May 6, 2017

What is science?

Discussions of science are frequently plagued by confusion resulting from the fact that the term “science” has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and it denotes applied science and technology. Very frequently, valid arguments against “science” in one of these senses are taken — invalidly — to be arguments against “science” in a different sense. Thus, it is undeniable that science, as a social institution, has been closely linked to the economic and military powers-that-be and frequently plays an odious role. It is equally true that technology has complex (sometimes disastrous) social effects and that it rarely brings the miracle solutions promised by its most enthusiastic advocates. (Nevertheless, technology is often blamed for effects that arise more from the social structure than from the technology itself.) Finally, science, considered as a body of knowledge, is always fallible and subject to revision, and the errors of scientists are sometimes due to all sorts of social, political, religious and philosophical prejudices. Brown makes clear that he favors reasoned critiques of “science” understood in all these senses. But, he observes, such critiques provide no support for an attack on science understood as an enterprise aimed at acquiring objective (albeit incomplete and revisable) knowledge of the world.

Alan D. Sokal, Review of “Who Rules in Science?" by James Robert Brown, March 30, 2002

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan