Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Fuzzy Fringe of Science

A week ago I was writing about the occult-driven speculations about psychophysics by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of the Futurist movement, as an example of what Freeman Dyson called the “fringe” of scientific thinking.  I have progressed with my reading of Luciano Chessa’s Luigi Russolo, Futurist, the source of my Marinetti quote, I have come to appreciate Dyson’s choice of noun.  The face is that the “boundary” of science is not a particularly well-defined concept.  Indeed, Thomas Kuhn has argued that, if such a boundary exists, it is a fluid one;  and it may be counterproductive to assume that exists at all.

Thus, any questions about the nature of science might do well to turn to the composer Erik Satie and reason by analogy.  I am thinking of Satie’s famous (notorious?) declaration that music is what happens at concerts.  On my site I was willing to grant that this “definition” may have been a throw-away gesture with “no objective other than ‘pour épater les bourgeois’ (to shock the middle classes);”  but it still captures Ludwig Wittgenstein’s core principle that the meaning of any word resides in how that word is used.

The analogy, then, is that science is what scientists do.  In other words, if an individual establishes membership in the “scientific community” by his/her practices, then those practices can be taken as “scientific thinking.”  The problem, of course, is that scientists can venture out to that “fringe,” too, perhaps just out of curiosity about what might be there.  Isaac Newton happened to believe in astrology, and there is no reason to doubt that he probably thought as systematically about it as he did about those laws that explain how bodies move through space.

The example in Chessa’s book is even more striking, since it involves a Nobel Laureate.  Charles-Robert Richet was a physiologist best known for his study of anaphylaxis.  However, he shows up in Chessa’s book for having introduced the term “metapsychic;”  and Chessa describes him as “a scholar of medianic and paranormal phenomena.”  As was the case with Newton, we may assume that he tried to pursue his scholarship with the same systematic order he applied to the study of physiology.

This is not to say that holding scientific credentials provides a guarantee of sound reasoning.  My favorite counterexample is Roger Penrose, who seems to have taken his Nobel Laureate status as a carte blanche allowing him to write about anything.  The result was The Emperor’s New Mind:  Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics.  As I wrote on my earlier blog, this was a shining example of sound reasoning coming to flawed conclusions, although the reasoning was so skillful that, as I put it, “it took one of the most reputable cognitive scientists (Aaron Sloman) a major exertion of effort to tease out the faulty reasoning in the book.

Perhaps this is where the real lesson resides.  Being a scientist may establish that one’s efforts are legitimate enough to be considered seriously by other scientists.  However, consideration does not guarantee acceptance.  Scientific thinking trains one to explore all possibilities of defeating a proposition, no matter how appealing it may sound;  and, if a scientist wishes to indulge in occult studies, then (s)he should expect that any results will have to stand up to rigorous criticism from the rest of the scientific community, not out of any vindictive attempt to “circle the wagons” but just as a check to establish the soundness of the reasoning leading to those results.

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