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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Unclear on the Concept

I guess the scientism discussion we had not too long ago was completely futile. According to James Blachowicz, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, there is no scientific method.

In 1970, I had the chance to attend a lecture by Stephen Spender. He described in some detail the stages through which he would pass in crafting a poem. He jotted on a blackboard some lines of verse from successive drafts of one of his poems, asking whether these lines (a) expressed what he wanted to express and (b) did so in the desired form. He then amended the lines to bring them closer either to the meaning he wanted to communicate or to the poetic form of that communication.

I was immediately struck by the similarities between his editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

There is meaning, which we can grasp and anchor in a short phrase, and then there is the expression of that meaning that accounts for it, whether in a literal explanation or in poetry or in some other way. Our knowledge separates into layers: Experience provides a base for a higher layer of more conceptual understanding. This is as true for poetry as for science.

Wait. What?

Near as I can tell, this is the charge: Since the poetry, or indeed any, editing process is similar to scientific investigation, then there is no method that is distinctly scientific. (That's entirely aside from a perfect example of question begging: asserting as true that which hasn't been demonstrated.)

This, in a sentence, encapsulates the enduring problem with philosophy. Start from an unknown point and head in your preferred direction, and you can end up wherever you want.

The problem here, in case it isn't already obvious, is that the process he is describing is recursion: repeated application of the output of a process to the input of the process. That's it. Nothing more, and nothing inherently scientific about it.

His argument is that the scientific method amounts to nothing more than recursion, but this is exactly where he goes astray, and in more ways than one.

Yes, at some level, the scientific method appears recursive. Acquire data, formulate/modify hypotheses, accept those that best explain the data. Rinse and repeat. He equates "meaning" with hypothesis, without regard to the subjectivity of "meaning" and, I guess, though it isn't clear, words with data.

He further illustrates this process by reaching rigorous definitions for words:

Suppose you and I try to define courage. We would begin with the meaning that is familiar to both of us. This shared meaning will be used to check proposed definitions and provide typical examples of it. Commonly, we may not be able to explain what something is, but we know it when we see it.

So what do we mean by courage? Let’s try, “Courage is the ability to act in the face of great fear.” This is an attempt to articulate (define) what we mean by courage. What we do next is to compare the actual meaning of courage we both possess with the literal meaning of the expression “the ability to act in the face of great fear.”

More lather-rinse-repeat, stripping away overburden and sloppy contradictions until we reach the essence of the word. But that is yet another example of question begging: there is, in a series of letters, a pure concept that means the same thing to everyone in a given circumstance, never mind all manner of circumstances.

Now comes the part of the essay where the square peg meets round hole:

Early on, Kepler determined that the orbit of Mars was not a circle (the default perfect shape of the planetary spheres, an idea inherited from the Greeks). There is a very simple equation for a circle, but the first noncircular shape Kepler entertained as a replacement was an oval. Despite our use of the word “oval” as sometimes synonymous with ellipse, Kepler understood it as egg-shaped (in the asymmetrical chicken-egg way). Maybe he thought the orbit had to be lopsided (rather than symmetrical) because he knew the Sun was not at the center of the oval. Unfortunately, there is no simple equation for such an oval (although there is one for an ellipse).

When a scientist tests a hypothesis and finds that its predictions do not quite match available observations, there is always the option of forcing the hypothesis to fit the data. One can resort to curve-fitting, in which a hypothesis is patched together from different independent pieces, each piece more or less fitting a different part of the data. A tailor for whom fit is everything and style is nothing can make me a suit that will fit like a glove — but as a patchwork with odd random seams everywhere, it will also not look very much like a suit.

The apparent lesson? It isn't just observed facts driving theorizing, but rather an insistence upon an outside the evidence notion of underlying simplicity. This is crazy talk. Kepler determined the Mars' orbit isn't circular, despite settled opinion on the matter, because observations didn't fit. He didn't force the theory to fit the observations, he chucked the theory. One could resort to curve fitting, but that inevitably entails the same problem of using adjoining maps for wallpaper: very quickly, things don't fit, and there is no smoothing the discontinuities.

Apparently unsatisfied with mere question begging and conceptual confusion, he betrays profound ignorance:

Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed. While Galileo’s law prescribes that the trajectory of a projectile like a cannonball follows a parabolic path, the true path deviates from a parabola, mostly because of air resistance. That is, a second, separate causal element must be accounted for. And so we add the ad hoc exception “except when resisted by air.”

Yes, of course. The mass of air molecules isn't just as much a matter of physics as gravity. It is ad hoc.


Professor Blachowicz ultimately makes a valid point, that the results of science are more reliable than other realms of human inquiry because the data the hard sciences deal with is sufficiently quantifiable to allow some hypotheses, while excluding others. Because of that, the scientific method, properly understood has that name for a very specific reason: it works with concrete subjects, and nowhere else.


Bret said...

It seems to me that for the vast majority of people, the scientific method(s) just get in the way of constructing utopian narratives (sort of like writing poems I guess), and really has no or negative value. I think that's true even for most scientists since scientists these days are more likely to be engaged either in soft sciences, historical sciences, or science in fields that are immensely complex with more degrees of freedom than data.

In other words, scientism is alive and well and really overtaking science in its usefulness.

Hey Skipper said...

It seems to me that for the vast majority of people, the scientific method(s) just get in the way of constructing utopian narratives (sort of like writing poems I guess), and really has no or negative value.

I think you have that backwards. Many people, the author of this article being one, think that a parody of the scientific method is the scientific method, and therefore elevate the products of that parody to a status they haven't earned.

I hope this isn't too far off point, but Can they think critically about gender? at NRO shows the danger of this sort of thing: claiming certainty where none exists.