Fleck on how science works: beyond H0 testing, Part II

Fleck is not a name that jumps to mind when you do a cursory flip through the ‘Philosophers of Science’ channels. Yet, he seems to exemplify the best overview of what science does, more than any of the usual philosopher of science suspects. Ludwik Fleck published a book (in German) called, The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact in 1935, the same year as Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery. However, despite rage reviews, and much more successful initial reception than Popper’s book, it faded into obscurity. The world was still enamored with the hypo-deductive fiction that science had game-faced onto its discourse, and it would not be until Thomas Kuhn wrote his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that Fleck’s work would indirectly enter the mainstream. And indirectly because Kuhn did not acknowledge Fleck’s influence until years later when Fleck was finally published in English (1979).

In his book, Fleck details how his research team discovered the Wasserman reaction for syphilis diagnosis. As dry as that sounds, it reads like a detective novel. Its import however lies in a careful view of how science works. Not in the observe-world—make-testable-falsifiable-hypothesis—test hypothesis—publish-results way, that he acknowledges is how things get written up, but in the nitty-gritty world of how science really works. He details how the research was filled with false starts, flashes of creativity and speculation, back tracking, back to the drawingboarding, team work, collaboration, trial and error, abandoned trajectories, instrumentation problems, how conceptual foundations had to be rethought, how he had to bring in knowledge and background education, the use of inference, induction and induction, and the ugly messiness that goes into real science. In fact he quips, “If a research experiment were well defined, it would be altogether unnecessary to perform it.”

His take on how a scientific fact arises is worth quoting in full:

This example also exhibits three stages: (1) vague visual perception and inadequate initial observation; (2) an irrational, concept forming, and style-converting state of experience; (3) developed, reproducible, and stylized visual perception of form.

This description demonstrates how a finding originates. Many a research scientist will certainly recognize an analogy here with his own method of research. The first, chaotically styled observation resembles a chaos of feeling: amazement, a searching for similarities, trial by experiment, retraction as well as hope and disappointment. Feeling, will, and intellect all function together as an indivisible unit. The research worker gropes but everything recedes, and nowhere is there a firm support. Everything seems to be an artificial effect inspired by his own personal will. Every formulation melts away at the next test. He looks for that resistance and thought constraint in the face of which he could feel passive. Aids appear in the form of memory and education. At the moment of scientific genesis, the research worker personifies the totality of his physical and intellectual ancestors and of all his friends and enemies. They both promote and inhibit his search. The work of the research scientist means that in the complex confusion and chaos which he faces, he must distinguish that which obeys his will from that which arises spontaneously and opposes it. This is the firm ground that he, as representative of the thought collective, continuously seeks. These are the passive connections, as we have called them. The general aim of intellectual work is therefore maximum thought constraint with minimum thought caprice.

This is how a fact arises. At first there is a signal of resistance in the chaotic initial thinking, then a definite thought constraint, and finally a form to be directly perceived. A fact always occurs in the context of the history of thought and is always the result of a definite thought style. p. 94-95 (Emphasis in origional)

Next time, what makes science work so well!

Fleck, Ludwik, 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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3 comments to Fleck on how science works: beyond H0 testing, Part II

  • Mark D.

    That is how everything that can be called true religion, true philosophy, or true anything works as well. *Abduction* more or less.

  • The general aim of intellectual work is therefore maximum thought constraint with minimum thought caprice.

    Mark D.–I would argue that the requirement for sound, reliable, reproducible (where possible) data provides an additional constraint on science that makes it less subject to thought caprice.

  • could you post a good recipe? Just kidding..My mind just always hurts after I read your cool posts!

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