Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Friday, 28 September 2007

Science in Australia

Following the theme of education and learning in the Antipodes, here are some comments on several Australian books about science and scientists. This is a review of a book of essays about the early development of science in Australia. These essays convey the impression of immense energy and industry. Clearly many people were hard at work in the archives preparing the way for future research programmes in the history of local science and technology. The book itself is a handsome and high quality production, combining some of the bulk and sheen of the coffee table volume with the compendious footnotes of the doctoral dissertation. The notes average a hundred per paper, making this book an excellent starting point for further reading.

This review describes a book written by a physicist on the wonders of science and its relevance to culture and religion. As the director of an observatory at Narrabri (NSW), and host at hundreds of half-hour tours, the author wrote:

To me it was profoundly unsatisfactory to send people away from this beautiful, highly sophisticated, and yet apparently useless instrument, surrounded as it was by thousands of sheep and a vast expanse of wheat, without having shown them that it was really part of an even greater world of which most of them were unaware, the ancient and invisible college of science.

This is the third book that he produced to make up for the lack of time on the tours. It is very clearly written and one has the feeling of a truly devoted and humane scholar speaking courteously and unpatronisingly as he presumably did with his visitors at Narrabri.

This book titled Life Among the Scientists is a more ambitious academic undertaking. Four researchers in the history and philosophy of science spent some time (spread over five years) talking to researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute in Melbourne. The idea was to challenge received views about the way science works. I think they did not succeed in their larger purpose but I hope they had a lot of fun.

The main purpose of the enterprise is to challenge received views of philosophy and methodology of science, but the writers have not engaged at all with the most robust and fruitful body of ideas in the field. This is a striking example of the phenomenon they describe as 'socially structured forgetting' or 'structural amnesia' (p 101). They have neatly excised Karl Popper and the whole tradition of evolutionary pistemology from their account of the philosophy and methods of science. But Popper's work surely represents either the orthodox view of scientific method (as accepted by a number of eminent scientists who took their philosophy seriously such as Medawar, Eccles, Monod and Einstein), or a formidable rival to the traditional form of Baconian induction, still championed by David Stove.

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