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Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It

Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It

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Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It

Course No. 1235
Professor Steven L. Goldman, Ph.D.
Lehigh University
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Course No. 1235
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 150 images, portraits, and diagrams. Portraits include those of thinkers discussed in the course, like Isaac Newton, Joseph Fourier, Thomas Kuhn, and Immanuel Kant. Diagrams include those that help explain scientific principles like Newton's mathematical theory of gravity, Copernican astronomy, and the theory of relativity.
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Course Overview

Choose one: (A) Science gives us objective knowledge of an independently existing reality. (B) Scientific knowledge is always provisional and tells us nothing that is universal, necessary, or certain about the world. Welcome to the science wars—a long-running battle over the status of scientific knowledge that began in ancient Greece, raged furiously among scientists, social scientists, and humanists during the 1990s, and has re-emerged in today's conflict between science and religion over issues such as evolution.

Professor Steven L. Goldman, whose Teaching Company course on Science in the 20th Century was praised by customers as "a scholarly achievement of the highest order" and "excellent in every way," leads you on a quest for the nature of scientific reasoning in this intellectually pathbreaking lecture series, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It.

Those who have taken Professor Goldman's previous course, which is an intensive survey of the revolution in scientific knowledge from 1900 to 2000, may have wondered: if what counts as scientific knowledge can transform so dramatically within only 100 years, what exactly is scientific knowledge? Science Wars addresses this surprisingly difficult question.

Five Centuries of the Science Wars

In 24 half-hour lectures, Science Wars explores the history of competing conceptions of scientific knowledge and their implications for science and society from the onset of the Scientific Revolution in the 1600s to the present. It may seem that the accelerating pace of discoveries, inventions, and unexpected insights into nature during this period guarantees the secure foundations of scientific inquiry, but that is far from true. Consider these cases:

  • The scientific method: In the 1600s the English philosopher Francis Bacon defined the scientific method in its classic form: the use of inductive reasoning to draw conclusions from an exhaustive body of facts. But "no scientist has ever been a strict Baconian," says Professor Goldman. "If you followed that, you would get nowhere."
  • A "heated" debate: Around 1800 the dispute over the nature of heat was resolved in favor of the theory that heat is motion and not a substance given off during burning. But then the French mathematical physicist Joseph Fourier wrote a set of equations that accurately described how heat behaves regardless of what it "really" is, which, Fourier contended, was not a scientific question at all.
  • Paradigm shifts: The publication in 1962 of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions precipitated a radical change in attitudes toward scientific knowledge, prompted by Kuhn's insight that science is not an entirely rational enterprise, and that its well-established theories (or paradigms) are overturned in a revolutionary, nonlogical process.
  • Postmodern putdown: The postmodern attack on science as a privileged mode of inquiry made some headway in the late 20th century. But the credibility of the movement wilted in 1996, when a postmodern journal unwittingly published a spoof by physicist Alan Sokal, purporting to prove that physical theory was socially constructed. Sokal then exposed his piece as a parody.
  • In the penultimate lecture of the course, Professor Goldman considers intelligent design—the argument that evolution can't account for the immense complexity of life and that a master designer must be at work. He approaches this topical debate by asking: What are the minimum criteria that define a hypothesis as scientific, and does intelligent design qualify? Having already covered five centuries of the science wars in the previous lectures, you will analyze this controversy with a set of tools that allows you to see the issues in a sharp, new light.

What Is Reality?

"Fasten your seatbelts," says Professor Goldman at the outset of Lecture 21—an advisory that applies equally to the whole course, which covers an astonishing array of ideas and thinkers. Throughout, Professor Goldman never loses his narrative thread, which begins 2,400 years ago with Plato's allegorical battle between "the gods" and "the earth giants"—between those for whom knowledge is universal, necessary, and certain; and those for whom it cannot be so and is based wholly on experience.

The problem of what constitutes scientific knowledge can be illustrated with one of the most famous and widely accepted scientific theories of all time, Nicolaus Copernicus's heliostatic (stationary sun) theory of the solar system, which has undergone continual change since it was first proposed in 1543:

  • Copernicus called for the planets to move in uniform circular motion around the sun, slightly displaced from the center.
  • Using observations by Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler revised the Copernican model, discarding the ancient dogma of circular motion, which did not fit the data. Instead, he guessed that the planets in fact move in elliptical orbits.
  • In his influential work endorsing the Copernican theory, Galileo ignored Kepler's corrections and opted for circular motion. Notoriously, the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for heresy. But the church was actually correct that he had no basis for claiming the heliocentric theory was true, rather than simply an interpretation of experience.
  • Galileo's picture of space was superseded by Newton's and later by Einstein's, which also will doubtless be revised.
  • Even something as basic as the elliptical motion of the planets is a vast oversimplification. There are no closed curves in space, since the solar system is moving around the center of the galaxy; the galaxy is moving within the local cluster; and the local cluster is also moving.

Although we still call the conventional picture of the solar system Copernican astronomy, there is effectively no resemblance between astronomy today and Copernicus's 1543 theory of the heavens. The same is also true of other theories, such as the atomic theory of matter. All scientific theories are in a state of ceaseless revision, which raises the question of what reality "really" is.

As the contemporary philosopher of science Mary Hesse has pointed out, the lesson of the history of science seems to be that the theories we currently hold to be true are as likely to be overturned as the theories they replaced!

Sharpen Your Understanding of What Science Is

The uncertainty about the status of scientific knowledge and about the objectivity of the scientific enterprise led to a broad assault on science in the late 20th century by sociologists, philosophers, and historians, many connected with the postmodern movement. The lectures covering this attack and the ensuing counterattack by scientists are some of the most thrilling in the course and involve a number of figures whom Professor Goldman knows personally.

Of one of the firebrands in this conflict, the late Viennese philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend, Professor Goldman says, "I myself took a seminar with Feyerabend when he was teaching at Berkeley in the early 1960s. … Feyerabend was not really off the wall, although he was often depicted that way. … He too recognized, as everyone must, that after all, science does work and science is knowledge of a sort. It's just not the absolute knowledge that scientists and philosophers have historically claimed that it is."

By the time you reach the end of this course, you will understand exactly what science is, and you will be enlightened about a fascinating problem that perhaps you didn't even know existed. "There have been a raft of popular books about what scientists know," says Professor Goldman, "but to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single one of these popular books that focuses centrally on the question of how scientists know what they know."

This course serves as that book.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2006
  • 1
    Knowledge and Truth Are Age-Old Problems
    What is it that scientists know, and how do they know what they know? The "science wars" in the late 20th century were a dispute within modern science that signals a deep, longstanding conflict over this question. x
  • 2
    Competing Visions of the Scientific Method
    This lecture casts doubt on the popular notion that the rise of modern science in the early 17th century was the result of discovering a single method for extracting objective truths about nature from subjective experience. x
  • 3
    Galileo, the Catholic Church, and Truth
    The Catholic Church has been cast as villain in its condemnation of Galileo, but a great deal hinges on whether Galileo possessed knowledge and was defending truth, or was promoting personal opinions based on his beliefs. x
  • 4
    Isaac Newton’s Theory of the Universe
    Isaac Newton's mathematical theory of gravity and motion works, and for more than 200 years was lauded as finally giving knowledge of physical reality. But Newtonian physics is wrong, in spite of "working." x
  • 5
    Science vs. Philosophy in the 17th Century
    From the beginning, modern science used novel instruments that disclosed realities that cannot be experienced directly. But the very novelty of these instruments raised questions about what it was they revealed. x
  • 6
    Locke, Hume, and the Path to Skepticism
    John Locke formulated the classic empirical theory of knowledge, while George Berkeley mounted a vigorous attack on modern science, and David Hume embraced skepticism, criticizing unjustifiable knowledge claims. x
  • 7
    Kant Restores Certainty
    Immanuel Kant invented a philosophical system that guaranteed universal, necessary, and certain knowledge, but at a price. We could have knowledge of experience, but not of the world as it "really" is, beyond experience. x
  • 8
    Science, Society, and the Age of Reason
    The role that scientific knowledge plays in society today is the realization of the 18th-century Enlightenment vision linking social reform and the idea of progress to reason by way of science. x
  • 9
    Science Comes of Age in the 19th Century
    In spite of science's growing applicability to the real world through technology, scientists began to question the relationship between theories and reality, influenced by such startling ideas as non-Euclidean geometry. x
  • 10
    Theories Need Not Explain
    Joseph Fourier and others showed that a theory can provide prediction and control without describing realities behind experience. But then as now, the dominant view was that scientific theories reveal what is really out there. x
  • 11
    Knowledge as a Product of the Active Mind
    William Whewell invented the term "scientist" and tried to demonstrate that creative activity by the mind is a fundamental factor in scientific reasoning, and that the history of science is crucial in understanding this process. x
  • 12
    Trading Reality for Experience
    This lecture looks at thinkers as diverse as Ernst Mach, Pierre Duhem, and Heinrich Hertz, who argued from three different perspectives that theories were non-unique interpretations of experience, not descriptions of reality. x
  • 13
    Scientific Truth in the Early 20th Century
    Ironically, just as science increasingly mattered to the general public, and for that reason scientific knowledge was accepted as true, the 19th-century scientific theories responsible for this perception were being discarded! x
  • 14
    Two New Theories of Scientific Knowledge
    The most proscience philosophies in the first half of the 20th century were logical positivism, which embraced the primacy of scientific knowledge, and pragmatism, a homegrown American philosophy that rejected it. x
  • 15
    Einstein and Bohr Redefine Reality
    Relativity and quantum theory raised new questions about the relationship of science to reality. This lecture addresses these questions, which continue unresolved to this day. x
  • 16
    Truth, Ideology, and Thought Collectives
    The most radical theory of scientific knowledge to be formulated in the 1930s came from immunologist Ludwik Fleck, who used the history of syphilis as a vehicle for exploring what scientists know and how they know it. x
  • 17
    Kuhn's Revolutionary Image of Science
    The 1962 publication of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions sparked a reassessment by intellectuals of the privileged status of scientific knowledge and more broadly of the possibility of true objectivity. x
  • 18
    Challenging Mainstream Science from Within
    Scientific thinking has a collective character shaped by education and professional community life, but scientific theories also evolve, and highly credentialed "outsiders" play a role. x
  • 19
    Objectivity Under Attack
    Israel Scheffler and Paul Feyerabend assumed opposite stances in response to Kuhn's thesis. Independently, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida launched an attack on the very possibility of objective knowledge. x
  • 20
    Scientific Knowledge as Social Construct
    In the 1980s, a consensus formed that scientific and technological knowledge were not value-neutral, but the products of communal practices deeply affected by professional and societal values. x
  • 21
    New Definitions of Objectivity
    While many intellectuals after 1960 were busily denouncing Western ideals of rationality, knowledge, and truth as politically motivated myths, many philosophers of science proposed defensible theories of scientific realism. x
  • 22
    Science Wars of the Late 20th Century
    In 1996, a postmodern journal addressed the science wars after a decade of hostility between scientists and supporters of the social construction view. The journal unwittingly published a parody of postmodernism known as Sokal's hoax. x
  • 23
    Intelligent Design and the Scope of Science
    Is intelligent design a scientific hypothesis? This question highlights issues of who defines what science is, what constitutes good science, and what words like rationality, truth, knowledge, and reality mean. x
  • 24
    Truth, History, and Citizenship
    At a time when science is involved in profound social, moral, and environmental challenges, misunderstanding the positions of competing interpretations of science is an obstacle to effective action. x

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Your professor

Steven L. Goldman

About Your Professor

Steven L. Goldman, Ph.D.
Lehigh University
Dr. Steven L. Goldman is the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Lehigh University, where he has taught for 30 years. He earned his B.S. in Physics at the Polytechnic University of New York and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University. Before taking his position at Lehigh, Professor Goldman taught at The Pennsylvania State University, where he was a cofounder of one of the first...
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Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 84 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best Course I Have Heard In Great Courses This course is superb. It is presented in a dynamic conversational style, not a monotone read from a transcript. Unlike many of the other philosophy professors, this prof also has a degree in hard science (physics). What a difference it makes ! This course could also be titled "Reality Wars" as Dr. Goldman ultimately is dealing with "what is reality and can we ever know it". However, he does not deal with the subject using the word games and "philo-babble " so common with philosophers. I have advanced degrees in science and appreciated Dr. Goldman's obvious deep knowledge of many scientific topics. The bottom line is that he examines issues perhaps deeper than those dealt with in any r course for sale here and does a great job. My only criticisms were that he should have spent more time explaining 1.Why (alluded to only) Popper's falsification is "wrong" . 2. Spent as much time on the question of wheher or not string theory is science as he did on creationism. The latter is obviously not science but the former may or may not be in that category. October 20, 2015
Rated 1 out of 5 by Philosophy Wars The title of this course is misleading, a more accurate title would be 'Philosophy Wars: The Rambling History of a Soft Science'. If you are looking for knowledge about the hard sciences, avoid this course. September 28, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by I loved it I have listened to about 20-25 great courses, and I just wrote a review for the first one to disappoint me, so to be fair, I'm coming back to write a review of my favorite course so far. The gist of this one is how do we know what we know -- or how do we *think* we know what we know, and what is our method for finding out more? Of course, two major approaches to that set of questions are science and religion, but neither is as simple as it seems. This course explores the different methods and beliefs over the centuries that philosophy, religion, and science have applied to the subject of "knowledge." I thought it was fascinating. July 20, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Prof Goldman is my hero I cannot get enough of Prof Goldman. Its as if the questions he addresses are those questions that I have long harboured but not heard addressed, till now. I have purchased the audio product which I find very easy to follow. I look forward to listening and re-listening to Prof Goldman in the years to come. Congratulations to the Great Courses for producing such works and thanks to Prof Goldman for such shear intellectual brilliance, clarity of thought and superb teaching skills June 5, 2015
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