In the Preface of the book, Life’s Devices: The Physical World of Animals and Plants, by Steven Vogel (1988), one finds this:
The bits of physics that play a part here are well-plumbed, well-understood, and not the least bit controversial. They are, furthermore (as a bumper sticker once proclaimed), what makes the world go around. Oddly and unfortunately, they’re not dear to the hearts of all of us — for some they’re items of positive antipathy. Perhaps some social scientist might study the division of society into those superior sorts for whom matters mechanical are rational and those others for whom they’re lurking demons or revealed truth. Education seems to make little difference. By this criterion the auto mechanic has culture while most lawyers remain primitive. The division extends to scientists, with biologists as divided as any, except that most of us were subjected to a few college courses in physics and mathematics, so we can’t easily admit either innocence or fear. As James Thurber said about the founding editor of The New Yorker, “Ross approached all things mechanical, to reach for a simile, like Henry James approaching Brigitte Bardot. There was awe in it, and embarrassment, and helplessness.”
“Superior sorts”? In their own minds, perhaps. Why are so many scientists so vain about their conceptions of truth; so unaware of how much they don’t know and will never know?
The next bit is from an article, What Skepticism Reveals about Science, by Michael Shermer in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American. Unfortunately, Shermer is not skeptical enough:
… What I want to believe based on emotions and what I should believe based on evidence does not always coincide. And after 99 monthly columns of exploring such topics (this is Opus 100), I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know. I believe that the truth is out there. But how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually true? The answer is science.
No it’s not. If he had said “how can we tell the difference between what we would like to be true and what is actually not true?” then I would agree with him. I love science; I believe in the scientific method but I very much doubt that it has ever or will ever find “the” truth. What it does do, and does very well, is let us sort out what is not true from what might be true.
Later in Shermer’s piece, he says this:
To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analyses of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion. Just as detectives employ the convergence of evidence technique to deduce who most likely committed a crime, scientists employ the method to determine the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon. Cosmologists reconstruct the history of the universe by integrating data from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Geologists reconstruct the history of Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics and geochemistry. Archaeologists piece together the history of a civilization from pollen grains, kitchen middens, potshards, tools, works of art, written sources and other site-specific artifacts. Climate scientists prove anthropogenic global warming from the environmental sciences, planetary geology, geophysics, glaciology, meteorology, chemistry, biology, ecology, among other disciplines. Evolutionary biologists uncover the history of life on Earth from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics, and so on.
Once an inferential or historical science is well established through the accumulation of positive evidence, however, it is just as sound as a laboratory or experimental science.
The vast majority of claims are not subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Words like “nuanced analysis”, “integrating the data”, “reconstruct the history” “piece together the history” — do not lead to the “actually true.” They can or may lead to the more true — or to the less false.
Returning to Vogel’s book, from which I quoted at the start of this post, in Chapter 1: Constraints and Opportunities, he says the following, without blushing:
Biologists love their organisms, collectively, singly, sliced, macerated, or homogenized. As D’Arcy Thompson (1942) put it, biologists are “deeply reluctant to compare the living with the dead, or to explain by geometry or by mechanics the things which have their part in the mystery of life.” But we will repeatedly use the “dead” to explain the “living.” Explanation requires simplification, and nothing is so un-simple as an organism. And the most immediate sort of simplification is the use of nonliving models, whether physical or (even) mathematical.
Science is, in fact, utterly addicted to models for simplification and generalization. Even a tiny aspect of the world is just too complex to yield to simultaneous and systematic analysis of all of its diverse characteristics. Consider, for a moment, your left thumb — how many facets of this minor appendage might be measured, recorded, and subjected to statistical treatment? Simplification and abstraction have marked all progress in science; one begins very simply and then adds elements of complication as necessary and possible.
Don’t you love how he breezily says, “then adds elements of complication as necessary and possible” ? Whee …!
A good scientist would be as full of awe and helplessness as was New Yorker Editor, Ross in the quote at the start of this post.
(Vogel’s book is actually really good if you’re interested in the mechanics of living things.)
[I hear Mr. Girvan snorting. Ray, go study your left thumb.]