- Getting Science Wrong: Why the Philosophy of Science Matters by Paul Dicken
As a distinct discipline, the philosophy of science is about a century old. Its central problems, however, have been debated since antiquity. Pierre Duhem located the remote origins of the discipline in the sharp contrast of a causal realist conception of science to the positivist saving of the appearances, historically exemplified by the debates between Aristotelians and Ptolemaists. In the modern period, the positivists seem to have gained the upper hand, but their dominance has been problematic. This is clear from that defining issue of the discipline: the demarcation problem. From the beginning, philosophers of science were fully engaged in the project of methodologically distinguishing science from nonscience. Yet, these efforts were in vain, for every proposed demarcating method brought a host of difficulties. Finally, in the waning decades of the twentieth century, philosophers such as Larry Laudan pronounced that the demarcation project was a bust.
This new book by Australian philosopher Paul Dicken is a light-hearted survey of the problems dominating the philosophy of science since its inception as an independent discipline. The focus is, not surprisingly, the demarcation problem. In particular, the reader is taken through an investigation of the major attempts to distinguish genuine science from pseudo-science. Rather than confronting the problem head-on with a defense of a new definition of science, the author engages in a sort of via negativa. Announcing at the start that his book is about how science is misunderstood, he insists that, far from being perverse, this approach is crucial to understanding where philosophers have come in their attempts [End Page 595] to define science. The discussion proceeds by way of consideration of the various attempts that have been made to isolate a specifically scientific method. It is well illustrated by various events from the history of science as well as contemporary debates in the public square.
Judicial decisions resulting from creationist challenges to evolutionary biology in American courts provide a provocative opening. The author points out that these have taken the form of attempts to define science in terms of Popperian falsifiability or methodological naturalism. There follows a discursive account of the limitations or outright failure of both criteria. This account includes a nice twist wherein methodological naturalism is shown to be an empty notion because it is unfalsifiable. Inductivist attempts to define scientific method are met with the usual Humean critique as well as a series of amusing examples of spectacular predictive failure from the history of science. A discussion of the necessity of interpretation in the assessment of scientific theories leads to consideration of the various social and political conditions in which research is done. The consideration naturally provokes the investigation of Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm account as a basis for defining science. Yet the author has no illusions about the strengths and weaknesses of all of these various attempts to articulate a set of overarching rules determining the nature and method of science. While he is just in awarding due credit for the real insights imbedded in the various attempts at demarcation, he does not hesitate to indicate an impasse where he finds one. He even goes so far as to embrace the discontent attendant upon the various forms of relativism, even the most sophisticated.
In the end, the author reduces the issue to a contrast of two opposing explanatory narratives: one genealogical in nature and another in terms of internal mechanisms. A genealogical account is one in which a researcher attempts to explain some natural reality in terms of its origin in something else. The author’s favored example is Aristotle’s theory of natural place according to which any motion is finally explained in terms of the tendency of the elements to return to their natural place in the cosmos. This theory is contrasted to accounts such as Galileo’s theory of inertial motion. The opposition of genealogical and internal-mechanism narratives provides some purchase on grasping a reliable demarcating principle. Nonetheless, this narrative approach...