philosophers still have a role in curbing the pretensions of scientists, and clarifying scientific issues and terms lest policy-makers and the public get wrong ideas.

  1. Are all invasive species bad?:  We are taught to think that “alien” animals or plants introduced into another country pose a threat.  Often they do, but Mark Davis at New Scientist reminded readers that the honeybee was introduced into the Americas.  He said, “you may be surprised to learn that only a few per cent of introduced species are harmful.”  The really bad cases, like the brown tree snake in Guam that killed off most native birds, and the rabbit in Australia, tend to make the most news and noise, but “many people cling to the idea that non-native species are uniformly undesirable,” he said.  The “paradigm” of “invasive species” is changing: 
    Scientific disciplines are often guided at their outset by a few simple ideas.  However, as the field matures, participants typically recognise the complexity of their subject and the need for a more nuanced approach.  This is what is happening in invasion biology.

    Philosophers, social scientists and some invasion biologists have challenged the choice of language used to describe non-native species and have argued that conclusions about them sometimes rest more on prejudice than science.  Others have criticised the preference for native species as scientifically unsound, arguing that invasive species do not represent a separate category, evolutionarily, biogeographically or ecologically.  Others have pointed out flaws in the claim that non-native species are the second-greatest extinction threat after habitiat [sic] destruction.  In fact, with the exception of insular environments such as islands and lakes, there are very few examples of extinctions being caused by non-native species.

    Davis was quick to point out that these ideas do not minimize the need to carefully monitor invasive species.  “Make no mistake,” he clarified; “some introduced species have caused great harm.”  If a snake on a plane made it to Hawaii, for instance, many native birds would be severely threatened.  To Davis, though, this does not justify “message enhancement” (exaggeration) as a scare tactic.  Calling species “alien” or “invasive” or “exotic” fails to recognize the global nature of the ecology.  “As long as the harm is real,” he said, “it should not be necessary for us to overgeneralise, exaggerate, use incendiary language or misrepresent data in order to attract attention.”

  2. Do stem cells exist?  Amateur philosophers of science may perk up at a story in Science Daily that asked, “Is ‘stem cell’ concept holding back biology?”  The problem, according to Arthur Lander publishing in BioMed Central, is that “after 45 years, we are unable to place the notion of ‘stemness’ on a purely molecular footing.”  It doesn’t mean scientists can’t or won’t, “But it does give one cause to wonder whether something we are doing needs to change, either in the question we are asking or the way we are approaching it.”

    Perhaps “stemness” is a property of biological systems, not individual cells, Lander suggested.  Surprisingly, he referred to the standard philosophical story about phlogiston as an example of how scientific concepts can mislead research.  Don’t tell this story to California voters.  The bankrupt government is still wondering where to get the $3 billion voters approved for stem cell research after a hyped initiative promised all kinds of miracle cures.  The upside of phlogiston theory is that it did eventually lead scientists to a correct understanding of oxygen.  Maybe a systems approach to stemness “will continue to light the path toward understanding,” Lander hoped.

  3. Is there a scientific method?:  Gary J. Nabel of NIH wrote a Perspective piece called “The Coordinates of Truth” in Science.1 
    The scientific method has driven conceptual inquiry for centuries and still forms the basis of scientific investigation.  Yet, the hypothesis-based research paradigm itself has received scant attention recently.  Here, I propose an alternative model for this paradigm, based on decision, information, and game theory.  Analysis of biomedical research efforts with this model may provide a framework for predicting their likely contributions to knowledge, assessing their impact on human health, and managing research priorities.
    But what is the scientific method?
    The scientific method provides a rationale upon which scientific principles are developed, tested, and validated or rejected.  For any natural phenomenon, there is a fundamental solution or truth that explains its basis.  This solution exists in nature, regardless of whether the observer formulates the best hypothesis to explain it.  It may thus be viewed as a set of coordinates in a multidimensional space: the coordinates of truth (see the first figure, panel A).  By proposing hypotheses and testing their statistical validity, the hypothesis-driven experiment allows testing and validation of a scientific principle.
    Nabel seems to be helping himself to the correspondence theory of truth and to the concept of truth itself.  He also seems to suggest that all scientists and philosophers are in agreement about the scientific method.  He did mention the “paradigm shift” terminology of Thomas Kuhn and talked about anomalies and falsification, but the tone of his article was progressive – as if following the scientific method necessarily guides science to the truth.

    Nabel contrasted hypothesis generation with hypothesis testing.  “Hypothesis generation can create an organized body of knowledge from which insight can emerge,” he said.  This seems to confuse data with knowledge and interpretation with insight.  He gave examples such as the Human Genome Project and the CERN Large Hadron Collider.  Such projects are not testing a hypothesis so much as gathering data from which hypotheses can be generated.  The other approach is to start with a hypothesis and run experiments to test it.  He suggested both approaches are valid in science but need to be balanced against each other.  It may be surprising to readers that the “scientific method” does not factor much in peer review or funding decisions:

    These considerations have implications for scientific funding.  For example, the investigator-initiated grants at the National Institutes of Health allow investigators to propose and test any hypothesis as long as the rationale is justified to a set of peers.  The process begins with the vision of the individual scientist and ends with a judgment of its scientific merit.  Recently, changes have been proposed for rating these proposals, stressing their impact, but the evaluation remains largely subjective.  The meaning of “impact” is ill defined, and there is no systematic way to assign value.  In this and many other systems for awarding grants, the scientific community does not take full advantage of the scientific method to prioritize its research portfolio.  For example, formal evaluation of hypotheses is not an inherent part of the review.  Also, there have been few criteria by which to judge and prioritize grants for hypothesis-generating research.
    Subjective human opinion, therefore, plays a big role in what is valued in science.  “The value of hypothesis-generating efforts should be analyzed critically for the pertinence of the methodology to the question, the overall significance of the problem, and the likelihood of generating a viable and high-impact hypothesis,” he said.  But if each of those criteria are all subjective, whose pet project ends up with the money?  Nabel did not get down to answering that question.  He just ended optimistically, “A modern and rigorous view of the hypothesis-driven research paradigm can similarly help to consolidate a foundation that fundamentally transforms biology and medicine.”  It would seem this article begs more questions than it answers.

1.  Gary J. Nabel, “Philosophy of Science: The Coordinates of Truth,” Science, 2 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5949, pp. 53-54, DOI: 10.1126/science.1177637.
Everyone does philosophy, but not everyone does it well.  So said Greg Bahnsen, a Christian philosopher of science and theologian.  Even saying “I don’t have a philosophy” is a statement of philosophy.  Scientists are often better at exposing flaws in others’ research than in thinking consistently and logically themselves.  That’s why philosophers of science, who ask the questions that scientists don’t ask, and who strive for clarity and consistency, are often considered gadflies and troublemakers by the science department.  When billions of dollars of research funds are at stake, though, the importance of clarifying the terms, values, and logical coherence of scientific claims must be examined critically.  With limited resources it also becomes important to identify which scientific questions are worth investigating.

One of the best skills you can develop to see through the pretensions of triumphalist science is the ability to detect question-begging arguments.  “Begging the question” is the logical fallacy of arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise.  An example would be claiming evolution is a fact because the Origin of Species says so, or claiming materialism is true because scientists only work with particles and forces.  It amounts to “helping oneself” to concepts without paying the price.  Gary Nabel talked about the “coordinates of truth” in his article without defining truth.  Moreover, he assumed that truth is “out there” in the world, and that we can “discover” it by the “scientific method.”  That begs all kinds of questions.  If he were among a group of Christians, he could probably get away with it.  Materialists, though, would be hard pressed to explain these concepts emerging from fundamental particles and forces.  Postmodernists, also, would be quick to ask, “whose truth?”  Because most readers of Science are positivists or scientific realists, who believe the public should fund their projects, he can probably get away with his simplistic views in that forum.  He would face a barrage of questions in the philosophy, theology and political science departments.

The stem-cell and invasive-species articles remind us that simplistic answers to complex questions can be misleading.  Take the current political hubbub about human-caused global warming.  Much of the discussion revolves around “average global temperature.”  Is there such a thing?  How would you go about measuring it?  At every point on earth, temperatures fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day, year to year, decade to decade.  Do we measure temperature at the south pole, or Death Valley, or Rio de Janeiro?  OK, you say, we take thousands of measurements all over the globe.  But humans cannot possibly have thermometers at every point on the earth’s surface.  Selection effects loom large in the discussion.  How many points are enough?  Are some points given more weight than others?  Do we take the measurements at ground level, or at 10 feet or 100 feet off the ground?  Do we use the arithmetic average, or the median, or the mode?  Do we clip off anomalous measurements?  How many significant figures do we use?  What statistical methods and error analyses are being performed on the raw data?  Do we use a mercury thermometer, an alcohol thermometer, a thermocouple, a bimetallic strip, or a laser thermometer?  If we choose one, or combine them, are they responding to the same external reality?  What’s the effect of humidity and wind on the measurements?  What uncontrolled influences, like the amount of pavement below the thermometer or proximity to urban pollution, could be altering the readings?  Have all the thermometers been calibrated to each other?  Have all the humans who take and record the measurements received the proper training?  Are any of them liars, incompetents, or members of groups with a political agenda?  What does the term “temperature” signify, anyway?  What is its relation to theories about climate change?

Here we have taken a simple example, “the temperature of the earth,” and asked just a few questions that have turned it into a philosophical mess.  A scientist might respond that a single station, like the Antarctica thermometer, has been the same instrument used for decades and it shows a clear trend of warming.  Even so, many of the same questions could be asked – and additional ones, too.  There’s no way to eliminate all subjectivity that goes into measurement and interpretation.  The only way to provide protection for taxpayers who end up funding research and paying for political decisions made on scientific consensus is vibrant, active debate.  That debate has to include researchers outside the paradigm.  History shows that consensus science is no guarantee of truth.  Before you get stuck with the bill foisted on you by gullible politicians swallowing consensus science, learn to ask tough questions – and demand answers that don’t beg the question.



TOPICS: Culture/Society; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events; Philosophy; US: California
KEYWORDS: belongsinreligion; catholic; christian; creation; dna; environmentalism; evangelical; evolution; genome; globalwarming; hhs; intelligentdesign; judaism; medicine; moralabsolutes; nih; notasciencetopic; prolife; propellerbeanie; protestant; science; stemcells; thenexplainthistopic

1 posted on 10/06/2009 8:38:26 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
By proposing hypotheses and testing their statistical validity, the hypothesis-driven experiment allows testing and validation of a scientific principle.

Are you daring to question Global Warming™?

2 posted on 10/06/2009 8:41:52 PM PDT by Mojave (Don't blame me. I voted for McClintock.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: metmom; DaveLoneRanger; editor-surveyor; betty boop; Alamo-Girl; MrB; GourmetDan; Fichori; ...

Ping!


3 posted on 10/06/2009 8:45:29 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
If a snake on a plane made it to Hawaii, for instance, many native birds would be severely threatened.

Not unless there was a lady snake along for the ride as well.

4 posted on 10/06/2009 8:46:49 PM PDT by B-Chan (Catholic. Monarchist. Texan. Any questions?)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: B-Chan

The snake could already be pregnant. Also, it is a little known fact that divergent species of snakes have been known to hybridize.


5 posted on 10/06/2009 8:50:38 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Mojave

We can question, so long as it doesn’t lead to a debate, because “the debate is over.” Yeah right.


6 posted on 10/06/2009 8:52:50 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 2 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts; Aardvark111; ACK ACK; Al Koa; Angel of Beth; another_bot_for_W; AppleEars; axe2grin...

I see my hands' True Life Trivia
Low Volume Ping List
On? Off? Private Reply Please

Per popular demand I've registered at Cabelas but, again, really not necessary.
It seems TPTB here at FR have given me a “Profile” page with carte blanche as to it’s use. I didn’t even ask for it! Which, BTW, leads me to believe a couple little birdies on this ping list have been cheeping again, lol! Anyhow, solid thanks to FR for the gesture and if you’d like to check it out just click here or apparently you can click on my screen name at the bottom of my posts as well.
Nice perks for a lowly sojourner.

It was in the sixth grade when I first said out loud that a Bic pen was as much a part of nature as a birds' nest or a sand dune.


7 posted on 10/06/2009 8:59:22 PM PDT by I see my hands (_8(|)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

Bump!


8 posted on 10/06/2009 9:00:38 PM PDT by editor-surveyor (The beginning of the O'Bomb-a administration looks a lot like the end of the Nixon administration)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

Thanks for the ping!


9 posted on 10/06/2009 9:33:10 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 3 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

Touché.


10 posted on 10/06/2009 9:46:39 PM PDT by B-Chan (Catholic. Monarchist. Texan. Any questions?)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
The snake could already be pregnant. It takes two to make baby snakes!

Also, it is a little known fact that divergent species of snakes have been known to hybridize.

You are confusing this with asexual reproduction.

11 posted on 10/06/2009 9:50:25 PM PDT by ColdWater
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
Pythons in the Everglades? That can't be good.
12 posted on 10/06/2009 10:11:24 PM PDT by Graybeard58 ( Selah.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

[[The snake could already be pregnant. Also, it is a little known fact that divergent species of snakes have been known to hybridize.]]

Tiz True- just have a look at congress- lots of hybridized snakes running our country


13 posted on 10/06/2009 10:42:08 PM PDT by CottShop (Scientific belief does not constitute scientific evidence, nor does it convey scientific knowledge)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Graybeard58

[[Pythons in the Everglades? That can’t be good.]]

C’mon- why are you so biased against pythons? Or is it the everglades you a biasd against?


14 posted on 10/06/2009 10:44:14 PM PDT by CottShop (Scientific belief does not constitute scientific evidence, nor does it convey scientific knowledge)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 12 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
"Philosophers: is there anything they do know?"
15 posted on 10/07/2009 12:05:37 AM PDT by Oztrich Boy (Thank you. I'm here all week. Try the veal.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Oztrich Boy
"Philosophers: is there anything they do know?"

Philosophers know that scientists don't know as much as they think they know.

16 posted on 10/07/2009 7:17:41 AM PDT by GourmetDan (Eccl 10:2 - The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 15 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts
What a confused article. The author goes to war against poor scientific ideas and statements and claims that, without philosophers, those would somehow remain unnoticed or perpetually harmful. Self-serving from beginning to end.
17 posted on 10/07/2009 1:40:31 PM PDT by TopQuark
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: TopQuark

The author is not a philosopher, he is the Jet Propulsion Laboratories’ Systems and Network Administration Team Lead for the CASSINI-HUYGENS mission to Saturn.


18 posted on 10/07/2009 2:17:32 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

Thanks for the clarification. Makes me feel better about philosophers.


19 posted on 10/07/2009 4:58:08 PM PDT by TopQuark
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 18 | View Replies]

To: GourmetDan

In college , my roommate was a Philosophy major (stuck in the dorms with him). All he did was drink and flunk out.


20 posted on 10/07/2009 7:41:46 PM PDT by Wacka
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 16 | View Replies]

To: Wacka

Probably major depression caused by the horrifying realization that he was surrounded by people who don’t know what they think they know and don’t even want to buy a vowel.

Ya know?


21 posted on 10/08/2009 7:16:23 AM PDT by GourmetDan (Eccl 10:2 - The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 20 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts; Alamo-Girl

Outstanding article, GGG! Thank you ever so much for posting it!


22 posted on 10/08/2009 10:53:02 AM PDT by betty boop (Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is. —Pope Benedict XVI)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: betty boop

My pleasure :o)


23 posted on 10/08/2009 4:58:16 PM PDT by GodGunsGuts
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 22 | View Replies]

To: GodGunsGuts

Great post. I concur 100%.


24 posted on 10/08/2009 6:56:35 PM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear (These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Wacka
"In college , my roommate was a Philosophy major (stuck in the dorms with him). All he did was drink and flunk out."

Is your argument?

1. My roomate was a philosophy major
2. My roomate was a loser, i.e. he just drank and flunked out.
3. Therefore all philosphy majors are losers.

If so, then you have committed the 'hasty generalization' fallacy. You can read up on it here:

hasty generalization

25 posted on 10/08/2009 7:06:03 PM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear (These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 20 | View Replies]

To: who_would_fardels_bear

Yes. They don’t have to actually do any studying. Just pontificate.

Here is a song to back up my point:

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away—
Half a crate of whisky every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle.
Hobbes was fond of his dram,

And René Descartes was a drunken fart.
‘I drink, therefore I am.’

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he’s pissed.

Here’s a video link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_WRFJwGsbY


26 posted on 10/08/2009 7:20:02 PM PDT by Wacka
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 25 | View Replies]

To: TopQuark
"Self-serving from beginning to end."

Scientists still trot out the falsifiability principle, which BTW was developed by logical positivist philosophers, even though the falsifiability principle fails its own falsifiability test. This puts them in the same intellectual league as liberals who believe in relativism because some guy named Einstein developed the Theory of Relativity.

Scientists depend on a large percentage of their confreres being honest and competent to validate proposed theories, and yet there is no scientific reason for people being honest or competent.

In order to postulate and validate theories scientists need to utilize concepts. The importance of a concept is in the information it contains rather than how it is materially represented. 'Two and two are four' is a concept that expresses the same information whether it is sound waves emitted from a person's vocal chords, a particular arrangement of atoms in a person's brain, graphite markings on a piece of paper, or magnetic recordings on tape.

It may be the case that without any matter (or energy) there would be no way to record any concepts and there would be no concepts. However, it is the case that there is matter and energy, and it is the case that the nature of concepts is such that the particular material representation is ... for lack of a better word ... immaterial.

So basically scientists rely on immaterial objects to conduct research on the material world, while at the same time disparaging those who utilize immaterial objects to theorize about concepts themselves.

If there is a more self-serving group out there than philosophy-hating materialist scientists, it would be hard to find it.

27 posted on 10/08/2009 7:25:15 PM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear (These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 17 | View Replies]

To: Wacka
If they didn't have to do any studying then how was it possible for him to flunk out?

BTW, I love that song.

28 posted on 10/08/2009 7:27:26 PM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear (These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 26 | View Replies]

To: betty boop

Thanks for the ping, dearest sister in Christ!


29 posted on 10/08/2009 9:14:17 PM PDT by Alamo-Girl
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 22 | View Replies]

To: who_would_fardels_bear
I understand that you have tried to present a sketch of a line of thought, and it would be unfair to hold it to full standard of logic. Some statements are not only unsupported but also so strong that they hardly stand a chance of being correct as stated. The (logic) transitions are most disturbing, however. I will try to write a detailed response if I can, but cannot promise. The last transition is really problematic on both logical and factual grounds:

"[scientists] disparaging those who utilize immaterial objects to theorize about concepts themselves."

You are, as many philosophers in this area, being needlessly defensive. Most scientists (theoretical physicists in particular) simply ignore what philosophers say; they have no opinion of philosophers and certainly do not disparage them. It is true, they chuckle on occasion when they read some philosophers theorizing about this or that construct and wonder why they, scientists dealing with that concept every day, cannot even recognize under the pen of the philosopher. I've never heard it gone farther than that.

My philosophy friends, and the attendees of a few of philosophy seminars to which I went, exhibit however a visible insecurity. I think it is rooted in a simple fact that a physicist working on X can read whatever scientists and philosophers write about X, but not the philosopher. It's hard to tell yourself that you have mastered a certain view of a concept when you cannot even read what others have written about it.

I find it somewhat entertaining that the nonexistent "disparaging" is also ascribed within physics: some beginning experimentalists are sure that theorists look down upon them. The relationship is similar: a theorist can read an experimental paper, but not conversely. And the attribution is equally false.

30 posted on 10/09/2009 2:03:05 AM PDT by TopQuark
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 27 | View Replies]

To: TopQuark
In my previous post the phrase "philosophy-hating materialist scientists" could be interpreted to suggest that I believe all scientists are philosophy-hating materialists.

What I meant by that was those particular scientists that hate philosophy and are materialist.

I myself am a philosophy loving scientist who is not a materialist.

All of the philosophers I have met, unlike those you seem to hang out with, do not exhibit any 'visible inecurity'. The philosophers I have met are quite content with their lot. After all, they are freely choosing to pursue a career that is generally looked down upon and trivialized. They only chose philosophy because they are truly interested in the subject.

I look forward to any rebuttal of my opinion. I am not a philosopher, I don't even play one on TV. I have just taken a few courses and read a number of philosophy books.

Your initial assessment of my critique of your opinion is spot on: I do philosophy like I play chess, I make bold moves that seem promising and even intelligent, but ultimately result in an embarrassing defeat.

31 posted on 10/09/2009 11:36:43 AM PDT by who_would_fardels_bear (These fragments I have shored against my ruins)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 30 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
News/Activism
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794
FreeRepublic.com is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson