What happened to the constructivists?

Neo Martinez szmrtnz at peseta.ucdavis.edu
Mon Apr 29 18:27:59 EST 1996

On Mon, 29 Apr 1996, SL Forsburg wrote:

> Neo Martinez wrote:
> ....lots snipped out.....
> > But let's get back to science.  That science is socially constructed seems
> > to be agreed to by many folks here.  The disagreement is the extent to
> > which science, constructed as it is, describes a reality independent of
> > the socially constructed theory.  If one accepts this Really Real reality,
> > it loads theory with a massive metaphysical assertion (akin to "god
> > exists") that seems to blind scientists to exceptions to their theory.
> I have problems with this statement.  Any scientist who is convinced
> that their theory is correct in all details has forgotten that
> science is based on hypothesis testing.  It is true that some do
> forget that theories are at their best descriptions of a reality.

I agree that science *should* be based on hypothesis testing.  But the 
assertion that such hypotheses are descriptions of reality has only been 
repeated in this thread.  No one has supported it.  Statements whether or 
not certain people believe in reality doesn't constitute support in my mind.

> And I think that most of us would agree that science is a human activity
> and theories and behavior are influenced by who we are. Our
> perceptions of reality may be flawed.  So far so
> good.  But the constructivists equate theory and perception with
> the reality itself, and  I emphatically do NOT.
> Let's go  back to RNA polymerase.  The constructivists argue that
> there is NO objective reality to the behavior of  polymerase, citing 
> that our current descriptions of that reality may be inconsistent or
> flawed.   they equate the theory with the reality!  

No, constructivists equate theory with theory and point out that those who 
believe in reality only believe in a historically contingent *theory* of 
reality (objective, absolute, theory-independent, etc.).

> i don't give the
> theory that much power, myself.   I think RNA polymerase would work
> the same way if we were all vaporised tomorrow.  Our descriptions
> as yet may only approximate how it works, granted, but it works.

I think you do.  You think that your theory of RNA polymerase is so real 
that it would be unaffected by our collective vaporization.  Many 
scientific entities disappeared with much less drastic events.  
Phlogistron disappeared after the discovery of oxygen.  We should freely 
admit that any of our theories could suffer the same fate.

> > Not accepting theory-independent Reality keeps scientists lighter on their
> > intellectual feet... not so invested in their theory so they can accept
> > new theories that are more concordant with the data.  One thing that seems
> > plain is that scientists almost never embrace new theories too quickly.
> > That's my nutshell defense of constructivism.
>  I completely disagree with
> Neo, because I argue that theory-independent reality is the only
> thing that keeps scientists light on their feet and willing to 
> CHANGE theories to arrive at a better description of reality.  If the
> only reality is the theory, then as long as I'm happy with my theory
> what possible motivation could there be for challenging it, if it is
> all relative anyway?

Because us scientists have agreed on rules as to when to change theory 
(concordance with data).  Playing by these rules have lead to things we 
value.  That seems to keep me (hopefully) light on my feet.  Don't need 
no reality fix here!

> Neo argues that the concept of a reality has led to intolerent and
> indefensible views in the past.  No, the THEORIES of reality have
> caused the problem, as well as the failure to recognize them 
> as theories.  The reality itself hasnt.  

Hmmm. So there's a major distinction between the "concept of reality" and 
"theories of reality?"  That's a tough hair to split.  It would probably 
result in distinquishing concepts from theories without any necessary 
reference to reality.

> If you take away the absolute
> reality, you still have people promoting their intolerent theories...
> only since their theories are as valid as yours because its all
> relative, how do you know they are wrong?
No, I would say, when you take away reality, you have observations.  You 
know when they are wrong when their theories don't match the 
observations.  What's wrong with that?

>  Perhaps the constructivists are really
> uncomfortable with a reality that exists apart from the human
> observation of it?    

Constructivists are uncomfortable being "really" anything (even
constructivist!).  We only assert that whatever exists that can not in 
any way be observed by humans is of dubious scientific relevance.  Our 
energies are better focused on what we can observe....

	hey, this is fun!  much better than my other distractions.... 

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