Jean Miller here. (I obtained my PhD with D. Mayo in Phil/STS at VT.) Some of us “island philosophers” have been looking to pick our favorite book reviews of EGEK (Mayo 1996; Lakatos Prize 1999) to celebrate its “sweet sixteen” this month. This review, by Dr. Cosma Shalizi (CMU, Stat) has been chosen as the top favorite (in the category of reviews outside philosophy). Below are some excerpts–it was hard to pick, as each paragraph held some new surprise, or unique way to succinctly nail down the views in EGEK. You can read the full review here. Enjoy.
After I’d bungled teaching it enough times to have an idea of what I was doing, one of the first things students in my introductory physics classes learned (or anyway were taught), and which I kept hammering at all semester, was error analysis: estimating the uncertainty in measurements, propagating errors from measured quantities into calculated ones, and some very quick and dirty significance tests, tests for whether or not two numbers agree, within their associated margins of error. I did this for purely pragmatic reasons: it seemed like one of the most useful things we were supposed to teach, and also one of the few areas where what I did had any discernible effect on what they learnt. Now that I’ve read Mayo’s book, I’ll be able to offer another excuse to my students the next time I teach error analysis, namely, that it’s how science really works.
I exaggerate her conclusion slightly, but only slightly. Mayo is a dues-paying philosopher of science (literally, it seems), and like most of the breed these days is largely concerned with questions of method and justification, of “ampliative inference” (C. S. Peirce) or “non-demonstrative inference” (Bertrand Russell). Put bluntly and concretely: why, since neither can be deduced rigorously from unquestionable premises, should we put more trust in David Grinspoon‘s ideas about Venus than in those of Immanuel Velikovsky? A nice answer would be something like, “because good scientific theories are arrived at by employing thus-and-such a method, which infallibly leads to the truth, for the following self-evident reasons.” A nice answer, but not one which is seriously entertained by anyone these days, apart from some professors of sociology and literature moonlighting in the construction of straw men. In the real world, science is alas fallible, subject to constant correction, and very messy. Still, mess and all, we somehow or other come up with reliable, codified knowledge about the world, and it would be nice to know how the trick is turned: not only would it satisfy curiosity (“the most agreeable of all vices” — Nietzsche), and help silence such people as do, in fact, prefer Velikovsky to Grinspoon, but it might lead us to better ways of turning the trick. Asking scientists themselves is nearly useless: you’ll almost certainly just get a recital of whichever school of methodology we happened to blunder into in college, or impatience at asking silly questions and keeping us from the lab. If this vice is to be indulged in, someone other than scientists will have to do it: namely, the methodologists. Continue reading