The 2,030th Meeting of the Society

September 16, 1994 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

What Is Science and Why Do Postmodern Philosophers Have So Little Useful to Say About It?

James Trefil

George Mason University


The President, Ms. Enig, called the 2030th meeting to order at 8:21 p.m. on September 16, 1994. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2028th meeting and they were approved. The President then read a portion of the minutes from the 421th meeting, April 28, 1894.

The President introduced Mr. James Trefil, Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Physics, George Mason University, who considered the questions “What is Science and Why do Postmodern Philosophers Have so Little Useful to Say about It”.

Mr. Trefil began by discussing the importance of science in modern society. Our modern global society has been constructed in large part on the success of western culture. And western society has been successful possibly because science, at least since the nineteenth century, has played a major role in its development. Indeed, the concepts of progress and development are distinctly contributions of western culture. Science and its practical application, technology, have enormous practical pay-offs, reinforcing the success of the society that employs them.

An analysis of science and the scientific method using the post-modern philosophy, deconstructionism, has been presented in “Higher Superstition — The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science” by Paul Gross and Norm Levitt. One tenet of the deconstructionist approach is that the truths of science are socially constructed. But is this true? To what extent does the social milieu determine what science is done and how?

Mr. Trefil asserts that it should be possible to study science itself by the scientific method. He divides the scientific method into four processes, observation, synthesis, hypothesis and prediction. Observation is the first requirement; you learn about the world primarily by observing it. This was not always thought to be the case. While the Western scholastics under the strong influence of the medieval church adopted the Greek academic philosophy the acceptance of observation ranked much lower in importance than the acceptance of authority. It was not until the Renaissance and the observations by Tycho Brahe of the heavens and Galileo of pendulums and falling objects that the importance of careful observation came to be understood and accepted.

The second process, synthesis, is the summarization of observational data by mathematics or by words. The third process is the construction of models and hypotheses. The construction of theories is probably the process most strongly influenced by social construction, by the social milieu of the scientist, because this is the process most dependent on human creativity. The fourth process is making predictions which are based on those models and hypotheses and which can be confirmed or contradicted by observations.

The scientific method consists then of repeated cycles of increasingly refined observation, synthesis, hypothesis and prediction. A scientist's preconceptions may enter this cycle at any step. It is assumed that reliance on increasingly refined observational verification eventually minimizes the effects of error.

Science, then, is a way of answering questions. But there are some important questions that cannot be answered by science. Ken Boulding has said that science is a way of substituting interesting questions that can't be answered with interesting questions that can be answered. If we look at some of the contemporary problems as yet unanswered by science, we should see the failure is due to progress being blocked at some point in this cycle of processes. High energy physics is hung up between prediction and observation because the superconducting supercollider will not be built. Global climatology is blocked between hypothesis and prediction because of insufficient computational power.

How does science change? One process of change is the paradigm shifts discussed by Thomas Kuhn in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Some examples of paradigm shifts in science are the theory of continental drift in geology and the theory of relativity, which was somewhat more typical in that the previously accepted theory was not replaced but subsumed as a special case of the new theory. When science changes it generally changes by incorporation and not by replacement.

The post-modern philosophy, deconstructionism, has remained concentrated in English and history departments and has not otherwise had a major influence in science. It seems to be advancing the notion that everything is literary criticism and may, in a more hidden sense, be a return to the belief in the power of words.

The President thanked the speaker on behalf of the Society. The membership chairman announced that there were no new members. The President announced the speaker for the next meeting, made the parking announcement, and adjourned the 2030th meeting at 9:37 p.m.

Attendance: 50
Temperature: +26.0°C
Weather: clear

Respectfully submitted,

John S. Garavelli
Recording Secretary