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Recurrent Memes 
17th-Jan-2011 04:37 pm
I continue to enjoy moments when, briefly, scientists admit that science is not a edifice of knowledge, unified and expanding, but a series of provisional discoveries which may or may not bear fruit.

Here's an example of that.

Dean Kamen, the inventor, once said, "Don't tell me it's impossible," he says, "tell me you can't do it." "Tell me it's never been done. Because the only real laws in this world-the only things we really know-are the two postulates of relativity, the three laws of Newton, the four laws of thermodynamics, and Maxwell's equation-no, scratch that, the only things we really know are Maxwell's equations, the three laws of Newton, the two postulates of relativity, and the periodic table. That's all we know that's true. All the rest are man's laws..."

-From Esquire profile titled "How Dean Kamen's Magical Water Machine Could Save the World", December 2008.

I learned to watch for this "but it's all a unified edifice, and if you disturb one logical link or deny one metaphor, it all falls apart" as I studied philosophy in the Roman period. This was a time when a lot of people fell prey to the "if it's a unified system, it must be right" theory of knowledge. There are still people who say, "But if you don't believe in X, then how do you cross the street? Doesn't it all logically depend on that?"

Of course not.
19th-Jan-2011 10:56 am (UTC)
I think Kamen's full of crap. No offence to you meant, and I hope none taken.

I'm the last to argue that science is a unified edifice, if only because that implies completeness - which is utter bullshit, as the very premise of science is that it's never complete. But I would definitely argue that there are some unchallengeable core principles at its centre and that the periphery continues to expand outwards.

From time to time the central edifice may be altered, but not in any gross way - e.g. Newtonian physics still describes how 99.99% of the universe works (if I remember Hawking's quote correctly), and nothing Einstein had to say invalidates Newtonian physics within the limits of day to day human endeavour. Rutherford's alpha-scattering experiment may have radically changed the way we view the atom, but that doesn't mean that all industrial chemistry up to that point is a lie, and so on.
21st-Jan-2011 05:22 pm (UTC)
While I'm happy to think of science in that way, I suspect I think there are more holes than you do, many of them coming from things like deceptive double-blind studies, others from correlations seized on as causative arguments (the rise of CO2 and the cult of global warming: my second or third run-in with badly constructed models to explain reality rather than doing the basic science). In most of physics, there are experiments to back up the theory at significant places: until you come to string theory, which continues to create symposia, PhDs, dissertations, and popular explanations, and all with much better and more robust logic than "global warming" ever displayed. Or, as a friend of mine suggested, listening to anyone who uses the word "quantum" but is unable to tell you the quanta emitted from a radio antenna with appropriate inputs, is probably lying with science, and should be presumed wrong until proven right.

Now, I admit this comes from a background of logic, economics and statistics (there are few better disciplines for creating a skeptic). I may be dismissing prematurely things that I should not, and will, in due turn, pay the penalty for misreading reality to that extent. As the area of prediction shrinks, however, so does the penalty....
22nd-Jan-2011 11:23 pm (UTC)
I agree with your reply.

I think we're in general agreement, and that any differences we have are minor ones that we can both live with.
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