Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Bridgman, Elephants, and the Judges of Science.

The name Percy Williams Bridgman (1882-1961) will hardly ring a bell among econosophers. Physicists may remember him as the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics
"For the invention of an apparatus to produce extremely high pressures, and for the discoveries he made therewith in the field of high pressure physics".
More of an experimentalist than a theoretician, Bridgman, however, was interested in the philosophy of physics. His ideas, under the label "operationalism", when applied to other fields, met with less than spectacular results.

Many of his observations (like those below, from his 1950 book "Reflections of a Physicist"), however, seem as valid today as they were 60 years ago and their application could go beyond physics:

"It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method. When the scientist ventures to criticize the work of his fellow scientist, as is not uncommon, he does not base his criticism on such glittering generalities as failure to follow the 'scientific method,' but his criticism is specific, based on some feature characteristic of the particular situation. The working scientist is always too much concerned with getting down to brass tacks to be willing to spend his time on generalities.
"Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it. These people have been able to uncover various generalities applicable to at least most of what the scientist does, but it seems to me that these generalities are not very profound, and could have been anticipated by anyone who knew enough about scientists to know what is their primary objective. I think that the objectives of all scientists have this in common--that they are all trying to get the correct answer to the particular problem in hand."
The text is a bit longer, but you get the idea.

This sentence, however, is worth quoting separately:
"In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists."

He doesn't mention the term, but Bridgman is dealing with the so-called problem of demarcation: what can -- and what cannot -- be considered science? Around that time (late 1950s-early 1960s), there was considerable debate around that subject. Bridgman's answer is clear-cut: working scientists (i.e. researchers) are the proper judges of that.

Readers, however, may think that too extreme and maybe even a little na├»ve -- I would be inclined to agree. To determine what is and what is not science is a delicate matter. Perhaps it would be safer to add the scientists' bona fides peers to that set of "proper judges of scientificity", without deviating too much from Bridgman's textual opinion. For instance, a highly qualified and independent biochemist would probably be a good judge for the work of another biochemist. An astrophysicist, however, even an eminent and independent one, would not be a clear choice for that.

The disadvantage of that is that the boundaries of the set of proper judges are no longer clear-cut (just like the demarcation problem itself is blurry).

Be that as it may, it would certainly be too much of an stretch to add kibbitzers to that set. And this applies even to the otherwise renowned kibbitzer. Ludwig van Beethoven, for example, is universally admired for his music, but you wouldn't extend that appreciation to whatever opinions he might have entertained on neurosurgery (particularly if the surgery were to be performed on your own brain).


With that in mind, what compelling argument did Karl Popper -- or any other philosopher of science, for that matter -- advance for his self-appointment as Privileged Kibbitzer in charge of deciding what is, and what is not, science? More bluntly: what on earth makes Popper better qualified for that job than -- say -- Beethoven?

Under this light the previous post ("Joan Robinson and the Elephant") suddenly appears more serious: Robinson may have been an admirable woman and a remarkable economist. Two things she was not: a scientist, or a philosopher. So, I ask again: what makes her better qualified for the job of Pontifex Maximus of Scientificity than -- say -- Beethoven?

That's a much nearer elephant, which Robinson, curiously all-too eager to be a judge, did not see … at all.


Bridgman, P.W. (1955). Reflections of a Physicist. New York: Philosophical Library, Inc.


  1. Hey. Just my thoughts on this:

    Maybe the term "science" is misleading, perhaps what philosophy of science is really concerned about is epistemology. Falsification and whether a theory fits within it or not is not Popper deciding whether a theory is scientific or not. It is any observer testing the theory against reality itself. I see Falsification as building upon empericism and trying to solve the condrums associated with it.

    As for Popper himself as an individual, he does seem very ideologically motivated in distingushing certain fields as not being able to be falsified...

    I'll read the article on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on science vs pseudo-science.

    Kind Regards
    Deniz Kaya

  2. My favorite quote from Bridgman's Reflections is “The scientific method, as far as it is a method, is nothing more than doing one's damnedest with one's mind, no holds barred." in The Prospects for Intelligence, Reflections of a Physicist. p274 on the epub version.

    Susan Haack is another Bridgman fan - you might like looking at Six Signs of Scientism, also talking about PWB, demarcation etc. & the above quote on p 17.

  3. Hi Deniz,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    "I'll read the article on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on science vs pseudo-science."

    The article is about the demarcation problem: what is and what is not science. In a nutshell, for Popper, science is what is falsifiable; things work like this: you tick these boxes (which, in his appreciation, some people had left unticked) and your work receives the stamp reading "science".

    For Robinson (nominally following Popper, although she might have been influenced by the post positivists), science is what is not metaphysics (?!) or ideology (?!) and she refuses to define either: she knows one when she sees one.

    "what philosophy of science is really concerned about is epistemology."

    Well, yes. Or, at least that's my understanding.


    The problem is twofold:

    (1) Legitimately or not, Popper assumed the role of the Philosopher of Science, and what he said became the Philosophy of Science for many. And what he said is different from what you say (and from what I agree). So, perhaps there is another demarcation problem: who is and who is not a philosopher of science?

    (2) In Popper's view, he is entitled to say what is and what is not science. Many agree with him (his name is invoked, for instance, in the string theory debate). Many, like Robinson, wanted that entitlement for herself.

    Bridgman does not agree. Apparently in reaction to Popper (or at least, similar views current at the time), for him the best judge of scientificity is the researcher him/herself (neither Popper, nor Robinson, not even other philosophers of science).

    Now, maybe that's too extreme. Perhaps one could add the researchers' bona fides, independent peers to the set of judges. But to add a man whose only qualification is being a philosopher supposedly interested in epistemology of scientific knowledge, but whose independence is questionable? And, what's worse, make his opinion privileged?

    With Robinson things are no better: to give those entitlements to a person (even an otherwise morally admirable one) whose only qualification for the job is being an extremely vocal economist advocating for a particular school of economic thought?

    With all due respect to Popper and Robinson, I wouldn't let either of them operate on my brain. If I were in Bridgman's shoes, I wouldn't let them tell me what to do (as Bridgman, incidentally, says above).

    Why should anyone let them pontificate on science?

  4. Thanks for the links, Calgacus.

  5. I don't know what your project is here. Are you arguing that science is fundamentally mystic, not amenable to explanation? If science is just what scientists do, then is justice just what police officers and judges do? Is economics just what businesses do? Is politics just what politicians do? And do you and I, who are not scientists, police officers, judges, or business owners, have anything legitimate to say about these topics?

    These are real, not rhetorical questions.

  6. @anonymous

    Maybe the term "science" is misleading, perhaps what philosophy of science is really concerned about is epistemology.

    This is actually the case, and most philosophers accept "science" as at least a branch of epistemology. Some of us, myself included, consider "science" and "epistemology" to be synonyms.


    Popper assumed the role of the Philosopher of Science, and what he said became the Philosophy of Science for many.

    I flat out disagree. Popper, like anyone else, wrote what he himself believed. He has become "the" philosopher of science not because he "assumed" that role, but because people -- myself included -- think he was really on to something.

    For [Bridgeman] the best judge of scientificity is the researcher him/herself.

    Really? Would Bridgeman agree that the best judge of Deepak Chopra's scientificity is Chopra himself?

    On the one hand, as Lenin argued, no one can "stand outside" the world, neither politics nor science. On the other hand, we need tools as non-scientists to judge science, as non-judges to judge justice, as non-politicians to judge politics, as non-businessmen to judge economics.

  7. My project, Magpie, is to try to figure out when people who call themselves scientists are trying to bullshit me. Another way of looking at it is: as a non-scientist, who are the real scientists I should trust, and who are the bullshit artists I should not trust? Both Deepak Chopra and Stephen Hawking call themselves scientists: why do I distrust Chopra and trust Hawking?

    Similarly, I am an economist (graduate student), but not a businessman. I want to know: when are businessmen trying to bullshit me, and when are they talking sense?

    I suspect you and I have very different views on the philosophy of science and the philosophy of philosophy. I almost decided to study philosophy, but switched to economics and political science when I realized a lot of (perhaps most) philosophers are just trying to bullshit me.

  8. Larry Hamelin

    Take a deep breath, calm down, and organize your thoughts (suggestion: point by point, in no more than 30 words each), if you expect an answer. I'm counting the strikes, and you have exactly three.

  9. "These are the 'six signs of scientism' to which my title [i.e. "Six Signs of Scientism" by Susan Haack, h/t Calgacus] alludes. Briefly and roughly summarized, they are:
    "1. Using the words 'science,' 'scientific,' 'scientifically,' 'scientist,' etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
    "2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
    "3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and 'pseudo-scientific' imposters.
    "4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the 'scientific method,' presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.

    "5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
    "6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art."

    It's okay to question the scientists, to sift the pseudo-scientist from the real real; the wrath of the gods -- however -- may forever befall on anyone questioning the Philosophers of Science.

    Give me a break.