Monday, April 27, 2009

Spontaneous dichotomy in scientific debate

Scientific debate is the rigorous process by which scientific theories, ideas and explanations are tested by the scientific community. The debate incorporates a variety of instruments, such as peer reviews, conference discussions, duplication of experiments and experimental results and, ultimately, discussion upon the interpretation of experimental results. An important result of scientific debate is the distillation of a scientific paradigm, which finds its way to school and university textbooks as the “most up to date knowledge” on a particular scientific field. However, this result is always partial and always refers to the part of the debate upon which closure has been arrived at. Paradigms are therefore temporary truces in the on-going scientific debate. As truces, they are only compromises. In order to understand the nature of this compromise better, I will argue that within every scientific debate arises a spontaneous dichotomy which can be identified by the labels “aristocratic” and “democratic” – labels alluding to the two political parties of the ancient Athenian democracy. The “aristocratic” party is elitist, skeptical and Platonic. The “democratic” party is populist, rational and Aristotelian. This dichotomy arises from a cardinal requirement on any interpretation of experimental results which aspire to uphold a theory: that the elements of an explanation must be both necessary as well as sufficient in explaining a natural phenomenon. This dual explanatory requirement is at the root of the spontaneous dichotomy. This is because, although almost everyone can agree on the “necessary” part of the explanatum, it is the “sufficient” part that always leaves a door open. Through this door the aristocratic party of the scientific debate will always try to introduce doubt on the finality of the explanatum. At the same time the democratic party will interpret the aristocratic skepticism as a betrayal of scientific integrity and accuse the aristocrats for undermining the edifice of scientific debate. The democratic argument always rests on the well-meaning conviction that one cannot have a rational debate without facts. Since the aristocrats will always adhere to the possibility of a quintessent “missing” element undermining the sufficiency of the explanatum, there can be no closure in the debate. The history of science, so far, has always justified the side of the aristocrats. From the Ptolemaic, to the Copernican to the Newtonian to the Einsteinian, paradigms fall because the aristocrats – who are the “revolutionaries” in this case – always doubt the status quo paradigm and always question its validity.

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