Smug professor takes advice… then disses advisors

How do we know the laws of science are right?

There!  No need to conclude anything except that by just thinking about the question, we’re thinking about thinking.

We really do have to step out of a subject sometimes, even when we’re just thinking about the subject.

Einstein had to ‘do philosophy’ when he adjusted the rules of physics.  He was happy with this.  He didn’t turn churlishly round and tell philosophers they were time-wasting bullshitters; he took pride in joining their ranks.  The more you have to take care in changing the rules of your science, the more you too are doing philosophy.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s and 1940’s that we crystallised the central secret of science: the theory that explains the best is the best.  It’d taken that long even though we’d come close in earlier centuries, and even though our minds, and even our genes are themselves machines for modelling the world (and generating suitable behaviour).

The great Brian Cox (no, not the best portrayer of Hannibal Lecter but one of the better portrayers of an ignorant group-thinking upstart) has been building his scientific thinking skills openly from the lessons of the great philosophers of the world and then saying philosophy and philosophers are a waste of time.  He himself in his Royal Television Society lecture 2010 explicitly recommended advice he told us was drawn from John Stewart Mill.  He then showed film of Richard Feynman almost in the same breath both expounding something very close indeed to the central principle of Karl Popper’s advice, while saying philosophers were a waste of time (rapidly endorsed by Cox).  A good scientist will work from the secret mentioned in the previous paragraph, but it was only one of many principles popular until, just before the second world war (in German), and after it (in English), Karl Popper published his books.  Feynman had been at Los Alamos building the bomb alongside many refugees who will either have been just the sort to have read Popper’s pre-war work, or will have listened to those who had.  Feynman was as good at physics as Albert Speer was at stimulating aircraft production for Hitler yet both had serious blindspots.  Feyman didn’t realise that 500 years ago he’d have been expounding the latest fashion in religious thought as though he’d just thought of it, or more likely, as though he’d known it since birth.

It’s a handy ploy when you’ve lost an argument (and the more complex the better) to simply say your opponents’ account contains so many contradictions they condemn themselves.  (Along with your opponents, many spectators will already have decided you’re talking rubbish so a bit more won’t change their mind; if they haven’t followed closely they may give you the benefit of the doubt.)  Seeking contradictions is however a key foundation of argument criticism, so good philosophers instinctively avoid making them.  Blatant self contradiction also happens to be a common weakness of people just venturing into philosophical argument themselves – as so eloquently demonstrated by Cox and his Feynman clip.  Learning by heart Newton’s laws of motion won’t make you a good physicist, and getting the central point of Popperian principles right doesn’t make your opinion on philosophy of science worth listening to either.

Cox isn’t the first person to get a kick out of boosting their own tribe at the expense of another, especially one they haven’t succeeded in understanding through lack of patience, ability or morals.  Wolpert is another philosophobe scientist; he had refined his basic thinking habits working under Peter Medawar, who had eagerly followed Popper’s guidance for blazing new trails through unfamiliar territory.  Wolpert simply continued after in the same style, then slagged off the likes of Popper and denied any skill was needed in blazing the trail in the first place.

But again, just getting the first lesson right doesn’t prevent errors in subsequent lessons.  Cox endorsed the process of peer review unreservedly in the lecture.  You understand Popperian principles do you Brian?  You realise that theories must first be exposed to criticism, and only then can we announce which theories we want power generation and bridge building engineers, as well as health workers etc. to work from?  So how can a process like peer review, which works by preventing theories from being exposed, help with exposure of these theories?  More basically, how can the publication or not of a paper implement a double-stage process of first discussion, then the expression of acceptance?  Is publication of a paper part of the discussion stage?  If so, why claim it’s classed as ‘good science’ if it’s merely been passed for discussion?  If publication means the paper has been ‘accepted as good science’, why do only a tiny number get to see it?  And most obviously of all, who the heck is it that decides what is good and bad science?  Why are experts in one subject automatically assumed to be perfect philosophers of science?  Ah yes – I remember now.  Philosophy is rubbish, and anyway, all good scientists are expert at it.

If no-one can demonstrate their scientific expertise without passing through peer review, how can you claim that good scientists always get through in the end?  How can you tell the difference between being a good scientist and being good at getting through peer review?  Have you read this?:

Min-Liang Wong (2008) What other treasures could be hidden in conference papers? Nature November2008 Vol 456|27 p443.

How about this?:

Peters, D., Ceci, S. (1982). Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of submitted articles, submitted again. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 5,187-255.

I recommend authors insist Cox does not referee any of their papers.  I also advise imaginative students not to choose Cox as a professor, or anyone else who claims philosophy is bunk.  Without separate criteria of ‘A theory obeying scientific rules’ and ‘What I happen to believe within my field’, scientists tend to judge any new theory simply according to whether they believe it, thus eliminating the extra area of ‘Interesting idea I don’t believe in yet’, which is where new theories usually take their first steps.  Those who clearly believe ‘La Science? C’ést moi’ are natural born killers of other people’s good new ideas, no matter how good they may have been themselves.  In subjects where clear evaluation of theories from experimentation is very difficult, so many good theories can be customarily replaced by bad, and the best theorists routinely rejected, that the whole area ceases to be a science.  This has happened in vertebrate palaeontology.

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2 Responses to Smug professor takes advice… then disses advisors

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