My colleague, Lydia Patton, sent me this interesting article, “The Philosophy of the Higgs,” (from The Guardian, March 24, 2013) when I began the posts on “statistical flukes” in relation to the Higgs experiments (here and here); I held off posting it partly because of the slightly sexist attention-getter pic of Marilyn (in reference to an “irrelevant blonde”), and I was going to replace it, but with what? All the men I regard as good-looking have dark hair (or no hair). But I wanted to take up something in the article around now, so here it is, a bit dimmed. Anyway apparently MM was not the idea of the author, particle physicist Michael Krämer, but rather a group of philosophers at a meeting discussing philosophy of science and science. In the article, Krämer tells us:
For quite some time now, I have collaborated on an interdisciplinary project which explores various philosophical, historical and sociological aspects of particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). For me it has always been evident that science profits from a critical assessment of its methods. “What is knowledge?”, and “How is it acquired?” are philosophical questions that matter for science. The relationship between experiment and theory (what impact does theoretical prejudice have on empirical findings?) or the role of models (how can we assess the uncertainty of a simplified representation of reality?) are scientific issues, but also issues from the foundation of philosophy of science. In that sense they are equally important for both fields, and philosophy may add a wider and critical perspective to the scientific discussion. And while not every particle physicist may be concerned with the ontological question of whether particles or fields are the more fundamental objects, our research practice is shaped by philosophical concepts. We do, for example, demand that a physical theory can be tested experimentally and thereby falsified, a criterion that has been emphasized by the philosopher Karl Popper already in 1934. The Higgs mechanism can be falsified, because it predicts how Higgs particles are produced and how they can be detected at the Large Hadron Collider.
On the other hand, some philosophers tell us that falsification is strictly speaking not possible: What if a Higgs property does not agree with the standard theory of particle physics? How do we know it is not influenced by some unknown and thus unaccounted factor, like a mysterious blonde walking past the LHC experiments and triggering the Higgs to decay? (This was an actual argument given in the meeting!) Many interesting aspects of falsification have been discussed in the philosophical literature. “Mysterious blonde”-type arguments, however, are philosophical quibbles and irrelevant for scientific practice, and they may contribute to the fact that scientists do not listen to philosophers.
I entirely agree that philosophers have wasted a good deal of energy maintaining that it is impossible to solve Duhemian problems of where to lay the blame for anomalies. They misrepresent the very problem by supposing there is a need to string together a tremendously long conjunction consisting of a hypothesis H and a bunch of auxiliaries Ai which are presumed to entail observation e. But neither scientists nor ordinary people would go about things in this manner. The mere ability to distinguish the effects of different sources suffices to pinpoint blame for an anomaly. For some posts on falsification, see here and here*.
The question of why scientists do not listen to philosophers was also a central theme of the recent inaugural conference of the German Society for Philosophy of Science. I attended the conference to present some of the results of our interdisciplinary research group on the philosophy of the Higgs. I found the meeting very exciting and enjoyable, but was also surprised by the amount of critical self-reflection.
In the opening talk Peter Godfrey-Smith from the City University of New York emphasized three roles for philosophy: an integrative role, whereby philosophy can assess and connect various fields with an emphasis on generic categories and perspectives; an incubator role, where philosophy develops new ideas in a broad and speculative form, which are then pursued in a more focussed and specific way within an individual science; and an educative role, where philosophy teaches various general skills, including critical and abstract thinking. The problem I see with the integrative and incubator roles of philosophy is the high degree of specialization in modern science. It is very hard for a philosopher to keep up with scientific progress, and how could one integrate various fields without having fully appreciated the essential features of the individual sciences? As Margaret Morrison from the University of Toronto pointed out in her talk, if philosophy steps back too far from the individual sciences, the account becomes too general and isolated from scientific practice. On the other hand, if philosophy is too close to an individual science, it may not be philosophy any longer.
I think philosophy of science should not consider itself primarily as a service to science, but rather identify and answer questions within its own domain. I certainly would not be concerned if my own research went unnoticed by biologists, chemists, or philosophers, as long as it advances particle physics. On the other hand, as Morrison pointed out, science does generate its own philosophical problems, and philosophy may provide some kind of broader perspective for understanding those problems.
So then, should we physicists listen to philosophers?
An emphatic “No!”, if philosophers want to impose their preconceptions of how science should be done. I do not subscribe to Feyerabend’s provocative claim that “anything goes” in science, but I believe that many things go, and certainly many things should be tried.
But then, “Yes!”, we should listen, as philosophy can provide a critical assessment of our methods, in particular if we consider physics to be more than predicting numbers and collecting data, but rather an attempt to understand and explain the world. And even if philosophy might be of no direct help to science, it may be of help to scientists through its educational role, and sharpen our awareness of conceptional problems in our research**.
What I want to talk about are the roles of philosophers of science. While I do not disagree with the roles Godfrey-Smith allots philosophers of science, to incubate, integrate, and educate (about things like logic and critical thinking), and his list would not preclude what I have in mind, I would press to go much further. To focus just on one of my own areas of interest, there is enormous unclarity in discussions by statistical practitioners regarding such philosophical notions as objectivity, truth, falsifiability, evidence, inductive inference, and the roles of probability in modeling and inference. It is as if a certain trepidation and groupthink take over when it comes to philosophically tinged notions, and philosophers are rarely consulted to lend insight. When they are, I’m afraid, they do not escape the criticism Stephen Weinberg raises in the linked Godfrey-Smith article (i.e., being wedded to a position that grows out of “theory-laden” philosophy, where the theories are philosophical.) Fresh methodological problems arise in practice, but philosophers of science are not consulted. Nor is it surprising. Peter Achinstein has often said that scientists do not and should not consult philosophical accounts about evidence,because while scientists evaluate evidence empirically, philosophical accounts are merely based on a priori computations. Sad, if still true.
By and large, philosophers of science have reneged on the promise of the 80s to be relevant to science. In some areas, in particular the one I know best, philosophers of science have gone backwards. Philosophers of statistics were ahead of their time in the 70s and early 80s, engaging in discussions side by side with statistical practitioners (Godambe and Sprott 1971, Harper and Hooker, 1977 come to mind.) Contributions to the field were as likely to be by a philosopher as by a statistician. I talk about this much more elsewhere (e.g., the introduction to Mayo and Spanos, Error and Inference (CUP 2010), so I’m being quick here. Soon after I got my Ph.D, things seemed to dissipate…
Nowadays, while the foundations of statistics are being considered anew by many statisticians, philosophers of statistics are almost nowhere to be found. Arguments given for some very popular slogans (mostly by non-philosophers), are too readily taken on faith as canon by others, and are repeated as gospel. Examples are easily found: all models are false, no models are falsifiable, everything is subjective, or equally subjective and objective, and the only properly epistemological use of probability is to supply posterior probabilities for quantifying actual or rational degrees of belief. Then there is the cluster of “howlers” allegedly committed by frequentist error statistical methods repeated verbatim (discussed on this blog). Margaret Morrison is right that many ask: is truly relevant philosophy really philosophy? I and a few others think the answer is Yes! I have organized conferences and published papers that address these issues, and it is the focus of a current book, nearing completion.
Even in the Higgs example, recall the controversy about whether particle physicists were misinterpreting their p-values; the letter-writing campaign by subjective Bayesians, etc. . There is a valid question as to whether it is the philosopher of X’s responsibility to solve philosophical problems in domain X; and the answer will surely depend on the field. But in statistical science—itself sometimes regarded as “applied philosophy of science,” –I say the answer is, emphatically, yes! Their failure to do so has left them out of one of the most interesting periods in the areas of statistical science as well as machine learning.
*For a unit on Popper that includes Duhem’s problem and falsification, see https://errorstatistics.com/2012/02/01/no-pain-philosophy-skepticism-rationality-popper-and-all-that-part-2-duhems-problem-methodological-falsification/
*Michael Krämer is a theoretical particle physicist at the RWTH Aachen University and likes philosophy. Follow him on Twitter at @mikraemer
 The article’s subtitle is: “Particle physicist Michael Krämer hangs out with philosophers and learns that one should be wary of irrelevant blondes” (whatever that means).
 E.g.,Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science: Where Do/Should They Meet? For selected contributions and related papers see here. Several of these papers have been discussed in “U-Phils” on this blog. Search for the author or title.
- Achinstein, P. (2001), The Book of Evidence, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Cox and Mayo 2010.
- Godambe, V. and Sprott, D., (eds), (1971). Foundations of Statistical Inference, Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, Toronto, 1971.
- Harper, W. L. and Hooker C. A. (eds.) (1976): Foundations of Probability Theory, Statistical Inference and Statistical Theories of Science. Vol. 2, Dordrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel
- Mayo, D. G. (2011) “Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science: Where Do/Should They Meet in 2011 (and beyond).” Rationality, Markets and Morals (RMM) 2, Special Topic: Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science, 79–102.
- Mayo, D. G. and Cox, D. R. (2011) “Statistical Scientist Meets a Philosopher of Science: A Conversation with Sir David Cox.” Rationality, Markets and Morals (RMM), 2, Special Topic: Statistical Science and Philosophy of Science, 103-114.
- Mayo, D. G. and Spanos, A. (2010). “Introduction and Background: Part I: Central Goals, Themes, and Questions; Part II The Error-Statistical Philosophy” in Error and Inference: Recent Exchanges on Experimental Reasoning, Reliability and the Objectivity and Rationality of Science (D Mayo and A. Spanos eds.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1-14, 15-27.