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Friday, November 16, 2007

Thoughts from an old author on methods of science...

Toronto journalist David Warren writes about a "new" old book he has discovered, Studies in the History & Methods of the Sciences (1958), by Arthur David Ritchie, then chair of Logic & Metaphysics at Edinburgh University:

"The best book I've yet found in the field, without Pierre Duhem in the index, & worth any price second-hand (it won't be in print) for sheer wit & the glee with which he crushes the philosophical pretensions of his scientistic contemporaries, & predecessors. The breadth of his knowledge of actual science is extraordinary. His insistence on calling them "sciences" in the plural, his suspicion of the singular, & his doubt that any one-sized scientific method can fit all, are apparent everywhere.

On objectivity: "An object is objective in virtue of being handled by a subject."

On what makes a science: "No study can be reckoned fully scientific until it has undergone the Ordeal by Quackery, whether painless & quick as for Greek mathematics or painful & long as for chemistry."

On natural selection (including random mutation): "This means that forms which are less suited to an environment in which they find themselves tend to die out in favour of those better suited. It does not however explain how they come to find themselves in that environment nor how the changes in their forms has come about. It is customary to say that changes come about by chance; legitimately, if to say so amounts to a confession of ignorance.

Thus the doctrine of natural selection is negative. It is the biological equivalent of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics; it states that types, like individuals tend to die out. Whatever the rate of dying out may be it always holds. If forms change, if forms remain unchanged, if some organisms die out, if others survive, natural selection explains it all equally easily. Thus it can be used as a blanket to smother further questions."

Add genetic sophistications to the above: "If, when they say 'chance', they mean simply that they do not know what causes variations to occur, then their position is secure, in fact impregnable. If they mean by 'chance' that they know that there are no causes of certain sorts at work, then their claims are no better than the Lamarckian."

On the positivist impulse: "What has been said about Hobbes may also be said about the similar theories of the French Enlightenment of the 18th century & similar ones of the 19th. These last were the most ambitious, flamboyant, & least excusable efforts to produce 'scientific' sociology in imitation of physical science; namely those of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, & Herbert Spencer. The first criticism to be made is that if we take the three theories together they pretty well cancel out, & this is precisely what they should not do if they are scientific & about the same subject, as they claim to be. The second criticism, if a second is required, is that all three smell of the midnight oil & the ivory tower. They none of them have the smell of places where collective or public human action occurs. ..."

On the illusions of technicians: "Positivists themselves are armchair critics, who do no work & therefore little harm. Technicians on the other hand do work & may do a great deal of harm. ... The technicians' chief illusions are two, & were pointed out by Socrates. The first is that because a man can do some things successfully he can do many other things equally successfully; in fact almost anything. The second is that practising any technique is an inherently virtuous act."

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