How not to criticise scientists
A few days ago I tweeted about an excellent article replying to Stephen Hawking’s already infamous pronouncement (on the very first page of his The Grand Design) that ‘philosophy is dead’. Apparently, about a week ago, another article on roughly the same topic appeared on the Times Higher Education, by a relatively unknown philosopher of education and philosopher of science called Chris Ormell.
The article is really, really bad, its argument consisting of, roughly: ‘blind faith’ mathematics made it impossible to predict the economic crisis; scientists (in particular he singles out cosmologists) use mathematics (i.e. have ‘blind faith’ in it); therefore we will continue to ‘misread’ nature if we keep employing mathematics in our investigations of it.
Unsurprisingly, the article has been attacked and dissected by a number of scientists: I advise reading Sean Carroll, Peter Coles and John Butterworth. Carroll especially goes through the article paragraph by paragraph demonstrating how Ormell’s arguments simply make no sense.
Now, as someone who is interested in philosophy of science, and as someone who thinks that the question of the relationship between mathematics and the physical world, and of the manifest stability of constants are extremely interesting and worth (philosophical) investigation, this just strikes me as yet another shot in the foot. Once again someone perceived as a ‘philosopher’ goes public with uninformed and often downright silly arguments against the ‘high priesthood’ of maths-fluent scientists — seemingly proving Hawking right.
There are very good arguments to be made against Hawking and against anyone who dismisses philosophy as irrelevant to science (and I think that in the article I linked to Norris does a very good job in showing where to start: by highlighting the dependence of today’s scientific practice upon centuries of philosophical reflection on science). But as long as these critiques are based upon facile sociological accusations of mathematical freemasonry and lame philosophy of mathematics (ostensibly arguing that we all need better mathematical education!) there is little chance that they’ll be taken seriously.