Philosophers of science like me are very interested in the way science works, but we’re not a part of it. In fact philosophy has been exiled from science for a few hundred years — since the Scientific Revolution really — which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that the kernel of science — the engine that makes it work —is a commitment to making a case for or against various theories solely using empirical evidence. As opposed to, for example, philosophical argument.
So in the actual reasoning of science, the argument of science, the logic of science, philosophy has been entirely pushed aside, and that’s turned out to work very well. Of course, I love philosophy. I don’t mean to disparage it. But the scientist focusing a hundred percent of their time and energy and attention on empirical evidence as opposed to philosophical argument or for that matter religious argument, theological argument or anything like that, has turned out to be very productive. So it’s been a good thing for philosophy to step back.
Now as a consequence of that, philosophy has been pushed out of science education altogether. And so although there are of course scientists who are very philosophical, the average scientist is not like that at all. That’s a good thing because it helps scientists to do what they’re supposed to do, which is to focus on the evidence and not get carried away thinking about philosophical coherence or harmony with big ideas. But it does mean that in their thinking generally scientists can tend to be somewhat narrow.
Returning to the question of the place of philosophy in science, you might reframe it as follows: how does philosophy help science and in what ways can we do better? Though philosophers of science have to operate from the outside, we can help science in two ways. First, by helping scientists themselves understand better why they do science the way that they do, including the exclusion of philosophy from scientific journals and so on. And second, we can help science by educating the general public and showing them, explaining to them why science has certain peculiar features—the irrationalities and prejudices, and the arguments, meaning an obvious lack of agreement in many ways about anything that’s actively being researched.
We can explain to the general public why science has these aspects. And this is the way it’s supposed to be, this is science working as it should work, rather than a science that is degenerating, out of control, or that has been taken over by special interests. So, for example, the science of climate change has attracted some skeptics from the outside. They are not motivated by purely objective concerns, but then who is? And those skeptics have been able to point to internal arguments within climate science, a sometimes even slightly Machiavellian strategizing about how to shine the spotlight on the evidence that best supports certain views while leaving certain other kinds of evidence in the gloom.
And to somebody who has a picture of science as staged in an arena of perfect rationality and objectivity, this looks horrifying. Critics of climate science from the outside say: “Look, science is not objective. Scientists have views and they are doing whatever they can to advance those views.” That can be very harmful if the general public is expecting nothing but rationality and objectivity. What we as philosophers can do is explain that although science is rational and objective in some ways, you shouldn’t expect simple straightforward agreement on theories and on what the evidence shows about theories. So we can help science and protect science from a kind of general mistrust or skepticism.
Logic and philosophy of science today
The general public and even many scientists (when they’re not looking very closely at what they themselves are doing) expect science to have a kind of a logic that at least to a considerable extent tells scientists how to interpret evidence—a logic that tells you what kinds of evidence count in favor of some particular theory and what kinds of evidence count against it. It specifies, for example, what would be a set of measurements that shows you that the Earth is indeed on average warming. So people expect science to be regimented by the same kind of logic as say mathematics, where mathematicians all agree on what counts as a proof of a theorem. Instead of finding that we find scientists disagreeing quite a bit about the significance of measurements. Some will say these measurements really seal the case for global warming and some others will say no there are many assumptions that have been made in the course of interpreting these measurements, which are actually on rather shaky ground.
The true logic of science is a logic that depends a lot on assumptions like these, which philosophers call “auxiliary assumptions” or sometimes “auxiliary hypotheses”. So assumptions that are not the theory that’s being tested and not the evidence that’s testing the theory, but assumptions that are necessary in order to interpret what the evidence is saying about the theory. Philosophers and historians and sociologists of science find that scientific opinion about these assumptions varies a lot, because often there isn’t enough evidence to nail down the truth of some or the falsehood of others. And so in fact, all those scientists are in a certain sense being logical; they’re interpreting the evidence in the light of these auxiliary assumptions. They often reach different conclusions about the significance of the evidence. The bottom line is that the logic of science is a lot more subjective—in the sense that it depends on the subjective opinions of particular scientists—than the general public typically takes it to be. That’s not to tell you exactly what the logic is, but I think it’s the most important thing about the logic of science that the world at large ought to know.
Classification of sources
That’s a big question and probably the most helpful kind of answer I can give is one that focuses on what I take to be one of the most important distinctions in science, between the official publications of record — things like journal articles and in some fields conference papers, which are subject to certain very strict controls—and then everything else. When I say “everything else” I’m including a popular book a scientist might write or a television interview they might give or an interview like this, or a podcast interview for example, a radio interview, anything like that where they’re speaking to the world at large, but also informal talks that scientists give to their own colleagues.
The thing about the official sources—the paradigm here is a paper published in a scientific journal—is that they’re subject to a strict requirement that only empirical evidence should come into the argument. This is what I was talking about before—so for example, no philosophical considerations, no theological considerations. That’s the rule that governs what’s written in the journals. Meanwhile, it’s fine for a scientist to write a popular book about how science gives us evidence for the existence of God as Francis Collins who led the Human Genome Project did a few years ago. So that’s okay as long as you stick to the rules when you’re writing in the journals.
At the same time in the journals there are certain prescriptions for the presentation of evidence which are highly objective, the rules for doing a statistical analysis and so on. And these require you to calculate various quantities, I guess that probably the best known and most common has calculating what’s called the p-value when you’re doing null hypothesis testing. I won’t go on and on about that. It’s all very regimented. In spite of that regimentation, however, what I said earlier does apply. You can’t look at those very carefully calculated numbers and see what the evidence is telling you about the theory. You have to bring in these additional assumptions which typically are not there in the journal articles. They are in scientists heads, but if you want to find out what the scientists are really thinking you need to ask them off the record.
This is a long answer but there is one thing I want to say to pull it all together and illustrate how important this distinction is. If you just want to see what the evidence is and present it as an objective way as possible, you go to the scientific journals. But if you want to know what kinds of assumptions are being used to interpret that evidence you can’t go to the journal, you have to go to scientists in some other way. It might be a matter of talking to them, in an interview like this, or even just in a private conversation over email or whatever. But without doing that you won’t get the complete picture of any particular scientist’s thinking about what the evidence so far is showing us—whether ideas in question are about climate change or string theory or whatever.
How to distinguish a true source from a false one
That’s a very difficult problem. On the one hand, if you are looking at the scientific journals, you are reading stuff that has gotten a lot of scrutiny and for which a lot of rules have been followed. (Although you can’t absolutely rely on anything ever, of course. There are mistakes in the journals—in the mathematics journals there are many proofs that apparently have errors in them. And then in the science journals the evidence may have been, as scientists sometimes say, “cleaned up a little bit”.) Nevertheless, the journals are a relatively trustworthy source. For everything else—that’s much more complicated. Let’s suppose you’re interested in what scientists themselves say, so we’re not even thinking about, say, reportage in newspapers, science magazines, online encyclopedias, or anything like that, but just reading the books and watching interviews of scientists themselves. You will find disagreement. Scientists have different views about what the evidence says about their theories because they have different assumptions.
What you need to do if you’re really going to get to the bottom of that disagreement is to find out what those assumptions are, find out why it is that some particular scientist thinks a certain kind of measurement, isn’t as revealing as many other scientists take it to be. What is it that bothers them? And to do that requires an enormous amount of work. It’s not really reasonable to expect ordinary people to do that kind of work. So what we need is some kind of secondary layer of interpreters to do that work. That’s the sort of thing that a science reporter for a newspaper might do, or the IPCC, the UN body set up to interpret the evidence about climate change for the rest of us.
In short it’s a difficult problem. We can’t do it ourselves unless we’re dealing with some issues that we are intimately involved in. So we need not only to distinguish reliable sources in the science itself, but reliable sources about the science using what people call practical wisdom.
Logic for searching, classifying and selecting reliable sources of information
Suppose you’re interested in what’s going on in the science of climate change, in the science of COVID or for that matter in the science of string theory or genetic engineering. So you’re not a scientist yourself, you’re not a philosopher of science, you have no particular educational background. Where should you start to look for reliable sources? I think the answer for most people has to be good, responsible science journalism, published in places that give science journalists the time to look into things in context, to talk to scientists and do the kind of thing I’m talking about, looking into the assumptions that are behind scientists’ different conclusions.
I don’t think I have any special insight into how to recognize the best science journalism. Although I think I can do it. But I do believe that’s the right source for most people. I talked about the UN body that interprets the results of the scientific work on climate change. They issue reports that are readable by a regular person. But a regular person might not have time to read those reports. So they really need somebody else to read those reports for them and summarize. I supposed it’s the very same issue that comes up with getting reliable information about anything complex. We need quality journalism, and we need to be able to identify it when we see it.
Expediency and quality of scientometric databases
I am not an expert in these databases. I guess, I tend to trust them. As a philosopher of science, I’m embedded in a network of other philosophers of science and scientists where I can have some confidence that I’ll hear about problems that emerge. Here I’m relying on the ecosystem. In the same way that a regular person would rely on the ecosystem of good journalism, I’m relying on the ecosystem of my colleagues, but I have to admit that I myself don’t have any specific checks I perform. I’m relying on the effectiveness of the rumor mill, where the rumor mill is being run by people I trust.
The same happens by the way—this is a little bit of a digression, but it’s relevant to a lot of what we’ve been talking about—with scientific results generally. Every scientist you talk to will say that some labs are more trustworthy than others. For some, if they publish it, they probably did the experiments right and there were no errors. In other labs — well, you never know. So there’s this knowledge that comes from long experience that scientists have about the work that’s being done in their specialist areas, but only in their specialist areas. For the rest of us who to some extent rely on that work, what we need to do is put ourselves in a position where we hear that kind of chitchat. Those of us in a university network can listen in because we have colleagues who are the specialists in question. The general public of course has one step removed from that.
Impact of Wikipedia and other similar encyclopedias have on science and education
It varies a lot. Some of them are excellent and some of them are not very reliable at all. In the sciences, I’ve seen very few that are not reliable. Some of them are rather unhelpful and some of them are excellent. So I would say on the whole that Wikipedia’s system of peer review works pretty well, in terms of reliability if not always in terms of readability.
But it does require a certain kind of alertness. It’s like walking down the streets of New York City in the old days when there was a lot of crime. You always have to be aware of what’s going on around you and aware that something may have gone horribly wrong. You need a kind of vigilance.
What about the effect on science and education? For someone like me, Wikipedia can be quite helpful. I would never need Wikipedia in my own specialty—that is, the philosophy of science—or in fact in any area of philosophy, because it doesn’t go into enough detail and depth, it’s simply not sophisticated enough. But because I’m a philosopher of science I often need to know very quickly what’s going on in some science that I know very little about. And there I do find that, as long as I maintain that vigilance, it’s quite useful. And I encourage my students—now turning to education—to use it but use it carefully. Wikipedia is not the only thing out there but probably one of the best sources. On a whole I think it’s a good thing and I’m happy that it exists.
This is a great topic. Obviously. It’s very important now. What we didn’t talk so much about was where the misinformation comes from, but maybe we all know the answer to that question. And in any case that’s not so much my particular specialty. But there is a lot of good information out there. You do have to understand its limits, to be careful and you have to have friends — they may be the science journalists for example — you need some kinds of friends who can function as intermediaries between you and the huge amount that there is to know.
For someone like me there are many good sources out there that I can connect to very reliably. But it is very disturbing that people I know who are intelligent and interested in understanding what’s going on in the world can be captured by poor or misleading sources, typically internet-driven, that lead them astray. I don’t know how to solve that problem—except, as their friend, to talk them out of it.