Saturday, March 7

Science and Map Making

As I’ve been reading Science, Truth and Democracy, Kitcher’s description of science as analogous to map making really struck me. Maybe it’s just that I understand some of these more complex issues when they can be explained with some kind of illustration.

A map is a picture of what an individual sees in the world. It represents what is really there and describes what is really there in a way that serve’s the map maker’s purpose. In this sense, the map claims to be an objective description of reality. Yet, though a map maker has attempted to represent reality correctly, it seems that inaccuracies can come in from two different sides. First of all, there can simply be inaccuracies in the way that the physical world is represented, an incorrect coastline or the absence of a mountain on a map that actually is there for example.

The second kind of inaccuracy is when things that do exist are omitted in the map because they don’t serve the map maker’s purpose. For example, a road atlas which doesn’t describe the backpacking trails in a certain area. Its not that the maker believes that there are no trails there. He or she just knows that the information is irrelevant to the desired audience.

Science is also a map of reality, though maybe not as visual. It is a description of what the external world is like. I wonder if the same two kinds of “inaccuracies” are present here as well. The first is easy to see in the history of science. Many theories were only partly correct because the “map maker” just didn’t know enough about reality. The early theories of heredity or reproduction would be examples of this. This may be a little unorthodox but I wonder if the second kind of “inaccuracy” occurs in science as well. Do scientists consciously leave out aspects of a theory or related information because they don’t believe it speaks to their audience? This seems to come back to value judgment and theory criterion in science. Is it possible that researchers may tailor a theory to their desired audience by the inclusion or expulsion of data that will best serve their own purposes?

I’m not speaking of falsifying data. But what if the roads on a map were analogous to accuracy of a theory and the backpacking trails were analogous to scope of that theory. It seems that scientists will frame their theory value judgments. I don’t want to push the analogy too far…what do you think to meet their current needs (whether they’re driving or backpacking). These decisions would be based on?

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