Falling for Science

Listed here amongst novels, because it was just easier that way, Falling for Science is in fact a work of non-fiction, specifically an examination of the relationship between science and story telling.

The project came about as a result of a year I spent at The Allan Wilson Centre, a research lab specialising in gene sequencing and associated mathematical modeling. My skills in the area were spectacularly lacking, I’d weaseled a scholarship as a maths teacher and hoped to use the experience as the basis for a novel. Disturbingly, as a member of the team, I was expected to present my work back to the experts,  and so I was looking for something that I might be able to bring to the table.

At that stage I had a keen amateur interest in philosophy, and started to think and read more about the philosophy of science, and how perhaps it related to some of the questions this particular centre was going after. To a large extent, writing this book was an opportunity to get my head around the issues and  straighten out a few internal arguments. Inevitably, any question in philosophy loops back to the big standards, what do we even mean by knowledge, and in what sense can we claim to know anything at all?

I knew of course that there were many professional philosophers whose grasp of this material made my ideas look pretty basic, and for a good while that felt like an argument against publishing. Against that though, and in philosophy there’s always another perspective available, book shops are not full of accessible, entry level philosophical discussions, despite the shelves groaning with excellent science,  history and economics equivalents. I figured that gap was justification enough for having a go. Sure I might get things a but muddled and be ridiculed for it, but so long as the book could take the reader along the same path of exploration I was heading down, that would be, to my mind, an excellent outcome.

As it happened, this book did open up a delightful range of discussions. It was the book that most saw me invited to give talks, take part in panels and conferences and interact directly with its readership. As I hoped, there were many interested lay people out there for whom this was the right entry level into the debate.

I’ve read a lot more of this stuff since, and certainly there are one or two things I’d be more cautious about saying next time round, but overall I’d defend the case I make in the book, which seeks to accentuate the difference between building a predictive model, and using culturally informed stories to interpret that model. Once this distinction is made it becomes possible, I believe, to better understand the ways science and story telling rely upon one another. I’m particularly pleased I managed to notice the problem with Popper’s description of scientific progress, because had I endorsed that point of view, I would feel a little embarrassed about it now.

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4 thoughts on “Falling for Science

  1. jjhockey says:

    What is the problem with Popper’s description of scientific progress? It always seemed good enough for the purpose it served. Do you mean the fact that it doesn’t take account of the influence of paradigms in scientific belief, as suggested by Thomas Kuhn?

    Sounds like some interesting ideas about philosophy of science. My view has been for some time that the predictive model is not enough in itself, either via verification, or falsification to account for scientific knowledge.

    To me the problem with it is taking one way of logically relating things and trying to impose that on reality. Would be interesting to know more about what your views are on this.

  2. […] been reading, among other things, a little book of ideas called Falling for Science, by Bernard Beckett, and I’ve found it both compelling and exasperating. My first impression […]

  3. Hi JJ

    Sorry, I thought I’d replied to this, and notice today that I hadn’t. I think the relationship between reality, and the effectiveness of scientific models, is very hard to pin down, and I don’t pretend to have a particularly useful take on this. The accuracy of these models, and in particular their ability to generate novel predictions, seems to say something about the way the world is, but beyond the obvious ‘reality is such that these are the models of it that produce the most accurate predictions we know of’, it’s devilishly difficult to say what that something is.

    My difficulty with Popper (and there’s a post on this on the blog, View From The Top) is the apparent failure to sidestep the inductive process, despite signficant claims to the contrary.

    Bernard

  4. Hi (sorry, no name here)

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to this book. I think there’s much in what you’d say I’d acknowledge, and I’m often in two minds about the extent to which the two viewpoints can be accommodated. The elephant in the room, as you rightly note, is the amount of adjustment to the narrative that might be required before the two views (religion and evolution) fit neatly together. I chose not to make too much of that at the time of reading, because I was interested in making a different point regarding stories, but accept it is an omission.

    Bernard

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