PZ Myers on scientists vs. technicians (with philosophy!)

PZ Myers has a fascinating post up about a fiasco involving ENCODE, which PZ describes as “a body of very well funded, high ranking scientists working at prestigious institutions who are actively and obviously fitting the data to a set of unworkable theoretical presuppositions, and completely ignoring the rebuttals that are appearing at a rapid clip.”

After sketching the basic story, he offers up some commentary:

I have my own explanation for what is going on. What I think we’re seeing is an emerging clash between scientists and technicians. I’ve seen a lot of biomedical grad students going through training in pushing buttons and running gels and sucking numerical data out of machines, and we’ve got the tools to generate so much data right now that we need people who can manage that. But it’s not science. It’s technology. There’s a difference.

A scientist has to be able to think about the data they’re generating, put it into a larger context, and ask the kinds of questions that probe deeper than a superficial analysis can deliver. A scientist has to be more broadly trained than the person who runs the gadgetry.

This might get me burned at the stake worse than sneering at ENCODE, but a good scientist has to be…a philosopher. They may not have formal training in philosophy, but the good ones have to be at least roughly intuitive natural philosophers (ooh, I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before). If I were designing a biology curriculum today, I’d want to make at least some basic introduction to the philosophy of science an essential and early part of the training.

I know, I’m going against the grain — there have been a lot of big name scientists who openly dismiss philosophy. Richard Feynman, for instance, said “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” But Feynman was wrong, and ironically so. Reading Feynman is actually like reading philosophy — a strange kind of philosophy that squirms and wiggles trying to avoid the hated label, but it’s still philosophy.

I think the conflict arises because, like everything, 90% of philosophy is garbage, and scientists don’t want to be associated with a lot of the masturbatory nonsense some philosophers pump out. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that some science, like ENCODE, is nonsense, too — and the quantity of garbage is only going to rise if we don’t pay attention to understanding as much as we do accumulating data. We need the input of philosophy.

My first reaction was, “I really don’t think getting philosophers involved is the solution,” but it’s kind of a semantic issue. If PZ wants to teach his students to think in greater depth about their data and call it “philosophy,” that’s fine. Going to a random philosopher and expecting them to be able to help with that might not be wise, but PZ already knows that.

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