Ways To Think of the Rule

In the last two entries, I showed you a rule – the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology.  Now, at this point it is natural to react by arguing the rule could be dropped or changed.  In other words, science could have developed without the rule or science could one day discard the rule.  Those are interesting points to ponder, but that route completely misses the more interesting feature of the rule.

When people attempt to challenge the rule, and its importance to the biological sciences, they are engaged in philosophy.  In other words, they basically argue, “While the rule exists, we need to question whether it ought to exist.”  That is the route of endless argument that sooner or later, could very converge with the route of socio-political agenda (given the authority role our culture has assigned to science).

I suggest a different route, a different perspective.  Instead of looking at the rule from the perspective of a philosopher, try to see it from the perspective of a sociologist.  The American Sociological Association defines sociology as follows:

Sociology is the study of social life, social change, and the social causes and consequences of human behavior. Sociologists investigate the structure of groups, organizations, and societies, and how people interact within these contexts. Since all human behavior is social, the subject matter of sociology ranges from the intimate family to the hostile mob; from organized crime to religious cults; from the divisions of race, gender and social class to the shared beliefs of a common culture; and from the sociology of work to the sociology of sports. In fact, few fields have such broad scope and relevance for research, theory, and application of knowledge.

When people talk about science, they often talk as if it is an other-worldly entity that looks in and pronounces its judgments – “Science says,…” “Science has shown,…” “According to Science….”  Yet science is a human expression.  If the infamous asteroid that failed to kill off the dinosaurs means no humans would have come into existence, it also means no science would have come into existence.

Since science is clearly an example of human behavior, then we can think of the rule not as some idealized conception in the realm of philosophy, but as a shared feature of the group of people who practice science – scientists.  And science is what scientists do.

As Dan Berger writes:

Science is what scientists do.

This is not an evasive answer. In fact, Michael Polanyi, who was a successful physical chemist, defined science as a guild in which masters train apprentices to the point that an apprentice is able to phrase and pursue scientific problems on her/his own. What qualifies as a scientifically interesting problem is then defined by the judgement of practicing scientists. Science is a social construction of scientists, who jealously guard the perceived accuracy of each others’ results by constant questioning and correction.

This is a very key point.  Scientists do not learn about science by taking courses in the philosophy and/or history of science.  In fact, I’ll bet most never took any such coursework.  Scientists learn about science from other scientists, precisely as Polanyi describes.  As such, they don’t learn the rule as part of a list of Science Rules.  They learn the rule from mimicking the behavior and approach of their mentors.  It is passed down, generation after generation.

So let’s pause for a moment to take this all in.

One is certainly free to argue about the legitimacy or need for the rule.  You’ll get lots of different, even thought-provoking, opinions from different people because it’s a question about what science ought to be.

But when it comes to a description of science, the science that studies life and evolution, there is very little room for differing opinion, because it’s a question about what science is.  That is, if you step back to survey biology, the rule is in place because it is among the very things that bind the community.  Remember, communities are bound by shared values, shared goals, and shared rules.  Take away the rule (and with it, the shared goals and values), and you have taken away a foundation for the community.

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4 responses to “Ways To Think of the Rule

  1. TV news anchorman: Thousands of men and women in white lab coats wandered aimlessly across the streets of America, today, eyes glazed over, arms outstretched, looking more like zombies than biologists. Many of them were mumbling, “They took away the rule. They took away the rule.”

  2. LOL. Now that was good.

  3. Pingback: Why the Rule? «

  4. Gregory Arago

    “When people talk about science, they often talk as if it is an other-worldly entity that looks in and pronounces its judgments – “Science says,…” “Science has shown,…” “According to Science….” Yet science is a human expression.”

    Yes, this is a fair assessment.

    You need to go further, though, Mike. “the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology” and also “in *all* natural-physical sciences.” Biology is just one among many.

    Wolf Lepenies once wrote that “now scientists in the laboratory are observed in basically the same way as ‘savages’ by an anthropologist.” This holds true today, and science is ‘de-objectified’ in the process of studying the human frailty of scientists ‘caught in the act’ of ‘doing science.’

    One needs to look to non-natural sciences or human-social sciences to discover ‘goals’ or ‘purposes.’ I am always glad to see Mike attempting to open-up this dimension in his observations and analyses of the current situation in a variety of realms.

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