Re: Polanyi on science (was Re: [asa] C.S. Lewis on ID)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Mon Dec 01 2008 - 01:42:38 EST

Hi Don,

Don Winterstein wrote:
> OK, I certainly didn't understand your sentence the way you explained
> it. Unless a scientist's result defies prior experience, general
> practice in the scientific community is to accept his result
> conditionally, which usually means we accept it unless
> someone demonstrates that it's flawed. The more it deviates from
> expectation, the greater the need we feel to put it to the test.

Thanks for the gracious reappraisal of my position.

I quite concur with your above and I think it contains observations with which any philosophy of science has to deal in order to be credible.

One of my major beefs with Moorad's position (sorry to get back onto that topic here) is that it doesn't seem to allow for the Personal Knowledge of the scientist (i.e. her/his experience, insight, intuition, skill, knowledge). Consider;

Suppose I measure the frequency of EM radiation emitted by a red light and my spectrograph says "700nm"? Well, more than likely it will go unquestioned. But if the spectrograph says "622 nm" I might actually become mildly suspicious unless the light has somewhat of an orange tinge. And if the spectrograph reads "450 nm" I'd certainly consider this an anomaly and start looking for a reason.

Now, I really should be more charitable and allow that I've not quite grasped Moorad's position, but that said, it does seem to me that his claim that instruments give objective readings over against the subjectivity of perception entails the following: even if the light LOOKS "red" an instrument reading of "450nm" should be (objective) evidence that my (subjective) assessment of colour is in error.

Either Moorad isn't giving the full story here, or I'm not getting it, but as I understand it something is not quite right here.

What worries me is that Moorad's approach would reduce us all to the level of math illiterate grade-schoolers with calculators: so dependent upon instruments that we accept that '7 x 6 = 49' because we don't have sufficient grasp of our subject to know better.

What's missing, I believe, is a recognition of what underlies the point you make in your above - that scientists by and large know what to expect from their experiments and so they are well able to determine to what degree the results are reasonable. Here the instruments are essentially a tool to aid in the quantification of data with repeatability and precision. And I would suggest that one of the things that makes a good experimental scientist good is her/his ability to intuit whether instruments are giving realistic readings and to what degree.

Anyhoo, I'm glad we sorted that out - I'd have hated to think we'd suffer disagreement over a carelessly worded remark which was so obviously NOT representative of how scientists actually work. I'd really have hated Polanyi's reputation to suffer because of my mistake. For what it's worth, I'm sure that he would have agreed wholeheartedly with your above as well!


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Received on Mon Dec 1 01:43:15 2008

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