There’s no success quite like failure

In this week’s Wired magazine there’s an article on the way scientists think. “We’ve heard this all before,” I hear you savvy-with-the-philosophy-of-science readers say. Right. And the results reported are similar to what we’ve heard before too: scientists interpret anomalies as methodologically generated, and so removable from their data, until that is no longer an option, and a change of how one goes about interpreting the data is required (cf. Kuhn on anomalies). If Popper ever meant to describe what scientists actually do, he would have been quite wrong.

The supposed novelty of the work reported by Wired is, first, that the work is done by a psychologist (Kevin Dunbar), not a philosopher. And second, the work involves observations of scientists at work, rather than very post hoc reminiscences of what life was like when the writer once trained as a scientist.

But though the Wired article presents it as such, the second novelty is not a novelty. It’s true that some of the most famous names in philosophy of science did not engage in “in vivo” research. However, others did. Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life and Michael Lynch’s Art and Artefact are both extended studies of life in a lab. And interestingly, each had as its focus an issue that the Wired article omits entirely.

The Wired article paints scientists as dogmatic ignorers of the flaws in their research: the data clearly point to one’s preconceived ideas being wrong, so one ought to change the direction of one’s research. But the scientists fail to do so. But then why does science work? Because they argue it out and come to see the error of their ways. That’s the Wired story (roughly).

Lynch, and Latour and Woolgar, begin their questioning with one less assumption. How is it that when multiple interpretations of the data are always possible, any order is so often found in the data collected? The production of order: how does it happen? These authors treat the processes described by Dunbar as a way of achieving order “out of chaos” as Latour and Woolgar put it. Scientists’ well documented behavior is a solution to a problem one gets if one drops the assumption that seeing any order, getting any agreement on what the data mean, is something that does not require explanation.

One can’t help feeling that the Wired article, if not Dunbar himself, has committed that sin so despised by Kuhn: trying to understand the behavior of scientists as though they knew already what they would only come to know once they had finished their investigations.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small The Psychology of Scientific Investigation
By J. D. Trout, Loyola University Chicago
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small The Paradox of Confirmation
By Branden Fitelson, University of California – Berkeley
(Vol. 1, February 2006)
Philosophy Compass

One thought on “There’s no success quite like failure”

  1. 1. the ‘scientists’ are given a spacial environment in which to live as human beings
    2. they are given a set of metrics to work with in that environment on the assumption that those metrics are:
    a. morally neutral
    b. non-living and will-neutral as regards man
    3. the underlying assumption and outlook is that the ‘scientists’ have free will
    4. the ‘scientists’ ‘sudden get a vision’ of what they want to accomplish ( they have desires instilled in them that ‘come from nowhere’ ) ..that only and specifically theoretically ‘increases’ or ‘protects’ human ‘free’ will ..’later’
    5. the metrics, the language, combine with the scientists to produce robotic behavior of a certain type ( the type that supposedly can’t be anything but guilt free –it is non-religious behavior simply because the dogma says it theoretically can’t produce guilt and that quality of being perpetually guilt free supposedly also gives it the quality of being always beneficial to man because it is supposedly religion free therefore supposedly sin-free/morally neutral)
    6. the robotic behavior as a kind of short term legalism/dogma is a path to Completion of a certain project/vision. It is not at all simply “observation to see what is there.” To stray from the ‘vision’ causes guilt and bad feelings anyway, despite the dogma. It is an instilled desire with emotional pricks to keep the ‘scientist’ on the path …
    7. What is being called ‘science’ is simply invention by beings through men by the use of the metrics ( hindu/arabic numerals, greek letters and other runes as combinations to a lock that opens to ‘the completed vision’) that give the impression of progress and free will, and yet what is invented and seen along that specific path cannot see the reality of what is happening: the metrics and inventions are there to entertain ..and to blind those who trust in them to the rest of reality ..and at best are only short term solutions to the problems manufactured through ..’scientists’ of earlier ages

    Those very ‘scientists’ would look God in the face and tell Him that judgment and righteousness are most certainly not three dimensional metrics. Rather than see that the metrics God used to create all things could not have come from inside what was created, they would simply sit under a tree and suddenly say “a positive times a positive is ..a .. positive.” .. and for thousands of years that would the law of their metrics.

    Isaiah 28:17-22 And I will appoint judgment for a line, and righteousness for a plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, ye shall be trodden down by it. As it passeth through it shall take you; for morning by morning shall it pass through, by day and by night; and it shall be terror only to understand the report. For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on, and the covering too narrow when he would wrap himself in it. For Jehovah will rise up as on mount Perazim, he will be moved with anger as in the valley of Gibeon; that he may do his work, his strange work, and perform his act, his unwonted act. Now therefore be ye not scorners, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of hosts a consumption, and one determined, upon the whole land.

    Proverbs 11:1 A false balance is an abomination to Jehovah; but a just weight is his delight.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

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