Saturday, October 3, 2009

Yglesias and Science

Matt Yglesias has lots of interesting things to say. I think he's pretty good on urban planning/density/planning/socio-economic factors, and as a lefty critic of Bush/defender of Obama he's reasonably fair and intelligent. I disagree with him about global warming, and I'm always surprised that his usual skepticism deserts him on that issue.

Now he comments on science.

Carnap did a lot of good work during his career, but as I tweeted it’s disappointing to see TMBG embracing his discredited view that “science is a system of statements based on direct experience and controlled by experimental verification.” That’s just not the case. It’s not how science works in practice and it doesn’t work in principle, either. Facts and theories are interdependent.

Nothing is ever observed that admits of a definitive, theory-independent observation nor does anything ever happen that can verify or falsify a single proposition in isolation. Obviously, observation and experimentation are integral to the work of scientists, but it’s a lot murkier and more complicated than that.

I think it’s unfortunate that people trying to enhance the social prestige of science and scientists (which is basically what the TMBG song is about) have this tendency to want to fall back on this kind of naive realism and positivism as their means for doing so. To understand why science is so impressive what I think you really need to do is not talk about how it’s “real” (whatever that means) but put it as a social practice alongside other social practices aimed at explaining the world. You’ll see that science is impressively progressive—when old theories get overturned by newer ones, our capabilities as a society and as a species are enhanced in really noteworthy ways. There’s no better set of ideas or practices out there.

I don't think I can respond fully right now, but at minimum Yglesias is a dogmatic modern: science is either technology, which either works and transforms the world, or it is nothing. Practical effects are everything, the only real test of truth or reality. When he says a theory is not disproved by an individual fact, since facts do not somehow have some objective or independent meaning, he seems to anticipate that he will keep on believing in global warming no matter what the evidence, as long as the belief in it causes changes in government policies and individual behaviours all over the world. I'm about half joking.

Still keeping it brief for now, I'm reminded of Kojeve on history--probably reading Hegel, more or less:

... if one does not accept this [possibly Platonic] theistic conception of Truth (and of Being), if one accepts the radical Hegelian atheism according to which Being itself is essentially temporal (Being=Becoming) and creates itself insofar as it is discursively revealed in the course of history (or insofar as it is history: revealed Being=Truth=Man=History), and if one does not want to sink into skeptical relativism which ruins the very idea of Truth and thus ruins the question for it or philosophy, ... it is necessary ... like Socrates ... [to] frequent the "citizens of the City". If Being creates itself ("becomes") in the course of history, it is not by isolating oneself from history that one can reveal it .... if the "solution" to a problem has in fact been historically or socially "valid" for the whole duration of time up to the present, one has the right, until (historical) proof to the contrary, to consider it philosophically "valid," in spite of the philosophers' continuance of the "discussion." .... Speaking generally, it is history itself which attends to "judging" (by "results" or "success") the acts which statemen or tyrants perform (consciously or not) in terms of the ideas of philosophers, adapted for practice by intellectuals.
(See Response to Strauss, "On Tyranny"--only history can jugde whether tyranny is right or wrong/necessary or not).

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