Monday, 7 July 2014

Historical study of biology of value to biologists

Reading University's 2012 research publication "The Value of the Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists" is available on-line.

It seems a very worthwhile piece of work towards breaking down specialist-isolationism in both literary and scientific practices.

I noticed (part 2.2iv of the document) that Karl Popper is mistakenly identified as one of the Vienna circle of logical positivists. Popper was an opponent of logical positivism.

It seems the great lengths Popper went to to have his work read and understood and accepted by the Vienna Circle of scientist-philosophers (by communicating to them in language they would accept) led not only his wider readership, but also members of the Circle itself, to believe that he was one of them.

I think Popper was justified when he claimed to have "killed off" logical positivism, even if, as he put it, "by accident". (See Popper's "Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography", chapter 17).

That it was "by accident" is because his work comprised not a critique of Logical Positivism but an entirely different epistemology. The Circle interpreted his work as correcting their view, replacing verification with falsification, without realising that the whole trajectory of, and therefore the place of falsification in, his work was an attempt at demarcation between science and non-science, and not - as had been the aim of the Circle - at providing criteria for "meaningfulness". (See Bryan Magee's account of this misinterpretation in "Confessions of a Philosopher", 1997, p.54, or Malachi Hacohen's "Popper: the formative years", 2002).

Returning to the Reading University document, it strikes me that the potential in Popper's work for support in making the case for the value of historical and literary studies to biologists is contained in the same paragraph (2.2iv), which reads as follows.

"Before we go any further, it might be instructive to consider what historical contextualisation might have meant for the practice of science, and why it apparently had only this limited impact. For many historians, the argument that ‘meaning and context’ are inseparably intertwined has become almost the defining feature of the discipline [Tully, 1988]. ‘Meaning’, it follows, is by definition always historically constituted. Applied to science it suggests that it is impossible to elucidate the meaning of scientific statements in purely empirical terms, because all observation is theory laden, all knowledge is ultimately historical." 
(Section 2.2iv, "The Value of Literary and Historical Study of Biology to Biologists", Reading University 2012)

The words in bold contain, it seems to me, the core of Popper's work. Indeed, he uses these very words, in that order!

The jist of this paragraph is that the historical approach, in upholding an inescapably subjective aspect to knowledge, (i.e. that all observation is theory-laden) "challenged" "the 'common sense' approach of most practising scientists".

But here is a philosopher of science whose entire output, it could be said, makes the very same challenge.

As the Stanford encyclopaedia has it:

"following Kant, [Popper] strongly repudiates the positivist/empiricist view that basic statements (i.e., present-tense observation statements about sense-data) are infallible, and argues convincingly that such basic statements are not mere ‘reports’ of passively registered sensations. Rather they are descriptions of what is observed as interpreted by the observer with reference to a determinate theoretical framework."
Admittedly, I would venture, Popper would not have accepted that "all knowledge is ultimately historical". He is perhaps better known for work contesting "historicism". But his work does deny the positivist assertion that only what is "meaningful" is scientific, which is surely a typical response when people want to deny the value of non-science.

In a wider setting, I accept Marjorie Grene's criticism of Popper, that he clings to the ideal of certain knowledge (of error), even if he denies certain "positive" knowledge.

I'm going to plug a 2001 Masters Degree thesis by (now tenured professor at Lafayette University) Benjamin R Cohen, entitled "Uniquely Structured? Debating Concepts of Science, from the Two Cultures to theScience Wars".
This thesis was submitted for the degree of master of science in the science and technology studies at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. The thesis is available to be read online at the latter institution's website.
It seems to me to be very well written and researched, and it explores a theme relevant to Reading University's research document (above), namely the 1990s stand-off between scientists (or "science defenders" as Cohen calls them) and the science and technology studies (STS) community of historians, literary scholars and sociologists: the so-called "science wars". The thesis also examines whether and what similarities exist between this stand-off and the "two cultures" debate of the 1960s, about which I have written elsewhere.

The thesis has much to say on the assumption of special epistemological status of scientific knowledge, which science defenders claimed was under attack by "irrationalist" STS scholars, and the measures taken by the science defenders to safeguard that special status. I believe this fear, on the part of some scientists, of the loss or dissolution of science's special epistemic status to what was regarded as irrationalism in other non-science parts of the academy, contributed to the wave of 'New Atheism' in the 2000s. Of course some biologists and neuro-biologists were very vocal in this wave.

Reading the thesis I was surprised, given the importance to "science wars" of the epistemological status of scientific knowledge, that there was not more discussion to the philosophy of science. There is no mention of Karl Popper in the thesis, for example, whom one might have expected to have been a point of reference for both the science defenders and the STS community. That he seems not to have been such a point of reference I would put down to the general lack of interest in philosophy on the part if the science defenders, and the mis-characterisation of Popper as a positivist by the STS community.
Anyway, it's an interesting thesis.

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