Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review: The Unnatural Nature of Science

In The Unnatural Nature of Science, Lewis Wolpert purports to explain (according to the book jacket) "the fundamental difference between science and technology, and between artistic and scientific creativity...why psychoanalysis is not properly scientific, why computers cannot do science, why science and religion are incompatible, and why philosphy and sociology have told us little about the true nature of science." Unfortunately, he does none of these things very well and, in fact, doesn't do some of them at all.

First, the language and organization are atrocious. Wolpert seems intent on breaking all of the rules of good communication and good argument. He never uses a simple word when a complex one will do, rarely defines his terms (For example, he will argue that one theory provides a more satisfactory explanation than another but never defines what makes an explanation satisfactory.), will contradict himself from one sentence to the next, and jumps from one topic to the next and back again with no apparent rhyme or reason.

Consider this passage: Aristotle asked whether all the parts of the embryo come into existence together, or are they formed in succession, like the knitting of a net? He thus defined the preformation/epigenesis debate which was to continue for 2,000 years. Having opened chickens' eggs at different times, he argued in favor of the knitting analogy and thus for epigenesis - that is, the gradual generation of embryonic structures. But his rejection of preformation - that everything was preformed in miniature from the beginning - was based on philosophical arguments, not on observation.

We'll ignore the fact that that first sentence should have ended with a period. Wolpert shows how Aristotle used observation to come to the idea of epigenesis, but claims that he rejected the opposite, preformation, based on philosophical arguments (none of which Wolpert ever explores or even mentions). Since a thing can't be A and not A at the same time, wouldn't observational evidence for A be observational evidence against not A?

Strangely, Wolpert calls Aristotle's conclusions an "inspired guess" that was "correct for the wrong reasons," an argument that seems to be based on Aristotle's inability to provide a mechanism for epigenesis, an argument that he also applies to future scientists in their attempts to solve the epigenesis/preformation debate. Wolpert applies this standard inconsistently as he does not similarly condemn Newton's theory of gravitation for its lack of a mechanism to explain gravity nor Darwin's original theory of evolution for its lack of mechanisms to explain mutations and inheritance. In fact, he praises them for trudging on despite these limitations.

But let's get back to the points of the book. Although I must admit ignorance on the fine distinctions between science and technology, I'd like to make a few brief comments. First, I am confused by the insistence on declaring applied science to be not science. Secondly, I have a distinct problem with Wolpert's appeal to the Ancient Greeks' rejection of "applied science" since this rejection was based not on reason but on gender and class distinctions. Productive labor of any sort was deemed beneath men of a certain class and was relegated to women, servants, peasants and slaves. Third, Wolpert downplays the contributions of non-European societies to the birth of science and ignores the fact that much of the success of Greek society came from its importation of ideas from other cultures. Much of Greek art, architecture, philosophy and even religion was imported from Egypt, India, Babylon, etc. (all societies Wolpert insists are irrelevant to the development of science). In tone and content, Wolpert's arguments come off as Eurocentric and even anti-semitic. (Wolpert's only reference to Jews is to argue that the Greeks "unlike the Jews" were not "constrained" in their thinking by dogma.)

Wolpert's arguments on the differences between artistic creativity and science are, unfortunately, based on unquestioned stereotypes and willful ignorance of how the arts and artists actually function. I checked the book's references and not a single one seems to have anything to do with the practices of the artistic community.

Perhaps that is why he makes foolish statements like:
Compare all this with the arts: for painters, novelists and poets, the original creation is all important. The artist does not contribute to a common enterprise; the artist's work is not assimilated into a larger body and its essence is its individuality.
AND
For all these reasons, the strategy that scientists adopt in relation to their work and their colleagues is very different from that of artists. Artists are not subject to the criteria of validation and falsification that are central to the social activity of scientists. Artists may plagiarize, but they cannot falsify in the same sense as scientists can: they cannot cheat.


Wolpert also argues that the career goals of the artist are fame and wealth whereas the goals of the scientist are merely the esteem of peers, a few awards, funding for their work and some small economic reward for themselves. Add to that his implications that artistic creativity comes "out of the blue" while scientific creativity is based on years of study.

Obviously, Wolpert is completely ignorant of the arts. There's a reason why "starving artist" is a cliche while "starving scientist" is not. Most artists will die unknown and broke, including artists who, like Rembrandt, achieve eternal fame after their deaths. Most artists study theory and technique for many years before "discovering" new forms or making any substantial contribution to the arts. Most artists spend their lives vying for peer validation, good reviews, awards, funding, and the recognition that they have made a substantial contribution to some artistic movement or other. Many will cheat, misrepresenting themselvs and their work to get rewards. (I'm reminded of one thirty-something-year-old screenwriter who posed as a teenager, which gained her acclaim for the sophistication of her work until her true age was discovered.) Collaboration, discovery, hard work, social commitment, the willingness to work in obscurity etc. are vital to the arts no less than they are vital to science.

If only Wolpert had stopped at misrepresenting the arts. Instead, he decides to add to his intellectual dishonesty by constructing a straw man of the social sciences. Wolpert states that he is going to explore how the social sciences can at best be described as "primitive" sciences by carefully examining a single example. What example does he choose? Psychoanalytic theory. I don't think I need to explain why psychoanalytic theory is not an adequate representation of the social sciences, which include history, economics, anthropology, information science, law, linguistics, psychology and sociology.

In all, it seems that Wolpert began his project not with questions but with "answers." He does not ask if science is truly unique and deserving of privileged status, but asserts it and then cherry picks his "evidence" to support his argument. He therefore gave little consideration to the valid similarities that can be drawn between science and other human enterprises, often arguing on flimsy or nonexistent evidence that criticisms of science's supposed uniqueness should be ignored or that they are irrelevant to science.

Perhaps it is a cheap shot, but Wolpert's arguments remind me of those that argue that religion can only be understood by a "true believer", that it should be uniquely exempt from external criticisms, and that any negative applications of religion should be blamed solely on those who carry out the acts while all of the positive applications are proof of religon's inherently good nature. These arguments carry the whiff of hypocrisy when one considers that Wolpert, like most scientists, condemns those who apply them to religon.

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