Friday, June 30, 2017

Rebuttal to "There Is No Scientific Method"


It's been a year since the opinion piece "There Is No Scientific Method" by James Blachowicz was published in the New York Times. But only now did a friend on Facebook bring it to my attention.

The author's mission is to pull science down from some perceived pedestal, by way of comparison to poetry. The sad and unfortunate effect is to diminish both vital processes to mere communication. I will review this article in order to assert the exact opposite. The scientific method is indeed special and valuable. Poetry is not limited to mere advertising of meaning, but is the veritable wellspring of life.

We must start with the title, which is clickbait, no doubt. Even the author admits only to the weaker claim that "there is no distinctly scientific method". A manipulative and dishonest banner is not really a great way to begin an intelligent discussion.

Insurmountable problems with the argument are encountered from the outset. Most astounding is that Blachowicz does not define his subject. It should be obvious that if you are going to address the scientific method, you should be clear what is being considered. Instead, the author presents an example from the field of scientific research, Kepler's work on the orbit of Mars. I will be generous on two counts. First, I will accept that this one example is emblematic of science as a whole. Second, I will accept the author's description of Kepler's working method as accurate, though it comes with no references.

From this example, we might deduce that the scientific method is an empirical approach to testing hypotheses against known and repeatable observations. Well, we might say that, but it's far more than Blachowicz says. But again, let's be magnanimous and proceed.

It might astonish a careful reader, but this is already half of the article. The remainder considers Socrates defining justice, a process the author reduces to adjusting "literal meaning" to meet "the actual meaning... in our minds". This assertion somehow divides meaning into two parts, the "actual" part of which is entirely mental. I don't think it does the author any favours to dwell on a philosophy that might justify such a strange picture of the world.

It is far simpler (and more accurate) to say that a definition of a word matches common usage. Yes, that's circular, but language is inherently a trail of signification from one term to another... or have we learned nothing from semiotics?

What this has to do with the scientific method is unclear. Because, in fact, it has nothing to do with it.

Oddly, that is the entirety of the argument. I kept re-reading the conclusion, imagining I had missed a leap of logic that might connect together the random thoughts Blachowicz has dumped onto the page. But, no.

Instead, we find this:

If scientific method is only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry, how is it that the results of science are more reliable than what is provided by these other forms?

Er, what? How can we parse this sentence? Scientific method has not been defined, but if we generously fill in this lacuna, we still have a claim that this is "only one form of a general method employed in all human inquiry", something that has not been demonstrated in the slightest. But it paints a picture of a world in which "all human inquiry" is fuelled by a method that forces comparison of hypotheses to facts in the world, repeatable and demonstrable. Mere opinions and rhetoric would be invalidated before being accepting as having any truth value. This would be a world free of "alternative facts", political lies, and misrepresentations of science. While this might be a wonderful place to imagine, I think we can all admit that it doesn't coincide with the world we live in.

And then there is a shift in this passage to consider reliability, something not even mentioned in the text until now. Reading between the lines, it appear that the author is taking exception to some claim made by "science"... an unarticulated claim at that.

As a conclusion, this is a mess. It doesn't logically follow on what has come before and interjects all sorts of new claims.

Oh, yes, and what about poetry?

The article opens by considering how Stephen Spender described crafting a poem. Again, we have just one poet, and one description, from a talk given in 1970! This must stand in for all poetry everywhere, because Blachowicz is going to treat us to another gross generalisation. All he can understand from Spender is that poetry should be designed for maximum communicative efficacy. So, like a business report, then. Or an advertising hoarding.

In case I might be accused of misunderstanding Blachowicz, it's worth quoting his definition of poetry. Unlike that of the scientific method, he presents this quite explicitly.

A good definition or poem must be one (a) whose expressed meaning matches the actual meaning that was grasped in a pre-articulated way and (b) which satisfies some criterion of form (embodies an explanatory principle or satisfies poetic form).

Again, Blachowicz has reduced poetry to the purely functional. A good poem is the same as a good definition. Further, the expressed meaning of a poem must match the grasped meaning. In this communication theory model, any distortion between data at the sender and receiver can only be an error, a mistake of the poet. There is no room for plurality of expression or interpretation.

So, in order to make his inarticulate and unsubstantiated argument, Blachowicz has not only reduced the scientific method to a weak version of itself, but has reduced poetry to mere advertising, denuding it of all life, all spirit, all ambiguity, richness, and diversity.

Since Blachowicz has presented no coherent argument for his sad position, I don't think I bear the burden of proof. Instead, desperate for some glimmer of intelligence, I will end on a positive note. Minkowski offers as a wonderful gift (poetry is a gift, and a wonderment) this astounding description of life as vitality (poetry is vital).

If, having fixed the original form in our mind’s eye, we ask ourselves how that form comes alive and fills with life, we discover a new dynamic and vital category, a new property of the universe: reverberation (retentir). It is as though a well-spring existed in a sealed vase and its waves, repeatedly echoing against the sides of this vase, filled it with their sonority. Or again, it’s as though the sound of a hunting horn, reverberating everywhere through its echo, made the tiniest leaf, the tiniest wisp of moss shudder in a common movement and transformed the whole forest, filling it to its limits, into a vibrating, sonorous world.

Poetry is that which reverberates all from within. Poetry is not in competition with science, nor with anything else. To propose otherwise is to argue against life itself.

Eugène Minkowski quote from From chapter 9 of Vers une Cosmologie, translated by Maria Jolas, quoted in "The Poetics of Space" by Gaston Bachelard, footnotes pp. xii-xiii.


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