Cosma Shalizi looks at looking at how science works

Keeping with the theme of Abbas’ Monday Musing on how science proceeds, here is an interesting post on the sociology of scientific knowledge by Cosma Shalizi.

“One of the best books I’ve read on how science actually works is Stephen Toulmin’s Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. (It is, of course, long out of print.) The core of it is a set of ideas about how the social mechanisms of working scientific disciplines actually implement the intellectual goals of learning about the world, and rationally changing our minds, through a evolutionary process. (And Toulmin actually understands evolution in a sensible, blind variation plus selection, way, rather than some useless idea about progress or trends.) A lot of the argument is summed up in two of his aphorisms, which he admitted he exaggerated a bit for effect: ‘Every concept is an intellectual micro-institution’ (p. 166), consisting of the people who accept the concept, and the practices by which they use and transmit it; and conversely, ‘Institutions are macro-concepts’ (p. 353).

The natural question is whether one can say which institutions correspond to which concepts, and vice versa. This is a very tricky question, but an excellent beginning has been made by two papers on Camille Roth and Paul Bourgine, which I’ve been meaning to post about for quite a while.”

(Hat tip: Dan Balis)