Saturday, February 05, 2005

Scepticism and Science

The publication of Michael Chricton's latest novel has occasioned much discussion about the nature of scientific knowledge. Are global warming sceptics engaged in scientific discourse or dissembling, themselves. As I'm typing I'm listening to the first of a 4 part series being presented on the Science Show(Radio National) over the next four weeks. I want therefore to summarize the variety of arguments that have been raised in the philosophy of science over the last 100 years to deal with this issue. I learnt some of this from a delightful little Aussie book called, "What is this thing called science" by David Chalmers who has just started a philosophy blog.

Karl Popper was one of the protagonists of the 'positivist' argument, which states that 'nothing is provable, theorems can only be disproved'. This is the most conservative of views – that there is no provable knowledge only exceptions that can be observed to break the rules. The problem with this point of view, is that it says nothing about, how exceptions are acknowledged, or more likely ignored. As well, many of science's most useful inventions rely upon an edifice of theory such as quantum mechanics that provides much of modern electronics. Or upon the strength that theories gain when they are proved later on, such as the confirmation of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution by the discovery of the structure of DNA.

The strongest answer to these shortcomings was formulated by Thomas Kuhn('The Structure of Scientific Revolutions') with the concept of 'paradigms' Kuhn pointed out that there would be no scientific activity at all if Popper was right. Kuhn described science as undergoing periods of 'normalcy' and periods of revolutions, when a scientific paradigm is overturned by the establishment of a new theory and a new program of research. The classic examples are, of course, Einstein's revolution in physics, and Wegener's continental drift. During 'normal' periods of science exceptions can be safely ignored, until they become an elephant at which point somebody notices the appearance of the elephant.

But this concept introduces a relativism and uncertainty into the nature of scientific knowledge which needs to be explained or explored. One direction, taken by Polanyi ('Personal Knowledge'), is that all kinds of knowledge are equally useful, thus astrology can co-exist alongside astronomy, as different kinds of knowledge. He presaged a viewpoint that was later elaborated by the post-modernist schools of thinking. However, like post-modernism, this relativist point of view is unsatisfactory because science clearly has economic consequences whereas astrology does not.

The next point of view represented by Stephen Rose and Brian Easlea is that scientific paradigms are defined and constrained by the ideological and material paradigms that are at work in the world. Stephen Rose applies a Marxist interpretation to his exploration of science. As such he presents an accurate description of the scientific process as it occurs in organic chemistry and as scientific agendas have been determined by the needs of the military – industrial complex.

Easlea ('Liberation and the Aims of Science') presents a similar point of view but his book is infused with the moods of the sixties and he hints at the role of masculinity in his discussion in scientific knowledge. Susan Griffin("Woman and Nature") and other feminist writers have expanded further upon this direction with a critique of the whole scientific enterprise built as it were, on the burning of witches. Griffin's critique is the most interesting, IMHO. She does not dispute the sceptical gaze, but rather focuses her critique upon the lascivious gaze of the scientific enterprise to 'rip aside the veil' from nature.

Applying this knowledge to the debate about scepticism and global warming, we can see that scepticism must be evaluated firstly in terms of the ideological paradigms that are at work. In this the case, the sceptics ideology and commitment to a petrol based society.

The sceptics contention that 'scientists' are captive of their own research programs (and paradigms) begs the question as to who funds the research programs. In fact, the paradigm that is being shifted, is the result of unpleasant facts accumulating as the result of a scientific program (based around NASA) which was intended to pursue a different agenda (the conquest of near earth space). Nearly all, the basic knowledge upon which various climate models are tested was a result of this program. The facts that accumulated from an attempt to present a caring and all knowing image to the world through the space program and it's earth observing off shoots.
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Blogger Bruce Wayne said...


Caught up with your blog in Globe of Blogs and enjoyed reading it.

I hang out on this environmental discussion forum that you might like. The url is



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