Are scientists just glorified plumbers?

by Neil Rickert

Well, okay, that title is intentionally tongue-in-cheek.

There has been some discussion, lately, on what constitutes science and on what differentiates science from other areas.  Jerry Coyne takes a rather broad view, with:

That is, I construe science broadly—as “empirical investigation combined with reason,” while Russell takes a narrower definition of traditional scientific investigation (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.).  Thus, when I say that there is no way other than science to find out things about our world and universe, I’m pretty much agreeing with Brother B.

Massimo Pigliucci thinks that’s too broad, and explains Why plumbing ain’t science:

I don’t actually believe that anyone takes seriously the proposition that all reason-based knowledge is “scientific.” If that were the case, then pretty much everything we do every day should count as science — from picking a movie based on a review by a critic we usually like (induction!) to deciding to cross the street when the pedestrian light is green (hypothesis testing!). If the concept of science is that expansive, than it is also pretty close to meaningless.

I agree with that assessment, though I don’t completely share Pigliucci’s views on the nature of science.  Instead of comparing the scientist to the plumber, I think we should be comparing him to the explorers of yore.

Before I compare science to exploration, I would like to put in a word for the plumbers.  If you have leaking pipes, you are surely better off calling a plumber than calling a scientist.  It’s fine to discuss things such as “empirical investigation combined with reason,” but that gives an intellectualist bias to our discussions.  The thing about plumbers, is that they get their hands dirty.  That is to say, they involve themselves in the physical activity of plumbing, and are not merely engaged in an intellectual exercise.  Scientists get their hands dirty, too, though in different ways.  They do work in their labs.  Some of them go on field trips to explore the aspect of reality that they are investigating.  What I see as a serious flaw in philosophy, and part of the reason that I am a bit of a heretic, is that philosophers seriously underplay the importance of physical involvement in the world, and seriously overplay the thin veneer of intellectual discussion.  I’m not implying that philosophers should do actual field work, but I do think that they should pay more attention to the kinds of knowledge that are poorly described as “justified true belief.”

In his blog post on plumbing as science, Pigliucci says:

Second, science is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on.

And he is right.  Science is a social activity, and the social aspect of it is an important part of what distinguishes science from other areas.  But there are more important distinctions than that, and it seems to me that they are often missed.  So that’s why I want to talk about explorers.

The accountant works with facts about finances and assets that are obtained in standard ways.  The plumber will use standard methods, a ruler or measuring tape for example, to get the facts that he needs for his work.  What the explorers of yore did was very different.  We can perhaps think of the Lewis and Clarke expedition or the explorations of Abel Tasman as examples.  These explorers could not just use conventional means of obtaining facts.  They had to be inventive.  They had to identify landmarks that could be found by future travelers, and then use those landmarks as a basis for measuring distances and locations.  In effect, they were coming up with new ways of representing the world in intellectual expressions.  That’s very different from using methods that were already part of the social convention.

I suggest that the scientist is acting somewhat like the explorer.  He is not simply combining reason with empirical investigation.  He is also improvising and inventing new ways of coming up with facts, way of coming up with facts that were never before expressible.  The famous use of displacement and buoyancy by Archimedes is an example of such inventiveness, as is the famous Michelson-Morley experiment.  For that matter, when a biologist identifies and characterizes a new species, he thereby provides a way of being able to express facts that had not been previously expressible.  This new ability depends on the naming of the species, arguably an intellectual activity, and by the characterizing of the new species and of how to distinguish it from related species.  That characterizing amounts to new ways of dealing with the world, and is one example of how a scientist gains new knowledge while “getting his hands dirty” in an activity that is not merely an intellectual activity.

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