Physical Science – A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? @jonmbutterworth

Jon Butterworth in the Grauniad yesterday asks “Has physics cried wolf too often, or do false alarms help build understanding?“.

If you want a working understanding of the universe, which gives you the best chance of health for you and your loved ones, a stable environment to live in and cool gadgets to play with, science is absolutely the best we can do. But that doesn’t mean it is infallible. Particle physicist Brian Cox, much more of a logical positivist than a postmodern relativist, went so far as to say¹

“Science is never right.”

and he’s correct, in the sense that it is always provisional, and is never, or at least never should be, dogmatic.

The main line of the piece is the balance between over and under claiming the significance – or more often potential significance – of reported science. It is one of my recurring complaints – and the reason I’m a fan of Jon – that too many reports are over-hyped (#), for attention-and-budget-claiming reasons, particularly at the speculative boundaries of “known” science.

Cox on the other hand is reprehensible. This constant lip-service to contingency, whilst using this stuff that’s never right to take the piss out of anyone who disagrees. Cynically dishonest egotism of the logical positivist.

“I suppose the most important defect was that nearly all of it was false.”
A J Ayer erstwhile doyen of Logical Positivism.

Anyway, back to Jon and science being the best we can do?

  • Best working understanding of the [physical] universe? – check.
  • Best chance for our health? – check sorta – but medicine is not science (*).
  • Best for a stable environment? – not even close.
  • Best chance for cool gadgets [and even useful technologies]? – check.

2.5 out of 4 for science. Better science than not, but it’s not the best answer to everything.

And back to the issue of hype in science reporting. Clearly news, even of possibilities, is tremendously exciting at the cosmic and quantum boundaries of known science, but of course at these boundaries closest to the unknown, the science is at its most speculative and least accepted by scientific authority beyond the particular specialism.

Saying “science is never right” disingenuously blurs an important distinction. Sure all science is ultimately contingent, even the greatest and longest established knowledge, but there is a difference between science accepted non-contentiously as “knowledge” by scientific authority, and knowledge accepted as valid theory and significant evidence by specialists, but still considered as speculative by wider scientific authority.

Some things “deserve” to be believed, for now, by the non-specialist, as knowledge about the natural world. Others deserve to be recognised as valid theory, scientific work-in-progress, but not as knowledge. The speculative stuff helps build understanding amongst the specialists, but does not contribute directly to wider knowledge. Knowledge is never dogmatic; honest scepticism is the antithesis of dogma. Meanwhile, knowledge is useful stuff we can believe. It is cynical rather than sceptical to treat all science as falling into the same category of contingent knowledge.


Note (*) Using science here as both the biology & chemistry-based knowledge, logic and technologies, and the mathematical and statistical analysis of objective evidence of medical conditions and outcomes, it is these “sciences” that make medicine distinctive, but do not wholly define it. Medicine would be sadly limited without love and the art of caring, not to mention the politics and economics of its organisation and provision. [Note this is quite different for the wider technology and gadget exploitation in society. If the politics is maintained to be free-market, organisation and provision can be driven entirely by objective logic, maths and stats. Customers buy it in numbers, or they don’t. Neither medicine, nor science for that matter, are free-markets, or even wholly objectively scientific.]

[Post Note : (#) Listening to Dorothy Bishop with Jim Al Khalili on BBC R4 The Life Scientific. Scientists (and journalists) need to be sensitive to different sorts of science and scientific knowledge. Hear Hear.]

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