Friday, February 07, 2014

Ernst Mayr on the Historical Sciences and Their Methodologies

Ernst Mayr would agree with Stephen Jay Gould that Bill Nye was wrong to assert that there is no different methodology for the historical sciences.  Here is a comment he made on historical sciences in contrast to other branches of science:

For example, Darwin introduced historicity into science. Evolutionary biology, in contrast with physics and chemistry, is a historical science—the evolutionist attempts to explain events and processes that have already taken place. Laws and experiments are inappropriate techniques for the explication of such events and processes. Instead one constructs a historical narrative, consisting of a tentative reconstruction of the particular scenario that led to the events one is trying to explain.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Stephen Jay Gould Would Say Bill Nye is Wrong in His Debate with Ken Ham

Bill Nye, in his debate last night, claimed that there is no difference in the methodology of operational sciences and historical sciences, and that Ken Ham is the only one who makes this distinction.  But he is dead wrong on that.  Stephen Jay Gould recognizes many of the same distinctions:

Beyond a platitudinous appeal to open-mindedness, the “scientific method” involves a set of concepts and procedures tailored to the image of a man in a white coat twirling dials in a laboratory–experiment, quantification, repetition, prediction, and restriction of complexity to a few variables that can be controlled and manipulated.  These procedures are powerful, but they do not encompass all of nature’s variety.  How should scientists operate when they must try to explain the results of history, those inordinately complex events that can occur but once in detailed glory?  Many large domains of nature–cosmology, geology, and evolution among them–must be studied with the tools of history.  The appropriate methods focus on narrative, not experiment as usually conceived.

The stereotype of the “scientific method” has no place for irreducible history.  Nature’s laws are defined by their invariance in space and time.  The techniques of controlled experiment, and reduction of natural complexity to a minimal set of general causes, presuppose that all times can be treated alike and adequately simulated in a laboratory.

. . .

Historical explanations are distinct from conventional experimental results in many ways.  The issue of verification by repetition does not arise because we are trying to account for uniqueness of detail that cannot, both by laws of probability and time’s arrow of irreversibility, occur together again. . . .  And the issue of prediction, a central ingredient in the stereotype, does not enter into a historical narrative. . . .

I am only a few minutes into the recorded debate, and am not sure I will make it to the end. From what I have read, it was not the most enlightening debate on the relevant science, from either side.  I just had to point out how little time it took for Nye to be dead wrong on a scientific point.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Thomas Nagel: Sophisticated Members of Our Culture Have Been "Thoroughly Indoctrinated"

More wisdom from Thomas Nagel:
My own situation is that of an atheist who, in spite of being an avid consumer of popular science, has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life. The theory does not claim to explain the origin of life, which remains a complete scientific mystery at this point. Opponents of ID, however, normally assume that that too must have a purely chemical explanation. The idea is that life arose and evolved to its present form solely because of the laws of chemistry, and ultimately of particle physics. In the prevailing naturalistic worldview, evolutionary theory plays the crucial role in showing how physics can be the theory of everything.

Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.

Thomas Nagel, Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008, 2009, p. 54.

He is keen observer of many elements of Darwinian Fundamentalism in contemporary culture:  the use of propaganda and indoctrination instead of quality education that encourages critical thinking skills, and the suppression of doubts about the evidential support of the theory.