Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is the question "What is science?" a scientific question?

Should a tenure committee for a scientific academic position make its decisions on the basis of a candidates opinions on non-scientific questions?

I ask the question because recently Iowa State University appears to have denied tenure to astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez on the basis of his opinion on the question of whether Intelligent Design is science. But (and this will really send the anti-ID crowd into paroxysms of rage) the question of what science is is not itself a scientific question.

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption on the part of everyone involved in the debate that those most qualified to answer the question of what science is are scientists. But that would only be the case if the question, "What is science?" were a scientific question.

Well, is it?

If it is, then answers to it should meet scientific criteria. Let's take testability as an example (that is, after all, the one most often used against ID): Is the statement "Science is what is testable" a testable statement?

How about the scientific method? Is the statement "Science consists of those things which are amenable to the scientific method" amenable to the scientific method?

Come up with whatever criterion you will, I think you will have a hard time finding one that meets its own criterion. What does that say about the question, "What is science?"

It seems to me that where science lies in the larger scheme of things is not a question for someone who specializes in science, but for someone who specializes in the larger scheme of things--in other words, a philosopher. Is it not a philosophical, and not a scientific question? In fact, it is pretty clear that it is the philosopher of science who is the expert in this area.

If this is the case, then ISU, in denying Guillermo Gonzalez tenure because of this views in support of ID, is taking this action on the basis of a question that is outside their realm of expertise. It is not deciding on his tenure on the basis of scientific questions, but on the basis of philosophical questions which to my knowledge have not been settled in the field of the philosophy of science.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

To be frank, Martin, thats a load of nonsense. Gonzalez almost certainly wouldn't have been granted tenure whether he was involved in ID or not because since joining ISU he hasn't been pulling in research grants or publishing new research in peer reviewed journals. Of course, the reason his productivity has plummeted is probably tied up in his pursuit of the scientifically sterile ID notion.

Now lets apply your silly reasoning to another field. Can you imagine, say, an attorney arguing: "You can't deny me partnership in the law firm because I only billed 1,000 hours last year, you are only lawyers. Only a philosopher is qualified to judge whether what I'm doing is actually legal work or not." Your argument is every bit as ridiculous.

Hannah J said...

Anonymous,

You should know by now that "ad hominem" is a fallacy, one you use quite often. Calling an argument "nonsense" and "ridiculous" is by no means a logical proof that what Martin says is wrong. Use logic, please.

Alex said...

Should a tenure committee for a scientific academic position make its decisions on the basis of a candidates opinions on non-scientific questions?

In practice, this happens very frequently. I've seen candidates for scientific academic positions denied tenure for reasons as varied as teaching philosophy, spending more time on publishing academic books than research papers (remember that research papers bring in research grants which means money for the department, but popular press book bring in zero money), personality conflicts within the department, or even doing the wrong type of science. Remember that faculty members are often hired to fill in a particular spot within a department to round out the overall research plan in some way. I've seen solid state physicists who have become fascinated by something like biophysics and then not get tenure because they were hired for their solid state potential, not their biophysics potential.

Tenure is a very murky, smoke-filled backroom process whose details are deliberately shrouded in secrecy (most tenure committee members sign confidentiality agreements, so you can't count on getting many reliable details); but overall, the main criteria are (1) getting grant money and (2) publishing research papers. Anything that distracts from those things is a big tenure-killer, and publishing popular press books is perhaps the biggest tenure-killer of all (even if those books are 100% on-board with scientific orthodoxy) since tenure boards figure that any research time or effort that went into those books could be better spent generating grant-raising research papers.

I don't care whether your opinion is "scientific" or not. If you're a tenure-track professor who has a great idea for a mass-market book, don't write it! Or at least don't write it until after you have tenure.

Anonymous said...

I did use logic, hannah j. If a lawyer told his law firm that they had to ask a philosopher if he should be made a partner because, as lawyers, they were not qualified to judge his legal work, he would be laughed out of the office. Saying that working scientists are unqualified to judge the scientific research of other scientists is just as ridiculous. Let me ask you, can you think of a single profession that relies on philosophers rather than working members of that profession to make employment decisions? If not, then why should science be any different?

Anonymous said...

I forgot, I also wanted to add that we see here a process at work that conservatives usually sneer at. Conservatives have long been decrying our "victimhood" society, in which people seek to be granted the status of victim based on their group identity in order to blame their own failure on discrimination. But now we see conservatives seeking victimhood status for IDists such as Gonzalez, who seek to blame their own inability to produce fruitful scientific research on discrimination by the "evilutionists". If Gonzalez wasn't an IDist, conservatives would tell him that if he has such great ideas, he should go into the private sector and demonstrate their value by making a lot of money by utilizing them.

Motheral said...

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption on the part of everyone involved in the debate that those most qualified to answer the question of what science is are scientists.

Well, yeah, people who actually know, from their own experience, how science is done, tend to be better suited to judge what it is and what it entails. I don't know why you're suddenly having such trouble with this simple concept -- especially since you have no evidence indicating bad judgement on the part of real scientists on this issue.

Once again, you come in late to the debate, and think that common experience is an "unquestioned assumption" because you missed the bit where the questions were asked and answered.

If it is, then answers to it should meet scientific criteria. Let's take testability as an example (that is, after all, the one most often used against ID): Is the statement "Science is what is testable" a testable statement?

How about the scientific method? Is the statement "Science consists of those things which are amenable to the scientific method" amenable to the scientific method?

Those statements are normative, not positive: they prescribe what we SHOULD take seriously as "science," based on the experience of what works and what doesn't. The normative prescriptions are no more "testable" than "Thou shalt not kill;" but the experience on which they're based is another matter entirely: what works, and gets results, is testable. So no, we're really not getting outside the realm of science here.

It seems to me that where science lies in the larger scheme of things is not a question for someone who specializes in science, but for someone who specializes in the larger scheme of things--in other words, a philosopher.

I have yet to hear of even ONE living "pholosopher" whose grasp of "the larger scheme of things" made him/her at all qualified to rule on such extremely practical, down-to-Earth questions as how to do science so it gets good real-world results. Can you name one? Plenty of long-dead ones, to be sure, but in their time, "philosophy" and "science" were one and the same.

There's also the question of how we're supposed to test a given philosopher's statements about "the larger scheme of things." Verifiability and accountability have never, in my experience, been strong points in the profession of philosophy.

I find it really sad that when science doesn't go your way, you suddenly want it to be judged, and the rules to be rewritten, by non-experts who have absolutely no accountability to those who would be affected by such decisions in the real world.

Question: when theistic and non-theistic "philosophers" disagree on this issue -- and only a fool would doubt they will -- by what means would you determine which faction is "right?"

If this is the case, then ISU, in denying Guillermo Gonzalez tenure because of this views in support of ID, is taking this action on the basis of a question that is outside their realm of expertise.

Oh please -- this is their full-time paying job, they've been doing it for years, and here you are questioning their "expertise" from the outside -- FAR outside -- without offering a single bit of superior expertise on your own part.

Oh, and before you start complaining about "ad-hominem" attacks, please remember that this entire post is nothing but an ad-hominem attack: questioning people's qualifications and expertise without addressing their actual arguments or actions. If you can't take 'em, don't dish 'em out.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why Mr. Cothran is suddenly so interested in ID Creationism as it has been a backburner issue with him in the past. Is there something afoot? He and the Family Foundation usually seem more concerned with what gay folks do to each other.

Motheral said...

Maybe his wife complained that he was spending too much time...how you say...researching "what gay folks do to each other."

Or maybe he's talking about ID because he's just been handed this "new" talking-point by ID's propagandists. I notice at least one other "Christian" blog flogging the same talking-point -- "everything we know is based on unquestioned assumptions so it's all subjective," basically -- at the same time. Also, some months ago a YEC spent a LOT of words on a LOT of posts flogging the same escapist nonsense at the Panda's Thumb.

Martin Cothran said...

It must be the vast right-wing conspiracy.

Motheral said...

Nah, it's just the mediocre right-wing conspiracy.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous (the first one),

I don't consider your post ad hominem because you attacked my reasoning, not me. That's entirely in bounds. But what exactly is the comparison between scientists judging other scientists on the basis of philosophical questions and business men judging their employees on the basis of business questions?

I'm not seeing any parallel here at all. The question of what is science is and what isn't is not a scientific question. The question in you rexample of whether an attorney has billed enough hours is a business questions that is being decided by lawyers acting as business people.

This is not the same thing at all.

Your points about research grants and publishing, on the other hand, are legitimate points, but it looks suspiciously like those questions took a back seat to the question of Intelligent Design.

Martin Cothran said...

Alex,

I think you're saying that tenure decisions can be a bit arbitrary, a point with which I have no problem. I also agree that there is a certain level of politics involved in academic departments that makes it wise to avoid certain public statements and certain associations. I have no doubt the Gonzalez ran afoul of some of those rules.

And by the way, I'm not saying that ISU shouldn't have the legal right to make any tenure decision they want. I'm just using the Gonzalez case as an excuse to make the philosophical point that it really isn't a question that belongs within the scope of science.

Martin Cothran said...

If Gonzalez wasn't an IDist, conservatives would tell him that if he has such great ideas, he should go into the private sector and demonstrate their value by making a lot of money by utilizing them.

I'm afraid you have me mistaken for the wrong kind of conservative. I certainly don't believe that the value of an idea can be quantified in terms of how much money could be made from it.

I think that's a point you should make on some neocon blog.

Martin Cothran said...

Those statements are normative, not positive: they prescribe what we SHOULD take seriously as "science," based on the experience of what works and what doesn't. The normative prescriptions are no more "testable" than "Thou shalt not kill;" but the experience on which they're based is another matter entirely: what works, and gets results, is testable. So no, we're really not getting outside the realm of science here.

So now you're shifting the definition of science to "what works"? In what way, then, does the question "What is science" "work"?

I have yet to hear of even ONE living "pholosopher" whose grasp of "the larger scheme of things" made him/her at all qualified to rule on such extremely practical, down-to-Earth questions as how to do science so it gets good real-world results. Can you name one? Plenty of long-dead ones, to be sure, but in their time, "philosophy" and "science" were one and the same.

I said nothing about what philosophy might have to say about how to "do" science. But you can't even talk about what science "does" without assuming some definition of science. Which, of course, begs the question.

Verifiability and accountability have never, in my experience, been strong points in the profession of philosophy.

And what exactly is your experience?

I find it really sad that when science doesn't go your way, you suddenly want it to be judged, and the rules to be rewritten, by non-experts who have absolutely no accountability to those who would be affected by such decisions in the real world.

I'm not talking about rules, I'm talking about definitions. And you somehow think that scientists have carte blanche in determining where their discipline ends and other disciplines begin. You seem to think that the location of the border between science and philosophy can only be determined by scientists, but not philosophers, despite the fact that the questions is a philosophical question. Maybe you could explain why, rather than just asserting it.

Question: when theistic and non-theistic "philosophers" disagree on this issue -- and only a fool would doubt they will -- by what means would you determine which faction is "right?"

What does the theism or lack thereof of a philosopher have to do with his view on the question of whether "What is science" is a scientific question? Are you assuming that all non-theistic philosophers would say that it is?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous said:

I wonder why Mr. Cothran is suddenly so interested in ID Creationism as it has been a backburner issue with him in the past. Is there something afoot? He and the Family Foundation usually seem more concerned with what gay folks do to each other.

Is this supposed to be an argument? Maybe you would care to explain exactly how someone's motivations qualify the logical strength of his arguments.

Martin Cothran said...

Maybe his wife complained that he was spending too much time...how you say...researching "what gay folks do to each other."

Gee Motheral, and you were do so well: sticking to the point, staying away from personal attacks, and actually making arguments. I see you've fallen off the wagon. I'd get back into therapy as soon as possible.

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral said:

Or maybe he's talking about ID because he's just been handed this "new" talking-point by ID's propagandists. I notice at least one other "Christian" blog flogging the same talking-point -- "everything we know is based on unquestioned assumptions so it's all subjective," basically -- at the same time. Also, some months ago a YEC spent a LOT of words on a LOT of posts flogging the same escapist nonsense at the Panda's Thumb.

Here we go questioning motive again. But I'm having trouble finding why either my conclusion is false or my argument is invalid. I would suggest looking somewhere else than motive. It never works very well.

Anonymous said...

Martin,

I see that you think that the question of whether or not Gonzalez gets tenure is not a business question. That is where you made your error; of course its a business question! In a science like astronomy, professors get tenure based on their ability to bring in $$ through research grants, and Gonzalez wasn't getting the job done. Thus, his situation is exactly like a law firm associate not billing enough hours.

Martin Cothran said...

Okay, so here we are: no one has laid out for me why I should believe that the question "What is science" is a scientific question.

Premise #1: _______________________
Premise #2: _______________________
Conclusion: Therefore, the question "What is science?" is a scientific question.

I'm still waiting for someone to fill in the blanks.

Motheral said...

And you somehow think that scientists have carte blanche in determining where their discipline ends and other disciplines begin.

Well, that's kind of how scientists themselves act: they explore whatever question or issue they choose to explore (such choice being based on an organizational demand or perceived human need), and take their inquiries as far as their tools, skills and methods allow; then whatever results they get are studied and judged by others, who then see what use can be made of them. When they find a question their methods can't answer, that's a demonstrated limit to their scope.

What's your alternative method of demarcation? The only one I see is some outside authority telling scientists what they may or may not explore. Sort of like the old USSR.

Anonymous said...

Putting aside the fact that the question "what is science?" has nothing to do with the issue of whether an underperforming astronomer should get tenure, the question clearly is a scientific question. "Science" isn't a thing; its the activity engaged in by scientists in their study of nature. Noone is more qualified to determine what research activties scientists are engaged in than scientists are.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

The following seems to be your argument:

Premise #1: All questions asked by scientists are scientific questions.
Premise #2: The question of what is science is a question asked by scientists.
Conclusion: Therefore the question of what is science is a scientific question.

Do I have this right?

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

Your argument seems to be this:

Premise #1: Any question to which the scientific method can be applied is a scientific question.
Premise #2: The question of what is science is a question to which the scientific method can be applied.
Conclusion: Therefore the question of what is science is a scientific question.

If this isn't right, then tell me which premise I have wrong.

Anonymous said...

Martin,

No, you are wrong. Science is what scientists do when they are engaged in research to learn about nature. Science isn't a fixed target, because todays scientists are engaged in activities which couldn't even have been imagined 200 years ago, and scientists a century from now will have moved into new fields we can only guess at. Since science is a moving target, noone is better equipped to understand what science is today than working scientists. Understand?

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

Premise #1: Any question that deals with research about nature is a scientific question.
Premise #2: The question of what is science is a question that deals with research about nature.
Conclusion: Therefore the question of what is science is a scientific question.

How's that?

KyCobb said...

Martin, your premise #1 is inaccurate, because one can ask questions concerning research into nature which are not scientific. For example, if I asked, "Does God's law prohibit research on stem cells obtained from aborted fetuses?" that would be a question concerning research into nature, but it would not be a scientific question. Premise #1 should be: "Questions which are addressed by scientists through research into nature are scientific questions."

Martin Cothran said...

Kycobb,

The argument was not my argument. I was just trying to summarize Anonymous's argument for him. I don't agree with it myself.

But I agree with your immediate point, although it doesn't solve the problem with Premise #2. Here is the version with your change:

Premise #1: Questions which are addressed by scientists through research into nature are scientific questions.
Premise #2: The question of what is science is a question which is addressed by scientists through research into nature.
Conclusion: Therefore the question of what is science is a scientific question.

You obviously saw that the problem is with the middle term, and since you changed the middle term in the major premise, I changed it in the minor premise as well (there are three terms in a syllogism with two occurrences of each, and each term must remain the same in both its occurrences).

But that still leaves the problem of the minor premise. In what way is the definition of science "addressed by research into nature". Definitions are abstractions, they are not things found in nature that can be researched.

See my post today on this issue.

Luxorien said...

The definition of science is a philosophical subject. And it's true that philosophers are still debating the subject. But working scientists can't wait for the subject to be settled definitively. They have to do science now. So they all agree to use the same definition of science, even if it isn't perfect. If a scientist decides not to use that definition, well that kind of jacks the whole thing up. It would be as if someone decided that they would call all four-legged animals "dogs." Other English speakers would look at them askance (unless they were two years old).

But I don't know much about how tenure decisions are made or what happened in this particular case. I do think that it's possible to be an ID proponent and still do good science. I've known some Creationists who were very good at separating those parts of their lives. I guess I can see why a tenure committee might doubt their commitment, though.

Martin Cothran said...

Luxorien,

I wasn't proposing that anyone wait. I was just making the point that it isn't only scientists who are qualified to make the determination of what is science, and that even when scientists do it, they are doing it as philosophers, not as scientists.