Wednesday, 2 April 2008

philosophy of stamp collecting

Ernst Rutherford, the "father" of nuclear physics, once airily declared "In science there is only physics. All the rest is stamp collecting". By this he meant that the theory of physics is the only significant thing in science. Such mundane activities as taxonomy in biology were just sampling contingent examples of physics.
John Wilkins is amused because string theorists are beginning to classify their zoo of theories. "The last significant English speaking philosopher of science to discuss classification in science at length," he says, "was W. Stanley Jevons in his 1873 book, second edition 1878." After that, "Classification dropped out of philosophy of science for a century." That's a little pat, but Wilkins is largely right: until fairly recently, philosophy of science was about scientific theory, not scientific practice. Wilkins wants philosophy of science to attend to "a slew of scientific activities that can include the field biologist, the museum curator, the naive experimentalist, and so on, all of which was excluded from 'real' science by the analytic post-logical empiricist tradition."

Wilkins proposes to chart the activities of science on theory-classification and experimental-observational axes. This brings home the point that philosophy of science has focused on the upper left quadrant to the exclusion of all else.

The exclusion of classification from 'real' science has always irked biologists and other scientists who actually do it. "Hence my amusement," explains Wilkins.
While these physicists are trying to order the vast field of possibilities into a logical structure, which is only one kind of classification, they are not, as yet, happy about passive observation, and indeed in the context of string theory, or physics in general, it is hard to see what might count as passive observation. But there is a kind of passivity to observation even when it relies on technical apparatus like the Large Hadron Collider - you see the readouts, displays or cloud chamber photos without much in the way of theory - the interpretation is what requires theory.
But here Wilkins goes too far (or not far enough?) To take technical apparatus like the Large Hadron Collider as given is as much a mistake as ignoring classification. What enables the interpretation of results from the LHC is the design, construction and tuning of the instrument, and none of these is passive.


John Wilkins said...

My point is that the notion of "passive" is not absolute. What is "theory-laden" at one point is passive observation at another - consider the introduction of the scanning electron microscope into fields like paleontology. So far as the paleontologists themselves are concerned, this is just passive observation. They get images they observe, and SEM theory is not a part of paleontological theory. On the other hand the construction of the LHC is very theoretical. For now...

Isaac said...

I don't mean to deny that instruments are often used by individuals who take readings at face value. I just want to underscore the burden of experience that's necessary before readings can be considered to have a face value.

My line of reasoning runs something like this: Advances in instrumentation make new scientific practices first feasible, then acceptable, and finally standard. At the later stage, it's relatively easy to port instruments to new fields (as in your case of paleontologists with electron microscopes), but at earlier stages it requires a lot of deliberate theorizing coupled with practical experience to gain trust in the instrument and to make pronouncements about what it does. At either end of the spectrum, though, that theoretical and practical work has to be done. What changes is who does the validation--people in the old field, or people in the new?

Anonymous said...

First, I love the irony that Rutherford won his Nobel prize Chemistry (aka stamp collecting).

Second, I don't really see the problem physics has with passive observation. One of Physics most successful theories' General Relativity is confirmed by passive observation (with radar admittedly) of things like the motion of the moon to 10 or so significant figures (only the last figure is GR all the rest is Newtonian). I think the perceived problem with String Theory (and Cosmology), for physicists, is that observation heavily underdetermines theories and requires extrapolation from one data point. In biology a theory (or a classification) can be overturned by a new discovery that might be made at any time, new data points are added (a new experiment on a new organism, a new sequence of a new genome or a new fossil uncovered). The biologist (or physicist in more traditional domains like astronomy) may not be able to set up an experiment crucis as you might have done in some branches of physics, but you are always making passive observations with the potential to do just that.

Third, personally I notice the non-passivity of observation in everyday life without reference to science. As when I once heard someone say something, at first it sounded like noise and it took me a few seconds to register it as words or every time I encounter and recognize an optical illusion (the moon is bigger at the horizon).

Finally, while we can distinguish classification and theory they also seem heavily interdependent. Finding that a theory holds over a domain of objects classifies them in one way. Unless you are alphabetizing a classifications suggests a theory (and even alphabetization may suggests a theory in linguistics). Classifying animals in certain ways suggests intermediaries you expect to find in the fossil record etc. and so has a predictive theoretical (?) content and so on.