Science – Replication – Philosophy – Ouija


Anyone who knows better than I do, please feel free to tell me that I don’t understand that about which I’m trying to talk. But I’ll ask, naively. At what point does science stop being scientific, i.e. based on experiments whose results can be reproduced? There’s a story making the rounds, like this one a couple of weeks back in the NYT  Science Times about how reproducible results are becoming more and more difficult to verify, and that this represents an emergent crisis in the experimental sciences. What’s the worth of an experiment and the institution of science that builds upon experiments if they can’t be verified? Part of the argument in the NYT is that the most accessible truths being long since discovered and replicated, “what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques.” I still don’t understand enough to understand the claims and implications of the article, except to note its appearance in the non-scientific medium that is the New York Times.

As a person who does not do science and who does not even understand science very well, I’m left with nagging questions. Consider today the many important claims about the reality or, rather, the unreality of consciousness, identity, and freewill that are now being monopolized by cognitive scientists, neurologists. Serious skeptical conclusions about these things are made to hang on the basis of what kind of scientific evidence, and might it not be the case that the skepticism warrants its own counter-skepticism? It might turn out to be that science has less and less to offer philosophical investigation, the study of art and religion than has been argued of late. This assumes that science is subject to the law of diminishing returns, and that we will have to work out broader and more radical philosophical ramifications with far less certainty and far more circumspection than might have otherwise been the case, if that is, we cannot rely on science, not entirely, to test out its own assertions about the things that might matter most to us.

I’m not making the argument against science, the crude and anti-scientific version of which is that science is just “discourse,” a form of “power/knowledge,” just one type of “human interpretation” with no “real” purchase on the world. As I see it, there’s no reason to believe that science is not a special form of discourse, or theory, whose results speak for themselves in “the real world.” I will, however, to highlight what might turn out to be an aesthetic dimension, not the essence, of science and scientific method as it begins to stand out. I liked this bit from the article. “‘Many scientists use epithelial cell lines that are exquisitely sensitive,’ Mina Bissell, a cancer researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, wrote in Nature in November. ‘The slightest shift in their microenvironment can alter the results — something a newcomer might not spot. It is common for even a seasoned scientist to struggle with cell lines and culture conditions, and unknowingly introduce changes that will make it seem that a study cannot be reproduced.’ But that can work both ways. Embedded in the tacit knowledge may be barely perceptible tweaks and jostles — ways of unknowingly smuggling one’s expectations into the results, like a message coaxed from a Ouija board.”


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Science – Replication – Philosophy – Ouija

  1. There’s definitely a problem with the real world scientific process, from reproducibility to publication bias on down the line.

    Yet compare this to the world of religion, where the simple yet high-stakes question of “Does God want us to kill the Jews” has evinced a plethora of answers, none of them reproducible.

  2. dmf says:

    oops too many links in my last comment seems to have proved immoderate for the machine-gatekeepers here.
    here’s another while I’m thinking of it:

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