Bacon in the fire

Real Physics, the weblog of an Aristotelian physics PhD, has an interesting post on Climategate as a manifestation of Baconian science—that is, of “science” oriented toward control rather than truth.

My take on the problem is that modern scientific thought emphasizes experimental verification and tries to pare down references to things that can’t be observed. That approach has led to extremely effective methods of dealing with the physical world, so it’s evidently a good approach in some settings.

One size does not fit all, though, and when the emphasis on measurement and verification becomes dogmatic insistence you get big problems. For starters, truth can’t be observed scientifically, if only because it’s not a physical thing. That’s why scientism doesn’t have much use for the idea of truth: it would rather speak of warranted assertions, well-supported theories, and so on.

If the idea of truth is dropped, though, “experimental verification” isn’t verification of truth any more, it’s just testing whether something works as intended. The Climategate scientists, it seems, thought that manipulating data and the scientific process would achieve what they intended. So from a Baconian point of view, it’s not clear there was anything wrong with what they tried to do, except that the attempt may be failing.

Naturally, one might question how far such explanations can be pushed. People don’t completely believe their own theories. It’s said that mathematicians today are mostly Platonists on weekdays and formalists on Sunday—that is, in their daily professional activities they accept that mathematical objects really exist, even though officially they believe that they’re just pushing marks on paper around.

Something similar, I would suppose, applies to scientists and truth. Still, man is a rational animal. We try to bring the different parts of our life into coherence, if only because it’s easier that way. So it seems that how scientists explain the ultimate status of science to themselves would have a systematic influence on what they do. That would especially be so when they are torn by conflicting motives—like the (theoretically unjustified) love of truth on the one side, and the desire to win on the other. In intellectual endeavors, how likely is it that ideas lack consequences?

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