Ok, so I have now finished listening to 'Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It', a lecture series presented by Steven L. Goldman. Its homepage is at [http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/coursedesclong2.aspx?cid=1235&pc=Science%20and%20Mathematics] You can download it for $35 (though I have heard rumours that it can be found on some strange system called BitCascade or some-such?...)
I listened to it in response to FreakyKBH's prompting in the thread 'A Religious Scientist', near the bottom of page 9. I had stated that there was an agreed upon 'scientific method' (and I described it by quoting the first 5 sites from a Google search on 'Scientific Method', all of which described the same basic process). Freaky said that the method was far from agreed on and there was much controvesy, advising me to listen to these lectures for more detail.
Thanks Freaky, it was certainly interesting, though I found it a bit tedious at times. My summary follows, apologies for the inevitable innaccuracies in dates and the lack of names, I cought the gist but was listening in the car so could not maintain constant full attention.
The first few lectures covered up to around the 18th century, where people were debating whether Truth (this means absolute truth, Universal, Necessary and Certain or UNC-Truth with a capital 'T'
could be ascertained through pure thought and reasoning or through experimentation. I think the concensus by the end of this period was that UNC-Truth could never be acheived by any means. However truth (Particular, Contingent and Probable or PCP-truth with a small 't'
could be acheived through a combination of:
1. observation of perceived phenomena
2. thought and reasoning resulting in hypotheses explaining those and future phenomena
3. experimentation to test and refine/discard the hypothesis.
This is essentially the scientific method as I have previously described it and as described in the websites I quoted on this forum. Up to the beginning of the 19th century, the method continued to be debated but was essentially accepted by the early 1800s (around the time when the term "Natural Philosophy" became replaced by "Science" ) . No other description of the scientific method is mentioned through the rest of the lectures.
The remainder of the main part of the course, including the bits covering what are generally known as 'The Science Wars' (Google the term) of the mid to late 20th century was entirely dealing with philosophical issues about whether science can be objective or whether it is relative to culture, society and basic human nature and also whether science is modelling Reality or just our experiences. Note that none of this was debating what the scientific method was, only what it could tell us.
My take on the outcome of these debates is that:
1. In many ways, science cannot be objective since the things we think about and the things we experience are largely driven by our society and our nature as human beings: our desires, fears and ways of thinking and the interpretations our minds make on the signals coming to us through our sense organs. However, it is the most objective that we can be, given those limitations.
2. Science can only provide interpretations of our experiences, not an absolute description of Reality. But since our experiences are driven by reality, there is a connection there that enables us to find out if a scientific statement is wrong.
My commentary on point 1 is that yes, I can see that the problems scientists think about and the theories they come up with are quite possibly not objective: a different society or a different species would think about different things and would come up with different explanations and also use different assumptions. However, the final part of the method: testing the hypothesis using experimentation provides a degree of objectivity. It tests the consistancy of the assumptions and the hypothesis. If the tests fail then either the hypothesis or the assumptions or both do not make a good model of experience. Note that if the tests pass, that does not mean the assumptions and hypothesis are True (if A implies B and B is true, that does not
mean A is true. I think goldman referred to the fallacy of Affirming the Anticedent). Even if A implies B through Z and B through Z are all found to be true, that still does not mean A is True. It just means that A has not yet been found to be false and A may be accurate enough to be useful as a predictive tool (A may actually be True but we will never know
that in UNC terms).
My commentary on point 2 is that the scientific method cannot give us UNC Truth, however nothing else can either. The best we can ever hope for is PCP truth and the scientific method is the only one so far found that can give us that.
Interestingly, although Goldman mentioned that a few of his characters were students of Popper, he never actually covered Popper himself. I have no idea why and would welcome others suggestions. Surely Popper is as important in the debate as many others that Goldman covered?
The last but one lecture was a fun diversion where he systematically dismantles the idea that Intelligent Design is a scientific theory. I get the impression he does not hold his colleague, Micheal Behe, in high regard.
I think the sub-title of the course is misleading. The course is about 'what scientists know' but it is not about 'how they know it'. That would require a detailed discussion of what the scientific method is and this course does not cover that beyond a brief summary within the first couple of lectures. The course only really covers what the scientific method can tell us.
All in all it was interesting but as a support for Freaky's assertion that the scientific method is not agreed upon, I think it fails dismally. The scientific method was formulated in the 16th and 17th centuries and was pretty much accepted by the early 19th century. After that, Goldman was describing purely philosophical debates over what the scientific method does
, not what it is
since that has been agreed on for over 200 years. And even then the final concensus seems to always return to the fact that although it is true that the method can only model our experience and never give us the UNC-Truth, it can at least give us PCP-truth (descriptions of our experience that are consistant and useful and theoretically disprovable). No other way of thinking about reality (or our experience of it) has been proposed that even gives us that much.
So as I originally stated and Freaky attempted to disprove, there is one accepted scientific method and it has been established for around 200 years. Different scientific disciplines may implement it in different ways but the basic method is fixed. Philosophers may argue about what it can tell us about reality (what it does) but they do not argue about what it is.
I'd like to quote the last thing Prof Goldman said: "Science
, understood, (as having actualities in scientific objects like the atmosphere, like the planet Earth as its object) is the most effective tool we have for dealing with experience.