Dunbar’s Trouble with Science

Robin Dunbar The Trouble with Science Faber and Faber 1995.

Dunbar is an anthropologist who is concerned about the public’s growing disillusionment with science (partly with the encouragement of various ‘intellectuals’). He gives a good overview of various understandings of ‘science’, with a reasonable analysis, and recommends improved education.

His first quote is from Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking something you don’t actually know …

followed by Francis Bacon’s

Man more readily believes what he would like to be true.

The third:

Among a science teacher’s most striking experiences are encounters with bright, eager students who are utterly unable to understand some seemingly simple scientific idea. (My -David’s – emphasis.)

It seems to me that Dunbar is insightful on the misunderstandings of the general public and many philosophers and ‘social scientists’, but less so on the nature of science in itself. Thus it seems to me that those students who ‘get’ specific scientific ideas or methods and go on to act as if they believed them to be unconditionally correct have failed to understand the real purpose of science. Conversely, those who make an honest attempt to understand some specific ideas and find their justifications wanting are half way towards furthering the purpose of science: the other half being to analyse the gaps in justification sufficiently to be able to explore them (typically through experimentation). We need to be careful, for both students and mature scientists, to distinguish between the ‘true scientist’ who methodically examines cherished assumptions and the exploiter of scientific findings and methods, who is typically trying to estimate something based on the assumption that ‘the usual assumptions apply’.

My own view is that scientists who always spend some of their effort in furthering Persig’s ‘true science’ purpose deserve to be viewed in the way that Dunbar would like. We should not trust them to be correct, but we should be able to trust that they are correctly searching after truth. On the other hand, with Bacon in mind, while would like to be able to trust the findings of all scientists it is more reasonable to make any trust conditional on their track record and on our assessment of whether their their usual assumptions are credible in the context.

I have been co-opted to work with many mature non-scientists struggling to cope with crises of various kinds, often acting as a kind of referee on science and technological issues between them and their official staff. In some cases my rapport with them may be based on my being a ‘good fellow’ or on my ability to articulate logical arguments. But it seems to me that I have usually been consulted when ‘the usual assumptions’ do not apply and the best I can do is to highlight whatever it is that they ‘think they know that ain’t so’. In doing so, it seems to me that despite being a mathematician rather than having a science degree, I was doing science of a kind that is essential if scientists are to be trusted. In some cases the staff whose work has been wanting needed no re-education: they simply needed permission to speak the unspeakable.

What is this thing called Science?

Dunbar touches upon a critical issue:

… there is no real hope that we can ever hold a coherent conversation with someone from another culture because we have no common basis (no concrete phenomena ‘out there’) that we can use for translating one culture’s constructs to another’s.

There is obviously something in this. Yet it seems to me that in engaging with people from different cultures one can often identify important common principles and ‘ways ahead’, and that this provides good practice for working with colleagues in a crisis that is challenging assumptions and showing that a ‘common basis’ is only reliable so long as the general situation remains stable. Arguably, all collaborations worthy of the name put the lie to the above quote.

Dunbar seems to put great faith in peer review – democracy among scientists – to weed out less good theories. My own experience is that crises occur because the relevant majority holds some false assumptions to be ‘facts’. It is no good consulting this majority: instead one needs to seek out those who have previously recognized the possibility of the crisis, and are otherwise credible.

A Natural History of Science

Dunbar quotes:

Their errors are not wilful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable at the time they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved inadequate.

The trick is to realise that the hypotheses could prove inadequate in advance of their doing so, and to think about how they might fail and what could be done about it.

The Science of Survival

Dunbar notes that different cultures tend to classify their natural worlds similarly. However, it seems to me that in the social world (e.g. peace-making) classification, and particularly the tendency for binary classifications, are problematic, and that early on one needs to collaborate to establish working classifications.

Why is Science so Successful?

Pragmatic Realism

The philosopher Nicholas Maxwell … argues that a fundamental assumption underlying science is that the world is comprehensible, that it has a certain underlying consistency. In other words … we can understand how it works. Given that this is a central assumption for doing any kind of science at all, …

The only possible recourse open to a relativist at this point is to argue that the success of a theory does not guarantee its truth, merely that it happens to predict the results that we observe. …

Following Bacon, I think that Dunbar would like it to be true that science is somehow possible and that it somehow establishes truths, and so he readily believes Maxwell’s ‘central assumption’, putting up a straw-man relativist argument as if his disbelief in its conclusions would somehow lend credence to the opposite extreme. Further, the ‘central assumption’ seems to be the main thing that should be challenged in a crisis.

If science ever produces truths, it is of the kind ‘such and such theory seems to be adequate in our current circumstances’.

Modular Science

If the real world genuinely is too complicated to understand, then there probably isn’t too much hope for the future.

What about quantum physics? Cosmology?

All we can ever say is that, all other things being equal and providing conditions remain as they are now, this species will evolve in the same way.

Evolution, presumably economic and social as well as biological, seems ‘genuinely too complicated to understand’. Presumably, then, they lie outside of science.

[To improve the performance of your car] There is simply no alternative to opening the bonnet, dismantling the engine and examining it component by component. Once you have some grasp of what the bits do, you can start to reassemble them in order to determine how they interact with each other. Then, and only then, will you have any real chance of making improvements to the way it works.

Dunbar appears to have no practical experience.

In principle, if we knew all the ins and outs of how natural phenomena worked, we would be able to reconstruct the whole thing in terms of natural physics, including all the relevant emergent properties of the human mind. But we cannot do it – at least, not yet. The constraint is not imposed by the nature of the phenomenal world itself, but by our own intellectual limitations.

Bold claims!

Unnatural Science

A mathematical model is not an attempt to provide a complete description of a natural phenomena; rather it is an attempt to see how far we can get with a limited set of principles, in an attempt to establish the model’s boundary conditions.

In so far as a scientific theory posits a mathematical model, presumably the theory is also an attempt … .

Science through the Looking-Glass

A Problem in the Public Domain

… mathematics had become an essential component of the sciences. [An] understanding was only possible if the reader was familiar with the new mathematical techniques that included calculus and the beginnings of probability theory. Physics became opaque to the non-specialist.

In order to say what’s so interesting about the birds singing in the back garden, it is now necessary to preface your 2000-word article with 10,000 word introduction to evolutionary theory at a level of knowledge that is far beyond that available to Darwin himself.

The Open Society Revisited

Karl Popper argued that attempts to constrain science within a political strait-jacket are inevitably disastrous.

The Purse-Strings of Science

Scientists have generally done what they have been paid to do and rushed on as fast as possible to do what time and money they have left to explore the really interesting (but often wholly ‘useless’) problems.

All quite so. But it seems to me that a part of some of our more chronic problems are that people may be ‘familiar’ with mathematical techniques such as calculus and probability theory yet lack adequate undersatnding of their limitations and necessary caveats to findings.

Divided Loyalties

Two Cultures

… recent advances in evolutionary theory demonstrate that not all of science needs to be reductionist … .

What Happened to Renaissance Man?

The sciences are perceived as being harder than the humanities because the answer is either right or wrong and more obviously factual .. not everyone can write out the proof of Pythagoras theorem .. .

But how do the sciences establish ‘right’ and ‘factual’ results, except to say something like ‘the following theory fits this body of evidence, and we now have no particular reason to doubt the theory’?

Dave Marsay

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