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Education Bookcast

Jun 28, 2021

I was recently contacted by a fan of the show asking for advice in the choice of their research topic. Oddly, the best advice I could give them pertained to philosophy of science. In this episode, I expand on what I told them, to explain the most important ideas in the philosophy of science that I think are worth knowing about.

My ultimate target is Imre Lakatos. If you can understand Lakatos' idea of research programs then you have all you need. However, in order to properly understand Lakatos, you need to know about Thomas Kuhn's concept of paradigms, "normal" science, and scientific revolutions; and to understand Kuhn, it helps to have some grounding in what Karl Popper had to say about falsificationism before him. I add in Francis Bacon as the founder of science and William of Occam just to mention his timeless razor.

The "feel" of this episode is to say that science is done by people, and people are imperfect. Philosophers of science have long discussed the ways in which science should be (or is) done, and as we get to Kuhn and Lakatos it becomes more a case of explaining the often infuriating way that people don't seem to rationally update their worldviews. Paul Feyerabend makes an appearance between Kuhn and Lakatos in this episode to show off some of the more anarchistic views of science, and to help demonstrate through the apparent "cheating" of Galileo and the failings of the Copernican system how sometimes a little stubborn imagination in the face of rational refutation has been good for scientific progress.

I am also very happy to bring in my favourite scientific paper of all time, The Myth of Language Universals: Language Diversity and its Importance for Cognitive Science by Evans and Levinson. I use it as an example of how a longstanding theory seems to be alive and kicking despite what seem to be decades of continual refutation, and how this exemplifies Lakatos' idea of research programs, while also seizing the opportunity to talk a little bit about the wonders of linguistic diversity.

Overall, I hope that I can convince some people of the relevance of ideas in the philosophy of science to the much more practical issues of research, including why people who are wrong are so hard to convince.

Enjoy the episode.