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Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. (Attributed


to Richard P. Feynman) - discuss.
This quote, famously made by American physicist Richard P. Feynman, has caused much
conflict between scientists and philosophers. Feynman suggests that philosophy of science, or
the study, from a philosophical perspective, of the elements of scientific enquiry [1], is of
equal use to scientists as ornithology, a branch of zoology dealing with the study of birds [2]
is to birds. Naturally, this caused controversy among philosophers of science, as they felt that
this citation devalued their area of work. It is however an interesting topic for discussion,
how useful is philosophy of science to scientists? And from there, how does it compare to the
thought of how useful ornithology is to birds? These are the issues that I will address.
There appear to be a number of cases where philosophy of science has been of
fundamental importance to a number of influential scientists. Dr Roman Frigg of the London
School of Economics discusses how the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, most
notably; Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrdinger () were unashamedly
philosophical [3]. It would appear that if these famous scientists believed that philosophy of
science could be useful, then the study of philosophy of science would be useful to scientists
as a whole, thus rendering Feynmans quote invalid. At the time, Einstein would not have
been able to practically prove some of his more obscure theories, thus he would have relied
heavily on the study of scientific investigation to try to prove that his theories could be valid.
These theories have been fundamental to the development of physics, therefore it could be
argued that if Einstein did not utilise philosophy of science, our knowledge of physics today
would be completely different, and perhaps less accurate. In fact Einstein was particularly
open about his belief in the utility of philosophy of science. Don A. Howard discusses in an
academic study for Physics Today how a physics lecturer at the University of Puerto Rico,
Robert A. Thornton, wrote to Albert Einstein in December 1944, asking for his help in
persuading his fellow colleagues to introduce the idea of philosophy of science to the
physicists at the university. According to Howard, Einstein replied saying; I fully agree with
you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and
philosophy of science [4]. This provides concrete evidence that Einstein strongly believed in
the value of the philosophy of science, and by consequence, its utility to scientists.
Philosopher Jonathan Schaffer also argued against Feynmans quote by saying that it
is likely that ornithological knowledge would be of great benefit to birds, were it possible for
them to possess it. [5]. Schaffers quote represents a very interesting idea; if birds were able
to understand and utilise ornithological knowledge, would it be considered useful? Imagine if
birds had the intelligence to understand information about their own species; their knowledge
would be equal to that of our knowledge about how we as humans function. Hypothetically,
if birds could harness the same level of knowledge about their species as we have of ours,
then they would be able to understand an unfathomable amount of information regarding
every aspect of their existence. They would be able to retain knowledge of their own anatomy
and architecture, and from there be able to identify problems with their bodies and formulate
remedies to fix these problems. Essentially, they would be able to develop their own
healthcare system or conduct their own academic studies. They could study birth and
mortality rates, and come up with theories to prevent them from becoming prey to other
species of bird. Looking from this perspective, Feynmans quote can be considered as a great
compliment to the philosophers of science.
Alan Sokal presents a view which questions the point of Feynmans quote all together.
He states that ornithology is not intended to be useful to birds [6] which, in a way,
completely disregards Feynmans quote. Sokals quote suggests that if ornithology is not
intended to be useful to birds, then philosophy of science is not intended to be useful to

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scientists. In a way, Sokal takes Feynmans quote and applies it to the real world.
Ornithology was not created to be of use to birds, it was instead created largely to satisfy
those who had a curiosity and desire to study birds. Philosophy of science can be considered
in the same way, it was created to satisfy philosophers who had a curiosity and desire to study
the workings of scientific methodology from a philosophical perspective. Although neither of
these areas of study were created directly for birds or scientists; their development has
perhaps indirectly assisted both of these groups. Ornithology has allowed ornithologists to
gain a great understanding of bird-kind, thus has allowed them to assist birds in many ways,
for example by studying the physiology of different species of bird, they have been able to
add crucial pieces of knowledge to bird-specific veterinary science, which has allowed
veterinary scientists to create treatments for various conditions. Similarly, as discussed
earlier, philosophy of science allowed many influential scientists to construct theories which
have revolutionised modern science, and without which, we may not have some of the
theories that we have today.
In some ways, it is possible to see Feynmans quote as true. He distinctly notes that
philosophy of science is of equal use as ornithology is to birds. It is obvious that birds do not
understand ornithology at all, they simply do not have the intelligence to understand
ornithological study, and therefore ornithology is completely useless to them as individuals.
The same can be said for scientists, it would be interesting to conduct a study asking
scientists whether they considered themselves to have used philosophy of science.
Essentially, a scientist will perform experiments and research in order to expand their
knowledge about a certain area in science, let us take for example the scientists at CERN who
are currently searching for the ambiguous Higgs Boson particle. They are conducting the
scientific study. Philosophers of science will study the methods of which the scientist works,
something that is very similar to what ornithologists do to birds. Philosophers of science
study scientists and question their methods and how they work, just as ornithologists study
birds and their behavioural patterns. The parallels between the two professions are actually
very close; hence you can see why Feynman has put the two together.
When people consider Feynmans quote, they often see it as a direct attack on
philosophers of science, making them out to be useless, but it is also interesting to look at
why he chose to compare them to ornithologists. Does Feynman consider ornithology to be a
less useful branch of science? When looked at in this respect, there seems to be an air of
scientific elitism in Feynmans quote. Being a physicist, he could have felt that his area of
science was more valuable than that of an area like ornithology, thus used ornithology as a
comparison to make both ornithologists and philosophers of science seem useless.
It is interesting to look at the quote from a theoretical perspective. As mentioned
before, if birds were indeed able to harness ornithological knowledge, then Feynman could be
paying philosophers of science a large compliment. It does lead you to question how useful
philosophy of science truly is to scientists; for example, when you consider that these
philosophers study the scientists and the methodology, surely it could be beneficial for the
two to exchange knowledge so that scientists can better understand the philosophical
workings of their experiments. Of course, in the past, the most famous scientists have indeed
done exactly this, and look how they have progressed and have changed the world of science
as we know it.
There is also a strong link between philosophy and ethics. Ethical issues can lead to
major problems facing scientific research, perhaps most famously in the case of stem cell
research which has been banned in many countries for ethical reasons. It would be interesting
to see if collaboration between philosophers of science and scientists could help provide
information regarding the ethical concerns of the scientists work, as it could help scientists

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to avoid the more controversial ethical issues, hence allow scientists to participate more
actively in their research.
This leads to the simple question, how useful is philosophy of science to scientists? It
would be reasonable to suggest that the answer very much depends on how you personally
look at it. Essentially, philosophy of science is not meant to be useful to scientists, it is meant
to be a direction of study for those interested in scientists themselves and the study of
scientific methodology. This is not to say that it is completely useless to scientists. As with
many areas of study, there will be certain areas which are of great use to other disciplines. An
example between philosophers of science and scientists would be that scientists would
perhaps be able to refine their practical technique with the help of the people who study their
technique. Philosophers of science could potentially guide scientists and suggest to them how
they can improve, not their results, but their methodology. In this respect, however small,
philosophy of science can be of some use to scientists. In cases such as Einstein, it can be of
great use to scientists, so therefore it is also variable on the scientist, and how willing they are
to accept philosophy of science as a helpful discipline.
From here, we must ask another seemingly simple question, how useful is ornithology
to birds? Well, from a very simple point of view, ornithology is of no use to birds whatsoever
simply because birds cannot harness ornithology as they do not have the capacity to
understand it. However, that is not to say that it cannot indirectly affect them. For years
ornithologists have studied birds and they have contributed massively to specialist areas of
veterinary medicine. Although the birds dont know it, they are being helped dramatically by
these ornithologists; so therefore it is safe to say that ornithology is indirectly useful to birds.
In conclusion, I believe that Feynmans quote can be taken in various different ways. I
personally think that this quote was made to deliberately make a mockery of philosophers of
science, and also, to a degree, ornithologists in a bout of scientific arrogance; as without
looking too deeply into the quote the simple message is that philosophers of science are of no
use to scientists whatsoever. It is however positive to see various people fighting against this
quote and turning it into something which can be interpreted as a backhanded compliment.
People such as Jonathan Schaffer and Alan Sokal both manage to put their own twist on the
quote by saying that ornithology is indirectly useful to birds and that actually what Feynman
is saying is very complimentary to the philosophers of science. I also find Dr Roman Friggs
video incredibly interesting as it really brings to life how philosophy of science has features
so heavily in the lives of such famous names like Einstein, and also to find secondary
evidence from Physics Today to back up Einsteins views just proves that at some point an
influential scientist has indeed taken into consideration the use of the philosophy of science,
and has transformed and manipulated it into some of the greatest and most fundamental
theories that we today are still trying to disprove. Without these we would not be
participating in exciting studies, such as the ones taking place in CERN right at this moment.
I believe that this quote is very thought-provoking, and really makes you think about all the
extra pieces of information that are being added to science to make it what it is today. It may
have been meant as an insult to philosophers of science, but I also believe that it has really
shown how important philosophy of science really is.
2,008 words.

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Citations:
[1] Philosophy of science, 2012. Encyclopdia Britannica Online. Retrieved 22 January,
2012, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/528804/philosophy-of-science
[2] Ornithology, 2012. Encyclopdia Britannica Online. Retrieved 29 January, 2012, from
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/432978/ornithology
[3] As birds need ornithologists: science and philosophy of science, 2009. [Video] London
School of Economics. (Narrated by Dr Roman Frigg) Retrieved 29 January, 2012 from
http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/research/player.aspx?id=44
1
[4] Albert Einstein as a Philosopher of Science, 2005. Physics Today. Retrieved 5 February,
2012 from: http://www.nd.edu/~dhoward1/vol58no12p34_40.pdf
[5] Philosophy of science, 2012. Wikipedia. Retrieved 22 January, 2012, from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_science
[6] My philosophy: Alan Sokal, 2009. The Philosophers Magazine. Retrieved 22 January,
2012, from http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=802