Posted by: gcarkner | September 15, 2012

Scientism Investigation continued

Scientism Under the Microscope

Despite popular belief, the integrity of scientism is quite shaky and most scientists do not share its arrogance. It is still, however, a strong influence on the Western cultural ethos. Scientism is based on an outdated world picture, outdated physics, and an inaccurate understanding of science. This is part two of my blog on scientism, an ongoing series.

Point 1.  Scientism Holds an Inaccurate View of Science

From the time of Francis Bacon to the early twentieth century, the popular cultural picture of a scientist was as follows. The scientist was a researcher, detached and unemotional, methodically solving scientific problems and making discoveries through cool logic and observation. This person would begin by collecting data by some purely objective manner free of all prejudices and biases (disinterested in the outcome of experiments). There are no prior preferences, no religious or philosophical presuppositions, no subjective constraints.

By means of pure induction, the correct generalizations and explanatory principles emerge out of the assembled and organized data: the results are objective, the process strictly empirical. Patiently, facts were added to facts, laying out brick upon brick of knowledge.

This is often the mythological concept of a scientist today (the image often showcased in public media), but it is not true to what most scientists actually do at their benches, and in their data analysis. The myth is called objectivism, the belief that science is a strictly objective exercise, which is independent of the observing scientist.

Biochemist and philosopher of science Michael Polanyi tells a different story that is closer to actual practice and recent notions of Einsteinian physics. It is a story about a scientist’s personal involvement in scientific knowledge. Here are some of the key points that he makes in his important book Personal Knowledge. This was once the book that every grad student and professor had to read; it is still relevant today. The scientist and the community of a particular scientific discipline are the ultimate judges of what is accepted as true. Far from being neutral at heart, the scientific expert is passionately interested in the outcome of the procedure. Here are some key points for discussion or debate over the lab bench or coffee hour.

a. Data is always theory-laden: the choice of relevant data is affected by the scientist’s theoretical glasses or postulation. This has much to do with her training over multiple years.

b. Theories are imaginative human creations and not a mere summary of data. They always need to be continually improved (via critical realism). This implies that there is an art to science, an aesthetic or architectural dimension. The structure of the investigation is very important to what one observes and takes as relevant results of experimentation.

c. New discoveries involve value judgments at every stage from conception of a problem to scientific conclusion. Interpretation of findings is a vital part of science.

d. Quantum physics shows that the outcome of an experiment is partly dependent on the approach of the observer and the questions that one is asking. There is a heuristic quality to scientific discovery, where faith seeks understanding.

e. The scientific community holds certain corporate values and operates as an adjudicator as to what is and is not acceptable science and scientific conclusion (e.g. major scientific journals and boards); discoveries are presented to the scrutiny of peers with universal intent. There is a trust built through the integrity of presentation of discovery and the scrutiny of peer review. The community also mentors young scientists in these skills and values, including appropriate decorum (aka graduate school).

Thus, science itself, behind the curtain of public viewing, is much more complex than simple objective induction. There is more subjective and imaginative involvement than was once thought to be the case. This is important to the fundamental creativity and success of science. It turns out that scientific knowledge is personal knowledge, claims Polanyi, brokered by persons with a serious investment in the integrity of science and the theoretical proposals they put forward.

Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith & Society. U of Chicago Press, 1964.; Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy. University of Chicago Press 1962. (a chemist and philosopher attempts to bridge the gap between fact and value, science and humanity).

Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix: science and faith in the twenty-first century.

Gord Carkner


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