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 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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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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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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Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 104.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great insights about scientific knowledge In order to better understand “what scientists know”, the course examines the history of a variety of scientific theories. By doing so, we come to understand the nature of truth, knowledge, and reality from the perspective of science – namely, that scientific theories employ deductive logic but are ultimately based on specific assumptions that reflect current empirical evidence, that the scientific community itself, to some extent, defines “truth” through the use of language and socially accepted values, and that theories evolve or are replaced over time as scientists gain additional experience (possibly through the use of new instrumentation). As a result of this analysis, we must conclude that science thus far has not and in principle cannot define reality, though no one would dispute the value of science as demonstrated even in our everyday lives. It’s interesting to read in the description of other science courses offered by The Great Courses statements that science defines reality. Prof Goldman is able to convincingly present theories others have had about scientific knowledge. In fact, his presentations of these alternative theories are so faithful, unbiased, and convincing that I found myself paradoxically agreeing with conflicting theories. It’s not clear to me upon completion of the course whether Prof Goldman holds that no knowledge is possible, if even science is not able to claim “knowledge” in the philosophical sense. If no “knowledge” is possible, must we conclude that the theory presented in this course also does not constitute “knowledge” of reality? But if that’s our conclusion, then aren’t we just validating the theory? One aspect of the course which I found somewhat confusing is that certain topics are covered multiple times, from different perspectives. For example, the same ideas might be covered through an historical / chronological analysis, and then again when exploring “Scientific Knowledge as Social Construct”, the view of one individual, or the perspective from the scientific community. It felt like we were just repeating material we had already covered earlier in the course. I thought this was an excellent course and would highly recommend it.
Date published: 2018-11-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome course - listened to it many times. I purchased this course years ago and I still listen to it regularly because as I get more immersed into the language and intellectual processes of philosophers, I actually get MORE out of the course. Excellent product !
Date published: 2018-08-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very clear and precise as well as unbiased I just finished this course and I am totally satisfied with it. The lectures were very easy to follow and absorb and seemed to take in a large variety of contrasting viewpoints. The lecturer seemed to me to make deliberate efforts to be unbiased and fair to the various viewpoints. It was a joy to be presented with the historical path of this topic through the centuries up to where we stand today.
Date published: 2018-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Knowledge Wars: Plato/Aristotle v Sophists A tongue-in-cheek suggestion for those who have objected to what they consider a misleading title. For this is not a discussion of one scientific concept vis-à-vis another but a deep dive into how do we (or does anyone) know anything and how do we know that we know it. The course begins by considering the difficulties of truth and knowledge. Professor Robinson in his careful consideration and analysis often refers to “truth with a capital ‘T’” so that we are warned to not take these concepts lightly. Early on Professor Robinson challenges us to think about “the scientific method”. Is there one? Or are they several, differing ones? And if so which is correct? Just a sample of the problems that this course presents—almost always thought-provoking and at times unsettling. And even when Dr. Robinson gives us some hard science and scientists he does so with a twist. For example, Copernicus and Galileo may have been presenting their beliefs, not necessarily theories based on “scientific method”. Then we get Newton and are presented with the problem of knowing “what is truth”? After all, Newton really did not get everything right, but even so everything works. What makes a theory true? In a later lecture we are shown that not even when a theory “works” and is able to predict phenomena, it does not necessarily follow that the theory is true (with a capital “T”). All of this means that the course’s focus is really as much about philosophy as it is about science. Professor Robinson interweaves science and scientists with philosophy and philosophers with seeming ease and apparent knowledge of both. For me the course really is at its best in the latter third, when Kuhn’s challenge to the objectivity of science caused many to doubt if objectivity was possible at all. To be sure the course considers these thinkers and their ideas very carefully and without prejudice. Just as those who responded to the challenge of objectivity not being possible were given equal time. Even when the (to me) delightful “Sokal’s Hoax”, that parodied postmodernism, was presented, Professor Robinson followed up with a counter to Sokal by another scientist. In short, Professor Robinson is fair and objective as he presents arguments, counter-arguments and counter-counter-arguments. This is the second course I have taken from Professor Robinson and he is as passionate and delightful in this one as I found him in his discussion of 20th century science. For me he is not too fast and his occasional digressions add to the lectures rather than subtracting.
Date published: 2018-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent, enticing choice I have watched/listened to about 50 courses offered by the Teaching Company. This is among the best. Professor Steven Goldman is a captivating speaker - powerful, erudite, concise. His command of the material and range of scholarship are staggering. The course is well organized, the material is stimulating, and the presentation is comprehensible and altogether compelling.
Date published: 2017-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! Important for Today This course covers the emergence of modern scientific understanding and how what we think scientists do and know has changed over time. Dr. Goldman's knowledge is impressive; his presentation of the history and philosophical issues is crisp, clear and one of the most cogent I have ever heard. I have already listened to the course 2X and find it packed with points and connections I have never been able to clearly make until hearing Dr. Goldman's lectures. One of the very best courses I have ever had from the Teaching Company.
Date published: 2017-08-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Philosopher good- scientist bad I agree with some of the other less than positive reviews. I also come form the background of a scientist, with a strong interest in history, and less interest in philosophy. Professor Goldman tells us that, from a purely (overly?) rational viewpoint of 'truth' Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Hooke etc. knew nothing which was true. He relishes repeating several times that Einstein's theories showed that Newton was wrong- in his axioms, his formulas, and his conclusions. Which is a tad harsh. However there is hope - enter, of course, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, and Kant. who give us 'theories of knowledge.' Hume , for example, makes the stunning 'breakthrough discovery' that, rationally, the fact that an experiment has shown a certain result in the past does not say it will do so in the future. Thus, if a sugar cube dissolved every time it was placed in water, that does not mean it will do so next time. The statement 'a sugar cube dissolves in water' is thus not 'true'. That is pretty much the entire point of the course. If you were curious, as I was about such things as the competing methods of scientific discovery - empirical vs deductive, probability curves vs idiosyncratic results, etc,. and which successful scientist used and developed which methodologies in their discoveries, you will not find that here.
Date published: 2017-06-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thought provoking Science has always been very elusive. This course focuses on how the meaning of science has evolved from Plato to what we think of as science in the modern era.
Date published: 2017-02-27
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