Postmodernism and my statement

From: Ted Davis (
Date: Wed Jan 02 2002 - 12:12:03 EST

  • Next message: Gordon Simons: "Re: Pasteur and nature of science"

    I thank those who have already come to my defense, regarding my statement
    that scientific knowledge results from debates about how to interpret
    observations and experiments, rather than from the observations and
    experiments themselves. But I should speak for myself, and this is my first
    opportunity to do so after the holiday.

    To begin with, let me reaffirm what I stated: I would not back away from
    this idea, I believe it conforms better to the actual practice of great
    scientists (and lots of other scientists also) far more than its denial
    does. I could offer literally dozens of examples, so let me pick just
    three, from different areas of science.

    (1) The modern debate over how to interpret the paleontological data from
    the "Cambrian explosion". The two leading authorities on this (to the best
    of my knowledge) are Stephen Jay Gould and Simon Conway Morris. Anyone who
    has read both Wonderful Life (Gould) and The Crucible of Creation (Morris)
    will see how Gould and Morris differ on how to intepret the evidence, when
    it comes to forming a larger theory of how life evolves. They are looking
    at the same set of data and coming out quite differently, and they have
    quite different background beliefs that to some extent guide them to
    different conclusions. Morris is especially clear about this.

    (2) The "big bang" and theology. It is well known that the steady state
    theory of the universe was proposed shortly after WW2 by Fred Hoyle and
    others, who gave an explicitly philosophical/theological motivation for
    this: they deplored the implications of a "beginning" in early forms of what
    we now call "big bang" theory because Hoyle himself called it that with some
    contempt in his tone. They looked at the same observations and drew quite
    different conclusions, and background beliefs were a strong factor in this.

    (3) Darwin's own comments in "Origin of Species" concerning the anticipated
    reception of his own ideas. These are also well known. He says lots of
    interesting things about the roles of prior beliefs in drawing scientific
    conclusions, but I think this is the most telling (pp. 481-2 in first
    edition): "Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in
    this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince
    experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts
    all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly
    opposite to mine. ... Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more
    weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain
    number of facts will certainly reject my theory. A few naturalists, endowed
    with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt the
    immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with
    confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able
    to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to
    believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously
    expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which
    this subject is overwhelmed be removed."

    Having said all this, however, I would (ironically) share Gordon's profound
    distaste for postmodernist views of science--at least for the stronger forms
    of such claims, such as those often linked with the "Edinburgh school" of
    doing sociology of scientific knowledge. I affirm my belief in a reality
    outside of ourselves, that we in some sense passively receive and do not
    invent, while also affirming the reality of the creativity of our minds as
    active recipients of observations and as very active creators of
    experiments. This is very much a two-way street, and I thought that my
    original statement conveyed this well; indeed I still think so.
    Incidentally--and this is NOT meant as an ad hominem statement--Gordon is
    only the second person who has openly taken exception to my statement, and
    the first person was not a real scientist (as Gordon certainly is) but
    rather a technician with a BS in chemistry. Apparently he has had private
    communications that support what he is saying, but of course I am not privy
    to those. I have made this statement several times, publicly and formally,
    before good-sized groups that have included significant numbers of
    scientists, including on one occasion a group of about 75 faculty and
    students at MIT. And not one of them objected. So I continue to think that
    scientists generally agree with what I have said.

    In Gordon's defense, let me state that I have actually been surprised by
    the fact that so few scientists have objected, precisely because I realize
    that my words might sound like postmodernism, unless/until one realizes that
    I see this very much as a two-way street. The fact that my statement is
    typically made not in isolation (as it was in my first post on this) but in
    the context of a full talk in which the statement appears as one statement,
    probably explains this. Nevertheless, I do think that (say) positivistic
    philosophers such as Hans Reichenbach or Carl Hempel and many famous
    scientists (both past and present) would not want to concede, as Darwin
    clearly did, that what passes for scientific knowledge at a given point in
    time is not wholly objective, that subjective considerations do influence
    the content of science in important ways. And they (IMO) are wrong about

    As for Gordon's statement that, " I have been taught and believe that data
    (observations) are the life-blood of science, and that I have a moral
    responsibility to handle, report, and, where possible, interpret data with
    both care and honesty," I would endorse this wholeheartedly, and add that I
    take the same attitude toward history of science: if I can't support my
    statements with hard evidence--actual documents, printed or written, or
    something of comparable reliability--then I need to be very clear about this
    in my historical writing. I do sometimes draw conclusions that are not
    supported in this way, but I try to make it very clear at the time that this
    is what I am doing. I do not draw conclusions based on psychological
    theories (about which I am deeply sceptical), my own beliefs about what
    someone would have done (without explicitly stating that I am doing that),
    or other such "evidence". Indeed, I have taken exception to the
    scholarship of one of the leading proponents of the Edinburgh school, Steven
    Shapin, on just this issue, in an essay I wrote some years ago for a
    Cambridge volume on Robert Boyle. And I have also challenged (and I
    believe, entirely overturned) the traditional but unsupported view that
    Boyle wrote an anonymous anti-Catholic tract that cannot be linked to him by
    any evidence ever uncovered, and have stated who did write this based on the
    evidence that we actually do have concerning that work.

    As for absolute knowledge, I further like to tell my students that we must
    always be careful to distinguish between "what God knows to be the case" and
    "what we think God knows to be the case." I imagine Gordon would agree--and
    not see this as a postmodernist statement--but I will let him speak for

    I trust it is clear from all this, that I am not doing any students a
    disservice, by
    stressing the role of interpretation along with that of observations and
    experiments. That is all I have to say.

    Ted Davis

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Wed Jan 02 2002 - 12:09:48 EST