Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Appleyard on science and certainty

was going to put together a post about writing about scientific process, but not got round to it...

meanwhile, as we like to be up to date round here, just caught up with Brian Appleyard's commentary on the meaning of popular science books in November - but still readable here.

It's an entertainingly argumentative piece, which is what they pay him for, though full of fairly gaping holes (as Appleyard's essays tend to be). f'rinstance, as the man fancies himself as not without philosophical acumen - he tells us how he chided Stephen Hawking for oversimplifying Witttgenstein, as you do - it is pretty daft to build his case by assuming there is some abstraction "science", which he identifies with popular science books by just three authors. He concludes on the basis of their books that science was "certain". Just because the Reverend Dawkins is sure of himself does not mean that "science" is, or was, I reckon. But then spotting spurious trends by being ridiculously selective from a complex universe of cases is what cultural commentary in what passes for the quality press is all about these days, I fear. The upside is that means it's a game everyone can play.


Blogger janne3514 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Bryan Appleyard said...

I would respond to this post but I am afraid I don't understand it.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Jon Turney said...

Oh well... I think I know what I meant

1:48 PM  
Blogger MK said...

I too think I know what you are getting at, but I agree with Bryan Appleyard that it is a bit hard to follow in place. Although I confess to being much further down the intelligence curve than the Great Thinker.

Give it another read Jon and see if you can clarify bits like there is some abstraction "science". There's a few more slightly convoluted bits like that.

You might want to turn on the blogger's spam tools.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Jon Turney said...

OK Mike, I own up to needing a comma between abstraction and "science".

Otherwise, I think I'll just leave this one for anyone who cares to puzzle over, and strive - as always - for more clarity in future...

And yes, trying to figure out how the spam tools work in the new Googlified version.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Sorry to come to this late, but I've been a bit busy...

I think your comment on Appleyard's essay missed the point. Surely scientism - interpreted here as an unfounded belief in the certainty of science - is rather old news? I understood that Hawking is rather more humble these days. Besides, no matter the degree of humility among physicists, the simple fact that nearly 20 years on from "Brief History" and Weinberg's speculations on the theory of everything, we appear to be as far from such a theory as ever.

The much more interesting point of Appleyard's essay is the contrast between apparent growing interest in popular science and falling student numbers. But is this really so hard to understand?

I read detective novels all the time, but have never once thought about joining the police or training to be a detective (or, for that matter, trying my hand at murder). If we accept popular science as simply one of many forms of literary entertainment, why can't we just acknowledge that it's been successful? Why should we assume that the success of popular science should automatically lead to a compulsion for young readers to sign on for five years of academic study of the subject?

Declining interest in the "hard" sciences is a real problem, but hints to the solution don't lie in the number of popular science books bought in the run-up to Christmas, or the cantankerous certainty expressed by a few vocal scientists.

6:40 AM  
Blogger Andy said...

I’ve just found this blog via www.popularscience.co.uk and I think it’s a pleasant little project. I shall watch it with some interest.

I think Jon makes a valid point that the image of "Science", whatever we take that to be, as portrayed by a small number of popular science writers, is not necessarily the norm within the scientific community – it may not even be the norm amongst science writers in general. What we can say, however, is that these books were the big hits of the time and we can therefore infer that in those days the public liked its science with some certainty … which is, I think, more or less the message Bryan wanted to convey.

Having said that I agree there are some significant “holes” in Bryan’s article. I particularly dislike the following rhetorical question regarding Hawking’s hope for a unified theory of everything:

“Even if a theory was imminent, why should it not be disproved in the future?”

All scientific theories are potentially falsifiable, that is what makes Science such a reliable mechanism for investigation. This however does not mean that such theories are of no value, that they do not tell us useful things about the world. If such a theory was later disproved then great, we’ve learnt something – we’ve learnt what doesn’t work. The theory would still form part of scientific progress and advance our understanding of the world. To infer that all science is useless just because it might be proved wrong later is extremely naïve and an unforgivable mistake for someone in Bryan’s position.

Also I strongly object to Bryan’s suggestion that Hawking was “irrational” in his belief in such a theory. There may be an element of faith to his assertions but that does not make them beyond rationality. There are a great many scientists out there who believe that such a theory could exist and for good reasons. If the interview with Hawking went sour it could well have been because it was suggested to him, an eminent physicist by any standard, by a journalist that his opinion of a scientific theory was irrational.

And for what it’s worth, I like Science to have some “attitude”, some personality and pith. It is usually duller without it.

11:34 AM  

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