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Do we need to have a knowledge of philosophy of science to be a good scientist?

July 24 2014 , Written by Wing-Fai Thi

Things are never completely settled. I thought that after a PhD and a few articles I would be a seasoned researcher until I discussed with someone with a dual degree in astrophysics and philosophy. That troubled me. Did I miss something essential during all those years? Two aspects of philosophy of science intrigued me. One deals with the scientific method itself. The other is the meaning of scientific discoveries and their relations to the society. Strangely, according to my philosopher friend, researchers become interested in philosophy of science towards the end of their career or even when they are retired. Her guess is that most scientists are interested but are too engulfed in their daily science activities to have time to think about the how and why of their work. A notable exception is herself, being an active researcher and thinking about science. She may be among the only few in astronomy who actually deserves the title of “Doctor in philosophy” (PhD). She suggested a few books to read for me. They are since part of my daily leisure reading. I read those books as if they are novels in my spare time. In fact they can be entertaining if well written.

The first was Kuhn's book on “The structure of scientific discoveries”, on which I wrote
an extensive review. I highly recommend “An introduction to the philosophy of science” by Anthony O'Hear. The first sentence from O'Hear's book sets the issue: “There is no institution in the modern world more prestigious than science. Nor is there an institution which, as a whole, is less controversial”. Is controversy the cost to pay for prestige? If science and technology advances bring both, it is important that the practitioners are aware of that.  I talk about technological advances because the perception of the general population about science is through technological advances, either good in improving their quality of life, or bad such as more sophisticated and deadly weapons. The last chapter deals with science and culture and the ethics of science. What drive intelligent scientists to work for military research? O'Hear summarizes at the end of the book: “... the essential differences between science and the humanities and, by implication, the essential nature of science as aiming at objective and value-free knowledge of the natural world, ...”

After reading both books, I feel a bit relief. It seems that I learned how to perform day-to-day science by mimicking colleagues and following advices from senior researchers without a formal course or reading books on philosophy of science. But reading more on the subject of philosophy of science can only be beneficial. And I endeavor myself to find time and have a step back to think about science. Perhaps we should introduce philosophy courses for all science students. Perhaps we should have more discussions among us the scientists on subjects beyond the technical aspects of our research (the “normal” science according to Kuhn).

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