Skip to main content

The Meaning of Science - Tim Lewens ***

It's traditional for scientists to get the hump about philosophy of science. As Tim Lewens, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge points out, the great Richard Feynman was highly dismissive of the topic. But most of us involved in science writing do recognise its importance, and I was very much looking forward to this book. I'll get the reason it doesn't get five stars out of the way first. 

This is because the book misses out a whole chunk of philosophy of science in favour of dedicating the second half to 'what science means for us', which primarily seems to be more a summary of some areas of soft science rather than true philosophy. We have some great material in the first half on what science is and on the work of the terrible twins Popper and Kuhn (of whom more in the moment), but I was left wanting so much more. What came after Kuhn (whose work is 50 years old)? We only get a few passing comments. There is nothing about peer review. Nothing about fraud in science. Nothing about the relationship of maths and science - in fact there was so much more philosophising I would have loved to have read about.

What there was proved excellent. I was vaguely familiar with the two big names in the philosophy of science, but only at a headline level. I knew, for instance, that Karl Popper's ideas, while still widely supported by scientists, are frowned on by many in philosophy of science - but I didn't know why. In a nutshell it's because Popper took things too far, not just talking about scientific theories being falsifiable, which most find acceptable, but going on to the say the process of inductive reasoning, so important to science, isn't valid - which no scientist can honestly find acceptable.

Similarly, while I had got a vague idea of Thomas Kuhn and his paradigm shifts, like everyone else except philosophers I wasn't really sure what a paradigm was - apparently Kuhn used the term as a kind of definitive exemplar driven change rather than a traditional revolution. I also wasn't aware of Kuhn's rather nutty ideas that taking a new scientific view didn't just change the view, but changed the actual universe. Really.

There were still points I'd disagree with. Lewens dismisses Popper entirely because of his anti-induction views, but doesn't say what's wrong with the apparently very sensible Popper Lite approach, with appropriate recognition that one experiment doesn't make a falsification isn't acceptable. Similarly but in the opposite vein, he gives in far too easily to Kuhn's idea on changing the universe, taking the example of the subjective nature of colour as showing that the way we look at things truly does alter reality. Well, no it doesn't. A flower is giving off exactly the same photons however you look at it - it's the interpretation that changes, not the universe itself. But I don't mind this - argument is the whole point of philosophy and why it's far more fun than the grumps like Stephen Hawking who claim we don't need it any more seem to realise.

So an excellent start first half to a book that I think all scientists and those with a true interest in science should read. But I just wish that second half had filled in those missing bits rather than trying to be a mini-popular science book with a touch of philosophical justification in its own right.
Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. May I recommend my philosophy-of-science book (also based on blog entries) ‘The grand bazaar of wisdom’
    More information here:
    http://bazaarofwisdom.blogspot.com.es/
    Best wishes

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid your book seems outside our remit, but thanks very much for your offer.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tim Woollings - Four Way Interview

Tim Woollings is an Associate Professor in Physical Climate Science at the University of Oxford, leading a team of researchers in the Atmospheric Dynamics group. He obtained his PhD in Meteorology in 2005 and since then has worked on a variety of topics spanning weather prediction, atmospheric dynamics and circulation, and the effects of climate change. He has studied how the jet stream varies over weeks, years, and decades, and how we can better predict these changes. He was a contributing author on three chapters of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. Tim worked at the University of Reading as a postdoc, research fellow and then lecturer before moving to the University of Oxford in 2013. He is now the Oxford Joint Chair of the Met Office Academic Partnership. His new book is Jet Stream.

Why climate?

It has never been more important to learn about how our climate system works, and how we are affecting it. You certainly get a lot of satisfaction when your work touches on hugely important …

The Apollo Chronicles - Brandon Brown *****

There were two reasons I wasn't expecting much from this book. Firstly, there have been so many titles on the Apollo programme and the space race. And secondly, a book that focusses on the engineering involved would surely be far too much at the nut and bolt level (literally), missing out on the overarching drama that makes the story live. Also there were so many people involved - 400,000 is mentioned - that we couldn't have much human interest because we would be bombarded with lists of names.

Instead, I was charmed by Brandon Brown's account. His father was one of the engineers, but he isn't given undue prominence - Brown picks out a handful of characters and follows them through, bringing in others as necessary, but never overwhelming us with names. And while it's true that there is a lot of nitty gritty engineering detail, it rarely becomes dull. Somehow, Brown pulls off the feat of making the day-to-day, hectic engineering work engaging.

I think in part this …

Saturn – William Sheehan ****

This book marks something of a milestone in my reviewing career: it’s the first time I’ve seen an excerpt from one of my reviews printed on the back cover. It comes from my review of Sheehan’s previous book, on Mercury, which I said ‘easily convinced me the Solar System’s 'least interesting' planet is still a pretty fascinating place.’ That wasn’t an easy task for the author, given Mercury’s unspectacular appearance and reputation – but Saturn is a different matter. With its iconic rings, easily visible through a small telescope, it’s the favourite planet of many amateur astronomers. For space scientists, too, it’s a prime target – given that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, look like the kind of places we might find alien life. So Sheehan’s challenge this time wasn’t to find enough material to fill 200 pages, but to distil a potentially huge subject down to that size.

He meets this challenge just as successfully as the previous one – but not quite in the way I was expect…