2009-01-30

A response to an article on methods of inquiry

Today I posted a comment on a college friend of mine's, Mike Chapman's, blog post, which will hopefully soon be a magazine article, about the validity of alternative inquiry styles in science. I recommend reading Mike's post, even if you have to look up a few of the big words like I did, but I've pasted my comment below because a lot of points make sense even outside context of the article.

Great read, Mike.

I myself have slowly, and somewhat subconsciously, been constructing a framework on which I could hang any academic discipline, or at least that would be the idea. Of course, being a mathematician, I reserve a special corner of the framework for hard sciences like mine. Physics and finance wouldn't be too far away, and another step in that direction might take you to chemistry and economics, or something of that nature. Perhaps the complete opposite side of this construction would house the Arts, creative writing, sculpture, music, and so on. In the middle hang the "pseudo-sciences" psychology and sociology, and the interpretive disciplines like history and journalism.

I admit to having never heard or read the word "positivism" until reading this essay. But possessing this new term, I have no qualms about asserting that I have experienced a nearly-pure positivist education. I also admit to shying away from non-positivist disciplines, or even belittling their methods. However, the further along in my education I ge, the more I witness the disadvantages of a purely positivist scientific community.

It is not enough to know what we can "know" about a topic. In many cases it is incredibly beneficial to know what might be true, assuming the existence of a truth. Even in a "hard" science like computational biology, where I now work, we see two crowds of researchers with differing methods: inference and simulation. Inference is, in short, attempting to discover things about the data we have, and simulation hopes to mimic the behavior of the data in an explainable way. Of course, these two ideals are not far from one another, since even inference requires beginning assumptions, and simulators adjust themselves to the data. But, the fact remains that there are two valid ways to approach the problem, one looking for truth and the other seeking a plausible explanation.

Perhaps two years ago I would have disagreed with you, but as I find my thoughts and ideals slipping towards the more curious world of the unquantifiable, I realize that there is absolutely a place in this [scientific] world for pseudo-science and even non-science, whatever those might be. Some of the greatest thinkers this world has seen have provided insight using non-quantitative observation alone. Some even publish their work in the form of fiction, Nietzsche, for example. And it often occurs to me that, considering my aforementioned framework, philosophy, being perhaps the most abstract of all disciplines, is only a step away from logic, upon which the whole of mathematics is based.

When reading your piece, the first thought I have, on the topic of individuality within a collective, is that fear of prejudice, or being prejudiced, could be a driving factor in the unwillingness of the scientific community to describe a population in anything but a positivist manner. In most cases, stereotypes, which I consider to be the non-judgemental conceptual version of prejudice, develop for a reason, that reason being: some part of the collective can be described as such. Now, describing a part of a collective in a certain way, without being able to say exactly which part, can be dangerous in a prejudice-phobic society. Furthermore, it's conceiveable that this is precisely the reason that non-positivist thinkers have often softened their work through fictionalization before publication.

Or, it's because people's attention spans are short, and so a heavy topic is best passed along with a spoonful of sugar.

Also, I never would have suspected The Flying Spaghetti Monster, but I suppose he has become the freethinkers' collective idol. Very nice of you to include him in the discussion.

So, you have my support, however far that goes. Best of luck!

1 comment:

Mike Chapman said...

Another post I posted in response to your comment related to this subject:

Thanks for comment Brian. Similar to you, but perhaps in an opposite direction, the further along in my education I get, especially as regards considering questions about the philosophy of science, my thinking has become more fragmented. Specifically, I went from being a passive positivist, to a staunch postpositivist (interpretive view of science), but now I often find myself questioning "an-only-interpretive-view" of science. That is, there are certainly particular questions I think are best taken up by postivist methods. At the same time, however, if you want to know more about how a person makes sense of their experience on Earth, assuming one believes they have the requisite agency to have such experience (I do believe this by the way), it would seem that qualitative ways of knowing would be more appropriate.

In this thinking, I also often consider the questions: what is science? and, is there truth? Tough questions and I don't have a firm answer, but here a few thoughts: a problem with the term science is that it is often understood as a strictly positivist approach to understanding, or more appropriately, knowing. Is it not also possible, however, to understand the term science as some sort of disciplined inquiry into learning more about a question? That is probablly closer to how I am understanding the term as of late.

The question of whether truth exists is even more difficult. I've talked with Beal about this some in relation to math. My thinking right now is something like: I think disciplines like mathematics, physics, or biology, for instance, are sharpened, precise methods that do much good in understanding/knowing something. That said, however, if you push our necessarily finite capabilities as researchers and methods against a wall, for me it seems obvious that no type of science is able to know, with certainty, the truth of a matter. Also complicating my thinking in this area is the idea of space/time. If space/time is an infinitely continuous situation/thing/existence, then doesn't it seem likely that everything we know in this universe is at least succeptible to changing over time? In this sense, again, regardless of the precision of our methods, doesn't it seem unlikely that we could never capture the truth of always-in-flux phenomena? Now this is not to say that, because of this predicament, we should forgo attempts at knowing more about our world. It does make me question though, the assertions made by people who have self-decided that they or their methods have been able to avoid the necessarily partial component of all attempts at knowledge. This type of thinking or assertion is even more problematic to me consider our finite abilities to use our minds. Even if one accepts that the mind is infinite in its potential capacity, that doesn't necessarily mean we as humans can use our minds in an infinite type of way. If one accepts my thinking on this, then it seems even more likely that to know something with certainty is more a matter of (over)confident rhetoric than how things "really" are.