Scientific Flair

23 September 2010

Thursday


Claude Lévi-Strauss was perhaps the most famous of the French structuralists, using structuralism in studies of anthropology, mythology, and sociology.

Night before last when I was reading Claude Lévi-Strauss, I came upon a passage in which he mentions…

“…what we call in French flair: the gift of singling out those facts, observations, and documents which possess an especially rich meaning, sometimes undisclosed at first, but likely to become evident as one ponders the implications woven in the material.”

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, “Four Winnebago Myths”

I wholeheartedly agree that the best science is distinguished by a flair for science that is not captured by any quantitative measure, and which almost certainly cannot be taught. At least part of this is what I have called a talent for objectivity. But I would not limit a flair for science to objectivity — even objectivity grasped through intuitive mastery.

Eugene Paul Wigner, born in Budapest, Hungary, won The Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.

This passage from Lévi-Strauss reminded me of one of my favorite passages from Eugene Wigner’s famous essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” In this essay Wigner tells how F. Werner approached him and asked him a question:

“…someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. ‘How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?’ It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.”

Lévi-Strauss’ appeal to scientific flair gives us a partial answer to Wigner and Werner: it is the possession of this scientific flair that makes possible the right selection of facts on which to base a theory. Another theory based on another selection of facts is possible, but, if the facts are selected with flair, we have the theory of the greatest scientific interest. And if it is the theory of greatest scientific interest, it is probably the theory that is most fruitful and useful. To appeal to fruitfulness and usefulness as the criteria for selecting facts or formulating a theory is to put the cart before the horse: practical utility and multiple applications are the result of a good scientific theory; the source of a good scientific theory is scientific flair.

The selection of facts for a scientific theory can go horribly wrong, as can believing that one has an ineffable and inerrant scientific flair when one is in fact deeply fallible and flawed in one’s flair. We need only glance at the history of science to see all the errors and outrages perpetuated in the name of reason. In my Variations on the Theme of Life I wrote about this:

Archaeology of knowledge.—Most of the sciences began with a crippling ideological burden which is only reluctantly abandoned with the development of the science as a science. Many sciences have not yet fully liberated themselves from ancient or medieval (or even modern) presuppositions that amount to little more than superstition and prejudice. Anthropology began as apologetics for racism; cosmology began as natural theology; and today bioethics is, to a large extent, apologetics for speciesism — an elaborate exercise in petitio principii charged with erecting and maintaining the divisions that have been constructed within the continuity of life, and concerned to derive the presumption of this exercise (which was to have been proved) from itself. (Section 512)

Foucault famously said that, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.” Yet how many people have the moral strength to face up to the underside of the history of their discipline? Even if we do not consciously believe that the children inherit the sins of the father, we feel the guilt on a visceral level and it is easier to turn away than to face it.

Michel Foucault

Thus scientific flair, too, has its underside, its evil twin, and this evil twin of scientific flair is a self-righteous self-certainty to which no one is entitled which expresses itself in science as certainly as it is expressed is every sphere of human endeavor.

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One Response to “Scientific Flair”

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