One of the biggest complaints of New Zealand scientists working in the Crown Research Institutes is bureaucracy. Or, at least that was the case during my time.
You know – stupid bureaucratic requirements like time sheets. At one stage we were being forced to break our time down to 6 min intervals! I used to say that science is a creative process and this was as silly as getting artists to fill in time sheets. Then we had financial managers, commercial managers, human resources people, communication managers, etc. making extra demands on our time. Creative people forced into an accounting role. Publications having to be vetted for intellectual property (IP) before publication – and sometimes prevented from being published so that IP could be “captured”. “Innovative thinking” and “customer management” courses imposed on researchers. Commercial managers preventing proper communication of science to the public (see the example of Jim Salinger in Clamping down on science communication).
Epistemology managers – a new bureaucrat layer
It’s a human problem – we always seem to spawn bureaucracy and the bureaucrats always try to prevent us from doing our jobs.
But here is another bureaucratic layer one of the “Thinking Matters” bright sparks wants to impose on science. The epistemologists!
In comments on his posts (Evolution should not be taught in State Schools: A Defence of Plantinga Part I and Part II), Matt at the MandM blog pontificates:
“Scientists cannot get to claims about the world unless they use a reliable method and what epistemologists are need to help us know what methods are reliable.” Mind you, he is gracious enough to suggest this as a “partnership” rather than an imposition (although we know from experience to be wary of those who declare “we are here to help you”): “On the other hand epistemologists can help us discover whether a method is reliable but they cannot tell us about the world until someone trained in the method uses it.”
I have this vision of a new breed of managers, the “Epistemology Managers,” at research institutes. Their job would be scrutinise every research proposal, every publication, with powers of veto when they felt their brand of “epistemology” might be violated. Maybe some would even be appointed to laboratories to look over scientists’ shoulders to ensure the methodology was “pure.” Reminds me a bit of the Stalinist approach to science. Or the appointment of political commissars to work groups and military units in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China. The “on the spot guidance” that the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung was always giving (see photo) also comes to mind.
It sounds pretty silly, and unlikely for New Zealand. But I still wouldn’t like Crown Research Institute managers hearing this idea – they have been know to run with others just as silly.
Of course, Matt’s concept of the scientific process is pretty naive and mechanical. And he has his own theocratic motives for undermining science.
In reality a good appreciation of epistemology is inherent in the scientific method. Not the creationist “epistemology” that leads Matt to argue that children in state schools should be denied access to current knowledge in their science classes. No. Scientific epistemology sees our knowledge as arising from interaction with reality, from evidence. And that knowledge is validated by checking against reality. The theological “epistemology” Matt wants to impose sees knowledge as arising from mythology, revelation and theocratic requirements. It denies the proper role of reality in the process.
Some idea of Matt’s naive concept of epistemology can be seen in his rejection of science as a powerful way of understanding the world. His concept of scientific theory:
“some have argued that in fact history shows us that scientific theories are nearly always later discredited and proven false. If so this is not a history of progress it’s a history of failures and mistakes.” (I guess the “some have argued” provides deniability but why present the argument if he doesn’t agree with it?)
Scientists don’t see scientific knowledge as “finally true” – and this underlines the power of science. Its success relies on that humility and the fact that our knowledge is constantly tested and verified against reality. Matt dismisses this with “This is just rhetoric, if science repeatedly fails to get it right that does not show its reliable. It shows its unreliable.” I guess for him “truth” comes only from revelation.
I find these statements unbelievable. Does Matt use any of today’s technology? Will he board a plane, drive a car or visit a medical specialist? These assertions indicate that Matt has a very naive understanding of scientific method and epistemology.
No scientific theory ever conforms exactly with reality. There is always room for improvement, modification. That’s great – it keeps scientists in jobs. It also keeps them humble as they recognise the importance of evidence and testing against reality to support their theories and to enable modification so that theories mirror reality more exactly. We could say that a good scientific theory contains two kinds of truth. Aspects which are true in an absolute sense, conforming closely to reality. And aspects that are true in only a relative sense, likely to be modified as new data comes in. The philosopher of science Alan Chalmers describes this briefly when he says that “significantly confirmed theories need to live on as limiting cases in their successors.”
Newton & Einstein are “failures”
Matt’s “epistemology” would have it that Newtonian mechanics is a failure, has been discredited and that the same fate awaits Einsteinian mechanics. (What a bleak view). But scientists don’t see it that way. They see Newtonian mechanics as a limiting case. Perfectly adequate for the day-to-day world but unable to describe things at high velocities or in extreme gravitational fields. Newtonian mechanics accurately predicted the existence of the planet Uranus (from its effect on the orbit of Neptune) but the prediction of a planet “Vulcan” (from abnormalities in the orbit of Mercury) proved wrong. The gravitational field of the sun meant Newtonian theory was inappropriate.
So what would happen with Matt’s “Epistemological Managers.” They would have us throw away every scientific theory as a “failure,” a “mistake,” as discredited. No scientific knowledge would be left. With that sort of ideology they would actually have us throw away scientific epistemology.
And, after all, isn’t that the intention of the current attempts by theocrats to undermine science. Isn’t that the Wedge Strategy – which seeks to impose a theistic epistemology on science (see Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda)?
Related articles by Zemanta
- Different ways of knowing? (openparachute.wordpress.com)