Dear Students,I want to invite all of you to read the recent article by Dr. Minos Talgia that was published recently in The New Yorker. I attach the article to this email. Talgia’s primary purpose is to lodge a protest at the way that the practice of science has changed—she might wish to say, “the way that science” has stopped—since the Neighbors arrived. While there is much of value in Talgia’s article, I believe that his discussion neglects important distinctions that need to be drawn. Once we do this, the situation (I will argue) does not look nearly so bleak or paradoxical as it may to Talgia. I encourage all of you to read the following alongside Talgia’s article and to make up your own minds concerning the situation.
The term “science” is ambiguous between a practice and a product. That is to say, one can view science as a body of knowledge or as a way of investigating reality, which as Talgia says is for the most part made up the hypothetico-deductive method. As you know, this method is a kind of amalgam of inductive and deductive reasoning. It consists in formulating hypotheses (this is the “hypothetico” part) and then comparing their implications (this is the “deductive” part) with what we observe in the world (Lawson, 2000). Because Talgia speaks of the possibility of the death of science we must infer that she means science as a practice. It makes no sense to speak of the “death” or the “end” of our body of scientific knowledge. Indeed, since the Neighbors arrived science in the product science has been enriched immeasurably.
Talgia’s primary complaint is that, since the Neighbors’ own enormous body of scientific knowledge and conclusions has been found to be almost perfectly reliable, many have given up the practice of doing experiments (and, more generally, of using the hypothetico-deductive method) and simply looking to their results for answers. She does not see how this could be rational since, she suggests, rationality just consists in the application of such a method in learning about the world. Some scientists, if that is what they are, have tested the Neighbors’ theories and results, essentially seeing if they can falsify them (Popper, 2014). However, little or no success has resulted from these efforts. The revolutionary change the Neighbors’ brought about our understanding of the world is far more radical than any paradigm shift envisioned by Thomas Kuhn (1970). (For a critique of Kuhn, see Siegel, 2013.)
Now, long before any of you were born, there was something called “Wikipedia”. It existed on the primitive internet and, before professors learned to ban its use, was often appealed to by students in completing their exams or research papers. Wikipedia was flawed, not only in being limited in coverage, but in the sense that almost anyone would get onto it and write about some topic. However, it is at least possible for something like Wikipedia to be perfectly comprehensive and perfectly accurate. This, indeed, is something like what we now have in the writings of the Neighbors.
Now, when Talgia complains that people are not doing science anymore, and that cannot be rational, she is neglecting a distinction between two very different things—two things that parallel the distinction drawn above between two senses of “science”. If one’s goal is to find a fact, or even to understand how two how two sets of phenomena are related, then simply looking to the Neighbors is sufficient. This may not be science. It is rather like using a calculator rather than doing a complex mathematical calculation. Is this irrational? It all depends on one’s goals. It is perfectly rational if one just wants facts or understanding that the Neighbors have found. If, however, one wants to insist on checking every one of their results, or to refuse to apply them to phenomena that they do not currently cover but which we have good reason think that they will, perhaps that is rational too. At least it would be somewhat akin to how science used to be done. However, there is an alternative possibility—it is that the Neighbors have solved all the scientific problems there are. If this is the correct description then, contrary to what Talgia writes, it might be irrational to continue to practice science as it existed prior to 2047.
- Kuhn, T. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Lawson, A.E. (2000). The generality of hypothetico-deductive reasoning: Making scientific thinking explicit. The American Biology Teacher, 62(7), 482-495.
- Popper, K. (2014). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge.
- Siegel, H. (2013). Relativism Refuted: A Critique of Contemporary Epistemological Relativism. Dordrecht: Springer.