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Pluralism in Science: A Call to Action

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Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS,volume 293)

Abstract

In this chapter I present a sustained and systematic defence of pluralism in science, building on various hints from earlier chapters. I define my position as “active normative epistemic pluralism”. Based on the recognition of the benefits of having multiple systems of practice in each field of study, pluralism as I intend it is an active stance committed to the cultivation of plurality. There are two types of benefits of plurality. Benefits of toleration arise from simply allowing multiple systems simultaneously, which provides insurance against unpredictability, compensation for the limitations of each system, and multiple satisfaction of any given aim. Benefits of interaction arise from the integration of different systems for specific purposes, the co-optation of beneficial elements across systems, and the productive competition between systems. Pluralism should not be confused with an abdication of judgment: each pluralist has the freedom and responsibility to evaluate the quality and value of scientific work. Pluralism can deliver its benefits without a paralyzing relativism or an uncontrolled dissipation of resources. In practice, the kind of pluralism I advocate comes down to a directive to proliferate valuable systems of knowledge: this has concrete implications for scientific practice, and also gives new purpose and approach to the history and philosophy of science, in line with my vision of history and philosophy of science as “complementary science”.

Keywords

  • Intelligent Design
  • Critical Awareness
  • Empirical Adequacy
  • Atomic Chemistry
  • Phlogiston Theory

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Fig. 5.1

Notes

  1. 1.

    See especially Chap. 1, Sect. 1.2.4.2; Chap. 2, Sect. 2.2.3.3; Chap. 3, Sects. 3.1, 3.2.2 and 3.2.4; Chap. 4, Sect. 4.1.

  2. 2.

    Here I seem to be following in the footsteps of William Wimsatt (2007). I regret that I have not been able to build on his work, as yet.

  3. 3.

    And what makes us confident that seeing gets at all the different aspects of the elephant?

  4. 4.

    Quoted in Bernstein (1989), 9, from Charles S. Peirce, Collected Papers, 5.265.

  5. 5.

    That is to say, even when science does not manage to be progressive, it is still progressivist.

  6. 6.

    For much more considered views than I can offer here see, for example, Kitcher (2011) and the articles collected in Wylie (2006).

  7. 7.

    The rest of Kellert, Longino and Waters’s definition of scientific monism continues as follows: “(2) the nature of the world is such that it can, at least in principle, be completely described or explained by such an account; (3) there exist, at least in principle, methods of inquiry that if correctly pursued will yield such an account”; and “(5) individual theories and models in science are to be evaluated in large part on the basis of whether they can provide (or come close to providing) a comprehensive and complete account based on fundamental principles.”

  8. 8.

    It is especially not to be taken as a scientific theory in itself; this is one reason I avoid the phrase “­scientific pluralism”, preferring to spell it out as “pluralism in science” or “pluralism regarding science”.

  9. 9.

    For a recent and considered view of the matter, see Bloor (2007).

  10. 10.

    These comments were part of the discussion after I presented an earlier version of these ideas at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh on 13 November 2009.

  11. 11.

    I certainly would not try to claim that the points I make here are really new. However, as I haven’t studied these debates in depth and detail, I will not try to say who made what point first. As a pluralist I try to study many things, but this is not one that I have managed to fit in. Those who can devote the time and energy to follow this topic might start with Steve Fuller’s defence of intelligent design (2008b) and all the furore that followed; see, for example, A. C. Grayling’s debate with Fuller in The New Humanist (http://newhumanist.org.uk/1856/origin-of-the-specious)

  12. 12.

    This is similar to the line that Paul Thagard (1978) takes on astrology.

  13. 13.

    An excellent example of such an attempt is by Del Ratzsch (1996); see also the historical perspective given by Michael Ruse (2005).

  14. 14.

    On this point, and many other points about how research should be supported and financed, see Gillies (2008).

  15. 15.

    See the scheme notes (http://commonfund.nih.gov/pioneer/) and also the NIH’s own assessment of early results, Outcome Evaluation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award (NDPA), FY 2004–2005 (https://commonfund.nih.gov/pdf/Pioneer_Award_Outcome%20Evaluation_FY2004-2005.pdf), both documents last accessed on 4 October 2011.

  16. 16.

    See the scheme notes (http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/funding/grants/network/ideas/Pages/default.aspx), last accessed on 4 October 2011.

  17. 17.

    See the instructive historical, sociological and philosophical analysis by Kiheung Kim (2006).

  18. 18.

    For a sophisticated discussion of the cognitive division of labor, see Kitcher (1993), chapter 8. My points are much more simple-minded.

  19. 19.

    Ehrenfest’s theorem comes in to tell us that the average values of dynamic variables, as evolving according to quantum mechanics, obey classical laws, but that leaves the setup of the classical problem entirely unspecified as to how to distribute the overall uncertainty between position and momentum. See Chang (1995, 1997) for a discussion of some pertinent cases.

  20. 20.

    See Chap. 4 , Sect. 4.2.3, for more on this.

  21. 21.

    What I mean by “understanding” incorporates any kind of explanation that goes beyond mere subsumption. De Regt et al. (2009) is an excellent collection of recent work on various dimensions of scientific understanding.

  22. 22.

    Many of these issues are discussed in a convenient and accessible recent collection by Evans and Thorndike (2007).

  23. 23.

    In this vein, I regret that I have not been able to build on William Wimsatt’s (2007) vision of “re-engineering philosophy for limited beings”, as yet.

  24. 24.

    See the end of the first section in Chap. 4 (Sect. 4.1.4) and Sect. 4.2.5, for a detailed account of how I conceive the meaning of knowledge.

  25. 25.

    The point is illustrated perfectly by a joke, for which I thank Elva Siglar: “Teacher: Clyde, your composition on ‘My Dog’ is exactly the same as your brother’s. Did you copy his?” “Clyde: No, Sir. It’s the same dog.” We laugh about this, but when it comes to science we tend to get very ceremonious in dismissing any suggestion that there might be two different and equally valid and good stories about the same object.

  26. 26.

    Heinrich Hertz (1899) himself famously noted that these formulations were equivalent yet gave different “images” of mechanics and had distinct uses; see also the discussion of this point by Ian Hacking (1983, 143).

  27. 27.

    On the latter case see Shea (1987), 166ff, where he discusses the work of Johann Bernoulli and Joseph Privat de Molière in this context, around 1730 shortly after Newton’s death.

  28. 28.

    I take these quotations from Lakatos (1970, 140), from the end of his discussion of the Proutian research program. The original source is Soddy, The Interpretation of the Atom (1932).

  29. 29.

    I would like to thank Sabina Leonelli and other colleagues in the “PPP” (Pluralism, Pragmatism and Phenomenology) reading group in London for pushing me to think more about the benefits of interaction.

  30. 30.

    On the last point, see Freund (1904), ch. 18. More generally and extensively on Berzelius’s chemical system, see Melhado (1980).

  31. 31.

    On Mendeleyev, see Scerri (2007) and Gordin (2004).

  32. 32.

    As calxes were formed in the first place by heating metals, it may have been thought that further heating would not do anything interesting.

  33. 33.

    Even in that situation scientists weren’t really receiving no-strings-attached money that had no influence on the content of their research, as Paul Forman (1987) argues through the case of quantum electronics. One does not have to agree with every aspect of Forman’s work in order to see the main point of it, namely that the outcome of the sponsorship was to take “pure science” away from the ideal that the scientists themselves would have wanted.

  34. 34.

    Harvey Brown’s award-winning work Physical Relativity (2005) is an important corrective to this neglect.

  35. 35.

    See Bensaude-Vincent (1996) on the commemorations of Lavoisier, and Chang (2009b) on the difference between triumphalism and whiggism, especially in the accounts of the Chemical Revolution.

  36. 36.

    Also congenial to historiographical pluralism is Douglas Allchin’s idea of “reverse whiggism”, in which “one starts from a former theoretical position, now in disrepute, and follows it forward, rather than backward, through time” (Allchin 1992, 110).

  37. 37.

    I will explore this connection further in Sect. 5.3.4 .

  38. 38.

    I would like to thank Ken Waters for pushing me to think about why I shouldn’t retreat to the pluralist stance, and also John Norton for a similar discussion.

  39. 39.

    For one thing, there would be formidable difficulties in finding plausible methods of measuring the benefits of each scheme precisely enough.

  40. 40.

    Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4, lines 136–137.

  41. 41.

    Quoted in Bernstein (1989, 10), from William James, A Pluralistic Universe.

  42. 42.

    The initial articulation of the idea was given in Chang (1999), which can still serve as a free-standing manifesto, although the statement in Chang (2004, ch. 6) is more extensive and further developed.

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Chang, H. (2012). Pluralism in Science: A Call to Action. In: Is Water H2O?. Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, vol 293. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-3932-1_5

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