In my last post, I allowed as how the questions which occupy philosophers of science might be of limited interest or practical use to the working scientist.* At least one commenter was of the opinion that this is a good reason to dismantle the whole discipline:
[T]he question becomes: what are the philosophers good for? And if they don’t practice science, why should we care what they think?
And, I pretty much said in the post that scientists don’t need to care about what the philosophers of science think.
Then why should anyone else?
Scientists don’t need to care what historians, economists, politicians, psychologists, and so on think. Does this mean no one else should care?
If those fields of study had no implications for people taking part in the endeavors being studied, then no, I don’t think anyone should care about them. Not the people endeavoring, nor anyone else. The process of study wouldn’t lead to practical applications or even a better understanding of what was being studied – it would be completely worthless.
Let me take a quick pass at the “why care?” question.
There are a number of claims Caledonian put forward in the comments which bear on what we ought to care about. My own experience with humans suggests that normative claims in these matters do very little to change what people actually care about. Still, let’s assume you have complete control over your volitional structure and consider whether you’d accept the baggage that comes with Caledonian’s exhortations.
Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications.
Of course, this means basic research is off the table. It’s true that basic research has led to practical applications in the past, but you can’t count on that happening every time.
Only care about areas of study that lead to practical applications or at least a better understanding of what is being studied.
If we broaden the picture of what we should care about this way, you can have your basic research back. And, I would claim, you can care about philosophy of science as well, since it does provide a better understanding of what it is studying — including how science differs from other human activities, what grounds its body of knowledge, what features are essential to scientific engagement with phenomena, etc.
Only care about what people who practice X have to say about X.
As Caledonian framed it X = science, but surely we can plug in other values for X, like socialism, Christianity, chelation therapy, cannibalism, psychic surgery, criminal law, or landscaping. Heck, we could even let X = philosophy here.
The exercise of evaluating whether this would be a good or useful stance is left to the reader.
Only care about the questions scientists care about answering.
If we were all scientists, this stance would be just fine (and vacuous). Since we are not all scientists, there is a worthwhile question as to why what the scientists care about should matter to anyone else.
And you know, that might be the sort of question that some philosophy of science could help to answer. The existence of non-scientists may even make it convenient for scientists to have philosophers of science around.
We can grant (as I already have) that to do science, scientists may not need to know whether there is a common methodological core uniting the various scientific disciplines, nor what that common core consists in if it exists, nor what sorts of justifications can be offered for “scientific methodology” beyond, “This is how we do things and so far it works pretty well.”
But, if a scientist wants to be able to call something out as pseudo-science, or as bad science — especially if it’s something from outside the little disciplinary tribe to which that particular scientist belongs — jumping up and down and saying, “That’s just not how we do things!” is not necessarily satisfying or persuasive. You stand a much better chance of making the point if you have an account of the methodology scientific fields use (or aspire to), of the reason this methodology makes for accurate and reliable knowledge claims, of the particular connection between theory and reality the activity of science sets out to build.
If you want to be able to respond to the claim that science is, at bottom, no different from religion, it won’t do to say, “We scientists were taught by the scientists who trained us to apply these procedures to construct our picture of the world, and we have faith in this way of doing things.” The precise grounding of scientific claims — and how this differs from the grounding of religious claims — is a subject within the philosophy of science.
In short, in some of the big discussions in which scientists seem to be engaged with non-scientists, scientists may be hampered if they have no broader account of science and its workings. Perhaps I can’t make a working scientist care about the questions that keep the philosophers of science up at night, but I daresay many working scientists who are trying to defend their own disciplines from various attacks already do care about philosophy of science.
* I should point out that a number of commenters pointed out ways that philosophy of science might turn out to be useful to the working scientist.