Last night I went to a Green College/STS meeting in which four young academics described what they thought Science was or wasn’t. The first was an Historian bent on insulting all who thought of themselves as Scientists; the second was another, more conciliatory Historian trying to educate Scientists as to what they actually do; the third was an STSer trying to explain what STS is or isn’t; and the last was a Mathematical Physicist who seemed completely unaware of his context or what the discussion was supposed to be about. I stuck up my hand, of course, but was never called on. So I came home and stewed overnight, and now I think I’m ready to express my thoughts.
To make bold statements, or even to think critically, about any subject requires a certain arrogance: you must believe that not only is it possible to understand the subject, it is possible for you to understand the subject. To be correct in this assumption, however, requires a certain humility: you must acknowledge that other people may have thought about the subject too, and that their thoughts are worth listening to and absorbing before you shoot your mouth off. I have too little of the latter to become a great thinker. Dang.
I think it is necessary to stipulate that Science is both “what Scientists do” and “what Scientists are trying to do”. These are clearly not the same thing. Moreover, they both beg the question of, “Who is a Scientist?” Lots of kooks go around calling themselves Scientists, and while some of them turn out eventually to be correct, this transition almost always depends upon their acceptance by other Scientists. So Science really is a “club” of sorts. We are stuck with some sort of Constructivist sociological model; but not necessarily the Strong Program, which states confidently that facts are determined only by politics.
Coming back to the (I think critical) question of “what are Scientists trying to do,” the obvious answer is, “All sorts of different, and frequently incompatible, things.” But is there anything sufficiently universal to use as a sort of RFID for Scientists? I think so. It is that guardedly arrogant notion that every phenomenon has an explanation and is ultimately understandable — perhaps not by me, but definitely by a sufficiently intelligent entity. Sociologists and STSers usually conflate this immediately with Realism, but that’s just their usual silliness; the Understandability Principle would apply equally well to a purely Solipsist universe where all phenomena were only in your head (whatever that is). It would be a lot harder to understand such phenomena, since that gets into the realm of Psychology, but the same aesthetic would still apply. It is, after all, an aesthetic commitment more than a rational belief, since it is patently unprovable and unrefutable.
There is more than a tautological truth to the statement, “Science is what Scientists do.” It implies that, by definition, if you are not a Scientist you don’t know what you are talking about when you try to describe Science. Of course, unless I can campaign successfully to persuade the Scientific Community to accept my definition of the common aesthetic commitment of all Scientists as the best way to determine who gets membership in the club, I got no clout. Oh well, I can still use it to annoy STSers back.
A room full of STSers quoting from Bruno Latour about Science is like a bunch of couch potatoes quoting from Don Cherry about hockey during the Superbowl halftime show. No, actually, it’s like a panel of TV sportscasters delving into their statistics to reach consensus that the only way Usain Bolt could run that fast is if he’s on steroids. They have never run 100m or 200m at any speed; they have no personal experience of what they are talking about; and they really don’t have a right to their opinions, but of course they will have them anyway, and try to shove them down the sprinters’ throats.
Instead of “every phenomenon has an explanation and is ultimately understandable”, I would suggest: MANY phenomena have an explanation and are ultimately understandable. I see this as more realistic, and not harmful to science.
I take it you believe scientists need to acknowledge that some phenomena are not ultimately understandable. Such as, for instance?
Yes, I don’t think that all phenomena are understandable. The most likely candidate is your personal consciousness, or awareness. Another is free will, which most of us think we have, but is not even definable in a way that science could study it. It’s even possible that cosmology, with it’s dark matter & dark energy, supposedly comprising 94% of the universe, will prove to be beyond understanding. Another big mystery is how life got started. Maybe chemicals could self-assemble into things that reproduced themselves, but I don’t think it’s known whether or not that’s possible.
Okay, we need to unpack the idea of a “phenomenon“. The imaginings of a fevered brain do not count as “phenomena” in the same sense that the actions of the pharmaceuticals causing said fever count as “phenomena”. The latter shoud be ultimately understandable; the former are not governed by any logic or self-consistency and therefore are not subject to understanding. It is a category error to try to “understand” consciousness, awareness or “free will” as “phenomena”; they are fever dreams, imaginary entities, and thus forever unapproachable. As for cosmology and self-organized complexity, whether they will ever be fully understood by humans is not the issue here; we are not very smart! Least of all do I care what is or isn’t “known”; we know next to nothing, if that. But the Scientist’s aesthetic commitment need not be correct to serve as a definition of what it means to be a Scientist. In a sense, my criterion is in the same “fever dream” category as consciousness, free will or God. 🙂