Category Archives: Sociology and Science

Science is not scientific

In this podcast from Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor interviews Ian Angell- who criticices the claims that scientists make about truth.

Angell is critical of something he calls ‘Scientism’ – which is the idea that science is the highest form of human endeavour, that science is truth and that it is the only way of descrbing and understanding the world. He points out that not all scientists fall into this trap as even great scientists, such as Einstein, can be humble about the capacity of thier scientifc models to actually describe the world as it really is, rather than those models being just one way of helping us to make sense of the world.

He argues that ‘just because it (science) works’, doesn’t mean its true – and uses the example of Newtonian mechanics to illustrate this – Newton provided us with a model of the universe that enabled us to achieve great feats such as going to the moon and yet this model is no longer regarded as a true representation of  the way the world works.

He also raises questions about the nature of causality – Angell argues that ‘causality’  is something which we apply to the world rather than something that is found in the world. In other words ‘causality’ is a linear pattern which we confer on a chaotic world in order to make sense of it. Causality, he argues, is one of the delusions of cognition that we convey on the world in order to make our way in it – when we think causality is actually out there rather than something we have made up – then we are deluded.

He also seems to be arguing that the world ‘out there’ is just as it is, there is no essential order to it, but what we do as humans is to categorise things into the world, but in reality, the world is not as orderly as our categories suggest.

This is clearly of relevance to the ‘Sociology and Science’ debate – arguing that even science is not as objective as it would claim to be!

Angell actually comes accross as quite angry – he would maybe benefit from chilling out and doing some Tai Chi – like Fritjoff Capra who wrote the Tao of Physics – which I seem to remember said very similar things to what he’s arguing…. just without the irritation.

sfm-low-resI wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading it, but the podcast summarise some of the ideas in this new book – by Ian O.Angell and Dionysios S. Demetis – taken from the web site –

“categorization, the basis of observation, and hence of the scientific method, is a necessary delusion. Human observation does not allow access to the ‘real world:’ observation is deceived by the linearity inferred in causality. We don’t observe causality in the world; a belief in causality is a necessary prerequisite of observation and cognition. Indeed, without the delusion of causality there would be no observation; observation and cognition are only possible because linearity is erroneously imposed on what is an always complex, non-linear world.”

There is an interesting commentary on the book and the podcast mentioned above here

Sociology on TV – Genius of Britain and the Story of Science

In Genius of Britain, famous media-scientists provide their insights into the lives of the people who made some of Britain’s most significant scientific discoveries. The first episode covers the work of Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton, which is useful context for the ‘Enlightenment’; the second and third episodes focus on the industrial revolution – useful to illustrate how ideas of progress manifested themselves in the heyday of modernity – and the final episode looks at more contemporary science.  All in all, used selectively, this series gives us a useful overview of ‘what science is’ – obviously of relevance to the ‘is sociology a science’ debates.  The whole thing is available on 4OD – aired orginally in spring 2010.

Episode three is especially worth watching in its entirety- as it demonstrates the cumulative nature of scientific discovery – and how theory builds on the previous empirical findings.  Starts with Brunel…

The downsides are that the programme  is somewhat drawn out and some of the presenters are irritating – including Richard Dawkins – the smugest man alive; Robert Winston, who despite being an expert only in the field of genetics, the BBC seems to think is an expert in everything; and Robert ‘stuff the workers in wales I’m moving my production to China’ Dyson.   

I wonder if science will ever be able to tell us why scientific media personalities are so irritating?

The Story of Science – aired on BBC2 around the same time as the above shows how scientific discoveries are influenced by power and chance – suggesting that the process of scientific discovery is not as rational, uniform and planned as the scientific method might have us believe.

The only downside is that the later isn’t freely available – obviously because its a BBC documentary that is public property – so I’m not allowed to watch it after the 30 day iplayer window – how does that work? Fortunately, for any of my students – it’s on estream.