Many things that try to pass themselves off as science, such as homeopathy, are clearly not scientific. But you may be surprised to know that there isn’t a simple checklist or flowchart that separates the scientific from the nice-try-but-not-quite. It’s not for lack of trying; For decades, philosophers have tried to figure out how a decidedly human activity could yield such reliable information, but all the great thinkers in the field fell short.
Understanding why they failed is the subject of several graduate-level seminar classes. But if you’re just interested in a brief overview, Tim Lewens can help.
Dr. Lewens is a philosopher of science at the University of Cambridge (and a Ford driver, as we find out) who wrote a book called The meaning of science (UK). It’s aimed at a general audience, but it tackles hairy issues in the philosophy of science and throws in gratuitous musings on the nature of humanity. The meaning of science is an odd mix that doesn’t quite hold together as a cohesive whole, but it’s not a bad read for anyone interested in a quick and painless introduction to the mystery of why science works.
The philosophy of natural philosophy
Science was once called natural philosophy, but the two largely went their separate ways for centuries. It wasn’t until the last century that philosophers seemed to realize that science did interesting things, and it was probably worth understanding why science was so prolific (a question also asked by historians and sociologists). Lewens spends time on the two biggest names who took on the challenge: Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn.
According to Lewens, Popper took his cues from the godfather of empiricism, David Hume. According to Popper, Hume has conclusively shown that inductive reasoning is unreliable. Since science is reliable, there should be no induction. Popper felt that he had constructed a viable alternative based on falsification, ie the art of demonstrating that something cannot possibly be true. The ability to show that something is wrong is an important part of science. But at the same time, scientists are constantly introducing.
There’s probably an almost infinite number of ideas that we haven’t looked at in enough detail to know they’re wrong. Still, scientists prefer specific models precisely because they can interpret evidence in favor of some ideas and not others. Besides, many ideas that were clearly wrong – they were falsified -, if slightly modified, turned out to be valuable theories. Gregor Mendel’s laws are broken all the time, but the violations can be explained and tell us a lot about biology.
Rather than exploring the nature of scientific evidence, it is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of scientific revolutions focused on how it is produced. Kuhn argued that explanatory paradigms guide inquiry until they are overthrown in a revolution to make way for new paradigms. While the concept of a paradigm is quite accurate – cosmology clearly operates under a big bang paradigm – the whole revolution thing is not. Again, think of Mendel, whose ideas took us from pre-evolutionary biology to the discovery of DNA structure and beyond, all without a trace of revolution.
Lewens also devotes a chapter to the question of what science is. He covers familiar territory: intelligent design is not science, while treating someone with homeopathy can be scientific, because it produces a placebo effect. But each case is reasoned individually, and Lewens does not formulate a clear set of standards to delineate the boundary between science and other things – although to be fair to him, no one else has come up with one either.
Another fun section The meaning of science evaluates the idea that we know science works because its theories are so successful at predicting future behavior. Lewens rightly points out that we have no idea how many wrong theories can be equally successful, so it’s premature to declare victory.
Science talks back
Science is not just a subject of philosophical musings; scientific discoveries are the basis of many philosophical debates, and Lewens makes that the focus of the second half of the book. For example, while biologists break apart the interactions between genetics and the environment, their work can contribute to the ongoing debate about the relative roles of nature and nurture. The state of that debate influences how we think about human identity, which in turn influences the kinds of genetic engineering we are willing to tolerate. Lewens looks at a number of examples like these, and at how science has informed our understanding of free will and altruism.
This seems to be the weaker part of the book, as it is not clear that the topics explored here cover the full spectrum of intellectual thinking. Physics and cosmology, which tell us some very strange things about the nature of reality in which we find ourselves, do not emerge at all, even though they are the subject of much attention from a very active community of philosophers. The eligible subjects feel like a scattershot sample focused on biology.
In several instances, Lewens describes the ideas of people who disagree with him, then discusses why he finds their arguments unconvincing. The problem with this approach is that his intellectual opponents have no doubt also heard Lewens’s arguments and do not find them them be convincing. If Lewens doesn’t explain why that is, it feels like you’re listening to half a discussion.
That is not to say that there is no thought-provoking material in these chapters. For example, Lewens notes that both genetics and environment contribute to success in school. He then describes how some policymakers have concluded that getting schools to play a greater role in genetics should be considered a success, as this could imply that we have made the environment less disruptive to students. .
In many ways, the two are parts of The meaning of science best read separately. The first part is best understood as an introductory overview of the philosophy of science, describing how ideas build on each other over time. (Lewens has a “further reading” list at the end of each chapter, so following up with a topic or a thinker is easy.) The second part is best read with each chapter viewed as an item on an à- la carte menu . Ideas don’t really build on each other, and if a chapter doesn’t interest you, you can just move on to one that does. You can decide for yourself whether it is worth buying a book, knowing that you may not read all the chapters.
By means of The meaning of science, Lewens’ writing is clear, approachable, and peppered with relevant, timely examples (like how his debate about buying that Ford tells us something about free will). But for both sections, it’s Lewens’ annotated further reading lists that really make the book worthwhile for readers who want more after his introduction.