Scientific Method, and Philosophy of Science

30 Aug 2023 09:59

Philosophy of science these days seems largely concerned with questions of method, justification and reliability --- what do scientists do (and are they all doing the same thing? are they doing what they think they're doing?), and does it work, and if so why, and what exactly does it produce? There are other issues, too, like, do scientific theories really tell us about the world, or just give us tools for making predictions (and is there a difference there?). The whole reductionism/emergence squabble falls under this discipline, too. But (so far as an outsider can judge), method is where most of the debate is these days.

Of course, most scientists proceed in serene indifference to debates in methodology, and indeed all other aspects of the philosophy of science. What Medawar wrote thirty years ago and more is still true today:

If the purpose of scientific methodology is to prescribe or expound a system of enquiry or even a code of practice for scientific behavior, then scientists seem to be able to get on very well without it. Most scientists receive no tuition in scientific method, but those who have been instructed perform no better as scientists than those who have not. Of what other branch of learning can it be said that it gives its proficients no advantage; that it need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned?
(Actually, has anyone done a controlled study of that point?) One of the things a good methodology should do is, therefore, either explain why scientists don't have to know it. (The alternative is to say why, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, most existing science is unsound. There are of course many books which allege this, but they do not trouble themselves with showing that their case for, say, reproductive biology being a load of sexist rubbish is stronger than the reproductive biologists' cases for their findings.) Now of course working scientists do employ lots of different methods, which are of varying quality. The same is true of all learned professions, and it is probably also true that most professionals (lawyers, architects, doctors) pay no heed to foundational debates about what they are doing. Instead methods seem to breed within the profession --- this technique is unreliable under these circumstances, that procedure works better than the old one, etc. --- without, as it were, the benefit of philosophical clergy. There is even a division of labor, with innovations in method tending to come from specialized segments of the profession, or even from another discipline --- experimenters often take new procedures from statisticians, who act as lay methodologists. (Poincaré someplace describes this as innovators saving their followers from the trouble of thinking.) That something like this can work is one of the triumphs of human collective cognition; it is also something that needs to be explained. (Explanations might open the way to improving the process; there is no reason to think it is currently optimal.)

Some or all of this may or may not have close connections to history of science, the social and cultural relations of science, and evolutionary epistemology. I would contend that there are certainly close ties to the sociology of science, to methodology for the social sciences, to how scientists actually think, to Occam's razor and to machine learning, statistical inference and induction.

Ideas about mechanistic explanation need their own notebook.