Towards a semantics of science
My friend Tommer and I have been engaged in a year-long, cross country, international debate on the philosophy of science. It all started in Christmas Eve 2008 during an epic frisbee golf game in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It continued when I moved to the East Coast, during my vacation to Jamaica, and back again in San Francisco. On that fateful day, in between the trash-talk and excessive beer consumption, we started discussing the falsifiability of scientific theories and the scientific method.
I realize you’re very jealous you couldn’t take part in all this fun. To help you get over the loss, let me engage you. Here’s how I think the whole thing played out:
Me: The scientific method (TSM) is useless donkey shit and doesn’t tell you anything useful for public policy. Tommer, you’re an idiot for believing otherwise.
Tommer: Praj, you’re a complete douche. TSM has clearly helped us understand the world better. Without it astrology would still govern our understanding of the universe and science would be no different than punditry.
Now of course there was a little more subtlety and detail over the 30-odd emails we exchanged. But if you look past the personal insults (about 1 every 7.34 sentences), I think our VERY SHARP disagreements came down to nothing more than semantics. I should probably admit that I was more guilty of the personal insults than Tommer was. In my defense, insulting him made me very happy. But I digress.
If I finally understand everything–there’s a good chance I don’t–we simply meant different things by the word “method.” What should have been a fairly minor issue really colored our entire interaction. I think the standard definition of TSM is too vague to constitute as a “method.” The expression “hypothesize, test, verify, etc.” cannot tell us whether to use a thermometer or telescope in a given problem (Tommer’s example). I believe that a “method” should be restrictive enough to identify the proper approach. Tommer disagrees.
Now there’s probably some middle ground…I suspect that my definition of method is too strong while Tommer’s is too weak. Nevertheless it’s interesting how much that single word affects how we both view the utility of TSM.
The upshot of all this is I think there should be more time spent on the semantics of science. Let’s ignore for now the definition of science. What do we mean by “method?” What do we mean by “the” in TSM? Is there one specific method, or many? If there are many, whey do we use “the” instead of “a?”
Some quick googling reveals this book. Looks like a bunch of philosophical gobbledygook, but I’ll have to investigate more.
I will post more about this soon. But now I have to go see the Pat-Ravens game. The Ravens just went up 21-0 and the first quarter isn’t even over. I really hope the Pats lose!