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Normal Science is Lamp-Post Science

  1. Aug 11, 2008 #1
    Normal Science is Lamp-Post Science

    There is a popular joke that goes something like this: A drunken man is crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamp-post. His friend asks him “what are you doing crawling around under that lamp-post? The drunk responds that he has lost his keys and is looking for them. His friend responds “your car is over here, you have not been near that lamp-post”. The drunk responds “it is very dark and this is the only place where there is some light”.

    Normal science is a puzzle-solving enterprise. Normal science is a slow accumulation of knowledge by a methodical step-by-step process undertaken by a group of scientists.

    ‘Paradigm’ is a word that was given great meaning and clarity by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

    The author notes that all “real science is normally a habit-governed, puzzle-solving activity” and not a philosophical activity. Paradigm and not hypothesis is the active meaning for the ‘new image of science’. Paradigm is neither a theory nor a metaphysical viewpoint.

    The paradigm is analogous to the lamp-post in the joke. The paradigm provides the illumination that allows the scientist to look for the “laws of nature” that drive our high tech culture.

    I recently had occasion to hang out in the waiting area of St Joseph Hospital in Asheville for a few hours. I was free to walk many of the corridors and rest in many of the waiting areas along with everyone else. It was early morning but it was obvious that the hospital functioned fully 24/7.

    A person can walk the corridors of any big city hospital and observe the effectiveness of human rationality in action. One can also visit the UN building in NYC or read the morning papers and observe just how ineffective, frustrating and disappointing human rationality can be. Why does human reason perform so well in some matters and so poorly in others?

    We live in two very different worlds; a world of technical and technological order and clarity, and a world of personal and social disorder and confusion. We are increasingly able to solve problems in one domain and increasingly endangered by our inability to solve problems in the other.

    Normal science is successful primarily because it is a domain of knowledge controlled by paradigms. Science uses instrumental rationality to solve puzzles. Instrumental rationality is a systematic process for reflecting upon the best action to take to reach an established end. The obvious question becomes ‘what mode of rationality is available for determining ends?’ Instrumental rationality appears to be of little use in determining such matters as “good” and “right”, i.e. social morality.

    There is a striking difference between the logic of technical problems and that of dialectical problems. The principles, methods and standards for dealing with technical problems and problems of “real life” are as different as night and day. Real life problems cannot be solved only using deductive and inductive reasoning.

    Dialectical reasoning methods require the ability to slip quickly between contradictory lines of reasoning. One needs skill to develop a synthesis of one point of view with another. Where technical matters are generally confined to only one well understood frame of reference real life problems become multi-dimensional totalities.

    When we think dialectically we are guided by principles not by procedures. Real life problems span multiple categories and academic disciplines. We need point-counter-point argumentation; we need emancipatory reasoning to resolve dialectical problems. We need critical thinking skills and attitudes to resolve real life problems.

    Normal science is a science normally driven at high speed by our culture because it is a dramatic performance enhancing drug for our culture that places the maximizing of production and consumption as humanities’ sui generis (uncaused cause) value.

    I claim that our human sciences that can help us to create a social morality that is required to save the species and perhaps the planet must receive a much higher priority. We can no longer afford the luxury of looking only under the lamp-post for our lost keys.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 11, 2008 #2


    Can we turn your opening post into the question:

    "Can the scientific method be used to create a social morality to (a) preserve human survival and (b) preserve planet earth?"

    If so, the answer is not obvious, because scientific evidence in social and political matters seems to be interpretable only within a social or political context, and that brings assumptions that create a self-perpetuating paradigm, often on multiple sides of an issue.

    For instance, let us apply the scientific method to the hypothesis that the spread of democracy throughout the world would promote peace and reduce war. Then look at the scientific evidence of the recent experiments with democratic elections in Gaza, in Afganistan, in Iraq, in Russia, and in the USA. Depending on one's paradigm, one can look at the same body of evidence and conclude either (a) these areas of the world were not ready for democracy when elections were held or (b) the elections were flawed and/or influenced by violence or coersion or misinformation, so they weren't really democratic elections or (c) democracy does not promote peace in all places at all times or (d) all of these countries/territories are currently involved in armed conflict but it would have been far worse if all of these same entities were not engaging in some form of democratic elections previously.

    Or, for another instance, let us apply the scientific method to the debate on whether mankind should be spending significant resources to try to influence climate change. One can gather data on climate change but it is very hard to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. We cannot do placebo-controlled experiments on two planets at once to really answer some fundamental questions. So in order to have a meaningful discourse on the climate change issue one has to step into a social or political paradigm with assumptions that cannot be independently verified.
  4. Aug 11, 2008 #3
    I think Feynman had the best description of science I've ever heard.

    It's like a chess game, he said, except you don't know all the rules. So you watch the game and you make some generalizations. You see that bishops always stay on their original color, so then you decide well that must be a rule. And then you watch pawns move up one square at a time, so you decide well that must be what they do, until one day the pawn moves on a diagonal and you aren't sure why, until then you realize that they only move on diagonals when there's another piece there. Etc. etc. So you're trying to make generalizations about the things you see without having any idea of what the rules funamentally are or why they are that way. That's science.

    If you start asking "well why do the chess pieces move this way?" "who decided bishops only move on diagonals?" then you're into philosophy and religion.
  5. Aug 12, 2008 #4

    The scientific method is not applicable in matters beyond a very limited domain of problems. The scientific method is very useful in certain applications such as physics and chemistry but is not suitable for solving problems relating to human relations. The scientific method is the lamp-post.

    Scientific method just won’t cut the mustard when we seek a solution to problems regarding human interrelations.

    The traditional mode of thinking assumes that today was like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today. In a world that changes, and change itself is an abstract idea, the world does not stand still; for the traditional thinker the response might be “stop the world I want to get off”.

    In the world of change we are obliged to simplify where possible; in such a world we must generalize, form abstractions, simplify, create causal laws, and all kinds of means to live in a world of seeming chaos and confusion.

    Thought processes that we engage to help simplify are often the very process that makes things more difficult to comprehend and to manage. We humans are abstract thinkers and thus we introduce a new can of worms with which we must deal. In a world of abstract thinking we constantly create varying aspects to reality. Reality does not stand still but moves about and evolves.

    All of these modifications of reality, introduced by abstract thinking humans, show us that there is no clear cut separation between fact and fiction. There is no understanding of abstract ideas without the aid of metaphors. Metaphors allow us to communicate by way of linguistics that tells others that X is like A, ‘know is see’ and ‘understand is grasp’, see what I mean?

    In a changing world we must be constantly ready to make judgments between options and to recognize when we are dealing with true options and not just optional illusions. Critical thinking is the art and science of good judgment. The knowledge of CT prepares us for making judgments within this confusion.

    The scientific method demands that the hypothesis must be timelessly valid. The object of the hypothesis must remain static through time and the subject doing the testing, i.e. the human doing the test, must hold him or her self static in time in those matters that might affect the testing of the hypothesis.

    The scientific method has proven to be a very effective technique for solving certain types of problems. It has been a technique ideally suited to solving problems encountered in the natural sciences. When the goals are clear and we attempt to find the best instrument for reaching the goal the scientific method is unexcelled.

    What kind of technique do we use for establishing goals in the first place? Here we encounter the rub. Goal setting is generally not susceptible to solution utilizing the scientific method.

    We must use the dialogic technique to help us in the quest for establishing community goals. The dialogic technique is an active combination of dialogue and dialectic processing of dialogue.

    In dialogue, person ‘A’ may state a thesis and in return person ‘B’ does not respond with exactly the same meaning as does ‘A’. The meanings are generally similar but not identical; thus ‘A’ listening to ‘B’ perceives a disconnect between what she said and what ‘B’ replies. ‘A’ then has the opportunity to respond with this disconnect in mind, thereby creating a response that takes these matters into consideration; ‘A’ performs an operation known as a dialectic (a juxtaposition of opposed or contradictory ideas). And so the dialogical process proceeds.

    A dialogical process is not one wherein individuals reason together in an attempt to make common those ideas that are already known to each individual. ”Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in common, i.e., creating something new together.” Dialogical reasoning together is an act of creation, of mutual understanding of meaning.

    Dialogic can happen only if both individuals wish to reason together in truth, in coherence, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other.
    Each must be prepared to “drop his old ideas and intentions. And be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for…Thus, if people are to cooperate (i.e., literally to ‘work together’) they have to be able to create something in common, something that takes shape in their mutual discussions and actions, rather than something that is conveyed from one person who acts as an authority to the others, who act as passive instruments of this authority.” Quote by David Bohm, Fellow of the Royal Society and Emeritus Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London.
  6. Aug 12, 2008 #5

    I too am a fan of Feynman.
  7. Aug 12, 2008 #6
    Ah I see. This Dialogic is precisely what is missing in typical political discourse. Each side clearly, and proudly, approaches the the discussion table with obvious prejudice and with the clear intent to influence the opposite partner, usually with a pre-determined outcome in mind.

    Are there strategies to foster Dialogic in the real world of political debate? To identify, record, and reward "Dialogic Progress", much as we recognize and reward "Scientific Progress" in the realms of engineering, chemistry, etc.?
  8. Aug 12, 2008 #7
    There is work ongoing in sociology, I think, that is trying to work on this aspect of reasoning and a secular social morality. It appears to me that the effort is tepid and unsuccessful. It is perhaps a doomed enterprise.

    CT (Critical Thinking) is attempting to make some head-way in this field and CT is slowly being introduced into the American educational system but I suspect it is having great difficulty.

    “On Dialogue” written by “The late David Bohm, one of the greatest physicists and foremost thinkers this century, was Fellow of the Royal Society and Emeritus Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, University of London.

    Bohm is convinced that communication is breaking down as a result of the crude and insensitive manner in which it is transpiring. Communication is a concept with a common meaning that does not fit well with the concepts of dialogue, dialectic, and dialogic.

    I claim that if we citizens do not learn to dialogue we cannot learn to live together in harmony sufficient to save the species.
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