Things Philosophers Know About Science That You Don’t


What do philosophers know that others don’t? This post intiates an occasional series that asks philosophers to engage with the “conventional wisdom” on various topics by sharing strongly-supported or widely-held philosophical insights and ideas about them.

This first installment is about science.

L. Alcopley (Alfred L. Copley), “Mirrors”

The series is prompted by “Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don’t” by political scientist Hans Noel (Georgetown). This article was brought to my attention by Jason Brennan (Georgetown) in a comment on the “Philosophers On the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.”

Noel’s list takes up matters of existing interest to policy practitioners, pundits, journalists,  and other people who follow politics—that’s who the “you” is in his title. He focuses on well-known topics about which people tend to have opinions, and brings in research in political science to give a sense of the professional consensus, admitting that there are political scientists who will dissent from it. It includes:

  • “It’s the fundamentals, stupid… Voters are influenced by the world in which they are living—more so than any campaign stunt.”
  • “The will of the people is incredibly hard to put your finger on” as “most people are not very ideological” and “most people do not have strong political opinions.”
  • “The will of the people may  not even exist” (Arrow’s impossibility theorem)
  • “There is no such thing as a mandate”
  • Duverger’s law: “The simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system.” Corrolary: “voting is not about expressing your opinion. It is about coordinating with other voters. And your institutions determine how you must coordinate.”
  • “Most independents are closet partisans”

Perhaps most important on Noel’s list is what he saves for last: “We do not know what you think you know”. He elaborates: “All of these previous findings are part of rich research agendas. All require caveats, in many cases more than I have provided. But I suspect that they are a step closer to the light. If we are doomed to have pictures in our heads that do not live up to the world outside, these particular pictures are still pretty good. So the biggest challenge political science may give to practitioners might be that we acknowledge what we do not know.” He then goes on to list various elements of conventional political wisdom for which political scientists have “at best found mixed evidence for.”

Philosophy is full of surprising insights, ideas, and arguments about a wide array of subjects on which there is a mistaken or misleading “conventional wisdom,” and it would be good for those who think about, comment on, or engage in practices relevant to these subjects—“you”— to be aware of them. This series asks philosophers to share these insights, ideas, and arguments. They may be claims about what philosophers specializing on those subjects know that most others do not, but also, of course, claims about what philosophers know we all don’t know even though others think they do.

We start with science.

What do philosophers know about science that you don’t?

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Panu Raatikainen
5 months ago

Many people, including many scientists, apparently believe that a theory is genuinely scientific only if it is falsifiable (a view, of course, once promoted by the philosopher Karl Popper). Philosophers have known for decades that this demarcation criterion does not work. Report

Devin
Devin
5 months ago

There is no such thing as “the” scientific method, and what is usually presented as The Scientific Method isn’t only not how science actually proceeds, but *can’t* be how science proceeds.Report

Devin
Devin
5 months ago

Quantum physics doesn’t show that the consciousness plays some role in determining reality – though it might (but probably doesn’t)
Quantum physics doesn’t show that the universe is indeterministic – though it might
Quantum physics doesn’t show that there are multiple parallel realities – though it might

etc. Basically, although the mathematics of quantum physics are clear and extraordinarily successful, there is no consensus on what they say about the way the world actually works, and most of what you’ve probably been told is just one of the many controversial interpretations.Report

Axel Barceló
5 months ago

There is no epistemological demarcation between science and not-science, the limit is at least as socio-political as it is epistemological, the result of a bunch of historical contingencies and not some pure selection of ‘best ways to know about the objective world’Report

Devin
Devin
5 months ago

Quantum physics doesn’t show that reality depends on our consciousness – though it might (but probably doesn’t)
Quantum physics doesn’t show that the universe is indeterministic – though it might
Quantum physics doesn’t show that the cat is both alive and dead – though it might (but probably doesn’t)

and so on. While the mathematics of quantum physics is clear and extraordinarily successful, there is little consensus on what it says about the way the world is. Most of what you’ve probably been told about quantum physics is controversial interpretation.Report

Zachary Kornberg
Zachary Kornberg
5 months ago

According to the Duhem-Quine thesis (i) no variable is tested in isolation from others and (ii) data underdetermines theory choice. It follows that, so long as a background assumption tested in the theory’s cluster is given up, no single observation can force one to give up a theory. Utilizing this thesis, Thomas Kuhn famously argues in his landmark book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, what ultimately forces scientists to give up a theory are actually socio-political reasons that works on the contrary to the present scientific paradigm. Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
5 months ago

Science isn’t, and can’t be, value free. Values always play a role, not only in what scientists choose to devote attention to, but also in setting the threshold for a hypothesis to be verified. This is always a balancing act, and how the balance is set is settled (at least in part) by how important it is to avoid false positives and false negatives. This is a value judgment.
These value judgments don’t distort science. They enable it. But they are contestable. Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
5 months ago

Science is a social activity. Scientists rarely work alone and never achieve anything significant without depending (at minimum indirectly) on others. The way knowledge production is distributed across individuals and labs is constitutive of science. The lone genius is essentially a myth.Report

Not A Lone Genius
Not A Lone Genius
Reply to  Neil Levy
5 months ago

“[Philosophy] is a social activity. [Philosophy] rarely work alone and never achieve anything significant without depending (at minimum indirectly) on others. The way knowledge production is distributed across individuals and [departments] is constitutive of [Philosophy]. The lone genius is essentially a myth.”

You could say this about any field of enquiry. Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
5 months ago

This is a super interesting list. But I’m not sure how it answers Justin’s (or Prof. Noel’s) question. Specifically, we’re saying a bunch of things philosophers know. And they’re philosophical. But how do we know scientists do *not* know them? I.e., it’s not obvious to me that scientists would dispute or be particularly surprised by anything on this list. Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Jon Light
5 months ago

Most scientists would reject some of these claims. Scientists often maintain that science is value free. Scientists often talk about *the* scientific method. Scientists routinely invoke Popper. Scientists routinely violate principles they say are constitutive of science. I’m not sure this matters much. Lakatos once remarked that scientists understand science about as well as fish understand hydrodynamics. Fish do fine in getting about without understanding; for the most part, so do scientists.Report

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
5 months ago

“The lone genius is essentially a myth.”
Romantic, yes, but a myth. Myths can be romantic, but are, tragically, not-true.

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Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
5 months ago

In reply to Jon LIght at 5:27pm on November 17:

Point taken. But I’d also say that scientists aren’t the only target — that the target is anyone possessing “conventional wisdom” about science whose views could bear some sophisticating. This group could include, for example, well-meaning people who post “Science is real” signs in their yards, or who routinely cite “studies” or “experts” in trying to prove any point, or who think that having scientific knowledge of a politically relevant subject makes one an expert on policy.Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
5 months ago

“… scientists understand science about as well as fish understand hydrodynamics. Fish do fine in getting about without understanding; for the most part, so do scientists.”

This attitude is plainly arrogant.

I hope philosophers and scientists could come together and use their skills to work on topics of mutual interest. This requires respect from both sides, not the assumption that we philosophers know better than scientists what science is. Unfortunately, quite many famous scientists have said dismissive things about philosophy (Pigliucci has written about this https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/mike-dont-listen-to-bill-nye-about-philosophy/).

I think the whole starting point – what we philosophers know, and others do not know – is wrongheaded. Instead of competition over epistemic authority, philosophers and scientists could engage in a dialogue. Not snarky “I know better than you” debate but like two tennis players practicing volleys.
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Sean
Sean
5 months ago

[email protected] Slavov: Why do you think the point of the question is competition over epistemic authority? If there is something scientists don’t know or acknowledge which philosophers generally do, that’s an interesting fact. The same goes for the things that are common knowledge to scientists and much less so to philosophers. Maybe you’re denying there are such facts or knowledge that, collectively, only one group tends to be well-conversed in. I think Neil Levy’s response to Jon Light above shows that there are indeed such facts or knowledge. I agree that philosophers and scientists should work together. I also agree that mutual respect is needed. But I don’t think any of that is incompatible with Justin’s inquiry.

Let’s not forget it was Feynman who famously said, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. On which Tim Maudlin has brilliantly commented, “It always surprises me that no one points out that ornithology would indeed be a great use to birds—if they could ask the ornithologists for advice, and if they could understand it.”Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
5 months ago

. The way the question is set up is reminiscent of the way an old-fashioned teacher asks a question from their pupils. The teacher knows and the pupil does not. Then the teacher waits to hear one correct answer, which they already know.

I think we agree that philosophers have *specific* insights on science due to their training that scientists lack. My disagreement concerned the approach and its tone.Report

L M
L M
5 months ago

@Matias Slavov – The two cases are very different from each other.

Scientists study various natural phenomena – a biologist might study birds, or insects, or trees, while a physicist may study atoms or black holes. They don’t study science, as a social practice, itself. When a philosopher of science points out that a scientist doesn’t understand science, that’s all they’re pointing out.

Scientists don’t merely say that philosophers don’t understand the social practice of philosophy. They’re dismissing the entire field of philosophy. *That* is what is arrogant, and very ignorant. Philosophers of science don’t dismiss the entirety of science. They’re not at all doing the same thing.Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
5 months ago

@ L M. I would think a practicing scientist knows about the practice of science. It would be incredible if someone dedicates their life to a discipline of which they have no meta-knowledge of. Of course, philosophers (I have also in mind sociologist and historians of science) can contribute and add information.

I agree with you that dismissing our entire field is arrogant and ignorant. It is also in many ways incoherent. Eg. Hawking declares the death of philosophy in his last book’s first pages but then goes on to defend nonHumeanism about laws and model dependent realism etc.

The response to Sean’s original question is that the way Justin’s query is posed might lead to adversarial, not productive communication among philosophers and scientists.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
5 months ago

@Matias Slavov (I’m not sure this will show up as a reply on the thread – Justin, commenting on DN seems even more broken than usual for me. Perhaps it’s my update to Big Sur? In any case, ‘reply’ leads to a broken link on both Safari and Firefox).

You suggest my attitude is arrogant and would hinder working together. I’m professionally interested in arrogance and humility in knowledge production, so that’s an interesting suggestion to me. I don’t think it’s right, though. While demarcation is always tricky, the nature of science is more the province of philosophy than science. No scientist does ‘science’: she is a physicist, or a neuroscientist, or a chemist, or whatever (actually, that’s still much too coarse grained: she’s a high energy physicist or a cognitive neuroscientist, or….). So there’s no special reason to expect the scientist to know about science. If, as many philosophers think, science is a disjunction of activities, her knowledge of her science is likely to be a bad base for induction about science.

Of course, she might know about science. Nothing in principle prevents a good scientist from being well versed in philosophy of science. Nothing in principle, but she’s not likely to have the time (and will typically lack the interest). As a matter of fact, I have met several scientists who are philosophically sophisticated, but they’re rare.

How is any of this arrogant? I believe that philosophers know things that scientists rarely know. I also believe that auto mechanics know things that scientists rarely know. And of course I believe that scientists know things that philosophers rarely know (there are, of course, philosophers capable of doing good science – some with PhDs in science – but they’re the exception and their expertise is field specific: we are all very ignorant of a great deal). Science, like all areas of knowledge production is a social activity and labor must be distributed across individuals and groups. Our ignorance of each other’s work is not an obstacle to inquiry: it’s a constitutive condition. I get on with doing my thing (which you can’t do as well as me) and you do yours (which I can’t do). That’s *why* we collaborate, and why collaboration is so productive. We do much better together than we could alone (for what it’s worth, I have published more than a dozen papers in collaboration with scientists, so my attitude hasn’t been an obstacle for me).
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Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
5 months ago

In reply to Matias Slavov at 5:16pm on November 18:

“It would be incredible if someone dedicates their life to a discipline of which they have no meta-knowledge.”

I was a practicing scientist (bio-organic chemist) and it became increasingly clear, as I started articulating philosophical questions about science (and discovering that they counted as philosophical and not scientific), that in a very important sense, I, along with my colleagues, did not understand what we were doing.

If you asked us what we were doing, we could say things like “I’m using the NMR to see if I synthesized the amide.” But if you asked us about the most fundamental things we do, such as using instruments and running experiments . . . .

What’s the nature of scientific instrumentation? (If instruments can’t be built and used and have their readings properly interpreted unless they reflect theories about our objects of research, how do I learn anything new about my objects of research? What’s going on when I read a printout of curves and claim to know therefrom what my molecule looks like? How does the fact that there are layers upon layers of mediation between my senses and my object of research square with the claim that that I’m observing nature?)

How does experimentation work? (When I set up an experimental apparatus, I automatically rule out the possibility of observing certain things, so how do I know I’m observing what I need to observe? In what sense am I observing and not interfering? How come I can only learn from nature by observing what she tells me within the narrow constraints of an experiment?)

This is just a sliver of the things I and my colleagues didn’t know about science, even though we were decent and reflective practitioners.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 months ago

Apropos the Neil/Matias conversation:

In a sense, I guess I agree that scientists know as much about the scientific method as fish know about hydrodynamics. But fish know a lot about hydrodynamics! You can tell because they’re so good at swimming. Their knowledge of hydrodynamics is tacit, not explicit, but it’s not any less real for that. Fish know way more about hydrodynamics than I do, and I have a physics PhD.

… okay, that’s slightly flippant. But the serious point is that (really good) scientists aren’t just experts on the particular subject matter they work on. They’re also experts at doing science well. You can tell because they’re so good at doing science. If you ask them for explicit statements of what scientific method is, they’ll often get it wrong, but that’s a totally standard feature of how expertise works (excellent writers can’t always explicate what makes writing good; expert pilots can’t always explicate what makes piloting good; nonetheless, the success criterion for an explicit account of writing or piloting is that it reproduces what excellent writers or expert pilots do). Theorizing about the scientific method is to a large extent about trying to make explicit the tacit principles that good scientists exemplify.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
5 months ago

With the qualification that their tacit knowledge concerns their region of science and may not generalise, I agree David Wallace. Their pronouncements on science are driven mainly by their explicit beliefs, which may be quite different from their tacit knowledge. Report

Matias Slavov
Matias Slavov
5 months ago

I find most of the claims made in this thread convincing, even impressive. The quote which equates the understanding of certain people to the lack of understanding of fish is a different matter. It is a dismissive generalization.Report

Curtis Franks
Curtis Franks
5 months ago

David Wallace channeling Elton John like “And all this science, I don’t understand; it’s just my job, five days a week.”Report

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
5 months ago

I don’t think most “others” (and, here, I’m more interested in naïve conceptions of science than of the more sophisticated ones held by actual scientists) think as much about the pessimistic meta-induction as philosophers do. The history of science doesn’t seem to support the level of optimism placed in the truth of most contemporary theories that demonstrate similar empirical successes as those of the past and that are now considered misguided. It will probably turn out that many of our most reliably successful theories will turn out to be wrong.

[I’m actually not personally convinced by the pessimistic induction (I lean scientific realist), but I think it’s something interesting that philosophers think about that many practitioners and others don’t pay as much attention to.]Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
5 months ago

Addendum and qualification to my agreement with David Wallace. Scientists’ explicit beliefs can matter to their scientific practice. One reason (not the main one, but one reason) for low replicability in some areas of psychology is some psychologists didn’t understand the logic of null hypothesis testing. This is quite clear, for example, in the infamous blogpost by Brian Wansink that led to so much of his work being retracted. He genuinely believed that if you got a p value below 0.05 without fabricating data, you’d shown strong support for a hypothesis. So he was proud of his creativity in reanalysing data sets until he got the magical number. Younger social psychologists have much more sophisticated understanding of the logic of hypothesis testing (and of its weaknesses) and that has influenced their work as scientists for the better.Report

David Duffy
David Duffy
4 months ago

How many articles in the current edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology discuss philosophical matters?
https://academic.oup.com/aje/issue/189/11
I would start with all those mentioning inference about causation. Mittinty and Vansteelandt mention “cross-world counterfactuals” in the abstract! Those discussing wellness and health eg the book review “Well: What We Need to Talk About When We Talk About Health”, where the “related articles” includes a correspondence on “Consequential(ist) Epidemiology: Finally”. Or “Racial Capitalism Within Public Health”. Etc. Now anything involving medicine automatically taps into a lot of philosophy-related material, but regardless, are these authors doing philosophy without a licence? These authors are aware that the knowledge claims are pretty contingent – the meta-analysis industry is the sometimes-shoddy application of every critical thinking heuristic they can put into flow charts. And this journal is pretty generalist – postgraduates are expected to understand all this, from social equity, to the physics, because of the applications side.Report