As a mathematician, E=mc2 looks like a model, and I come from a tradition that lives by the aphorism that "all models are wrong". But this is simplistic, a better argument is presented by Poincare, who is an authority I suspect that EP would be reluctant to dismiss with the confidence that they dismiss sociology.
Poincare is difficult to read, because his approach is to take ironic positions that he then dismantles. In Chapter 6 of Science and Hypothesis he does this with the playful statement
The English teach mechanics as an experimental science; on the Continent it is taught always more or less as a deductive a priori science. The English are right, no doubtHe then proceeds to cast doubt on that indubitable statement. Poincare notes that the issue is that
treatises on mechanics do not clearly distinguish between what is experiment, what is mathematical reasoning, what is convention and what is hypothesisOver a hundred years on physicists are still unclear about these things, something that annoys sociologists. Later, in Chapter 8, Poincare untangles the difficult concept of energy, and it is in this context that I asked the question "Is E=mc2 a definition", if this is the case and we associate facts with definitions we are close to Nominalism.
In response, the EP raised a cup as if to drop it and the claim was made that it will accelerate at 9.81.. m/s2 and this was a fact, known within definite errors.
A fact with error bars on it, mmmm. Not convincing.
The point is this fact, even with error bars, is dubious. I worked in the oil industry and one way of prospecting is to search for gravity anomolies, that is to make money by looking for where the model fails.
Thus far EP has failed to justify to me that physics is based on facts, but I still believe in physics. What is my reasoning.
In Chapter 7 of Science and Hypothesis Poincare asks the reader to imagine a planet that is covered with thick clouds, so much so that they cannot see the stars. He then argues that, at some point, a Copernicus will "come at last'' to the planet and would argue that
It is more convenient to suppose the earth turns round, because the laws of mechanics are thus expressed in much more simple language.and then he goes on to say
these two propositions "the earth turns round,'' and "it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round,'' have one and the same meaningThis statement was picked up by a mathematician and philosopher, Edouard LeRoy. LeRoy was a friend and follower of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who is associated with philosophical irrationalism and LeRoy believed that science "can teach us nothing of truth; it can only serve as a rule of action'' and, following Bergeson, "the intellect deforms all it touches'' and is a version of Nominalism. Poincare was forced to write his second book The Value of Science where he clarifies his earlier work and argues, passionately, for the value of science.
Poincare starts by arguing that science is not simply a 'rule of action' in the same way that there are rules to a game,
[If science has] a value as `recipes' have a value, as a rule of action, it is because we know they succeed, generally at least. But to know this is to know something and then why tell us we know nothing?He then goes on to distinguish a 'crude fact' from a 'scientific fact'
The scientific fact is only the crude fact translated into a convenient language.Poincare observes that the convenient language could be French or German (or Euclidean or non-Euclidean geometry), but the point is that, in science at least, a French speaker could come to understand German, "because there remains between the French and Germans something in common, since both are men''. The nominal language that scientists use is only a convenient veneer on the universality of science.
Poincare then goes on to answer the fundamental question: What is science? and offers the following
it is before all a classification, a manner of bringing together facts which appear separate, though they were bound together by some natural and hidden kinship. Science, in other words, is a system of relations. Now, ..., it is in the relations alone that objectivity must be soughtfollowed by
Therefore when we ask what is the objective value of science, that does not mean: Does science teach us about the true nature of things? but it means: Does it teach us about the true relations of things? (my emphasis)The equivalence of the statements "the earth turns round,'' and "it is more convenient to suppose that the earth turns round,'' is a consequence of the relativity of space. To state that either "The earth turns around'' or "The earth does not turn around'' only has meaning if space absolute, and not if science is about relations of things.
Having set the scene with Poincare, to entice the EP in, I will run forward to modern philosophy. Susan Haack gives us the metaphor of knowledge (scientia) as a crossword puzzle, we answer some clues and infer others. For example if in my crossword I see the letters "f_l_c_t_" I am justified in filling in "felicity" (without referring to the crossword clue), just as a physicists are justified by filling in "E=mc2" in science. But, if I find the answer that gave me the "l" is wrong, I have to re-visit "felicity"; it could be "ferocity" or "frascati". Metaphorically, my issue with multiverses is that I feel physicists are solving the clue with "fulocite" (rhymes with "full of ..."); inventing a meaningless word to fill in the blanks.
Haack is not immediately interested in the natural and physical sciences, her main concern is the law and how science influences legal judgements (which is itself related to the topic of the conference). The reason Haack, Poincare and I take this line in knowledge is that we want science to take a central role in policy making. This implies we cannot be exclusive in our definition of science as that which relates to nature.
What I mean by this is I believe it is equally justified to claim the "E=mc2" and that "Raping three year olds is wrong" and I need to have a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of these claims. The reason I use an extreme example is that the question of raping children is clearly predominantly a moral question, so what I am claiming is that my intellectual framework needs to be equally robust in supporting "facts" as "values". I cannot immediately justify either claim, I rely on a confidence that I can discover robust justifications. Furthermore, I would conject that the proportion of the British population who reject both claims is similar, and more controversially that there is an overlap in the groups. My basis for the second claim is in the recognition of a link between emotivism, that moral statements are essentially emotional, in moral philosophy and relativism in philosophy more generally.
Now the sting in the tail: emotivism is closely related to logical positivism, notably through the work of A. J. Ayer. I see a connection between logical-positivism, that the only truths are those that can be verified through experimentation, with emotivism, that moral statements are propositionally empty, with relativism, that there can be no absolute justification for a claim. If you take the logical positivist out of the laboratory their position, for me, becomes untenable and relates to the relativists they typically despise. N.B. Do not quote this argument in a 101 Philosophy paper.
Why do I care? Why do I need to employ a framework that acknowledges the equivalence of the claims? The reason is that, like Haack and Poincare, I believe that scientists have a role in policy. I finished my statement at the conference with the hyperbole that the Credit Crisis was caused by people who are committed to the idea that E=mc2 is a fact. Let me explain.
Since the 1980s investment banks have been actively recruiting, at an increasing rate, graduates from science, technology, engineering and mathematics backgrounds. The reason was the increasingly quantitative nature of finance. This was not new, there has always been a strong relationship between science and finance that had become overshadowed between 1914 and 1970 when states set exchange rates deterministically. Finance gained much from these graduates, but they came with baggage, they believed in the truth-bearing nature of mathematics and did not recognise an ethical dimension of the equations they employed. As the Financial Crisis Enquiry Commission reported, the Credit Crisis was a result of "a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics". It was not the mathematics that was wrong it was the moral context in which they were used. In response, my work since 2010 has centred on un-covering the ethical dimension of the abstract mathematics employed in finance.
Something that struck me at the Conference was the extraordinary status of finance and economics. I plan to explore this in a future post - I need to check what people actually said on the recordings rather than rely on what I think I heard - but for the benefit of those who were not their it came up a number of times that no-one, from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the government's scientific advisers, academics and so on, challenge the basis of financial decisions. This is extraordinary because modern policy decisions are based primarily on economic arguments. For example, the Stern case for taking action today to mitigate uncertain climate change in the future rests on taking an unconventional financial position. As economists are reluctant to take this position, there is never an economic case in favour of many mitigation strategies. In un-covering the ethical dimension of the abstract mathematics employed in finance I present a case for Stern's position. If there is no questioning of the financial basis of policy decisions, most of the discussion about scientific advice is redundant.
As something of an aside, but an issue that came up at this conference and after the Mathematical Cultures meeting is the widespread belief that the root of science's problems is "neo-liberalism". I have explained a number of times that "neo-liberalism" is a technical term relating to a synthesis of statist and classical liberal policies. The financialisation of academia, taking it from public to private control, is a return to "liberal" policies. There seems to be a reluctance to associate what is bad with policies that originate, in part, with Bentham and Mill. One academic responded "Well at least we've never had "liberal" governments then". The problem is we have. The British policy of Russell's government in response to the Irish Famine from 1846 was classically liberal and perceived as being "scientific" (in accordance with Mill's conception of political science) at the time. Peel's Tory policy had been both less liberal and motivated by Christian charity and is usually perceived as humane, but flawed.
This leads me on to the second statement by EP: Science is undemocratic. Given that I had made the point that, as a bystander, I think that the climate debate has degenerated into one of seeing which camp can have the most peer-reviewed papers published, suggests that we are in agreement. Maybe, but not in how to present the case. I argue that the issue is inside academia - it is about getting papers published, EP suggests the problem is outside the academies, in the public space.
Claiming "E=mc2 is a fact" and "Science is undemocratic" are both problematic: the first is open to challenge, as I have done, and if it looks invalid it undermines subsequent claims. The second raises in the hearers mind, if it is not democratic, what exactly is it: technocratic? plutocratic? theocratic? In my work I identify a correspondence between good scientific, democratic and commercial practice. I build this case on Cheryl Misak's Truth, Politics and Morality, which, according to the publisher, "argues that truth ought to be reinstated to a central position in moral and political philosophy": nothing woolly there. Misak's argument is essentially that if we are to arrive at something we can call truth we must put our claims up to be challenged; this is the democratic ideal. The very fact that EP embarks on an admirable crusade to challenge published work demonstrates that they advocate that science is democratic: they are rejecting the autocratic authority of the journal and the peer review process.
Poincare suggested that what distinguishes the scientist is their ability to ask the right questions, not their ability to deliver the right answers. My feeling towards the end of the Circling the Square conference that academics seem to be becoming very introspective. When EP claims that "Science is undemocratic" they are talking to other academics, not to the broader public. The discussions focussed on climate science, particularly geo-engineering and the badger cull. As Sheila Jasanoff pointed out, the academics' main mechanism for affecting climate policy, the IPCC, has failed and we should move on to thinking of something workable while someone else pointed out that public opinion on the fate of British badgers was clear: we don't care. I was left thinking that academics are fighting amongst themselves over the scraps under the table, when the juicy joint has been left unguarded on the table. All this was going on while a significant portion of the European public was going to the polls and giving the establishment, of which publicly funded academics are part, a significant vote of no confidence.