Two views of science

Posted on February 23, 2011

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Professor Wiggly: “We’re finding that there are two views or models of science – neither of which fit the old popular view that scientists produce neat packages of truth. The one model emerges from historians and scientists who study  what  scientists do – who study other scientists as they go about their work: their theorizing, their scribbling on the blackboard, erasing and rescribbling, and if they’re research scientists studying what they do in their laboratories, peering through microscopes, arguing, adding up numbers, correcting and failing to detect mistakes, etc. These scientists seem to constructing or inventing reality rather than discovering it. The second and contrasting model emerges mainly from theoretical physicists – with Stephen Hawking serving as their spokesman. I hear him saying that if there was a God he was a mathematician and we don’t need him any more, all we need is mathematics and a few observations to determine how the world works. Both camps agree that there is no way to make direct contact with ‘out there reality.’ Both sides agree that because humans have limited sensory detectors and information processing capacity  we end up with incomplete and often distorted views of  slices of our world. Therefore both camps would probably agree with Herb Simon’s mantra – no conclusions without unproven assumptions. Both sides would probably agree that all scientific findings rest on unproven theoretical or mathematical assumptions. Thomas Kuhn was one of the key spokesman for the historical and philosophical camp who used the term ‘paradigm’ to described the trusted group of assumptions and procedures  that groups of scientists rely upon to guide and interpret their research, and to reward selected colleagues. Paradigms are like institutionalized, self-perpetuating schools of thought that emerge and shape human thinking and behavior – including that of scientists for extended periods.”

Jenny: ” So what’s the key difference between the two warring camps? Who’s winning?

Peter: ” Hawking’s view will get the most publicity – the press eats up physic’s talk even if reporters don’t understand the technical jargon.”

Professor Wiggly: ” Peter’s probably right. Ever since Einstein physics has acquired a God like persona… even though Einstein said:’ Anyone who sets themselves up as a judge in the field of truth or knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.’ Einstein may have been a bit more humble than Hawking who claims physics  has replaced God because according to Hawking and his mathematical formulas the universe can  be created out of nothing. But back to Jenny’s question: what are the major difference  between the two camps, between Kuhn’s paradigm model and what I call  Hawking’s  ‘God is a mathematician … and we no longer need him, her or it….”. While Hawking admits that we need models to provide best guesses about ‘reality’ he appears to see mathematics as providing the only legitimate if imaginary bridge into the future – or into the unknown. As problems become more complex adequate reliable data becomes less accessible so lacking reliable evidence Hawking put’s his faith in mathematical models to create maps or visions of reality supported  by whatever observations may be available – incomplete observations based on fallible senses and instruments.”

Jenny: “So Hawking builds imaginary mathematical bridges into the future – mathematical models based on trusted but unproven assumptions. At times there may be no observational data supporting the bridge so it’s supported by faith or theoretical bias, but over time it is hoped that some trusted, though fallible, data will be obtained. But at best Hawking’s ‘model dependent realism’ admits that the reality that’s claimed depends on the trusted mathematical model. In that sense ‘God’ or ‘truth’ or ‘reality’  is a trusted mathematical formula decorated with fallible observations?”

Peter: ” Jenny, you’re starting to sound like the Professor. You aughta get out more. The prof is simply saying that Simon says : no conclusions without emotionally anchored assumptions, and that Hawking’s conclusions are based on his emotionally anchored faith that  ‘reality’ dances to mathematical tunes. And that the other guys – the paradigm club – says that we construct our visions of reality out of theoretical biases  or models, not only math models, but political models, religious models, medical models, personal models, sexual models, child rearing models, etc. Reality is nothing more than one damn model after another decorated with cherry-picked observations.  ”

Jenny: “Is Peter right? Is that what you’re saying?”

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Posted in: Sciencing