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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.


History as Font of Lessons (Isis, Pt. 3) July 25, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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Santayana, yadda, yadda… This afternoon I’m going to write about Andrew Hamilton and Quentin Wheeler’s “Taxonomy and Why History of Science Matters for Science: A Case Study”, which derives lessons from the history of numerical taxonomy (phenetics) for the future of DNA bar-coding. I wasn’t aware of phenetics, which seems to have been a mid-century attempt to measure living things and then group them without recourse to any overarching theory. This has intriguing parallels to the mathematics of the Bourbaki collective that I won’t go into (and don’t actually know much about), but I just wanted to throw that out there. The big point here is that the phenetics movement precipitously collapsed after its haphazard data-collecting failed to produce a believable taxonomy, and the authors argue that the same could happen to DNA bar-coding, which uses DNA arrangements to draw relationships between different organisms.

The first point I’d like to address is the use of the lesson from history. In my first post in this series, I discussed the use of history by filmmakers. Here I’m more reminded of the constant use of history in politics, which is notoriously dicey in its deployment of analogies with past events. Here in America we’re being subjected to fairly sophisticated historical analyses on a daily basis as the Presidential campaign goes forward. Inevitably, we learn why the strategies being deployed are similar to Reagan vs. Carter in 1980 or Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960, and so on… I think, as with filmmakers using history, this is both inevitable and healthy, but there’s a difference. (more…)