Thursday, April 7, 2011

Scientific Method in Practice (Pt. 2)

In this series of posts, I'm re-reading Hugh G. Gauch, Jr.'s philosophy of science textbook Scientific Method in Practice (Google Books).

[Series Index]

Four Bold Claims
[J]ust what about science is good and worthy of respect? [...] For the sake of concreteness, any little exemplar of scientific thinking will suffice. So envision a scientist declaring that "Table salt is composed of sodium and chlorine." What claims attend this statement?1
It may seem a bit silly to stop and question a scientific fact as trivial and uncontroversial as the chemicals in table salt, but it is an amazing claim in its own right. We live in a privileged age that takes it for granted that the vast array of physical substances we encounter are composed of a mere hundred or so more basic substances (elements), which produce very different effects in combination. Heck, in pure form, chlorine is a poison and sodium easily explodes! In an earlier age, a person acquainted with table salt, chlorine, and sodium may well have rejected the above claim as utterly ridiculous.

Let's start again. Why should you or I believe this modern scientific story about what table salt is really made of? Gauch identifies four 'bold' claims of scientific method in general which attend specific claims, then gives his answer in a nutshell:
The full force of science's claims results from the joint assertion of all four: rationality, truth, objectivity, and realism. Science claims to have a rational method that provides humans with objective truths about physical reality.2
This is what (allegedly) sets science apart from mere cultural tales about the nature of the world. It's also why everyone wants science on their side if they can manage it, and disparages science only when they can't.

Bold Claim #1: Rationality

I'll jump straight to Gauch's template for rational knowledge claims:
I hold belief X for reasons R with confidence level C, where inquiry into X is within the domain of competence of method M that accesses the relevant aspects of reality. A rational belief is not an arbitrary guess, but rather is a justified conclusion based on specific reasons and evidence.3
The composition of table salt, for example, is believed for specific reasons within a framework of high probability according to a method competent in discovering facts about physical reality. Gauch does not claim science is the only rational method of inquiry, citing common sense and philosophy as additional methods. As we'll see in detail later, scientific method relies on these other methods for its presuppositions.
This business of giving reasons R for belief X must eventually stop somewhere, however, so not quite all knowledge claims can follow this formula. Rather, some must follow an alternative formula: I hold belief X because of presuppositions P.3
(On the occasion Gauch touches on moral philosophy — like in the rationality section — I try not to notice.)

Bold Claim #2: Truth
Truth is a property of a statement, namely, that the statement corresponds with reality.4
Well, that's obvious! What are the alternatives? For one, it could be argued that scientific truth is only concerned with bringing greater coherence to our beliefs. For another, it could be argued current scientific theory is just one way of organizing thoughts in a way that provides useful technology.

While scientific method does increase coherence in our beliefs and it does organize thoughts in a way that often provides useful technology, these are both side effects of scientific method aiming at truth; truth is coherent and often useful.
Indeed, every kind and variety of anti-scientific philosophy has, as an essential part of its machinery, a defective notion of truth that assists in the sad task of making truth elusive.5
Bold Claim #3: Objectivity

Gauch points out that "Table salt is composed of sodium and chlorine" says nothing about people who might hold this belief. An 'objective belief,' then, is one which concerns the object of the belief and not the believer or the state of believing. I like Gauch's repeated phrase 'priority of reality over beliefs.'

While the bumper sticker "It's a Jeep thing, you wouldn't understand" may forever be closed to further investigation to those of us who don't already 'get it,' an important aspect of science is that the reasons R mentioned in the rationality section above are open to anyone who cares enough to dig deeper.
Accordingly, the scientific attitude is not "I am a superior and unique person who alone knows fact X," but rather, "I know X, and so can any other human who cares to make the effort required to learn it." There is an essential humility in the understanding that science is public and shared.6
And yet the stereotype persists that scientists are some kind of belief-dictating elitists.

Bold Claim #4: Realism

I think the earlier three claims covered this one well enough indirectly.


While the discussion of these four claims hasn't done much to justify thinking science is successful at 'provid[ing] humans with objective truths about physical reality,' I hope the significance of scientific claims is more clear. It's not that science tells one story among other, equally valid cultural stories; science aims at being the correct story, so far as it goes.

1. Gauch, H. G., Jr. (2006). Scientific method in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 29-30
2. ibid. p. 40 
3. ibid. p. 30
4. ibid. p. 31 
5. ibid. p. 34
6. ibid. p. 35

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