Review: Scientific Thought and Windows on RealityHistorians in the News
tags: history of science, Thomas Kuhn, Science and Technology Studies
Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His many books include Living with Darwin (2007), Science in a Democratic Society (2011), and, most recently, The Seasons Alter: How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts (2017), with Evelyn Fox Keller.
Oxford University Press, open access
Around the world many people—parents and children, young and old, healthy and immunocompromised—remain frustrated by the refusal of some of their fellow citizens to get vaccinated or wear masks. The charge is not only ethical: that the naysayers are selfishly endangering the well-being of others, especially the most vulnerable people whose lives are still threatened by everyday activities. It is also epistemic: that the refuseniks are ignorant or irrational, and in any case failing to “follow the science.”
What do the refuseniks say in their defense? A very small number may be excused on the grounds that vaccination or mask-wearing is unsafe for them. But most likely, they will simply protest the accusation: as they see it, they are neither selfish nor anti-science. “To be sure,” their retort goes, “we are not following what you call ‘science.’ But that’s because the people you cite as authoritative are biased. Advice like theirs isn’t worth heeding.”
Also spricht Antivax. His riposte should not be dismissed out of hand. Should the fact that certain individuals have been anointed by government officials—perhaps belonging to an administration Antivax opposes—settle the question? Is it really unreasonable to wonder how research may be influenced, subtly or not so subtly, by the hand that feeds it? Perhaps the most compelling version of Antivax will not elevate some rival group of experts—Ivermectin hawkers, say—but simply contend that the situation is deeply uncertain, that nobody has a good strategy for coping with COVID-19, and that the scolds therefore have no basis for confidently proclaiming that theirs is the most reliable course of action.
Antivax raises deep questions about what science is and does—concerns that have long been debated by scientists and philosophers. Michela Massimi is among them. A philosopher at the University of Edinburgh, she has pioneered a distinctive form of “perspectivism” in the philosophy of science. Her magisterial new book, Perspectival Realism, is the culmination of two decades of work on this score. It stems, she tells us, from “worries of a concerned citizen in a society where trust in science was being eroded under the pressure of powerful lobbies,” anxieties reinforced as she worked on the final draft during the pandemic. Her aim is not to address Antivax directly, but to answer a more fundamental need: developing an accurate picture of scientific practice, in order to enable citizens and scholars alike to identify the sources of its triumphs and its limitations.
Painting such a picture is notoriously difficult—much more difficult than we tend to acknowledge. Contrary to popular depictions, science is an immensely complex institution, more like a Rube Goldberg machine than a smooth-running assembly line. Yet the dream of frictionless knowledge production persists in textbook caricatures, media misrepresentations, and even the reports of some scientists themselves. On this view, science proceeds by fanfare: just put some scientists to work, let them employ The Scientific Method, and out comes Truth with a capital t.
So simplistic and confident an attitude collapses under any serious study of the nature of scientific research, past and present. Seventeenth-century savants may have dreamt of a mechanical method for answering questions about nature, but successive centuries have driven home the point that no such method is to be had. The road to so many of the greatest achievements in the history of investigations of the natural world is full of twists and turns, false starts and dead ends. Even at their most ingenious and most industrious, highly talented scientists fail and fail again. If some are fortunate enough to crown their failures with some success, others, equally brilliant, only heed Samuel Beckett’s injunction: they fail better.
Two mid-twentieth-century thinkers found vivid ways of evoking the fallibility of science. Karl Popper characterized science as a bundle of conjectures, constantly in danger of being undermined by empirical evidence—that is, of being “falsified.” Perhaps perversely, the bolder the conjecture, the better, in Popper’s scheme; a spectacular fall is the glory of the Popperian game. Nevertheless, by a form of inference Popper never adequately explained, the conjectures that escape falsification are entitled to guide practical projects. Thomas Kuhn, trained in physics, understood the limitations of this conception—how many scientists really want to falsify their pet hypotheses?—and proposed a different structure for scientific practice. Mature sciences, he suggested, are pursued within communities, each dominated by some constraining structure—a “paradigm,” he called it (a term he came to regret). Individual scientists work on puzzles fixed by this structure; when they fail (as, like high school physics students, they often do), they are told to try again. Only when the puzzle defeats the ingenuity of numerous contestants does it acquire a new status, becoming an anomaly. At such moments the course of “normal science” breaks down and a sense of crisis arises, which may prompt the transition to a new structure for community-wide research: a scientific revolution.
The ideas of Popper and Kuhn proved enormously influential. In fact, despite the flourishing of sophisticated studies of many aspects of scientific practice over the last few decades, their ideas remain more or less hegemonic among those who have advanced beyond the simple vision of Science as Guarantor of Truth. (Often, it must be admitted, a dash of Popper is now added to a soupçon of Kuhn—a blend that would aggravate the palates of both men.) In its range and depth, Perspectival Realism should begin to loosen their hold, offering an essential new touchstone in the analysis of science. Though much of the book assumes a fair degree of familiarity with the history and philosophy of science, its overarching argument holds important lessons for general debates about the nature of scientific knowledge.
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