Book Review: What Is This Thing Called Science?

The book reviewed here is ‘What is This Thing Called Science?’ by Dr Alan Chalmers. This book has been quite successful as an introduction to science and is in it’s third edition. This edition was paperback and ran to 266 pages, with an index of names and a bibliography running to several pages but without tables or other illustrations. The book is published by the Open University Press. Chalmers puts some of the key issues into focus early in the book and caricatures a view of how the physical and social/human sciences might be related:-

The undoubted success of physics over the last three hundred years, it is assumed, is to be attributed to the application of a special method, ‘the scientific method’. Therefore, if the social and human sciences are to emulate the success of physics then that is to be achieved by first understanding and formulating this method and then applying it to the social and human sciences

Chalmers considers firstly the viability of the argument that science is based on firm observable facts. He considers the role of perception and then of the role of the theoretical structure from which the facts are interpreted. Both of these considerations bring us back not just to the observer but to the observer’s inner subjective experience. Next he considers the experimental design and here the reader is able to see how many other factors are able to interfere with the sound interpretation of experimentally derived ‘facts’. He then contrasts induction and deduction along the way commenting that

Generally scientific laws invariably go beyond the finite amount of observable evidence that is available to support them, and that is why they can never be proven in the sense of being logically deduced from that evidence

He goes on to demonstrate some of the difficulties with an inductive approach when it uses a combination of deduction, induction and observable facts alone before turning to the issue of falsifiability.

Once proposed, speculative theories are to be rigorously and ruthlessly tested by observation and experiment. Theories that fail to stand up to observational and experimental tests must be eliminated and replaced by further speculative conjecturesthe falsity of universal statements can be deduced from suitable singular statements. The falsificationist exploits this logical point to the full…if it is to form part of science, an hypothesis must be falsifiable

He illustrates a theory that is not easily falsifiable by referring to an Adlerian interpretation of behaviour in two situations (Popper who suggested the benefits of falsifiability had trained under Adler in Vienna and so the use of this example is an interesting one). Even Popper was not a fundamentalist in terms of falsifiability which Chalmers refers to

I have always stressed the need for some dogmatism: the dogmatic scientist has an important role to play. If we give into criticism too easily, we shall never find out where the real power of our theories lies

Chalmers then looks at Kuhn and the nature of scientific revolutions with paradigmatic shifts in the underlying theoretical structures. Kuhn’s arguments include an acknowledgement of the practical aspects of the scientist such as the apprenticeship model of learning which is needed to understand the complex paradigms in which they are working and which are much more than the immediate theoretical structures which can be explicitly stated. From one part of Chalmer’s description of Kuhn’s approach I wondered if he (Kuhn) had developed an (implicit) anthropological interpretation of science which may have resulted from his own practical experience within science. The charge of relativism was levelled against Kuhn and he apparently had a rather interesting response producing two apparently incompatible ‘strands’ within his work on the structure of scientific revolutions. At the end of his discussion on Kuhn, Chalmers notes that there are issues here which are important and need to be addressed in order to gain a better understanding of the processes involved in scientific progress. I was quite interested to read about how astrology and astronomy were used as contrasting subjects to test philosophical explanations of science.

He then covers Lakatos who developed a theory of the research program in which progression in science rests in a system which is able to generate novel predictions about phenomenon and where the central hypothesis is surrounded by secondary hypotheses which act as a ‘buffer’. He then covers a number of other subjects including Feyereband on anarchy in science (i.e. against method), experimentalism and the bayesian approach. I found that he explained the theories clearly and it was very easy to follow the main arguments. However I couldn’t help feeling that the main emphasis throughout the book was on physics and chemistry and I wonder to what extent this reflects the views of the philosophers discussed. Popper for instance became a vehement critic of psychoanalysis for it’s inability to offer testable predictions and therefore falsifiability.

Nevertheless our brains, whilst composed ultimately of atoms also have emergent properties which are extraordinarily subtle and I wonder to what extent an altogether different philosophical approach is required for the neurosciences, psychology, psychotherapy and so on. If an arbitrary divide has been created between the human sciences and the physical sciences it may be in part due to the training of the philosophers who have had the greatest influence on the characterisation of science and a metaphilosophy or metapsychology is required to deal with the philosophers who have had this impact. There are almost certainly value based analyses that have permeated the cultural understanding of science and it would be interesting to look at this area in more detail.


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The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.


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