Skip to main content

The Meaning of Science - Tim Lewens ***

It's traditional for scientists to get the hump about philosophy of science. As Tim Lewens, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge points out, the great Richard Feynman was highly dismissive of the topic. But most of us involved in science writing do recognise its importance, and I was very much looking forward to this book. I'll get the reason it doesn't get five stars out of the way first. 

This is because the book misses out a whole chunk of philosophy of science in favour of dedicating the second half to 'what science means for us', which primarily seems to be more a summary of some areas of soft science rather than true philosophy. We have some great material in the first half on what science is and on the work of the terrible twins Popper and Kuhn (of whom more in the moment), but I was left wanting so much more. What came after Kuhn (whose work is 50 years old)? We only get a few passing comments. There is nothing about peer review. Nothing about fraud in science. Nothing about the relationship of maths and science - in fact there was so much more philosophising I would have loved to have read about.

What there was proved excellent. I was vaguely familiar with the two big names in the philosophy of science, but only at a headline level. I knew, for instance, that Karl Popper's ideas, while still widely supported by scientists, are frowned on by many in philosophy of science - but I didn't know why. In a nutshell it's because Popper took things too far, not just talking about scientific theories being falsifiable, which most find acceptable, but going on to the say the process of inductive reasoning, so important to science, isn't valid - which no scientist can honestly find acceptable.

Similarly, while I had got a vague idea of Thomas Kuhn and his paradigm shifts, like everyone else except philosophers I wasn't really sure what a paradigm was - apparently Kuhn used the term as a kind of definitive exemplar driven change rather than a traditional revolution. I also wasn't aware of Kuhn's rather nutty ideas that taking a new scientific view didn't just change the view, but changed the actual universe. Really.

There were still points I'd disagree with. Lewens dismisses Popper entirely because of his anti-induction views, but doesn't say what's wrong with the apparently very sensible Popper Lite approach, with appropriate recognition that one experiment doesn't make a falsification isn't acceptable. Similarly but in the opposite vein, he gives in far too easily to Kuhn's idea on changing the universe, taking the example of the subjective nature of colour as showing that the way we look at things truly does alter reality. Well, no it doesn't. A flower is giving off exactly the same photons however you look at it - it's the interpretation that changes, not the universe itself. But I don't mind this - argument is the whole point of philosophy and why it's far more fun than the grumps like Stephen Hawking who claim we don't need it any more seem to realise.

So an excellent start first half to a book that I think all scientists and those with a true interest in science should read. But I just wish that second half had filled in those missing bits rather than trying to be a mini-popular science book with a touch of philosophical justification in its own right.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

  1. May I recommend my philosophy-of-science book (also based on blog entries) ‘The grand bazaar of wisdom’
    More information here:
    http://bazaarofwisdom.blogspot.com.es/
    Best wishes

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm afraid your book seems outside our remit, but thanks very much for your offer.

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…