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NO.314 04.03.2017

"Never a Blind Faith, Especially in Science"


“Science, based on empirical evidence, is more reliable than other systems of knowledge, but it is not completely above personal bias. Blind faith is always dangerous.”


“To properly understand the nature of science, a philosophical mind is necessary to question the basic premise of science that scientists take for granted.” On January 17-18, 2017, Professor Hasok Chang of the University of Cambridge lectured at Kyung Hee Global Forum for Humanities and Social Studies (GFHSS). Professor Chang is a renowned philosopher of science often compared to Thomas Kuhn. In 2006, he jointly won with Harvey Brown the Lakatos Award for his book Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress.

This year’s GFHSS was held between January 6 and 18, 2017, on the Seoul Campus with the title “Looking out into the future from the window of the past.” Two special lectures and one seminar were offered, and this two-part series will introduce the lectures and the seminar. In this second installment of the series, after Professor John Ikenberry of Princeton University, the focus is on Professor Chang’s lecture and seminar.



“’Why does one believe in science? Why must one believe in science?’ We must ask the philosophical question”
Titled “Experiencing and Knowing: human sensory experience and scientific knowledge,” Professor Chang opened his lecture with a rhetorical question: “Why does one believe in science?” The reason for the scientific claim of reliability lies in the empirical knowledge built upon various experiments and observations. But he warned against a blind faith in science saying, “Although the empirical experience that is the basis for scientific knowledge is the best possible evidence that we can have, it is still not completely free of personal bias and the innate limitation of human experience. Therefore, scientific knowledge must be continuously examined for its validity and claim of reliability by philosophy of science asking, 'Why must we believe science?'"

“In humility, one must be prepared to question one’s own beliefs”
Professor Chang named Galileo Galilei’s heliocentrism as an example of philosophy of science. When geocentrism was accepted as undisputable truth, Galileo successfully argued for Copernican heliocentrism. One of the main objections to the motion of the earth is the so-called “tower argument” which claims that, if the rotation of the earth is true, an object falling from a tower should not drop vertically but in a westward slant. This argument appears to make sense from the empirical, everyday experience in our lives. But Galileo penetrated the false assumption embedded in the argument: if the rotation of the earth is true, only an observer outside the earth (and thus unaffected by the rotational relativity of the earth) can judge whether the fall is vertical or slanted. Since no such observer can be produced, the tower argument cannot be conclusively proven either way and is thus irrelevant until its key component is established.

Professor Chang said, “It is essential to always remember that science is only a set of hypotheses and to constantly reexamine all presuppositions that we hold to be undisputable truth. It is thus necessary for all scientists to adopt a philosophical mindset to question and discover hidden ignorance in them that they were previously unaware of. Not only in science but also in politics and social interactions humans tend to subconsciously edit their experience, and this personal bias can lead to a variety of individual interpretations of a single empirical event. One must be keenly aware of this noetic process and make efforts to safeguard objectivity by clearly distinguishing the empirically observed facts from subconscious bias and interpretations, so that the observer may approach the essence of the subject matter unhindered and unconfused.”



“We need to train expert communicators who can bridge sophisticated scientific knowledge and the public”
Professor Chang also criticized the current state of Korean science education that primarily focuses on memorizing bits of scientific facts without building a system of scientific thought. He said, “While science is part of mandatory education curriculums in Korea, the current state of science education demanding every student to blindly memorize and regurgitate scientific factoids is actually doing more harm than good. We need to begin our science education by teaching students a scientific mindset with which they can process scientific facts they learn, however elementary, that can eventually develop into a full-scale philosophy of science.”


He also emphasized the educational need to train expert communicators: “As science becomes increasingly more sophisticated, interdisciplinary convergence is becoming more difficult to achieve and the gap is rapidly widening between the latest level of scientific knowledge and the level of comprehension the public can afford. Post-secondary institutions need to train excellent communicators who are also experts in science and capable of bridging the gap so that the public can make an informed decision based on the proper knowledge of latest science.”

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