Saturday, December 11, 2010

Science is not that hard

There's a lot of discussion, some reasonable, other not so much, about the AAA Executive Board's decision to drop "science" from its mission statement.  There's a lot of history behind, especially the conflict between the (sometimes legitimate) postmodernist critique of science.  But that's not what this post is about.  This is about the nature of science.

Science reflects, I think, an attitude, a skeptical attitude, toward the world.  The goal of science, as expressed by Jim Lett* and with which I wholeheartedly agree is that:
Science is an objective, logical, and systematic technique for acquiring synthetic propositional knowledge.

The best way to illustrate this is probably with an example.  Every semester in linguistics I start out by presenting students with a little piece of data from Aymara:
[utama]    'your house'
I then ask them what they can tell me about Aymara from this data. They try heroically, but in the end we have to agree that it's not much. I ask them what do we need, and they say "more data." So I give them:
[yapusa]      'our field'
Does this help? No. Why not? Because while it is more data, but it's not evidence; there's no contrast, and therefore no information.  We need evidence that produces a contrast. Eventually someone gets the idea to ask how Aymara says 'our house':
[utasa]     'our house'
Now we have contrast, because while both items contain 'house', one has 'your' and the other has 'our'.  We're on our way. We can create some hypotheses:
[uta]     'house'
[yapu'   'field'
[-ma]    'your'
[-sa]     'our]
As we collect more data/evidence, they discover that [utaxa] can also mean 'our house'. We revise our hypotheses to show that [-sa] is first person plural inclusive (yours and mine) while [-xa] is exclusive (mine or ours, but not yours). At some point, they usually ask for 'his house':
[utapa]     'his house'
And we then have the hypothesis that [-pa] means 'his'.  This is quickly demolished, however, as they continue to discover that [utapa] also may mean 'her house' or 'their house'.  So, we have to revise our hypothesis about [-pa], which turns out to be 'her/his/their', i.e. 'third person', with no number or sex-based gender specified (Human gender is, however).

Eventually, we can take these hypotheses and construct a theory (grammar) of Aymara possession, which could look something like this:

Aymara personal possession can be explained using the categories + Human, + First Person, +Second Person:
[-xa]     +Human, +First Person, -Second Person 'my or our, not your'
[-ma]    +Human, -First Person, +Second Person  'your, not my'
[-sa]     +Human, +First Person, +Second Person  'your and my'
[-pa]    +Human, -First Person, -Second Person  'not your or my (her/his their)'
This set of interconnected hypotheses constitutes what scientists would call a theory (linguists would call it a grammar) of Aymara personal possession, which can be united with a slightly larger theory (grammar) of Aymara personal reference.  This is what "science" does.

I suspect that for some people this doesn't look much like science, because we didn't need a lab, white coats, Bunsen burners and flasks, or intricate technology of any kind other than ourselves, and we didn't apply any quantitative measures. But it is science, because it proceeds from empirical data through evidence and hypotheses to theory. And it's objective (I didn't just dream it up, someone else can collect the same data) as well as self-correcting. There's even room for experimentation (can I say [yapuma], and if so what does it mean?).

In other words, science is more of attitude toward the world than anything else.  And it's not that mysterious or difficult, anyone can "do science."

Lett, James.  Science, Reason, and Anthropology: A Guide to Critical Thinking.  Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. It's exactly what I think too. In linguistics especially, a lot of people still have the attitude that anything can be theorized based on what one feels when this is just not the case. There's a process involved.

    Science is in effect "the use of Logic in search of truth". The "use of Logic" part is so vital here otherwise science crumbles. Yet there are a disturbing amount of sickly relativists out there who are so far gone that they can't even admit that there's a Logic outside their lonely cogito-ergo-sum existence.

    I really wish courses on Logic were offered in gradeschool because it's really the core of critical thinking. And if we want a democratic society, we absolutely need a populus of critical thinkers.


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