A friend points to this review of an interesting new book:
In Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy, Sandra D. Mitchell accomplishes an enormous amount in very short compass. Starting from the actual practice of (mainly) biological and (some) social sciences, she presents a workable and effective philosophy of science focused particularly on sciences dealing with complex subject matters. Drawing on nicely handled examples from psychiatry (e.g., major depressive disorder), biology (e.g., recent genetics and genomics, drug discovery, the study of insect societies), and the policy world (e.g., climate change and economic problems), Mitchell develops and illustrates a philosophy of science suited to the complexities scientists face. The result is a compact and elegant presentation of a philosophy she calls “integrative pluralism,” challenging many orthodox positions in the philosophy of science. While keeping her examples in the foreground, Mitchell provides a philosophical basis for rethinking the methods for analyzing complex systems in situations involving considerable uncertainty. She also demonstrates by example the value and reach of her philosophical approach in contrast with more conventional philosophies of science, from Popperian falsification and standard forms of inductive reasoning to sophisticated forms of theory and model testing.
Long overdue, if you ask me.
“Considerable uncertainty”? Um, yes. Most human systems are unthinkably complex.
That does not mean we can’t act or make decisions, but it does mean that we must work with fuzzy boundaries: Causes of Alzheimer? Dangers of radiation? Sin/salvation foods? Alternative medical treatments? Last ditch cancer fight? Simple answers, begone!
… as she argues, there is no clean way to draw system boundaries or to isolate uniquely the relevant causal factors in cases of the character on which she focuses. Thus, there is no uniquely correct description (say, at the molecular level) of the causes of depressive disorders, for these also depend on the historical sequence of environmental causes that indirectly alter the neural system and, even more indirectly, the biochemical sensitivities of the affected individual. … Remarkably, Mitchell is able to condense her account of numerous examples into a coherent, helpful, and persuasive philosophical approach to the study of such complex matters as these. Unsimple Truths is, of course, only a foray into the direction that Mitchell is pointing, but I strongly recommend it as a significant improvement over much recent philosophy of science, of particular value to biologists and other scientists dealing with complex phenomena.
I can see why my friend insists that I recommend this book, and will certainly get it and read it myself.