virus: The Trouble with Science

Reed Konsler (
Sat, 2 Nov 1996 12:50:59 -0500

Hi everyone, sorry I've been out so long...

Anyway, during my foray into the real world I processed another book we
might be intersted in:

"The Trouble with Science" by Robert Dunbar (Professor of Psychology,
University of Liverpool) Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1995.

185 pages of densely packed ideas (about the same size as "The Selfish
Gene" and written in a similar style) Dunbar does a good job of covering
the bases on the philosophy and history of science without getting bogged
down in details. He presents a pro-science viewpoint while attempting to
address most of the postmodern criticisms (he refers to them as
"philosophies of despair" which I think is so cool, even if it isn't
original to him...does anyone know?). The language is very articulate, and
while I think he streches some arguments to the limit of plausibility the
book is overall an excellent introduction to these topics and on target.

Unlike may philosophers/historians of science Dunbar attempts to adress
what science is as a day-to-day affair not (as Popper does) a prescriptive
ideology or (as Khun) a "big picture" socio-political construct. He is
concerned with what science is as practiced day to day by so called
scientists...and, based upon my experience in the trenches, he does an
excellent job of explaining the ad hoc, pragmatic/functional proceedures
most scientists follow. In my opinion he does the best job I've yet
encountered in deconvoluting the many definitions of science and
demonstrating where these differences in definition lead to logical
problems and non-sequitorial cross-talk. There is no one definition of
science, but Dunbar has done a great job of unpacking the significant ones.

Dunbar is hip to memetics (though he doesn't address it specifically), he's
read the books/authors we discuss here (Dawkins, Kuhn, Popper, Dennett) and
addresses many of them directly. I think this is a great book in general
and thought I'd recommend it specifically in the light of the discussions
we've been having about what science is, how it's related to religions and
other mythical systems of belief, and what it's limitations are. I
couldn't put it down.

Some Quotes I found particularly tasty:

"The real problem is that any fool can think up new ideas; the
inconvenience of real life is that the key to progress lies in second
guessing how the world actually works, and that is an altogether much
harder task."

"Science, then, is a process of intense is all too easy to
convince yourself that your latest brainchild is the cleverest idea since
Einstein thought up the Theory of Reletivity...the species...has never been
short of self-appointed prophets with new or unusual ideas to peddle. The
problem is how to avoid wasting too much time chasing every
will-o'-the-whisp that comes along."

"Essentially, if Aristotle could see the thing and dissect it, he usually
got it [the biological hypothesis] more or less right; but if he could not,
he invariably got it these cases he often resorted to the
conventional wisdom of the day. As often as not, this was the product of
idle speculation rather than careful observation."

Oh, it's just chock full of good stuff...


Reed Konsler