Dear science students: five philosophers of science you need to know about and why you should care

It might not seem like a top priority when you have deadlines piling up and the shadowy figure of exams looming over you, but have you ever paused to think about why you’re even doing all of this anyway? I don’t mean when you find yourself in the library at 3am questioning your life choices and wishing you had instead followed your secret dream of moving to the mountains of Peru to become an alpaca farmer. I mean questioning science itself and why scientists do what they do, in the way that they do it.

Let me reassure you now: I love science. I think the world needs scientists. But I also think the world needs scientists who are aware of the history behind the institution they belong to and how that has shaped the way things are done today.

Conveniently for you, philosophers of science have already done most of the thinking. Here are five key thinkers you should know about and how they influenced the way we do science today.

1) Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Known as the father of the scientific method, Bacon kicked off the whole idea that science should have an established method to elevate it above other pursuits of knowledge by removing the potential for human error. Scientific investigations of some form had been going on long before him, but he believed that science needed a more rigorous process. He believed through careful observation and logical reasoning scientists could find the truth in the natural world and avoid being misled by what he called ‘idols’, parts of a scientist’s nature or experience that could bias his perception. And lo, the scientific method was born, and science established itself as a beacon of rational thinking.

2) David Hume (1711-1776)

Hume had immense respect for science but noticed a fatal flaw in Bacon’s method, known as the problem of induction. As a fully-fledged empiricist, he argued that all knowledge must ultimately be derived from experience. Therefore, one cannot assume that the universe will behave in the future as it has in the past. This assumption is a form of inductive reasoning which Hume deemed rationally unjustifiable. Troubling, then, for scientists trying to abstract rules about how the universe consistently behaves.

3) Karl Popper (1902-1994)

Skip forward two centuries and this problem remains unsolved. Instead, it got swept under the rug, and science flourished in the Enlightenment period as the great saviour of humanity. However, its destructive potential was revealed in the first half of the 20th Century with the technological advancements in the first and second world wars. Add to this the use of scientific ideas to justify fascist regimes, and science, once a great liberating force for good, was having one hell of an identity crisis.

Enter Karl Popper, who made it his mission to take science back from the clutches of such evils. He devised a method of science to once again remove all personal motivations by passing scientific theories through a finely meshed sieve to filter out those theories not based in objective truth. This sieve he called the method of conjectures and refutations. In a return to Hume’s problem of induction, he acknowledged that it was not possible to prove that something was true. Instead, science could only prove that conjected theories were not true and reject these false theories until you are left with only those that have withstood sufficient scrutiny to be accepted as true enough. He believed that a good scientist would pursue a theory until it was refuted, at which point they would abandon it and move on. And so, the scientific method was reborn, never to be misused for political or personal ideologies again.

4) Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)

Photographer: Bill Pierce (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Thomas Kuhn liked Popper’s theory, in theory. However, he found that real scientists do not behave as Popper’s ideal scientist should. Kuhn turned to the history of science. He looked at moments where accepted scientific ideas were challenged and overturned, moments he termed ‘scientific revolutions’. These revolutions contradicted Popper’s belief that science progresses in a linear manner. Kuhn found that competing theories survive not just by to what extent observations supported a theory, but by the persuasive power of the proponents of a theory. In this way, Kuhn argued, science progresses in a fundamentally social manner.

5) Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994)

Credit: Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend

Feyerabend went right back to Francis Bacon and challenged the four century-old idea that the so-called ‘scientific method’ gives science any superiority above other pursuits of knowledge. He was not anti-science, he merely questioned where science got its authority from. He advocated that scientists should be more open minded when it comes to other forms of knowledge and their potential benefit to science, because the established scientific method is not the only way of discovering valuable knowledge. Feyerabend’s views were deemed radical, but scientists are beginning to see the value of incorporating other knowledge systems into scientific research.

At this point you might still be asking, “so what?”. Why should scientists concern themselves with philosophical questions like this? Can’t we just get on with actual science?

The way that science is taught follows a very Popperian view: with a robust enough method, science can get at an independent, objective truth. Kuhn has shown us this isn’t the case. Science is social. There is a fear that if scientists acknowledge this, then people will lose faith in science, which would be a disaster considering the threats facing humanity now and in the future. But people are already losing faith, precisely because science is so unwilling to question itself. The way that politics is going and with the rise of new media, science will have to renegotiate its place in a new landscape of ‘truth’. This requires scientists to re-examine the foundations of science, acknowledge where there are flaws, and think about how it should be done rather than how it has always been done. A little bit of self-reflection never hurt anyone.

Rachel Ditchfield is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Article Images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise credited in individual captions

Banner Images: Alchemy, Wikipedia

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