On solving problems from the inside

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite novels was a slim volume called The Great Good Thing. It tells the story of a spirited princess, Sylvie, who lives in a storybook kingdom - a literal storybook kingdom, since she's a fairytale character. Not content with living inside the book's margins, her courage and resourcefulness allow her to save her story.

One section always stuck in my mind. Towards the end of the book, Sylvie is facing something she really, really doesn't want to do. She has no idea if her plan will work, and if it fails, everyone dies. A kindly maths teacher, who has advised her through most of the second half of the novel, tells her that "you can't solve a problem from the inside" - that is, you have to look outwards, even if it's uncomfortable.

Although I haven't touched the book since I was in single digits, and I find it really corny now, that line always stuck with me - and probably even influenced my attitude to problem-solving!

Okay, that's the exposition done. Now we cut to me as a not-quite-adult, a twenty-year-old with a love of science and a predisposition to having existential crises. Not-quite-adult me tries to think Deep Thoughts about the nature of science and reality, but isn't very good at it.

Up until recently, not-quite-adult me was pretty hard-headed, influenced heavily by Alan Sokal. I believed that only people with a scientific background should do work in philosophy of science. This is because scientific terms are ridiculously easy to misappropriate and misuse - it's where quantum woo comes from.

Nowadays it's a bit more complicated than that; after looking into things, I found that academia in general is pretty shoddy when it comes to accepting fancy-looking nonsense, Sokal and his collaborator Bricmont took quotes out of context, and many who contribute to the philosophy of science do have a scientific background. This is the only piece of information I'm remotely happy about. Even then, people with actual, accredited, non-shitty science degrees have been accused of not understanding science adequately, so...

...This links into what I want to talk about quite nicely. For example, if I want to practise science, theoretically I should know about the scientific method. Scientists, who work within the scientific method, are best placed to draw on their experiences and construct an ideal method. So far, so good.

As any first-year undergraduate can tell you, what the physics is supposed to do in theory and what the physics actually does in reality are quite different. So in theory, I do know about the scientific method. In practice, I find the scientific method excruciatingly hard to describe beyond incredibly basic concepts like "a fair test". I'm sure the ungenerous reader could put this down to me not being good at articulating myself, but I think a large part of it is that nobody practises the ideal scientific method we talk about. People get tired and cut corners, or make mistakes, or have personal prejudices, or don't repeat their experiments, or publish junk science, or any of a million other things which can go against the ideal. I can't describe what the scientific method is, but I sure as hell can describe what it isn't.

This is where the philosophers come in. I don't have the necessary critical distance from science, because my degree trains me for it and I work in the labs for a full day. For every attempt someone makes to demarcate science and pseudoscience, or to codify an ideal scientific method, I can point to an example and say "this is science, but under your definition it wouldn't be". In other words, I'm on the inside, and I can't solve these problems from the inside. Someone needs to come in and look at them from the outside - only then can we have critical distance and new ideas.