Monday, May 21, 2018

Understanding trumps truth

--- Philip Ball, in a New Scientist book review, "Science isn’t everything – and it’s not even after the truth," 28 Feb 2018

Quote in context:
But philosopher Angela Potochnik’s ambitious book Idealization and the Aims of Science is an antidote to the view that the philosophy of science tries to pronounce grandly on what scientists ought to do. Even so, many might still resent her assertion that “science isn’t after the truth”. But she’s right. While our picture of the universe is in some sense truer than it was in the Middle Ages, and science typically does work its way closer to some sort of truth, that isn’t what scientists are trying to achieve.
What they want are useful, comprehensible, workable theories of the world. Understanding trumps truth: scientists will generally settle for a less accurate model if it is more cognitively transparent. They don’t strive to map models perfectly onto reality. This doesn’t seem so controversial. Even Hawking agrees, indulging in a bit of philosophy himself when he states: “There is no model-independent test of reality.”
There is no “scientific method”, but there is a collection of tried-and-tested principles: try to use reason, compare theory against experiment, attempt to replicate results, that kind of thing. The precise emphases differ by discipline. Some depend more heavily on statistics. Some are necessarily empirical, with few theories. Some, like chemistry, are as much concerned with making as with understanding. At any rate, science doesn’t do just one thing over and over again in different fields of enquiry. That, says Potochnik, is why there are also no clear boundaries between science and non-science.