Non-Fiction Reviews

The Philosophy of Science
A Very Short Introduction

(2002 / 2016) , Oxford University Press, £7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xvii + 140pp, ISBN 978-0-198-74558-7


Many are aware of a basic definition of the scientific method – hypothesis, experimentation (or observation), conclusion and independent verification (replicability) – but few of the intellectual tools employed in the process. Sadly, this all-too-often applies to scientists themselves and so this small book (or booklet) is one that all scientists (and engineers), as well as those in many academics in the humanities, should read…

Strangely, especially for such an important book, does not define the scientific method. I presume that this is because he assumes that his readers will all know about the scientific method but I am not so sure. I am reminded around a couple of decades ago of being asked to draft a response to a Parliamentary all-party House of Lords Select Committee enquiry on the public understanding of science for a scientific body that necessitated liaising with seventy or so specialist learned scientific societies and over a hundred of their representatives. My initial draft for this response included the above basic definition (slightly elaborated to a short paragraph) to which four scientists (three at professorial level) objected to the inclusion of verification/ replicability. Fortunately, I based my definition of the scientific method on those of four Nobel prize-winning scientists and so was able to cite references. But this does illustrate something of a gap in the educational process of people's (and given the afore even a few quite senior scientists') understanding of scienc and this gap is even bigger with regards to how we undertake each of these scientific method elements.  Samir Okasha's Philosophy of Science is particularly relevent to the 'hypothesis' and 'conclusion' elements of the scientific method.

His book begins with a chapter entitled 'What is Science' but actually (as mentioned he does not define the scientific method) is a potted history of science from ancient Greece, through Copernicus and Galileo, Descarte, Newton, Darwin and Watson/Crick.  The book's meat begins on page 11 with Karl Popper and his fundamental notion that science must be falsaifiable. This is not to say that science is false (that would be absurd as science is a process) but that any question or hypothesis that is one to scientific investigation must be able to be tested to see whether or not it is false. Naturally, different tests have different qualities and so no single test can be definitive. For example, Newton's first law of motion states that a body will either be at rest or travel at a uniform velocity in a straight line unless a force is exerted upon it. This works quite well for playing billiards or snooker down the pub, through things like friction and the exact levelness (is that a word?) of the snooker table limits such tests. Test can be improved with better tables and balls etc but the point is Newton's Law is open to being tested to see whether or not it is false. As it happens Newtonian snooker tables work well in pubs; however, they don't near large massive objects like the Sun due to general relativity and the curvature of space-time.  Conversely, questions such as 'is there an omnipotent god?' is not scientific as it cannot be investigated to see whether it is true or false: you cannot draw upon any evidence or observation because a hypothetical omnipotent god could, by definition of omnipotent, create, alter or destroy any evidence so rendering the experiment/observation useless.

Chapter 2 is a key chapter that looks at scientific inference beginning with the difference of deductive and inductive reasoning. If you do not know the answer to this, and you are a scientist, then you should stop reading this review right now and go and get this book. The chapter then moves on to inference and then probability.  Chapter 3 examines scientific explanations that includes irrelevance, causality and reduction.  Chapter 4 covers realism and anti-realism, miracles, the observable (and unobservable) and undetermination.  Chaper 5 takes us through scientific change and revolutions, paradigms and so forth.  Chapter 6 looks at a few problems that have exercised those concerned with the philosophy of science including: absolute space (inertial frames of reference); defining a biological species; the nature of the human mind.  Finally, we come to science and its critics which touches upon scientism, science and religion, and value free or value-laden science.

This is, by titular definition, 'A Very Short Introduction' and so cannot be an in-depth examination of the topic. However there is a 'further reading' list broken down by chapter and an index helps those seeking to look up a particular detail.

I began this review by stating how important this book is and that it is one that all scientists should read. I then related to what in effect was a mini-experiment (or poll) on how good scientists were at understanding the fundamentals of the scientific method and that a (fortunately) small minority could not recognise the definition as used by Nobel Prize-winning scientists. But what is it that enables some scientists to have a successful career in science without being aware of such basic knowledge? My feeling is that quite simply the nature and application (which includes a fair chunk of what can be called the philosophy of science) is simply not taught as a distinct subject: instead pupils get it in dribs and drabs as they progress from school and go through university as undergraduate students. It is therefore not surprising that small proportion (but still a worrying number) are unable to appreciate the nuances of their own discipline's foundation.  Personally, I would make it compulsory for all science students to have a module of at least five lectures on the philosophy of science and its methods necessitating a compulsory pass in a first year examination. I really feel that strongly about this topic as almost every week I read academic papers that have either been based poorly constructed experimentation and/or conclusion or whose otherwise obvious flaws been obsfucated. Again, fortunately, these represent a minority of the work I come across but its frequency is still sufficiently great to trouble me. This even touches the world of science fiction, for example topically with the current debate over the Hugo Awards and 'E Pluribus Hugo' about which a few of the SF² Concatenation team have some concerns.

We live in an increasingly technological and global society that fundamentally relies on science and innovation with nations' economies becoming more and more knowledge based.  Do not underestimate the value of having a working understanding the philosophy of science, to which end this short book is one that you -- if your professional life has any connection with science -- could well find invaluable.

Jonathan Cowie

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