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 

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

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…