Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Steven L. Goldman's "Science Wars"

Steven L. Goldman is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Lehigh University. He earned a BS in physics from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and an MA and PhD in philosophy from Boston University. For two years, he taught at the Graduate Faculty of The New School for Social Research before becoming Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He taught logic and the history and philosophy of science and co-founded the STS Program at Penn State. He then moved to Lehigh where he held the Mellon Professorship for 39 years prior to his recent retirement.

Goldman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Science Wars: The Battle over Knowledge and Reality, and reported the following:
Page 99 uses Linnaeus' extremely influential system for classifying plants to illustrate my thesis that from its seventeenth century beginning, modern science incorporates an unresolved conflict between theories as interpretations of experience or accounts of reality.The difference is profound, especially with respect to the public's understanding of scientific knowledge claims with respect to public policies. The discussion of Linnaeus is one example of this with respect to taxonomies, which are employed at some point in all the sciences. Linnaeus was heir to a century-long debate among naturalists as to whether taxonomies of plants and animals could be 'natural", that is, could uniquely correspond to the way things were in nature, or whether they were only conventional, useful ways for us to organize available data, thus multiple and subject to change. On page 99 I explain that Linnaeus was deeply committed to formulating a natural taxonomy of plants, but ultimately was forced to acknowledge that his beautiful system (still in use today) was only conventional. I use an analogy with books to make the issue clear. Is there one correct way to classify a collection of books? Obviously, not. So why do scientists persist in seeking the one correct way to organize empirical data?

Opening my book to page 99 will give a browser a good idea of what this book is about as well as the historical approach I adopt, using concrete examples, of which there are scores, from Plato to Quantum Field Theory.

The test works as a window opened onto the central argument of the book, but, understandably, it gives only a partial view. From the beginning of the book, I use the words and ideas of scientists themselves to show how conflicted they are over the question of what the object of scientific theories is: experience or reality. From the seventeenth century to the present, scientists have known, intellectually, that it is logically impossible to prove that any theory corresponds to reality, no matter how many experiments confirm its predictions. Nevertheless, psychologically they seem unable to refrain from claiming that experimental confirmation "proves' that a theory does correspond to reality. This is just as true of the relativity and quantum theories as of Newton's theories of light and graviy. Through its examples, the book shows that scientists have been aware of this overestimation of scientific knowledge claims for centuries and have swept it under the rug, so to speak, in the face of increasingly strident criticism, climaxing in the Science Wars of the 1980s and '90s.
Learn more about Science Wars at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue