Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Scientific Method and the Philosopher Is Stoned

Have the bunnies ever noticed that in the dog days of summer, when nothing is happening, and even when it is, there always emerges an article on there is no such thing as science, or science is nothing special.  Well, the New York Times has done the usual and dredged up flem from another old philosopher who would enjoy a day in the sunday papers.  It agrees with the editor's stoned high school fantasies about science, a subject that they hated, just hated.  Amongst their other bad habits, editors and journalists are saps for post modernist denigration of science.  They don't quite understand why others value something they never understood, or tried to, and they want some of that.

A bunny, or at least Willard, might start with the ontology but at times it is easier to say what is not and why.  For example take the writing of a poem, something that the author of the article under consideration, James Blachowicz, did.  He relates how a poet, Stephan Spender, described the process of creating a poem, how Spender begins with a first draft, how he then evaluates the draft as to whether it expresses what he wanted to express and whether the form was pleasing to him.  The poet then modifies the draft to optimize the two criteria.

Blachowicz claims that this editing process is similar to "those associated with scientific investigation", and he generalizes his guff to wondering whether there is such a thing as a scientific method.  Eli, were he not such an understanding bunny, would think this is clear evidence of  confusion, of course it is hard to be more understanding than some such at ATTP who is, IEHO, too willing to excuse fuzzy thoughts.  But, dear bunnies let us forge forward.

Could a poem be a work of science?  What would poets be required to do?  The first criteria would be not whether the poem expressed what the poetry team wanted to express but that it accurately described the emotion that they were trying to describe, the second, that the poem was consistent with related poems that had been accepted by the poetry community.  If not, the poet would have to explain why.  A pleasing thing to a good poetry team would be if the poets could say, although there was some inconsistency with past work, how theirs extended and enlarged understanding of the emotions under consideration.  Of course, a terse and powerful poem that captured the source of many emotions would be meet with a stronger positive reception.

In other words, poetry would be characterized by consistency, consensus and consilience, which it is not.  No loss to poetry, but then again poetry is not science although some comes close.

Now Eli is fond of a good argument, meaning one that leads to careful thought, but Blachowicz goes three year old, segueing into a disputation about "justice" and "courage" and how neither can be defined although everybunny knows what they are.  Well sorry, justice and courage are social constructs, and the definition varies with time and place.  To think about Blachowicz' example

When Socrates asked “What is justice?” there was never any doubt that his listeners knew what the word “justice” meant. This is confirmed by the fact that Socrates and his listeners could agree on examples of justice. Defining justice, on the other hand — that is, being able to explain what it was conceptually that all these examples had in common — was something else altogether.
is to fall right down the Rabett hole.  People and societies do not agree on what justice is.  On the other hand electrons, climate sensitivity, DNA,  these all have definitions that scientists agree on, although they may disagree about the numerical values of some and try and improve the precision and accuracy of others.  It is the agreement on definitions and other basics that allows scientists to talk to each other.  Agreeing to definitions, such as what is a meter, what is a kilogram and so forth are the charge of scientific organizations such as IUPAC.  Eli wonders if philosophers have similar mechanism for agreeing on the meaning of justice.  He suspects not, but then again, IEHO this entire section of Blachowicz' writing is simply a confusion, a smoke screen.

For what you ask, well for a comment on Kepler's studies of the orbit of Mars.  Long and short, Kepler determined after much work that the orbit was an ellipse, after rejecting a circle and then an oval.  For those interested, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has many of the papers on Kepler's notes which are extensive.  But where did the idea of a circle come from, as some of the commenters on Blachowicz' piece note, it came from philosophers, and in their case from the kind of esthetic argument that Blachowicz uses.  Kepler was not happy about that
My first error, was to suppose that the path of the planet is a perfect circle, a supposition that was all the more noxious a thief of time the more it was endowed with the authority of all philosophers, and the more convenient it was for metaphysics in particular.”
Kepler tried an oval, but it did not work very well, and then an ellipse which did.  Blachowicz sees this in a pecular light
Kepler could have hammered out a patchwork equation that would have represented the oval orbit of Mars. It would have fit the facts better than the earlier circle hypothesis. But it would have failed to meet the second criterion that all such explanation requires: that it be simple, with a single explanatory principle devoid of tacked-on ad hoc exceptions, analogous to the case of courage as acting in the face of great fear, except for running away, tying one’s shoelace and yelling profanities.
Simplicity is nice, but not necessary, this argument fails on the same ad hoc esthetic basis as the circle, indeed, except for the simplest situations there are often multiple principles at work which must be teased apart and Blachowicz himself describes one.

But why, as the saying goes, does science work?  Blachowicz' answer is
If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms? I think the answer is that science deals with highly quantified variables and that it is the precision of its results that supplies this reliability. But make no mistake: Quantified precision is not to be confused with a superior method of thinking.
Which, make no mistake, IEHO is a mistake.  Scientific results are not all highly quantified, indeed many are not quantified at all.  Consider anatomy if you will.  What science and the scientific method provide, as Kepler showed, is insistence on checking either the scientists own results, or the results of others.  This is, as it were, close to the viewpoint of Popper.  Of course, again IEHO, Kuhn does a better job of describing how scientists work, their method as it were.  The scientific method does not require quantified precision (though that is often good), it does require careful checking of any result and a delineation of the conditions under which the result is to be trusted.


Anonymous said...


“The environment creates the organ”.

The Greeks were wrong who said our eyes have rays;
Not from these sockets or these sparkling poles
Comes the illumination of our days.
It was the sun that bored these two blue holes.

It was the song of doves begot the ear
And not the ear that first conceived of sound:
That organ bloomed in vibrant atmosphere,
As music conjured Ilium from the ground.

The yielding water, the repugnant stone,
The poisoned berry and the flaring rose
Attired in sense the tactless finger-bone
And set the taste-buds and inspired the nose.

Out of our vivid ambiance came unsought
All sense but that most formidably dim.
The shell of balance rolls in seas of thought.
It was the mind that taught the head to swim.

Newtonian numbers set to cosmic lyres
Whelmed us in whirling worlds we could not know,
And by the imagined floods of our desires
The voice of Sirens gave us vertigo.

[Richard Wilbur]

Everett F Sargent said...

Well I didn't like Black-o-witless use of the term "ad hoc" which it used six times.

"Scientists are often skeptical of theories that rely on frequent, unsupported adjustments to sustain them. This is because, if a theorist so chooses, there is no limit to the number of ad hoc hypotheses that they could add. Thus the theory becomes more and more complex, but is never falsified. This is often at a cost to the theory's predictive power, however.[1] Ad hoc hypotheses are often characteristic of pseudoscientific subjects.[2]

An ad hoc hypothesis is not necessarily incorrect; in some cases, a minor change to a theory was all that was necessary. For example, Albert Einstein's addition of the cosmological constant to general relativity in order to allow a static universe was ad hoc. Although he later referred to it as his "greatest blunder", it may correspond to theories of dark energy [3]

Naturally, some gaps in knowledge, and even falsifying observations must be temporarily tolerated while research continues. To temper ad hoc hypothesizing in science, common practice includes falsificationism (somewhat in the philosophy of Occam's razor). Falsificationism means scientists become more likely to reject a theory as it becomes increasingly burdened by ignored falsifying observations and ad hoc hypotheses."

The purported war between Popper and Kuhn is not useful or warrented. If you can't test something in some way-shape-form, it then becomes a part of religious canon. IMHO

Everett F Sargent said...

Oh, and speaking as an engineer, we do do ad hoc all the time. Some of those "ad hocs" in coastal engineering, for example, become so ingrained that they are used for decades without question, and when questioned, are usually replaced by a "new and improved" ad hoc. This is most often seen in the field of Sand Engineering (that's a derogatory term which I've used often and directly in the face of said practitioners).


Let's hope that we shall never see
A poem banal as string theory
The only thing that might be worse
Is a Q-bit written Multiverse.

Susan Anderson said...

Thanks, though it's sad that trouble had to be taken. Meanwhile, nice poetry. And Russell, lovely metaphor on string theory. Just our of curiosity, can you do something similar about Hawking? Perhaps I trespass ...

Anonymous said...

The cosmos is composed of compost.

Poetry in a nutshell.

David B. Benson said...

When the classical Greek philosophers were considering what is translated as "justice" they were considering a concept, a meme, which has no such simple correspondence.

Amateurs forge ahead
where professionals fear to tread.

Fixed Carbon said...

Ole Kepler must have been put off by the lack of definition for an oval, which made it sort of like poetry.

Oval v. ellipse: "An oval is a curve resembling a squashed circle but, unlike the ellipse, without a precise mathematical definition. The word oval derived from the Latin word "ovus" for egg. Unlike ellipses, ovals sometimes have only a single axis of reflection symmetry (instead of two)." Wolfram. said...

String Theory
by Ronald Wallace

I have to believe a Beethoven
string quartet is not unlike
the elliptical music of gossip:
one violin excited
to pass its small story along
to the next violin and the next
until, finally, come full circle,
the whole conversation is changed.
And I have to believe such music
is at work at the deep heart of things,
that under the protons and electrons,
behind the bosons and quarks,
with their bonds and strange attractors,
these strings, these tiny vibrations,
abuzz with their big ideas,
are filling the universe with gossip,
the unsung art of small talk
that, not unlike busybody Beethoven,
keeps us forever together, even
when everything’s flying apart.

"String Theory" by Ronald Wallace from For Dear Life. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

EliRabett said...

More Nigel Tufnel than Beethoven

Alastair said...


Your complaint about philosophers and scientists is answered here: Richard Feynman's Philosophy of Science

Jan Galkowski said...

Kepler's considerations simply made sense, as Dr Johnson noted: "Round numbers are always false." And Kepler was probably quite experienced with the effects of sampling variation.

Bryson said...

So here I am, in Kolstrup (Copenhagen's airport) on my way back from a philosophy of science conference, and I find this post... It's pretty discouraging, but I want to assure Eli et al. that the opinions expressed in this NYT column are not representative of what serious philosophers of science think. During our conference (in Lund, SE) we paid a visit to Tycho Brahe's island, to look at the reconstructed version of his observatory and instruments and read, again, some of the history. Which brings me to a more specific point (though, based on memory, it might not be fully on target): as I understand the course of Kepler's reasoning (and someone who really did was Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the great figures of American pragmatism and a serious scientist and mathematician in his own right), the idea of an oval orbit was Kepler's initial intuition, but he found the mathematics of ellipses more tractable, and realized, after much laborious calculation, that it fit Brahe's remarkably precise data extremely well. Dismissing Kepler's conclusion as a somewhat arbitrary choice of convenience is a remarkable cognitive leap, easy, perhaps, for a very armchair philosopher, but not one my colleagues and I (fellows of the Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science attending the quadrennial fellows conference) would endorse.

Bryson said...

As a small but interesting detail, I was impressed with the clever method used to divide degrees more precisely into tenths of a degree on the replica of Brahe's massive quadrant: rather than just try to precisely divide the space between the degree marks into tenths, an inner circle a few centimeters smaller in radius was scribed, and an isoceles triangle stretching from each degree point to the midpoint of the two radii from the degree marks to the smaller circle was drawn. Spaced evenly along the sides of the triangle and at its apex on the smaller circle 9 small points marked the tenths.

EliRabett said...

Eli, FWIW, which ain't much, has learned much from philosophers of science, but as with science of science types there are a bunch of philosophers of science whose depth of thought approximates a swamp ocean, not very deep and not very well thought out. We all have those crosses to put up with. BTW, this also includes a some that Eli finds teeth grittingly misleading