“Science Works” … (Until it Doesn’t)

1 Apr

Science is “right” because it “works” … until it “Doesn’t.”  The Unworkable Bases of Fad Science and the “Latest Findings” from the “Latest Studies.”


More from WEIT. Jerry Coyne, discussing a “Opinionator” column at the New York Times by Stanley Fish, has this to say about science viz-a-viz philosophy and religion.

the reasons undergirding [a] belief [in the supremacy of science] are not that we can engage in a lot of philosophical pilpul to justify using reason and evidence to find out stuff about the universe. Rather, the reasons are that it works: we actually can understand the universe using reason and evidence, and we know that because that method has helped us build computers and airplanes, go to the moon, cure diseases, improve crops, and so on. All of us agree on these results.  We simply don’t need a philosophical justification, and I scorn philosophers who equate religion and science because we don’t produce one.  Religion doesn’t lead to any greater understanding of reality. Indeed, they can’t even demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that a deity exists at all!  The unanimity around evidence that antibiotics curse infections, that the earth goes around the sun, and that water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is not matched by any unanimity of the faithful about what kind of deity there is, what he/she/it is like, or how he/she/it operates.  In what way has religion, which indeed aims to give us “understanding” has really produced any understanding? …

So science is “right” because it “works.”  All well and good, except for when as an empirical methodology, it doesn’t “work.”  It’s true: modern “science” investigation has given us a world of wonders → ‘technology to be amazed at’ and an ‘unequaled understanding of the world.’   But in lieu of a firm grounding in the greater patrimony of human knowledge of which the history of philosophy and scientific precedent is a key part, empirical “science” becomes nothing more than the faddishness of the “latest findings” from the “latest studies” (all of which could be fundamentally wrong)(and no doubt will be shown to be by the time the next round of “studies” come along).  Don’t believe this kind of an approach to science is troublesome? … Watch how easy it is to take apart food faddism and fad science in nutritional studies, as is evidenced by the work of lay enthusiast and blogger Denise Minger on the subject.  And here she is, more specifically, on The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.

Instrumentalist” science may have its strengths as an approach to getting at the truth of our world.  But better still is a “science” instilled with a philosophy of “scientific realism” that fails to fall for the fads of the “latest findings” and the idea that knowledge is built chiefly or only on a utilitarian function.  “Science works”; but without a truly workable science in both its epistemological rigor as well as its empirical applications, “science” falls apart.

Science “works” because it’s founded on sound principles.  But remove those principles or gear it solely to technologism, and look how transient and dated “science” becomes.  In that instance, science really does require philosophical justification, for without it we’re inevitably lost in the bias of “what we know now” or “what we [think] we know now.”  True “science” is more than that; true “science” has a history.  It will never be completely lost in dustbins of the past even if some of its working ideas are found wanting as concepts; and it will carry us into our future even as our ‘cutting edge technology’ and ‘technical knowledge about it’ becomes dated.

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