BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Science A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha Oxford University Press 2002 OR: How do you do your science?

In November last year Nature published Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims; a list of requirements that non-scientists, specifically policy-makers should understand. In much the same way the philosophy of science, I believe, is essential for scientists to understand. This book offers just that- an introduction to the fundamentals of the philosophy of science, thereby forcing us to question the very assumptions that scientists and even perhaps others may take for granted within science. Reading this book made me view my field in a different light and I began to understand the concepts by referring to my particular discipline.

Okasha starts off by briefly describing the history of science and then moves on scientific reasoning explaining the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. A crucial point, Okasha makes, is the faith we put into inductive reasoning that science depends so heavily upon. By examining certain objects or elements in our world, we then extrapolate based on previous studies to make assumptions about the world around us. So for instance we assume the sun will always rise the next day because it has previously, or despite being past the sell by date 5 out of 6 eggs examined are not off, therefore the sixth will also not be off (do you really want to take that risk when making scrambled eggs for breakfast?) This is termed the Uniformity of Nature (UN). Okasha outlines the argument set forward by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) as an attempt to explain why UN is an assumption itself and therefore hard to justify. When you start to examine any field within science, you realise just how tentative certain assumptions can be!

Okasha moves on to elucidate how science is described and asks the question: can science explain everything? Despite the fast pace of technology, some philosophers reason that science will never be able to explain everything because to explain one factor entails that another be invoked, and so on. In archaeology for instance, to examine the case of what happened to the Neanderthals, the answer lies firstly in their environment i.e. what was happening to the climate and other species at the time, and secondly, what possible interactions were there with modern humans. That feeds into the questions of what type of environmental change and modern human interaction can lead to extinction. In principle, answering questions begets new questions.

Scientific realism and anti-realism is discussed in chapter 4. Scientific realism is defined as the physical world that exists independently of human thought. It is this physical world what you can and can’t see that realists aim to describe, whereas the anti-realists are trying to describe only the observable parts of the world. So studying quantum physics poses a problem between the realists and anti-realists. But what of the past for instance? Okasha explains how in palaeontology both sides can agree in their view of the subject because it is the study of fossils and therefore the observable aspect of the past that is being studied. But trying to apply anti-realism to my subject area proves difficult. By the very nature of ancient DNA, we are trying to explain processes of the past that we can’t see by using remnants left behind by species long dead. In my view, this certainly makes the scientists in my entire field a bunch of realists.

When it comes change within science, Okasha focuses on Thomas Kuhn’s influential book of 1963 entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, giving a brief overview of the book and its concepts: ‘Normal science’ is when small pieces of a puzzle are put together usually confirming a previously upheld fact. But when the ‘earth-shattering’ discoveries present a new paradigm, it takes time for acceptance within a discipline. This, as Okasha re-words from Kuhn, depends on how forceful the advocates for the new paradigm are. As I read this I immediately started to draw similarities within my field.

Towards the end of the book, Okasha focuses on philosophical discourse specific to subjects. So as I read the section on taxonomy and how a species is identified and defined, I nod my head as to what only can be described as an on-going analysis and debate in my field: are modern humans and Neanderthals the same species? Okasha explains the current social and ethical issues of science, but what I find particularly interesting is the label of science that he discusses; that science is intrinsically linked in being logical, and should be placed on a pedestal. It is noteworthy that some philosophers have a problem with this; that science should not be idealised, and this argument is outlined. There does not seem to be a mention of how science can be demoted in the public’s eyes due to popular mistrust of scientists. Although in my opinion this involves an intricate interplay of scientific journalism and how scientists interact with the public and the government. Finally Okasha finishes with the classic debate of religion versus science.

Every scientist will differ in our attitudes towards science and its conduct. One of the most obvious distinctions in scientific methods is how different generations approach their science. Even Thomas Kuhn explains in his book how a scientist develops is significantly shaped by their generation and how their skills can be mastered. In an era where disciplines are crossing paths even more, it is important to be able to question our methods and examine the assumptions inherent in our own disciplines, if anything, for the sake of understanding our field, the methods used, the history of it and the paradigm shifts. It is because of this, that this book makes essential reading by forcing ourselves to ask: how do we do our science?

 

 

Danae Dodge

I received my PhD in Scientific Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2011 which specialised in ancient DNA and anthropology. For my profile, see my websites: http://independent.academia.edu/DanaeDodge https://www.linkedin.com/pub/danae-dodge/9b/868/389 I started getting involved in Science Brainwaves as a volunteer in 2010. I have volunteered at presentations, events (such as the British Science Festival in 2011) and even participated in the Science is Vital protest march in October 2010. My first blog for Science Brainwaves was "Ancient Humans: Who were they? And who got it on?" which was the written version of a talk I gave for the Natural History Society at the University of Sheffield on 5 December 2011. I also have a public engagement page dedicated to ancient DNA, which I encourage both the public and specialists to join: https://plus.google.com/communities/115424956261446503473