It has been an interesting week. On Tuesday I met with Jerry Ravetz, who came up to the History and Philosophy of Science dept. at Leeds on Tuesday to deliver two seminars. The first was on Thomas Kuhn’s seminal book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. At the start of the seminar, he passed around a copies of page 5 of the introduction.
Kuhn was at Harvard when the book was published, and it was something of a coup to get it published at all. Ravetz contends that the characterisation of phases of ‘normal science’ research as a “strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education” betrays a certain bitterness on Kuhn’s part, as well as an allusion to the pre-enlightenment dogmatic hierarchy of the church. He argues that this might mean that Kuhn is objecting more to the way the practise of science is taught than the way it is carried out by ‘initiates licensed for practise’. He thinks Kuhn sees practitioners of ‘normal science’ as victims of the rigidity of their education.
The inability of those working collectively within institutional structures to ‘think outside the box’ has since been recognised as ‘a bad thing’ in many areas of human endeavour, although some individual scientists strive to make their mark with ideas and hypotheses which threaten to falsify the current paradigm. Kuhn observes that peer pressure and training within the institutional environment limits the thinking of scientists regarding the really fundamental issues of epistemology, and in some specialisms, arbitrary tenets regarded as unassailable facts.
A lively Q&A session followed the talk, which continued over dinner at a local Thai restaurant. I found myself sat next to a postgrad Scot who has been researching in depth the scientific activity at Kew in the late 19th. I asked him how much of his research had been on Balfour Stewart and the solar research at Kew, and it turns out he has written a couple of papers on this subject area, which I’ll be following up soon. Balfour Stewart’s pure research on solar variability included investigations into solar-planetary (and planetary-solar) relations, and some of the work he and his team were engaged in is highly relevant to our endeavours here at the Talkshop, which aim to discover the nature of the relationships which are evidenced in the correlations we have found between planetary motion and solar activity levels.
On Wednesday I was invited to attend a less formal round table discussion along with Jerry, the head of the Philosophy Dept. prof. Greg Radick, and another staff colleague plus some postgrad students. This was on the subject of Jerry’s 1971 book ‘Scientific Knowledge and its social problems’, which is one of the texts Prof. Radick is teaching around this semester. During this discussion, Jerry brought up the issue of Steven Schneider’s infamous comments on ‘finding the balance between honesty and effectiveness ‘. We talked briefly about ‘noble cause corruption’. At the end, Greg Radick agreed that climate science is an important area for study, embodying as it does, the nexus between science, society, the new social media, policy and popular movements such as environmentalism. He has invited me to further seminars in their ‘work in progress’ series and to give a talk there about the blog, its content and matters arising relevant to philosophy of science.
Before he left for Oxford, Jerry and I discussed some ideas around the paper we plan to co-author on empirical knowledge and uncertainty. This is shaping up nicely and we now have some definite plans to put into action.
Then on Friday morning, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a BBC presenter. He wanted an off the record chat about climategate and the police investigation. We had a short and cagey (from both sides) conversation. He wouldn’t tell me what the shape of the programme was going to be, and I told him that given the BBC’s track record, I wasn’t going to give him anything that could be twisted by editing. That done, I told him to call back on my cellphone at lunchtime so we could chat for longer, and between times I did a bit of background on him. It turns out he isn’t a SEJ eco-journo and has covered a broad range of issues, including some exposees of bad government and policy. So I was a bit more forthcoming when he called back, and we had a good interaction, which continued for 40 minutes or so. We had a few laughs together too and both felt we were talking to a reasonable human being by the end. I told him that he may not be saying much about how the programme was going to be slanted now, but that I would definitely be naming him in a review once it was aired, so he’d better watch out, since the Talkshop is such an influential outlet. :)
He took this in good part, and said
I’ll do my best.
After I returned to my office I fired an email over to him with a link to the Ravetz-Hulme article the BBC carried post-climategate as a bit of food for thought climategate background. He emailed right back thanking me and wishing me “All the best”.
The programme will be going out on Halloween (!) October 31 at 9pm so make a note to find it on ‘listen again’ if you are off to a party. I’ll link it here along with my review too.