Dreamt of in your philosophy

I strive to retain respect for philosophy and philosophers, really I do. Some of my best friends are philosophers. I’d hate to dismiss a whole area of intellectual endeavour as a sterile playground for clever wasters creating and demolishing pointless academic fashions. But you can probably tell I’m struggling hard right at this moment. It is all Nicholas Maxwell‘s fault. His entry into the heated debate on climate science rained blow after blow on my patience. I will resist, and will not damn all philosophy.

My second tactic is usually to ignore it (“No I can’t prove that chair exists.  In fact it may not, because I can hear you talking out of your arse so clearly”). Life is too short. But in this case it got under my skin. This is partly because he picks on physics (hey! that’s me!) and partly because the climate debate Maxwell has stumbled ineptly into is real and important. And physicists have themselves stumbled fairly ineptly into this debate recently, as I discussed here.

He makes two criticisms of “science”. The first is on communication. Now there are clearly problems with the perception some of the public have of science, though many non-scientists have a more accurate view than some retired readers in the philosophy of science. The criticism Maxwell makes about too much “specialised gobbledygook” is entertaining, coming from a philosopher, but it is a fair criticism in some contexts. Science really can be complex and difficult (sorry Nicholas). Scientific jargon in my experience is not invented in desperate attempt to make trite cliches look deep. It is a short-hand to improve communication between experts which, however, quickly becomes an obstacle if used outside a sub-field.

More misleadingly, Maxwell accuses “scientists” (what, all of them?) of dishonestly claiming that science is a search for truth. He starts by misrepresenting physics. As far as I can tell his claim is that, in trying to find simple theories covering the maximum amount of data, we somehow assume that such theories exist and discard “more successful” disunified theories. I think he is saying, in his splendid philosophical way,  that if you have 100 data points and draw a line through them freehand you can go through all the points. Which is true, but a worthless observation since playing joint-the-dots with data doesn’t tell you anything. You gain understanding when you find a line which can explain and predict where the dots should be. The theory we want may or may not exist, but trying for it still improves understanding.

Maxwell then leaps onward to damn all science according to his inaccurate characterisation of physics. His false impression of physics might be forgiven on the basis that perhaps he read one too many dodgy pop science books about “theories of everything”. But to stretch this to cover chemistry, biology and climate science is ridiculous. While there are underlying models in many areas of these sciences, they are hugely empirical. The complex systems they deal with are in many cases impossible to predict from first principles. The models used to predict and understand complex systems often rely on “rules of thumb” drawn from observation of the whole system, as well as basic physical laws.

Science is a form of systematised pragmatism; it finds out what works, and in the process we increase our understanding of the universe in which we live. I have no objection to philosophers watching, and trying to understand and improve this process. It might even work. But they really ought to have some understanding of what they are watching.

Science and scientists often fall short of the ideal, and the climate debate has exposed some shortcomings. Science is done by people, who need grants, who have professional rivalries, limited time, and passionately held beliefs. All these things can prevent us finding out what works. This is why the empiricism and pragmatism of science is crucial, and why when scientific results affect us all, and speak against powerful political and financial interests, the openness and rigour of the process becomes ever more vital. This is worth discussing, and I sincerely hope philosophers of science can do better than Maxwell in contributing to a debate of huge importance for the future of our species.

[Note added 22:30 16/3/2010 more discussion, mentioning this blog, here.]

[Note added 14:50 17/3/2010 a version of this post is now also on the Guardian Science blog.]


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Philosophy, Science and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Dreamt of in your philosophy

  1. James Monk says:

    Have you read the bit in that link he gives where he lays the blames for the spread of AIDS at the door of scientists? Since 19th century scientists developed the laws of thermodynamics, which enabled fast and safe modern transportation, it must logically follow that they are responsible for the spread of the disease. According to Maxwell’s argument, Stefan Boltzmann is to be criticised for allowing the spread of the AIDS virus! Somebody certainly has an agenda, but I’m not sure in this case that it’s the scientists.

    He also lists a long litany of problems that scientists are not doing enough to solve. I always thought that we should care about poverty, injustice, inequality and warfare not because we are scientists, but because we are human beings.

    Maxwell’s vague ideas about how science and academia should relate to the rest of society sound truly hellish.

  2. Jan Basarab says:

    ‘I was probably writing about the dreadful impending menace of global warming before you were born.’

    If I was postulating a fairly fleshed-out idea of an 11-dimensional universe over pints of Guinness in a pub in Battersea in 1980 (strangely, this is actually true ) would that in itself be worthy of praise and would it further exempt me from criticism if I talked absolute bollocks at any point thereafter?

  3. Tim Short says:

    The interesting part about the sceptical debate is not that anyone actually doubts that the chair exists. We are not so constituted that we are capable of doubting it. That might in itself give one pause, but the real question is in Nozick’s reformulation, “How is knowledge possible?” We don’t have an answer for that and I think it is an important question.

    Jon’s point on the irony of the complaint about specialised jargon is a good one. It is an extraordinary thing for a philosopher in any subdiscipline to say. I spend half of my time in philosophy working out what the terminology means. I don’t regard that as time wasted though. However, I don’t have much hope that the general public has any chance of understanding either physics or philosophy whatever language it is couched in. 16% of UK adults have less literacy than is expected of an 11 year old.

    I don’t understand why Maxwell says that science is not a search for truth. I think he may be overplaying the valid criticisms about there being personal agenda which you admit to and no serious scientist denies. But no-one claims that that invalidates the entire enterprise.

    More valid angles of attack might include the problem of induction – and that can only be looked at from philosophy. Likewise the pessimistic meta-induction (science is revisable, was wrong in the past hence always will be) and UTE: underdetermination of theory by evidence. UTE says that an apple dropping to the ground is good evidence for (a) gravity and also (b) gravity plus the moon is made of cheese…

    I claim from my perspective that both disciplines are needed.

    PS – I am an author of 54 papers in peer-reviewed journals and I insist that everyone reads them before commenting on this post; also I would like to point out that my age alone means I am smarter than anyone younger than me.

  4. Alice, thanks. I essentially agree and therefore you helped me retain some respect for it all.

    Nicholas hello! I thought your piece was intended to be a coherent and reasonably self-contained comment. If it takes three papers and a book for me to understand why it wasn’t nonsense, perhaps you need to work on your jargon?

    Incidentally, how compelling was the evidence for anthropogenic global warming back in 1967? (I honestly don’t know)

  5. William Panduro Vazquez says:

    I’m pretty amazed that Dr. Maxwell has the audacity to accuse Jon Butterworth of ‘sounding off in this idiotic fashion’ when he must showed such shocking ignorance of the basics of scientific investigation in his article!

  6. Before sounding off in this idiotic fashion, you really ought to have taken the trouble to look at one or two of my papers. May I suggest you have a look at:-
    Do We Need a Scientific Revolution? (Published in the Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry, vol. 8, no. 3, September 2008)
    From Knowledge to Wisdom: The Need for an Academic Revolution
    (Published in R. Barnett and N. Maxwell, eds., Wisdom in the University, Routledge 2008. See also London Review of Education, 5, 2007, pp. 97-115.)
    c Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Aim-Oriented Empiricism, Philosophia 32, nos. 1-4, pp. 181-239.
    I was probably writing about the dreadful impending menace of global warming before you were born.
    Finally, have a look at my book From Knowledge to Wisdom (Blackwell, 1984; Pentire Press 2007) which argues we need an academic revolution if we are to begin to tackle effectively global warming and other other urgent global problems.
    You could not have got things more wrong.

  7. Mike Paterson says:

    His point about gobbledegook is pretty cheap. Isn’t this a problem for any specialised field which needs to use a more precise form of language than looser everyday forms? He might just as easily complain about lawyers using legalese, or business people using impenetrable corporate-speak. I agree it’s a problem, but it’s hardly one restricted to science alone. His second point.. well to be honest I’m not sure I understand his second point exactly.

  8. Alice Bell says:

    I’m sitting waiting for a pile of philosophy of science marking to arrive from the office next door for moderating, so I might as well comment…

    Basically I agree with you. Despite, or maybe because, I have formal training in the subject. I should note that I studied philosophy of science alongside sociology and history of science, which I much preferred. Or at least I think sociology, history all work best together, whilst also maintaining strong contact with actual real work-in-progress scientific work. Basically: I’m with you on the science is done by people thing.

    It’s not the “is the chair really there?” stuff that annoys me about philosophy of science. I think that can be quite a useful experience, not to mention an awful lot of fun (at least its useful and fun for some people, I wouldn’t say it should be compulsory). It’s also usually a lot more pragmatic and detailed than discussions of chairs. To celebrate what I found to be useful, engaging and very exciting philosophy of physics, I can point you towards Professor Hasok Chang (e.g. his book Inventing Temperature).

    The odd philosophical bit of navel gazing is, I think, a good thing. I think your blogpost’s title is well chosen. Philosophy of science, well done, makes you unpick what you take as common sense and examine more than the basic points you generally have to trust as true to go about your everyday life (to use jargon, to do “normal science”). Yes, you end up still thinking the chair exists, but you might well understand it a lot better, be able to talk about it more persuasively with those who remain sceptical of its existence and even think of better ways of building chairs in the future. That some people in this world do such philosophical work professionally whilst others don’t both is also probably, in balance, a good thing too. And yeah, philosophers have their jargon along with other specialisms, it is as necessary as much as it is annoying.

    That said, when it comes to climate change there is an argument to be made that the various navel gazing studies of science are a distraction, potentially a dangerous one as sceptics can utalise the uncertainties it uncovers (c.f. creationists citing Karl Popper). Alan Irwin puts it well when he asks whether studies of environmental science are simply an ‘indulgence in sociological pyrotechnics whilst the rainforest burns’ (Irwin, 2006: 166). Irwin ends up arguing that such work is actually very useful. That a critical analysis of what is presented as ‘environmental reality’ helps uncover the range of different ideas that make up our sense of what is true about the world, as well as the various messiness of people that do it. Understanding such mess helps us chart possible ways through the multitudes of arguments involved, ultimately helping us build policy and communicate science more effectively (Mike Hulme makes similar points in his book ‘Disagreeing about climate change’).

    That Maxwell post though: unhelpful and unrealistic. I really can’t see what use that piece did other than piss off physicists.

  9. James Monk says:

    I’ve only read the first sentence so far, but already I endorse this article.

  10. ault says:

    @Sam +1

    Physics only ever accepts theories that are unified

    How could any educated person put their name to such drivel? What might prompt Dr. Maxwell to produce less gobledegook?

    Sorry, had to vent here as the Grauniad had closed the article to further comments.

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  12. Sam Cook says:

    I thought Maxwell’s article was pretty uplifting actually, mainly because most of the comments that I read at the bottom seemed to display the same confusion and incredulity as I felt upon reading his thoughts.

    Its depressing the number of opinion pieces that are being put out about the situation (both climate change in general and the leak in particular) that don’t even look at the science: just the people and their posturing.

  13. Andrew Reeve says:

    Many members of the public instinctively and irrationally distrust, even fear, science.

    And many other members of the public, i.e. me, don’t fear and mistrust science. It doesn’t take much for the public to spend a little time reading and making sense about aspects of science, which are interesting and topical.

    To quote Isaac Asimov ” We don’t have to be able to write a symphony to appreciate Beethoven”

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