Defining science. Part 1

Lennox says that a ‘precise definition’ of science is ‘elusive’. He proceeds to show how difficult it is to define science by picking what he considers to be a rather poor definition from the agnostic/atheist Michael Ruse who “holds that science ‘by definition deals only with the natural, the repeatable, that which is governed by law’ (32). You’ve got to wonder why Lennox would choose a definition that he finds inferior, and from a person with a worldview that he doesn’t agree with. Why not cite a better definition or provide your own that you’re satisfied with?

Because if Lennox had done that he wouldn’t have a nice soft straw man to clobber. But I’ll have to leave that bludgeoning for another post; just as one riot gets one Texas Ranger, one post gets one Lennox boo-boo. Unless I’ve previously dealt with more (or less) than one boo-boo in one post. Then I’ve just made up this rule… which I haven’t. But I should have. Except I already have. Oh, look at the time!

Lennox wants to come down hard on Ruse’s use of ‘repeatable’ from the above. Or maybe he wants to come down hard from above on Ruse’s use of the word ‘repeatable’. Whichever it is, Lennox definitely wants to sink the boot into that runt of a quote that he handpicked from the litter:

However, the most obvious weakness in this definition is that, if allowed to stand, it would rule out most of contemporary cosmology as science. It is hard to see how the standard model for the origin of the universe can be describing anything other than a unique event – the origin of the universe is not (easily) repeatable. Cosmologists might understandably be peeved to be told that their activities did not qualify as science (32).

Cosmologists might understandably be peeved at the number of mixed metaphors I’ve misappropriated. They also might understandably be peeved if someone were to inform them that their activities did not qualify as science, so let’s not. Instead let’s inform them that rather than believing cosmology doesn’t qualify as science, Lennox believes it to qualify as ‘science of lesser authority’:

Nevertheless, his [Ruse’s] inadequate definition does serve a useful purpose in that it reminds us that not all science carries with it the same kind of authority. Scientific theory that is based on repeated observation and experimentation is likely to, and should, carry more authority than that which is not. There is always the danger of failing to appreciate this point and thus endowing the later with the authority of the former – a consideration to which we shall return (31-32).

Cosmologists – exposed as the tracers of science! You may or may not be as scandalized as I was that Lennox would treat those earnest cosmologists so shabbily. Still, it’s nice to know the esteem he holds those who practice science, and those who just practice at it as the cosmologists do. Next time they decide to devote their life to unlocking the secrets of the universe they’ll pick one of those real sciences that has repeatable things. And no, Lennox’s purpose for using Ruse’s ‘inadequate definition’ isn’t just to remind ‘us that not all science carries with it the same kind of authority’. Need I remind you. Straw. Man. Later. Foreshadowing! Shazam!!

23 thoughts on “Defining science. Part 1

  1. Nathanael

    If we just focus on claims for the moment:

    So do you agree with Lennox’s claim that Ruse’s definition is inferior, or is Ruse’s definition acceptable to you?
    If Ruse’s is not, what is the best definition of science that you believe should have been stated up front to avoid the straw man that your foreshadow?

    Lennox’s first claim in this section is that there is no one agreed scientific method.
    Do you agree with that or not? If not, what do you claim the one agreed method to be?

    Lennox claimed that a weak definition of science excludes realms of study that should be considered scientific, like cosmology.
    Do you agree with that or not? Do you agree that Ruse’s definition excludes cosmology?

    Lennox claims that:
    “there is another way of looking at things that is an essential part of the methodology of contemporary science, and that is the method of inference to best explanation (or abduction, as it is sometimes called).”
    Do you agree with this or not?

    Lennox claims that:
    “..with unrepeatable events it is still possible to ask: What is the best explanation of this event or phenomenon?”
    Do you agree with this or not?

    I’m trying to interpret your statements that:
    “Lennox has exposed cosmologists as the tracers of science” and “treated them shabbily”
    As an inference to there being some kind of best (or at least better) definition of science that would treat cosmology as equal (or at least better) with how you’ve inferred that Lennox has treated them.

    In our debates to date you’ve repeatedly talked about science being about the observable world.
    If the origin of the universe is not observable, as it took place at some point in the past, does that not a priori make cosmology unscientific by your definition?

    If I’ve misunderstood you, please offer your clearest definition of science that allows cosmology to not be treated as shabbily as you allege Lennox has.

    If I’m reading Lennox’s right here, I think his “claim” is that there are different levels of scientific authority, based on whether there is repeated observation and experimentation that provides evidence that offers predictive power.
    If you do not agree with this, please offer an alternative definition rather than simply claiming Lennox has treated cosmologists shabbily.
    Without a response from practicing cosmologists, you’re claiming something based on your interpretation of how cosmologists themselves would respond to Lennox’s claim.
    It would be interesting to see whether the scientific community itself has a shared understanding of different levels of scientific authority or whether this is exclusive to Lennox.
    Dr.Clam as an insider might have some thoughts here.

    You appear to be claiming that even though Lennox makes it clear that he will return to this consideration, he’s set up a straw man. I’ll wait until your critique of Lennox’s futher discussion of ‘natural’ (page 33) before commenting further.

    Given that it’s not until page 37 that Lennox articulates what he believes the essence of true science to be:
    “The investigation of theorizing about the natural order so that we give weight to what is surely the essence of true science – a willingness to follow empirical evidence, wherever it leads”.
    It would be helpful that as you progress through the paragraphs on:
    1. the Enlightenment ideal
    2. the vigorous contemporary discussions on whether science is evidence and prediction based or problem-and-explanation-based
    3. on whether it’s fair to say that many, if not most scientists are critical realists,
    That you make it clear whether you actually agree with Lennox’s stated position (claim) on each point made, and if not provided measurable evidence as to why.
    There are lots of paragraphs between now and page 37.
    Your selective satire which ascribes your interpretation of Lennox’s motivation is weakening your case because you are breaking my rule 1:
    Attributing opinions that you cannot prove your opponent holds.

    I’d find your critique a lot easier to follow if you stopped judging the author’s motivation in the approach they’ve taken and focused on the weakness of the argument or claim.

    You have no way of accurately discerning the author’s motivation.

    You are presenting your perception of their motivation.

    And your satirical style plus the limitations of this wordpress WYSIWYG editor are making it difficult to understand whether you are critiquing his style, his claims or how the combination of both makes his position untenable.

    If you want to critique style, that’s fine – please just make it clear as you have done on FB posts I’ve put up previously.

    Thanks & look forward to your response.

    1. winstoninabox Post author

      I’m not ignoring your long list of questions but…
      I originally started reading “God’s Undertaker” in 2011 because you recommended it as a good book. As I read the book I put up my thoughts on FB. After getting about 1/2 way I stopped. I wasn’t enjoying it, nor did I think it was a particularly good book.

      These posts are some of the reasons why I didn’t enjoy it and thought that it wasn’t a good book. For now I’m going to stick to that mission as much as possible. I’ve already started a conversation with Chris, and I see you’ve joined in that. It’s the one about perception, spirituality and ethics. I think that that is about all I can handle and still get these posts out daily as I’m hoping to. There’s just not enough time in the day.

    2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

      “It would be interesting to see whether the scientific community itself has a shared understanding of different levels of scientific authority or whether this is exclusive to Lennox.”

      I can’t speak for the scientific community as a whole, which is very much like a herd of cats. But speculative models that change every few decades and rely on forms of matter and/or energy that have never been observed (that is, cosmology) would certainly be considered ‘science of lesser authority’ than something of immense predictive value that relies on lots of well-attested examples like evolution by natural selection. Beyond this, there is definitely a prejudice that the more experimental a science is, the more authoritative it is. (And a prejudice that the more mathematical a science is, the more authoritative it is, which often pulls in the opposite direction!)

      But science is a process, not a thing, and us scientists of a philosophical bent tend to shy away from that nasty word ‘authority’ in all its forms.

  2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

    So, cosmologists might be peeved. So what? “Cosmology is the study of the origins and eventual fate of the universe” … says wikipedia. If a definition of science includes this as science, it is too broad to be useful. You can find my “What is Science” video on Youtube if you want a useful definition. 😉

  3. Nathanael

    appreciating that there’s not enough time in the day, i’d encourage you to stick to:
    1. Critiquing claims;
    2. Focusing on style where you think it weakens Lennox’s approach to the argument, and
    3. Do it in a way that plays the ball/claim not interpreting Lennox’s motives.
    We often forget that while an author writes a work there’s lots of editorial decisions that get made which are out of their hands which may mean what is published is some way from the original content or intent.
    Much like letters to the editor get edited text can end up actually less well written or arguments less than convincing due to poor editing.
    The challenges of commercial publishing.

    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Thank you for your advice on how to write my blog. I’m running a negative campaign for no opponent. As I said my main objective is to show why the book is not a good book. I don’t need to provide better alternatives to do this. Time permitting I might try to, and will probably be wrong. But my failings don’t improve Lennox’s book.
      My advice if you want me to reply more is to show why I’m wrong about what I say about his book.
      As to your point 3. My speculation about why Lennox does what he does again doesn’t weaken why what he did was not good.Remember, Lennox claimed he was writing a book to debate which sits better with science – theism or atheism. I think that that stated claim is bogus; it’s just part of his avuncular style to say he’s judging the evidence fairly, What he’s really written is a book arguing against the New Atheists. And he’s written it as a Christian and not a theist.
      Speculating about why an academic of his stature would write a book like that, rather than why Christianity is superior to Islam for example, is a fun exercise. Obviously he sees a bigger threat from the 3% than the 30%.

  4. Marco

    Chris: I guess the only objection I have on your video is that it appears to validate Ockham’s razor, which I now reject as a scientific principle.

    Winston: I don’t see why cosmology should be any more a science than theology – We have but one data point – one universe from which we cannot observe beyond to see any other universes. Trying to “prove” or find objective evidence of the origin of the universe or its eventual fate is as ridiculous as counting angels on pinheads. We’re stuck at “first you guess” , and then we’re stuck on working out whether it is ever going to matter whether the guess is right or not. Only a logical positivist would include it in science in the same way as science that an engineer may refer to when engineering something.

    1. winstoninabox Post author

      There’s more to cosmology than the origin of the universe, so it seems unfair to dismiss it an not science because it can’t definitively answer one question of the many that it’s investigating.
      Chris asked why I would include cosmology in science.We can never know exactly what has happened in the past, But using what Sherlock Holmes calls the science of deduction, Lennox calls induction and CSI: Miami portrays in an entertainingly overblown style, we can observe the natural world and come to conclusions that fit the evidence.
      Now the conclusion that god did it may well fit the evidence, but the problem is that it fits every kind of deductive reasoning. I for one am glad that the police don’t look at a dead body and say ‘god did it’, and likewise that scientists don’t look at the stars and say ‘god did it’. He might have done them both, but I think we can all try a little harder than that.

  5. Marco

    I would also add that we too often look for validation in what we read, rather than a thoughtful challenge to what we already believe. I saw no straw man in Lennox’s definition of science, and I was flabbergasted that Dawkins had no watertight definition of science. After all, this book is principally a counter to New Atheism – an up and coming *religion*. I don’t think you can get challenged by this book if you are a hardened atheist. This chapter is asking a relevant question – Repeatability is what makes science *a reliable indicator of being right about what is true*.Take it away and we take away what we all agree we love about science. When I say “I believe in science” these days I particularly exclude a large chunk of people that believe they are scientists – Such as cosmologists. We might decide to let scientific peers decide who is a scientist and who is a crackpot, but then, do we have to take their word that they are being objective and not motivated by anything other than science? Reality might sort out who is right and who is wrong – but we might all be dead by the time that happens, especially for some branches.

    1. winstoninabox Post author

      Cosmologists only have the dead body, though, not the rambling country house nor the cast of upper-class twits. Fitting a model to the facts is not science: the model has to *predict* new facts. No cosmological model has yet done this.
      I’m no scientist, but would these two quotes from the all-knowing eye of wikipedia fit the bill?
      In 1927, the Belgian Catholic priest Georges Lemaître proposed an expanding model for the universe to explain the observed redshifts of spiral nebulae, and forecast the Hubble law [emphasis mine]. He based his theory on the work of Einstein and De Sitter, and independently derived Friedmann’s equations for an expanding universe. Also, the red shifts themselves were not constant, but varied in such manner as to lead to the conclusion that there was a definite relationship between amount of red-shift of nebulae, and their distance from observers.
      And here:
      Although widely attributed to Edwin Hubble, the law [Hubble’s Law] was first derived from the General Relativity equations by Georges Lemaître in a 1927 article where he proposed that the Universe is expanding and suggested an estimated value of the rate of expansion [emphasis mine], now called the Hubble constant.

      1. Marco

        In these examples, the observations were suggestive of an expanding model to better fit the facts than alternative models. These models do not predict any new facts. Einstein’s equations do.

      2. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        Yep, Marco is right, ‘forecast’ here just means ‘did before the more famous guy everybody thinks did it’. Redshifts are fitted by a model assuming an expanding universe which then gives a rate of expansion that fits the observed redshifts; it just means the model fits the data.

        In case you haven’t seen my thoughts on the Big Bang Theory from some years ago:

        1. winstoninabox Post author

          Not even the end where he suggested the value for the expansion that would be become the Hubble constant? Surely you gotta gimme that as a predicted new fact… pretty please…

      3. Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536)

        No, the ‘rate of expansion’ and the ‘Hubble constant’ are just two names for the same thing.

        But it *does* seem that cosmic microwave background radiation was predicted to exist by the Big Bang model before it was found experimentally, so I have to hastily backpedal and say it is winning 1-0.

      4. Nathanael Small

        I hope “all knowing Wikipedia” was at the very least tongue in cheek.
        Crowd sourced referencing is peer review by the great mass of ignorants who can just as easily write something clearly wrong that can go undetected for a long time.
        I’ll defer to Chris’s expertise on the accuracy of scientific definitions, but challenge him when he relies on Roman Catholic New Theologians and not the source texts being the New Testament Canon as agreed by the Council of Nicea.

  6. winstoninabox Post author

    You do understand that wikipedia is an encyclopaedia? It’s just you say ‘crowd source referencing’ and ‘just as easily write something clearly wrong’ in the same sentence…
    Everything should be sourced. If it is sourced then the debate is about the worthiness of the source, and not wikipedia which is just the messenger. If it is not sourced then label it as as such, or just ignore it as you would any other unsourced claim. Should wikipedia be one’s only source of information? No. But as the largest, most used encyclopaedia on the Internet it’s a pretty good place to start. The days of dismissing wikipedia on the grounds of being wikipedia are over.
    In the two cases that I can recall where we have disagreed with wikipedia (authorship & dating of the gospels) you’ve had ample time (over 6 months) to refute the sourced wikipedia material, as you said you would. You have not. And guess what? Nobody else has changed it on wikipedia either.


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