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Re: Science, Social Science, and Empirical Inquiry
by Mike Alexander
27 July 2002 13:59 UTC
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[Luke] Reply to Mike Alexander (reg. latest installment of Science, Social Science, and Empirical Inquiry discussion)
Sorry for the delay, but I wanted to make sure I had a good section of time to devote chiefly to his response.  I really do believe M.A.’s latest posting(s) here - both on this and the topic of “persuasion” - were quite good and that I am fairly impressed by his answers and questions in each of them.
[Mike]  Thank you :)
[Luke] I agree that science is a social activity, and that it is by coming to a consensus or an agreement on things that are real/true that the field progresses.  I’d also agree that “science does not follow some “scientific method” that if applied in isolation by a lone genius will discover the secrets of the universe.”  That’s fine.  However, sometimess it takes a generation or two for a good, workable idea to catch on and for one’s work to find acceptance with peers.  History, as in the history of knowledge, is ultimately the verifier of scientific propositions/observations, then comes the verification of predictions and demonstrations, and then follows finally the importance of more political elements of majority opinions on scientific issues for a given generation.  Without the other two elements, majority viewpoints on Science issues don’t count for much.
[Mike:]  I disagree.  Just because non-scientists have not yet "bought into" or started to apply a scientific finding in their own lives does not mean that the finding isn't verified.  History does not verify scientific findings.  It is successful predictions that verify science.  In laboratory science, this verification can be done at the experimenter's convenience, on schedule.  This is why experimental science is so far advanced and why it is so well funded.  In non-laboratory sciences (like astronomy) sufficient time must elapse for predictions to either come true or not.  Note: I am not necessarily refering to predicting the future (although in some cases that may be involved) but more so the time it will take to make the observations and collect the data needed to verify or disprove the finding.   In this second case one can say "history" validates or invalidates the findings, but this is purely because of way data is gathered in that field, no because of some special role of "history".  Finally politics is most important in pre-paradigmic sciences, like the social sciences.  It is less important in laboratory-based science and even less so in post-paradigmic non-laboratory sciences.
[Luke:]  I think the paragraph about a “real way things are” is good.  Problem is, to go to the John Nash example you used, the roommate isn’t real because he’s not there in this given bit of space and time.  He may be alive and perhaps fully physical in Nash’s own mental sphere, but not within his environmental surroundings.  The fact that he’s not real is not due to the political/social agreement we have about his not being real or “real to us”, but to the fact that we cannot show objectively and empirically/factually his being there in a given physical time and space. 
[Mike:]  What does being real in terms of the "enviornmental surroundings".  Are we to interrograte the furniture in the room as to whether or not they have seen the room-mate?  Of course not.  The environment cannot observe and so it cannot have a point of view in the question of whether or not the room mate is there.  Suppose you see Nash talking to his room mate, which you cannot see.  None of your instrumentation detects his presence.  What do you do?  Well you bring in another observer and see if he can verify the non-existence of Nash's roomate.  Soon you have a whole crowd of observers, all of whom (except Nash) agree with you that there is no roomate, and so when the men in the little white coats come they take Nash away.  But suppose the observers you bring in see the roomate.  Suppose there is a whole crowd of observers, all of whom (except you) agree with Nash that his roommate is real, so when the men in the little white coats come they take you away.
The key is agreement.  What we percieve as real are conventionalizations or models created by our brains that make sense of the raw sensory input that our brains recieve via our nervous systems.  Those models that most of us can agree on are considered real.  Peoples whose brains interpret their sensory input in ways that do not agree with majority opinion are considered mentally ill. 
Science is a formalized way to organize sensory input in ways that haven't been done before.  Scientists make careful observations, often using instrumentation (observation tools) that provides new sensory input for brains to make sense of.  Scientist also construct "thought tools" (rules for inference such as mathematics, theories, models or paradigms, computing machines, picture-makers such graphs, charts & 3D workstations etc.) that serve as "brain aids".  The result is the creation of new conventionalizations or brain-created models that make sense of sensory input.  If we can get agreement amonst other scientsts then we can agree that the conventionalization we have come up with is "real" or "true".  The reason why we have to consult other scientists is only they have the necessary "observation tools" and "brain aids" to do this.  It is no different that calling in others to verify (or not) the existence of Nash's roommate.  Persuasion comes in when it is hard to clearly percieve whether or not the roommate is there--which is always the case in cutting-edge science since we are on the frontier of what is "perceivable".
[Luke:]  The politicized social activity of science is important, but it doesn’t and can’t trump the other important components of the discipline; that is, it can’t do the proofs, it can’t completely validate the real, and it can’t by itself stand the test of time and the demonstrable proof of History -> without any other of these other essential components the majority opinion of scientists in a given generation is just a passing fad.
[Mike:]  I know see where the politicized socal activity of science has anything to do with empirical validation, which I maintain in the key element of science.  It is your contention that there exists some other route to scientific truth outside of empirical validation.
[Luke:] The “key is utility” but only to a certain fractional degree.  Yes, the idea of reality works, but it works regardless of whether we say or believe it works for us.  Reality external to us, our common visions, beliefs, and conventions may indeed be meaningless in a experiential-conceptualized, psychological sense, but only until such point when we die and our life (lives) is/are brought to a halt.  As a poem that I heard when I was a youngster has it:
Here lies the body of Jonathan Hay
Who died disputing the right-of-way
Though Jonathan was right
And the Law was strong
He’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.   
Yes, this response of M.A.’s is a very good one and for the most part I can agree with him on much of what he says.  But ultimately “persuasion” in the scholarly sense isn’t advertisement marketing, science is more than the socio-politics of scientists and a politicized intellectual variant of faddish majority rule, there’s a world of epistemological vision beyond Utilitarianism and Pragmatism, and finally, the proof of Science’s validity lies in the History of Knowledge and empiric/empiriological demonstration of the “real way things are, not in whether we think that they are.
[Mike:]  I never said scientific persuasion was advertising/marketing.  I said it involved empirical demonstration.  In your emphasis on "reality" you are moving toward my view of empiricism as the basis of science and away from your earlier view that science involved something beyond empirical observation, their explanation and prediction of future observations.  But reality is still a belief.  It is a model to organize our sensory perceptions.  Atoms, quarks, molecules are all models that we use to organize observations into a coherent picture that we call reality.  Like the (non)existence of Nash's roommate they become real when we can all agree that they "work" in our models of the world we carry around in our brains. 
Mike Alexander,  author of
Stock Cycles: Why stocks won't beat money markets over the next 20 years and
The Kondratiev Cycle: A generational interpretation
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