Part Four: The Theory Trap
Scientists are fond of fundamental theories, the sets of principles that purport to explain everything that they observe in their respective fields. Theories, we've been led to believe, drive the production of scientific knowledge: they provide crucial frameworks for designing experiments and interpreting results.
Most of us are at least broadly familiar, by now, with the theory underlying genetics: DNA encodes genetic “information" that determines the processes of growth and development in organisms. Unbeknownst to us, philosophers have been poking holes in that theory for years, and developing alternative theories to explain the clear link that scientists have observed between DNA and the development of organisms.
C. Kenneth Waters, associate professor of philosophy, is intrigued by the debate—but he's more interested in the very role that theory plays in science. For all of the importance placed on theories, they don't necessarily dictate or reflect accurately what goes on in the laboratory. Instead of trying to replace one theory with another, he says, philosophers might more productively look at what scientists are actually doing in their laboratories. And what they do, in effect, is “tinker," observe, and draw conclusions. Theory is largely tangential to this process of acquiring new scientific knowledge.
By altering or removing a gene and observing what happens to the process of memory formation in mice, for example, scientists gain knowledge about mechanisms involving memory-related brain cells. And theoretical assumptions about genes as the ultimate source of biological development are irrelevant to what they observe.
In the end, genetic theory is a kind of interesting distraction, with little bearing on what experiments have taught us about how development occurs at the molecular level. Indeed, says Waters, rather than guiding research or helping us make sense of experimental results, it mostly performs an important public relations function beyond the immediate environs of the laboratory. “To think that we have these fundamental truths and that we're working off of them creates a lot of excitement," he explains. “It helps bring new scientists to the field, and it helps bring funding to the field.
“The process of gaining scientific knowledge works not so much because scientists are applying a fundamental theory. It's because they have research strategies that are extremely effective in the laboratory." And those strategies, combined with close and astute observation, are what yield good scientific results.
To be sure, the lessons scientists learn from their experiments about the role of DNA in cellular development may in fact be consistent with and seem to confirm a widely held theory. But that's not the point or purpose of scientific investigation. Indeed, too heavy a reliance on theory could even get in the way, skewing the interpretation of results.
For all practical purposes, then, it doesn't matter whether a theory is right or wrong. It is simply immaterial. In Waters' view, it's not by weighing the relative merits of competing theories but by standing in laboratories and listening to scientists hash out the details of experiments that philosophers will make discoveries about the nature of scientific knowledge.