The dots of climate science 4 Uncritical science

The last post in this series treated Big Science as a postwar development closely related to the rise of Big Government. Apart from the intrinsic dangers of Big Science (too much money chasing too few ideas and the pressure to obtain grants) there is the scope for political interference.

This post looks at an internal development in the ethos of science and the official recognition of normal (uncritical) science. One would expect uncritical science to be regarded as a pathology and all men and women of good will would come to the aid of the scientific party to do something about it.

Popper’s 1935 Logik der Forschung (the logic of scientific investigation) appeared in English in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery. This would have done more good had it not been blindsided by The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. This brought “paradigms” to the fore and became something like the book of the century. It had some apparently exciting and radical ideas which in practice had incredibly conservative implications.

Kuhn appealed to the history of science and to sociology and psychology to refute the idea that science advanced by the steady accumulation of data resulting in the evolutionary advance of science. He described a form of “punctuated evolution” where most of the time there is a ruling theory and a set of standard practices which are applied to solving puzzles and filling gaps in the story. But all is not well and anomalies accumulate to a point where is a revolutionary transition to the next paradigm. This challenged the traditional ideas of the empiricists and assorted positivists who thought it was all about accumulating data and confirming theories or assigning p (probability) values to them. Kuhn also challenged Popper’s story about bold conjectures and relentless, wide-ranging criticism to locate the weak spots of theories to identify problems which become the growing point of science (at least if people recognise the problems and go to work on them). For Kuhn in his early phase, genuine science started when fundamental criticism stopped.

Kuhn captured the spirit of the age and Popper’s ideas were widely regarded as old-fashioned, blind to history and the social context of science. He was dismissed as a transitional figure between the old and the new world of Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend and the sociology of science. In fact Popper identified the structure of science very early. The second sentence of Logik der Forschung noted that scientists can go about their work with a ready-made framework for their results (in contrast with philosophy where there was no agreed problem-situation). In the preface to the English edition he advocated the historical method, to take account of all the contributions and contributors to the problem, to be alert to the history of ideas and place issues in their historical context.

As for being blind to the social context, in chapter 23 of The Open Society and its Enemies he noted the role of the community to keep alive the criticism of ideas so that all propositions are well tested. He wrote that the public character of scientific method comes from two aspects of scientific procedures and practices. The first is the process of (more or less) free criticism in the scientific community and the second is the way that scientists (especially natural scientists) usually try to avoid talking at cross purposes. Of course free criticism can be undermined by many factors ranging from political interference to the dominance of fads and fashions in “normal science”.

To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method.

Actually Popper anticipated paradigm theory with his critique of conventionalism in Logik der Forschung. Conventionalism was the label he applied to the resistance to Einstein’s theory among Newtonians who were determined to maintain their paradigm. And of course he was alarmed by the concept of normal science put about by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the face of the traditional function of healthy scepticism at the heart of the scientific endeavour, for Kuhn real science starts when criticism stops. Hence “consensus rules” and the concept of serious criticism of the paradigm is rendered eccentric or obsolete.

Admittedly Kuhn shifted his ground and eventually conceded that Popper’s approach is appropriate when science is in crisis, “Even in the developed sciences, there is an essential role for Sir Karl’s methodology” (Kuhn’s 1970 reply to his critics, p. 247 of Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge eds Lakatos and Musgrave). A crisis occurs whenever it is apparent that the science is not settled but in the world where “the science is settled” there are no crises and Kuhn’s concession is rarely reported.

Richard Feinman’s Popperian take on scientific investigation.
Karl Popper meets Bazza Mackenzie. Honi Soit ( Uni of Sydney) 1971.

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4 Responses to The dots of climate science 4 Uncritical science

  1. Rafe says:

    Comments working.

  2. RobK says:

    Barry McKenzie was truely a great man of his time.

  3. pbw says:

    You’re not being fair to Kuhn.

    For Kuhn in his early phase, genuine science started when fundamental criticism stopped.


    [Popper] was alarmed by the concept of normal science put about by Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the face of the traditional function of healthy scepticism at the heart of the scientific endeavour, for Kuhn real science starts when criticism stops. Hence “consensus rules” and the concept of serious criticism of the paradigm is rendered eccentric or obsolete.

    Not at all. The very term “normal science” undermines this assertion. When science is not “normal,” what is it? It’s science in turmoil, science in crisis, and it’s revolutionary science. But it’s still science.

    IIRC, Kuhn in his first edition expressed a scepticism about the notion of progress in science; of the notion of a stately march to deeper and deeper, more and more certain, knowledge revealed by scientific enquiry. In a later edition he modified this level of scepticism.

    The elephant in this room, though, is Polanyi. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that The Logic of Scientific Discovery appeared two years after Polanyi published Personal Knowledge, especially as Popper had fallen out with Polanyi over a paper which made a contribution to PK.

    Polanyi believed fiercely in the central civilisational importance of science, and in the truth of scientific theories; or at least of those which survived the test of time. For Polanyi, reality was actually as described by a successful theory, and human beings were equipped by nature with a fundamental drive to discover the truth. He was an early critic of attempts to promote “socially useful” science, overseen by wise administrators who doled out the funds. Science could only proceed on the basis of an intense personal commitment to the values of the scientific enterprise and the pursuit of truth.

    He was well aware of the criticisms and pitfalls of too sanguine an acceptance of the values of one’s cultural milieu, and yet faced the fact that we are necessarily creatures of that milieu, from the base of which we strike out to discover more about reality.

    The realism of PK, however, has another dimension. Polanyi, a polymath, had a broad range of professional interests; from his initial degree in medicine, through his career in physical chemistry, his writings on economics, to his study of the philosophy and administration of science. These interests and experiences illuminate PK, but so do his observations of the most commonplace aspects of human experience.

    Polanyi eventually considered his attempts towards a post-critical philosophy to be a failure, but that is a judgment for future generations. The crisis he saw in critical philosophy has only deepened and it remains to be seen whether a way forward will be established, whether along lines he envisaged or not. If no such revitalisation is found, then the fears he expressed as a dark background to PK – fears of the vulnerability of the scientific impulse to collapse similar to the post-Augustinian eclipse, or like the disappearance of Greek mathematics – such fears may be realised. Isn’t that the concern you have been expressing in these articles?

  4. Rafe Champion says:

    Thanks pbw, not sure how I was unfair to Kuhn, as you wrote, he modified his early position to accept that Popper was correct on the function of criticism but only at times of crisis, not for normal science.

    Popper and Polanyi should have been allies, they were friendly in the early 1950s but fell out, as you said. Struan Jacobs at Deakin would have the full story, he is a Popperian and also a big Polanyi scholar with connections to a man in the US with access to the Polanyi archive.

    It probably was a coincidence that LSD appeared 2 years after PK because work on the translation went on over about 15 years with two false starts. Polanyi was a very frustrated and resentful person, with some reason. He thought Kuhn ripped off his idea and made it into paradigms and he tried to block Popper’s appointment to the Royal Society.

    I have checked most of Polanyi’s books and I don’t see much future for his post-critical philosophy. I thought we had that with the deconstructionists. What is the matter with the philosophy of critical rationalism? Someone popped up in a comment and suggested that we need rejoinders to the criticisms of Pooper but they did not come back to specify what the robust criticisms are. There are some dud criticisms that get recycled by people who only read secondary sources.

    Do you think the critics are fair to Popper?

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