Pub-Style Science: Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle?

There will be a Pub-Style Science discussion of why scientists might want to think about epistemology in particular and (perhaps) philosophy more generally on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, starting 9 PM EDT/6 PM PDT. You can watch the hashtag #pubscience for more details (including the link that will let you watch the Google Hangout once it's hanging out).

I've heard it said that an understanding of philosophy of science is about as useful to a scientist as a hydrodynamics textbook would be to a fish. Indeed, I've heard it said that philosophy of science is worse than useless to a scientist -- that it a malign influence on one's ability to do science.

I'm disinclined to believe these rejections of the value of philosophy for the scientific practitioner. Then again, I left a path as a scientific practitioner to become a philosopher. You do the math.

Anyways, in advance of the discussion Tuesday night, I thought I'd point you toward a couple ancient posts I wrote on philosophy of science and science, plus some other things worth reading before the conversation:

A branch of learning that 'need not be learned'?: In which I examine a claim by scientist, Nobel Laureate, and notorious pre-internet troll Sir Peter Medawar that "scientific methodology" (which might be the picture delivered by philosophy of science) "need not be taught or, if taught, need not be learned".

Does writing off philosophy of science cost the scientists anything?: In which I argue that philosophy of science may be useful to scientific practitioners who want to communicate productively with people outside their narrow scientific disciplines.

You might find the comment threads on both of those posts interesting (depending on your tolerance for interlocutors committed to talking past each other).

You should also read Michael Tomasson's post setting the stage for Tuesday's discussion.

On the question of whether postmodern strands of philosophy might have a particularly malign impact on one's understanding of science, I recommend this Storify'd conversation.

No matter what we end up deciding, I expect it will be an interesting conversation.

4 responses so far

  • […] Joining us will be the esteemed Dr. Free-Ride, Dr. Rubidium, and Andrew Brandel. Dr.Free-Ride has already, as is typical, been prolific on the topic. Go read “Is a scientist without philosophy like a fish without a bicycle?“ […]

  • Hal Caswell says:

    This sounds like it will be an interesting PubStyle discussion.

    I have to smile, though, at the uses to which the Medawar quote have been put. Medawar was anything but indifferent to the philosophy and history of science. The quote in question was a rhetorical question at the beginning of a long and serious monograph on "Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought", presented as the Jayne Lectures at the American Philosophical Society in 1968. Not the sort of thing done by someone who was skeptical about the value of philosophy for the working scientist (for those who might not know, Medawar won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1960 for his work in immunology). My copy of Induction and Intuition is on the other side of the ocean at the moment, but I was inspired to pull out Medawar's chapter "Hypothesis and Imagination" in the 1974 Philosophy of Karl Popper volume (vol. 1, pp. 274-291). In it, Medawar does indeed criticize the idea of "The Scientific Method" (his capitals): he takes pains to point out that there is no mechanical inductive procedure by which science can proceed. He then expounds at length the hypothetico-deductive approach to science, very much along the lines of Popper, emphasizing the history of the idea in the work of Whewell, Bernard, and others. Again, not exactly the work of someone with any doubt about the value to a scientist of an understanding of the history and philosophy of science.

    So, I don't think this out of context quote can really be taken as a "claim" by Medawar. Quite the opposite; he is an example of a distinguished scientist with a long history of paying serious attention to philosophical issues.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Indeed, I'd classify Medawar as a borderline philosopher of science himself.

      But he did like stirring things up, and (as the comments on the posts linked above should demonstrate) there are plenty of folks who will happily read his rhetorical question as a dismissal of philosophical examinations of science.

      • ecologist says:

        I would agree about Medawar. And you are right; those links were what made me go back to make sure that I hadn't mis-remembered his writings.

        FWIW, I am a scientist with a long-term interest in the philosophy and history of science, and my vote is that a knowledge of these things is highly useful for doing good science.