October 5, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Philosophy Puts Brakes on Simplistic Science

Three stories touching on philosophy of science were reported recently.  They show that simplistic ideas, and even terms deployed, can be misleading.  That’s why philosophers still have a role in curbing the pretensions of scientists, and clarifying scientific issues and terms lest policy-makers and the public get wrong ideas.

  1. Are all invasive species bad?:  We are taught to think that “alien” animals or plants introduced into another country pose a threat.  Often they do, but Mark Davis at New Scientist reminded readers that the honeybee was introduced into the Americas.  He said, “you may be surprised to learn that only a few per cent of introduced species are harmful.”  The really bad cases, like the brown tree snake in Guam that killed off most native birds, and the rabbit in Australia, tend to make the most news and noise, but “many people cling to the idea that non-native species are uniformly undesirable,” he said.  The “paradigm” of “invasive species” is changing: 

    Scientific disciplines are often guided at their outset by a few simple ideas.  However, as the field matures, participants typically recognise the complexity of their subject and the need for a more nuanced approach.  This is what is happening in invasion biology.
        Philosophers, social scientists and some invasion biologists have challenged the choice of language used to describe non-native species and have argued that conclusions about them sometimes rest more on prejudice than science.  Others have criticised the preference for native species as scientifically unsound, arguing that invasive species do not represent a separate category, evolutionarily, biogeographically or ecologically.  Others have pointed out flaws in the claim that non-native species are the second-greatest extinction threat after habitiat [sic] destruction.  In fact, with the exception of insular environments such as islands and lakes, there are very few examples of extinctions being caused by non-native species.

    Davis was quick to point out that these ideas do not minimize the need to carefully monitor invasive species.  “Make no mistake,” he clarified; “some introduced species have caused great harm.”  If a snake on a plane made it to Hawaii, for instance, many native birds would be severely threatened.  To Davis, though, this does not justify “message enhancement” (exaggeration) as a scare tactic.  Calling species “alien” or “invasive” or “exotic” fails to recognize the global nature of the ecology.  “As long as the harm is real,” he said, “it should not be necessary for us to overgeneralise, exaggerate, use incendiary language or misrepresent data in order to attract attention.”

  2. Do stem cells exist?  Amateur philosophers of science may perk up at a story in Science Daily that asked, “Is ‘stem cell’ concept holding back biology?”  The problem, according to Arthur Lander publishing in BioMed Central, is that “after 45 years, we are unable to place the notion of ‘stemness’ on a purely molecular footing.”  It doesn’t mean scientists can’t or won’t, “But it does give one cause to wonder whether something we are doing needs to change, either in the question we are asking or the way we are approaching it.”
        Perhaps “stemness” is a property of biological systems, not individual cells, Lander suggested.  Surprisingly, he referred to the standard philosophical story about phlogiston as an example of how scientific concepts can mislead research.  Don’t tell this story to California voters.  The bankrupt government is still wondering where to get the $3 billion voters approved for stem cell research after a hyped initiative promised all kinds of miracle cures.  The upside of phlogiston theory is that it did eventually lead scientists to a correct understanding of oxygen.  Maybe a systems approach to stemness “will continue to light the path toward understanding,” Lander hoped.
  3. Is there a scientific method?:  Gary J. Nabel of NIH wrote a Perspective piece called “The Coordinates of Truth” in Science.1 

    The scientific method has driven conceptual inquiry for centuries and still forms the basis of scientific investigation.  Yet, the hypothesis-based research paradigm itself has received scant attention recently.  Here, I propose an alternative model for this paradigm, based on decision, information, and game theory.  Analysis of biomedical research efforts with this model may provide a framework for predicting their likely contributions to knowledge, assessing their impact on human health, and managing research priorities.

    But what is the scientific method?

    The scientific method provides a rationale upon which scientific principles are developed, tested, and validated or rejected.  For any natural phenomenon, there is a fundamental solution or truth that explains its basis.  This solution exists in nature, regardless of whether the observer formulates the best hypothesis to explain it.  It may thus be viewed as a set of coordinates in a multidimensional space: the coordinates of truth (see the first figure, panel A).  By proposing hypotheses and testing their statistical validity, the hypothesis-driven experiment allows testing and validation of a scientific principle.

    Nabel seems to be helping himself to the correspondence theory of truth and to the concept of truth itself.  He also seems to suggest that all scientists and philosophers are in agreement about the scientific method.  He did mention the “paradigm shift” terminology of Thomas Kuhn and talked about anomalies and falsification, but the tone of his article was progressive – as if following the scientific method necessarily guides science to the truth.
        Nabel contrasted hypothesis generation with hypothesis testing.  “Hypothesis generation can create an organized body of knowledge from which insight can emerge,” he said.  This seems to confuse data with knowledge and interpretation with insight.  He gave examples such as the Human Genome Project and the CERN Large Hadron Collider.  Such projects are not testing a hypothesis so much as gathering data from which hypotheses can be generated.  The other approach is to start with a hypothesis and run experiments to test it.  He suggested both approaches are valid in science but need to be balanced against each other.  It may be surprising to readers that the “scientific method” does not factor much in peer review or funding decisions:

    These considerations have implications for scientific funding.  For example, the investigator-initiated grants at the National Institutes of Health allow investigators to propose and test any hypothesis as long as the rationale is justified to a set of peers.  The process begins with the vision of the individual scientist and ends with a judgment of its scientific merit.  Recently, changes have been proposed for rating these proposals, stressing their impact, but the evaluation remains largely subjective.  The meaning of “impact” is ill defined, and there is no systematic way to assign value.  In this and many other systems for awarding grants, the scientific community does not take full advantage of the scientific method to prioritize its research portfolio.  For example, formal evaluation of hypotheses is not an inherent part of the review.  Also, there have been few criteria by which to judge and prioritize grants for hypothesis-generating research.

    Subjective human opinion, therefore, plays a big role in what is valued in science.  “The value of hypothesis-generating efforts should be analyzed critically for the pertinence of the methodology to the question, the overall significance of the problem, and the likelihood of generating a viable and high-impact hypothesis,” he said.  But if each of those criteria are all subjective, whose pet project ends up with the money?  Nabel did not get down to answering that question.  He just ended optimistically, “A modern and rigorous view of the hypothesis-driven research paradigm can similarly help to consolidate a foundation that fundamentally transforms biology and medicine.”  It would seem this article begs more questions than it answers.


1.  Gary J. Nabel, “Philosophy of Science: The Coordinates of Truth,” Science, 2 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5949, pp. 53-54, DOI: 10.1126/science.1177637.

Everyone does philosophy, but not everyone does it well.  So said Greg Bahnsen, a Christian philosopher of science and theologian.  Even saying “I don’t have a philosophy” is a statement of philosophy.  Scientists are often better at exposing flaws in others’ research than in thinking consistently and logically themselves.  That’s why philosophers of science, who ask the questions that scientists don’t ask, and who strive for clarity and consistency, are often considered gadflies and troublemakers by the science department.  When billions of dollars of research funds are at stake, though, the importance of clarifying the terms, values, and logical coherence of scientific claims must be examined critically.  With limited resources it also becomes important to identify which scientific questions are worth investigating.
    One of the best skills you can develop to see through the pretensions of triumphalist science is the ability to detect question-begging arguments.  “Begging the question” is the logical fallacy of arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise.  An example would be claiming evolution is a fact because the Origin of Species says so, or claiming materialism is true because scientists only work with particles and forces.  It amounts to “helping oneself” to concepts without paying the price.  Gary Nabel talked about the “coordinates of truth” in his article without defining truth.  Moreover, he assumed that truth is “out there” in the world, and that we can “discover” it by the “scientific method.”  That begs all kinds of questions.  If he were among a group of Christians, he could probably get away with it.  Materialists, though, would be hard pressed to explain these concepts emerging from fundamental particles and forces.  Postmodernists, also, would be quick to ask, “whose truth?”  Because most readers of Science are positivists or scientific realists, who believe the public should fund their projects, he can probably get away with his simplistic views in that forum.  He would face a barrage of questions in the philosophy, theology and political science departments.
    The stem-cell and invasive-species articles remind us that simplistic answers to complex questions can be misleading.  Take the current political hubbub about human-caused global warming.  Much of the discussion revolves around “average global temperature.”  Is there such a thing?  How would you go about measuring it?  At every point on earth, temperatures fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day, year to year, decade to decade.  Do we measure temperature at the south pole, or Death Valley, or Rio de Janeiro?  OK, you say, we take thousands of measurements all over the globe.  But humans cannot possibly have thermometers at every point on the earth’s surface.  Selection effects loom large in the discussion.  How many points are enough?  Are some points given more weight than others?  Do we take the measurements at ground level, or at 10 feet or 100 feet off the ground?  Do we use the arithmetic average, or the median, or the mode?  Do we clip off anomalous measurements?  How many significant figures do we use?  What statistical methods and error analyses are being performed on the raw data?  Do we use a mercury thermometer, an alcohol thermometer, a thermocouple, a bimetallic strip, or a laser thermometer?  If we choose one, or combine them, are they responding to the same external reality?  What’s the effect of humidity and wind on the measurements?  What uncontrolled influences, like the amount of pavement below the thermometer or proximity to urban pollution, could be altering the readings?  Have all the thermometers been calibrated to each other?  Have all the humans who take and record the measurements received the proper training?  Are any of them liars, incompetents, or members of groups with a political agenda?  What does the term “temperature” signify, anyway?  What is its relation to theories about climate change?
    Here we have taken a simple example, “the temperature of the earth,” and asked just a few questions that have turned it into a philosophical mess.  A scientist might respond that a single station, like the Antarctica thermometer, has been the same instrument used for decades and it shows a clear trend of warming.  Even so, many of the same questions could be asked – and additional ones, too.  There’s no way to eliminate all subjectivity that goes into measurement and interpretation.  The only way to provide protection for taxpayers who end up funding research and paying for political decisions made on scientific consensus is vibrant, active debate.  That debate has to include researchers outside the paradigm.  History shows that consensus science is no guarantee of truth.  Before you get stuck with the bill foisted on you by gullible politicians swallowing consensus science, learn to ask tough questions – and demand answers that don’t beg the question.  Now hear this.

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Categories: Politics and Ethics

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