Scientific Facts

A reader sent me an interesting note in response to my recent post, "Evolution: A Fact?," interesting because it clearly expresses the "received view" of science, the one we all were taught in whatever formal science courses we took in school.

He contested the idea that all scientific facts are open to revision with an example: "By fact I mean: when I hold this pencil over the desk and let go, it falls to the desk."

But did it? Or did the desk, and the rest of the Earth, rise up to meet the pencil? Before I go any further with this point, let me introduce another quote: "I don't think there were all that many facts supporting geocentrism."

Now, my correspondent might want to claim that it is the plain and indisputable evidence of our senses that tells us that the pencil falls towards the Earth, rather than the Earth moving towards the pencil. But, if he consistently relies on this sort of argument, he will wind up as an Aristotelean physicist, defending geocentrism! After all, one of the most convincing arguments for geocentrism was that it is plainly evident to our senses that the Sun is moving and the Earth is stationary. Galileo, in making his case for heliocentrism, devoted a great deal of effort to demonstrating that our senses could mislead us about such matters.

And, in fact, per Newton's theory of gravity, the Earth does move up towards the pencil, if only a minuscule distance -- Newton's theory is one of mutual attraction, so that the pencil is attracting the Earth even as the Earth is attracting the pencil. Although I don't know that this specific argument was actually made, an Aristotelean might very well have rejected Newton's theory based on our clear perception that the pencil is moving and the Earth is not.

He goes on to say: "If there are no 'indisputable' facts as you say, then I'm out of my league, but you must be talking about philosophy. I'm talking about hard science, where we must have some facts."

This is a common way to attempt to maintain the Enlightenment view of science in the face of recent developments in the philosophy and the history of science -- dismiss philosophy as an ivory tower enterprise with which "hard science" need not be concerned. Now, it is true that the practicing scientist does not necessarily need to be familiar with the ideas of the philosopher of science to do his job. Nor is it the philosopher's business to dictate correct practice to the scientist. However, as soon as one begins to talk about the meaning of scientific results, their truth value, and so on, one is, willy-nilly, engaged in philosophy. Indeed, the question of what makes some activities "hard science" and others not is a philosophical, not a scientific, one. (We can't answer it scientifically because trying to do so assumes we already know what makes an answer scientific -- but that is the very question on the table!) The dismissal of philosophy of science as irrelevant noodling about only results in the adoption of a philosophy of science that has not been critically examined.

As I noted at the top of this post, my correspondent's view is representative of the notion of science commonly forwarded in science education. Science, properly regarded, is a coherent, worthwhile, and, at least to me, fascinating enterprise. But when it is portrayed as the sole route to truth and knowledge, it is placed in a role it cannot live up to, to the detriment of other ways of comprehending human experience.


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