Posted by: soniahs | September 22, 2010

Exam reading: “Science and anti-science”

In contrast to yesterday’s reading, Gerald Holton’s “Science and Anti-Science” falls on the opposite side of the empiricist-subjectivist spectrum. It’s a collection of essays written during different periods, and a fair amount of knowledge of the philosophy of science is assumed (particularly in the first two essays.)

Summary: A collection of essays on philosophy of science, beginning with the rise of positivism in the early 20th cen. and the work of Ernst Mach and the Vienna Circle. Positivism is based on rejecting metaphysics and hierarchy, in favor of relying on empirically-derived data; explanations should be purely descriptive (not religious, metaphysical, mechanistic.) Three main concepts: no supernatural protectors, so need to help ourselves; we have the capability to improve life for individuals and society; and in order we act we need knowledge- the sci. method is the best way to get knowledge, so science is one of the most valuable tools to improve life. While positivism was the basis of modernism, the increasing importance of relativity and probability theory introduced some philosophical elements to science; these were resisted by some researchers. Holton discusses rhetoric of scientific papers: reliance on demonstration; dual rhetorics of assertion (of one’s own ideas) and appropriation or rejection (of others’ ideas) in communication; describes sci. papers as a dialogue between multiple actors (e.g., author & previous researchers). He defines three types of scientific praxis: Newtonian (“basic”/seeking omniscience), Baconian (“applied”/seeking omnipotence), and Jeffersonian (combined mode of basic research addressing a specific social problem/seeking to improve human life through understanding). Discusses differences between cyclical and linear models of human progress and how these apply to science (e.g., “science carries seeds of own destruction” vs. asymptotically approaching ultimate knowledge.) Final essay discusses “anti-science”: scientism (e.g., Social Darwinism), pseudoscience, superstition (New Age), misguided science (Lysenkoism). Anti-science is a complete worldview, not just an incomplete understanding of scientific worldview. Reasons for acceptance include sci. illiteracy, concerns with technology and global stewardship, and skepticism of authority. Advocates “new humanism” of rationality, acceptance of uncertainty & pluralism, Jeffersonian model of science; discusses ways to counter “traditionalists” and “postmodernists.”

Comments: Holton’s “postmodernism” involves extreme social constructionism; many postmodernist scholars would be moderately happy with his Jeffersonian model of science (though the insistence on science as the best way of knowing about the world would not be popular.) Illustrates use of rhetoric both within science and as a means to foster a scientific worldview and counter “anti-science” in the public sphere.

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