Saturday, August 17, 2013

Words Without Knowledge: A Review

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? - Job 38:1-2
The Jin Dynasty in China was relatively short lived, fro 265 through 420 by the reckoning of the Western calendar.  A chronicler of that dynasty, Zhang Qu, wrote of peasants in Sichuan Province digging up dragon bones for use in medicines.  We now understand that what those peasants were using were the fossilized remains not of dragons, but dinosaurs.

Which description of the finds by these Chinese farmers is correct?  Was the contemporaneous description "They are dragon bones," wrong because we early-21st century westerners know that dragons have never existed and that, being dinosaur fossils, those long-dead Chinese peasants were wrong?  Were we to find a time machine that landed a paleontologist in Sichuan in the midst of these farmers and their discovery, and using a translator told them they were wrong, how would we go about doing so?  Would it be possible, without dragging things like evolution, the billions-year-long age of the planet, DNA, and contemporary scientific practice, to make these folks understand that "dragon" and "dinosaur" are not just two different descriptions for the bones they've found (and descriptions that sound eerily similar), but one is right and the other wrong?

Keith M. Parsons's Drawing Out Leviathan: Dinosaurs and the Science Wars would, I believe, insist not only that it would be possible to do so, but that posing the dilemma as I have done ignores the simple fact that they really are dinosaur bones, not dragon bones.  Setting up the situation as I did in the second paragraph, what I have done is bought in to the target of much of Parsons's ire, what he calls a "constructivist" view of science.  On page 82 he writes:
I see constructivists as committed to one or both of the following these:
Relativism Theory (RT): All epistemic standards, including those of natural science, are necessarily relative and parochial.  All such standards reflect only the epistamic conventions of particular social groups.  No set os such conventions is objectively better than any others.
Nonrationality Thesis (NT): Even when "rational" and "objective" standards are in principle available, scientific consensus is a product of conflict and negotiation in which rhetoric, politics, and other "nonrational" social factors determine the outcome. (italics in original)
Parsons uses some well-known controversies in paleontology - the wrong skull placed upon an apatosaurus  skeleton in Pittsburgh that created the non-existent brontosaurus; Robert Bakker's arguments for endothermic dinosaurs; David Raup's very public switch from critic of the Alvarez theory of mass extinction due to the impact from an extraterrestrial object to enthusiastic supporter - to criticize the constructivist claims about science and defend what can best be described as a kind of naive realism, best summed up in the following passage (emphasis added):
It is salutary to be reminded often that we all have axes to grind, and that our motives may be due to internalized social influences. . . Lacking a God's eye view, we simply have no choice but to follow our hunches and intuitions, realizing that these have certainly been shaped by our social milieu, but trusting scientific practice to give nature the final say. (p. 157)
Of the many things wrong with this work, the least of them is the assumption, here written out in full for anyone to read, that there is something called "nature" that dictates the outcomes of scientific experiments and controversies.  The list of far more egregious errors include: the use of the antonyms "rational" and "irrational" without ever coming within whispering distance of definitions for either; cursory (and often wrong) interpretations of figures with whom he disagrees, including Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, Steven Shapin, and W. J. T. Mitchell; an entire chapter devoted to defending a Whiggish view of the history of science, by which he means our current practices and understandings judge and determine those of previous generations and find them wanting; a description of "science as contingent social practice and convention" without understanding there are varieties of social conventions and practices and that such a description hardly means "whimsical"; asking questions and demanding answers in terms that, to be generous, are open to interpretation and at worse miss the obvious point that differing vocabularies and interpretive schemes render such questions either meaningless or moot.

Parsons says this work grew out of his dissertation in philosophy and history of science.  I cannot imagine sitting on his committee without noting that he never once, and certainly not up front, defines and explains the position he supports and how the constructivist claims not only threaten it epistemologically but normatively.  I cannot imagine reading this, with his cursory dismissals of Popper, Feyerabend, and Lakatos (he only calls the positivists by their group name; they were, apparently, beneath notice) along with Kuhn and Shapin and Latour, and asking for longer, more detailed explanations of what these men said and how the position Parsons defends is both epistemologically and normatively superior.  Finally, I can't imagine reading this without directing Parsons to Ernst Mayr, who argues that biology (and paleontology, while a polyglot discipline, is a branch of biology) works not only with different methods but different assumptions, different criteria for theory acceptance, and different epistemic and ontological presuppositions than physics.  I would also note that the pattern and outcome of the controversies Parsons uses are open to multiple, equally legitimate interpretations, including ones exactly opposite from those Parsons insists are the "correct" ones.

I would certainly use this book in a graduate/post-graduate seminar on the history and philosophy of science.  I would use it as a primer on how not to do those things.

N.B.: Two things.  First, the title of Parsons's book is taken from the Biblical book Job, so I thought it apt to use another such quote as title and epigraph.  Second, while my time is limited, I hope to write a post or two in coming days delving in to more detail some of the many ways Parsons's book fails utterly and completely.

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