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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Manzi's Uncontrolled redux

A few more thoughts now on Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society. This follows the positive review I gave the book at David Frum’s Daily Beast blog and the guest post I later ran here at Quicksilber by my father-in-law Prof. William S. Carter, a chemist and industrial hygienist, who was rather critical of the book. This discussion perhaps should take place over a pint next time the several interested parties are in the same city, but here goes anyway.

I believe some of the differences between Bill Carter and Jim Manzi reflect tensions between working scientists and the much smaller group of “philosophers of science.” Although Manzi is not a professional philosopher, his book draws heavily upon that academic field, with an emphasis on Kuhn and Popper. Manzi’s statement “In science, theory precedes experiment” reflects a strain of thinking in philosophy of science that experiments are “theory-laden” — that scientists’ collection and interpretation of data is heavily influenced by preconceptions.

How much merit there is to that line of thought I don’t know; taken to an extreme, it could generate the sort of postmodern gibberish deflated by Alan Sokal’s famous hoax. But where Bill dismissed Jim’s statement as “false,” I’m inclined to say “debatable.” (I’ll take the liberty of some first-name usage, though I haven’t met Manzi.) While I understand there is back-and-forth in the philosophy of science about this sort of thing, I think it is fair to say that scientists tend to be unimpressed by such philosophizing; and the philosophers reciprocate by thinking scientists don’t take philosophy seriously enough.

Some of Carter’s criticisms emphasize that Manzi’s discussion would be more thorough if he had addressed things he did not delve into (blinding, confidence levels, etc.). Such criticisms are fair enough, though it’s also true that Jim wrote a pretty dense and wide-ranging book as it is. I would’ve liked to see something on some topics Bill didn’t mention, such as why scientists are confident on matters of evolution and climate change that are not generally addressable by controlled experiments. A good answer, I think, is in philosopher Susan Haack’s analogy of science to a “crossword puzzle” with interlocking lines of evidence. Maybe we can all agree there’s material for a second Manzi book.

Lastly, I note that Bill was unimpressed by what he called Jim’s “political rhetoric” and “libertarian statements.” As someone who’s had a lot of exposure to libertarianism (and growing disagreements with it), I would not be surprised if Manzi’s “liberty as means” and defense of the welfare state get him some negative reviews from uncompromising libertarians. We’ll see. In any case, Uncontrolled is a book that provokes some interesting discussions.

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