On Facts, Theories, And The Philosophy Of Science

On Facts, Theories, And The Philosophy Of Science October 9, 2009

PZ Myers fisks Nicholas Wade’s review of Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Wade gets pedantic about a distinction between facts and theories which only shows his own ignorance about how the two relate to each other.  Along the way Wade badly invokes the philosophy of science.

First off Myers quotes Stephen J. Gould stressing the point that evolution is a fact and theories of evolution are only theories about its mechanisms:

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.

Wade’s most offensive remark (to me anyway:

He [Dawkins] seems to have little appreciation for the cognitive structure of science. Philosophers of science, who are the arbiters of such issues, say science consists largely of facts, laws and theories. The facts are the facts, the laws summarize the regularities in the facts, and the theories explain the laws. Evolution can fall into only of of these categories, and it’s a theory.

And Myers is right to reply that

Philosophers, sweet as they may be, are most definitely not the “arbiters” of the cognitive structure of science. They are more like interested spectators, running alongside the locomotive of science, playing catch-up in order to figure out what it is doing, and occasionally shouting words of advice to the engineer, who might sometimes nod in interested agreement but is more likely to shrug and ignore the wacky academics with all the longwinded discourses. Personally, I think the philosophy of science is interesting stuff, and can surprise me with insights, but science is a much more pragmatic operation that doesn’t do a lot of self-reflection.

I don’t know how any philosopher of science could dispute this fact.  It takes an obtuse prejudice towards a “top-down” view of theory as leading to practice to blind someone to the reality that scientists have been showing us what science is by doing science and refining the extraordinarily and unprecedentedly powerful techniques for generating genuine knowledge and that philosophers of science have only been studying what the scientists actually do and what actually works for creating knowledge.

Philosophers of science are investigators of scientists and scientific methods, not their bosses.  Philosophers of science can and should play important cultural roles as part of formulating coherent conceptions of what the best scientists do and how it generates truth-conducive insights.  Philosophers of science are, in this way, as integral as scientists in the task of discerning the differences between science and pseudoscience and, in general, knowledge and mere opinion (or outright falsehood).

But philosophers cannot in advance dictate much of anything to scientists.  Their job is to offer abstract formulations of the scientists’ own endeavor to them which may at the most help them in one specific case or another to do more deliberately what they already do implicitly.  But science ultimately starts with scientists and its methods are as confirmed or disconfirmed in the laboratory as its particular theories and hypotheses are.

Put at its most simply—physicists do not write the laws of physics but approximate them in theoretical formulations as best they can.  And philosophers of science do not write the laws for scientific research but based on observation of good scientists, formulate their techniques and criteria for knowledge into theoretical formulations as best they can.

Finally Wade assesses the relative alterability of theories and facts precisely backwards, go read PZ’s post itself for his analysis of this point.  All I have to add to it is that Wade’s idea that facts are fixed while theories are open to constant change is rather stunningly imprecise and naive for someone who is preaching greater care in understanding how facts and theories relate.  And it’s especially astonishing from someone insisting that philosophy of science be consulted since any philosopher of science who has read Kuhn—meaning any philosopher of science whatsoever—knows better than to describe facts as so entirely theory independent and fixed as Wade implies.  Facts and theories are inseparable and both disputable and correctable in science, with neither being intelligible without the other.

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