Monday, January 2, 2012

Sugarcoating the poisonous dagger

Philosophers have a way with words. Since they work with the exploration of ideas, describing those ideas in words is essential. I have now collaborated with several philosophers, and I am continuously in awe of their mastery of language. It makes me question everything I write myself, what words I use, why I use them, definitions, meanings, ...
Here is another example in the ecological literature of an exchange between an scientist, Root Gorlick, and a philosopher, Mark Colyvan (and immediately I start thinking whether I should use "scientist", because does this imply that a philosopher is not a scientist, should it be better to use biologist, but then Root Gorlick is also affiliated with Math&Stats, you see the rabbit hole you quickly fall into?). Gorlick tries to define "theory" in the interesting journal Ideasin Ecology and Evolution. Colyvan responds in the same journal, with some sugarcoating ...
 What is theory? Gorelick brings his scientific experience to this question and makes a great deal of progress on trying to distinguish theoretical science from the rest. To philosophers of science, this is gold. Philosophers take such philosophical reflections from scientists very seriously. After all, philosophy of science, as I see it, is in the business of understanding and systematising science as it is practiced. When the opportunity arises to read a thoughtful and clearly articulated account of what a working scientist considers to be the distinguishing features of theoretical science, I for one sit up and take notice. 
... and poisonous dagger stabs.
Modern accounts of scientific theories place less emphasis on the demarcation problem that Popper was interested in and focus more on what a theory is. Here the semantic account currently enjoys widespread (but not unanimous) support. According to this account, a theory is a collection of models (Suppes 1960, Van Fraassen 1980, Suppe 1989, Chakravartty 2001). I would suggest that looking at recent work in philosophy of science on the nature of scientific theories (e.g. Godfrey-Smith 2006) would be a fruitful place to start in answering Gorelick’s question. 
 Translated: "Do your homework on the current literature before writing something. We philosophers had this discussion a long time ago, and we have moved on. We suggest you do to."

This brought a smile to my face, especially since I am probably guilty of this as well.

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