Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Word cloud

Monday, May 21, 2018

Give it to me baby! Uh huh! Uh huh!

I don't have the time right now to process this deeply, but I loved this quote from a Chronicle article about "Design Thinking" (a very hot edufad at the moment):
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Confusion is a common reaction to a "movement" that’s little more than floating balloons of jargon. If design thinking (for short, let’s call it the DTs) merely involved bilking some deluded would-be entrepreneurs, well — no harm no foul. The problem is that faddists and cult-followers are pushing the DTs as a reform for all of higher education.
Oh, yeah!

Sunday, May 20, 2018

My basic problem with Feyerabend

Besides the fact that he attaches great significance to any report in conflict with accepted results (not distinguishing between work that has been replicated, work that has not yet been subject to replication efforts, and work that failed in replication efforts), he spends much time noting the non-existence of sharp lines and little time conceding that here might nonetheless be degrees of scientific/unscientific character in work.  He is content to note that there are no sharp lines but doesn't pay much attention to the fact that even in this gray continuum some work is much closer to one side than the other.

Once one establishes that binary categories are insufficient to describe a complex reality, it does not follow that there are no differences of degree.  This is a common problem in postmodernism (a label that he may or may not have accepted for himself).

Feyerabend thus far

I'm about half-way through Feyerabend's Against Method, having read 14 chapters. There's a perfectly fine point in it, one that could have been made in an essay rather than a book, but the postmodernists and critical theorists and others of their ilk are always too wordy. (Not that I'm one to criticize.)  His main point seems to be that if scientists stuck with supported theories, and only tried to apply supported theories to open problems, nobody would ever work on new theories and so new theories would never emerge and gain support.  He's obviously correct, and if he's arguing against philosophers with overly-rigid definitions of science then godspeed, Dr. Feyerabend.

However, he seems to be going farther, trying to deflate scientists as well as philosophers.  I suppose that's reasonable; I've argued against the "STEM Pedestal" before.  When he argues that the triumph of theories depends on scientists engaging in rhetoric, not just research, I want to disagree with him, but then I think of the Copenhagen Interpretation... Still, for the most part, I can't come up with much that he explicitly says that "attacks" science, except in the opening where he talks about students being "brainwashed" because they use Newtonian theory even when they have no intuition for it.  I don't think it's brainwashing to accept and apply a theory that you don't fully understand, if you're doing it because you have been assured by reliable people that they have experimental evidence.  Honestly, the greatest brainwashing happens not in freshman lecture but freshman lab, where we have students do ridiculously error-prone experiments that sure seem to contradict Newtonian mechanics, and then they write error analysis sections in their lab reports.

Of course, Feyerabend is a bomb-thrower.  He opens with quotes from Lenin ferchrissakes!  He's talking about revolutions so he opens with a Russian dictator.  He's a provocateur, which is fine, except I don't think he needed a whole book to make his point that science is more complicated than some philosophers have constructed it as.

As far as his understanding of physics, well, his critique of Galileo's observations was mind-numbing, and I'll skip it.  It's hard for me to say for certain that he's wrong.  OTOH, he cites Brownian motion as a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or at least a violation of the 19th century understanding of the 2nd law.  I can't speak authoritatively on how the Second Law was understood back then, but I can say that many spoke about it in terms of heat flow rather than the simple statement "Perpetual motion is impossible."  Brownian motion certainly challenged people's understanding of the 2nd Law (it wasn't really explained quantitatively until Einstein's work) but it wasn't a violation of the more careful statements of the 2nd Law to come out of that era.

He also cites the work of a Felix Ehrenhaft, who (according to Wikipedia) claimed to have observed magnetic monopoles, among other things.  Feyerabend, however, is quite impressed by Ehrenhaft. This sympathy for crackpots makes it hard to read Feyerabend at face value.

One other thing I notice is that, like so many historians, philosophers, and sociologists of science he focuses on the heroes of physics, mostly Galileo.  If the question is whether Galileo's work was important, the answer is "Duh!"  If the question is whether Galileo is the be-all and end-all of understanding science as science, well, no.  There are many other branches of science (and even other branches of physics) where issues of reproducibility, indirect measurement, the applicability of models, etc. manifest in distinct ways.  I'd love to see more high-profile philosophy and sociology of science focusing on something beyond the classic episodes in the history of physics.  I am told that a lot of it has to do with some of the biggest names in 20th century studies of science (e.g. Feyerabend, Kuhn) being former physicists.