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R. A. Fisher, Scientific Method, and the Tower of Babel, Pt. 2 February 9, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Tower of Babel (1563)

In his 1932 lecture, “The Bearing of Genetics on Theories of Evolution,” R. A. Fisher compared the fissures between different scientific techniques to God’s confounding of languages in the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel. If the fissures in scientific method were assumed to hold the construction of an “edifice” of scientific knowledge back, much as the division of language prevented the construction of the Tower of Babel, then the obvious question was how method could be reunited. According to Fisher,

If we were to ask … what universal language could enable men of science to understand each other sufficiently well for effective co-operation, I submit that there can be only one answer. If we could select a group of men of science, completely purge their minds of all knowledge of language, and allow them time to develop the means of conveying to one another their scientific ideas, I have no doubt whatever that the only successful medium they could devise would be that ancient system of logic and deductive reasoning first perfected by the Greeks, and which we know as Mathematics.

As we saw in Part 1, the bulk of Fisher’s statistical theorization was dedicated to the problem of inductive reasoning, that is, the development of defined conclusions from well-structured observations. But it is clear that Fisher also valued deductive uses of mathematics, because it permitted different observational conclusions to be related to each other through a fully coherent language. It is just not clear what he understood the epistemological status or function of deductive knowledge to be.


Clarke on Research and Science in Prewar Britain July 20, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography.
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Coming off this blog’s discussion of Paul Lucier’s “The Professional and the Scientist in 19th-Century America,” I would next like to look at Sabine Clarke’s “Pure Science with a Practical Aim: The Meanings of Fundamental Research in Britain, circa 1916-1950” (abstract + paywall) from the most recent Isis.

Lucier’s piece delineated important distinctions and connections between 19th-century American and British vocabularies of science, with an attendant examination of important issues to which the American lexicon was applied.  Reading that work, I found myself not really willing to believe that the subject matter had not been previously parsed that way, and am still half expecting someone to pop up with some obvious reference that tells all about it — it’s really useful stuff.

Clarke’s piece seems to offer more of a clarification of certain points of vocabulary, rather than an important new delineation of historical ideas, but it is successful in the task it sets out to accomplish.  The actual ideas discussed — the relationship between “research” (as in “research and development”) and “science” — should already be familiar to those with a serious interest in the relationship between scientific research and technological development in the industrial era.  What is of primary interest here is the search for appropriate language to describe this relationship. (more…)