Massimo Pigliucci goes after “scientism” for the umpteenth time

February 1, 2019 • 1:15 pm

Here we have philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci speaking about scientism at last year’s CSIcon in Las Vegas; his title is “The variety of scientisms and the limits of science.” There are several talks recently posted from this meeting, which I think is the successor to Randi’s “The Amazing Meeting”, and I’ll highlight a few of them in the coming days.

Pigliucci has been preoccupied with scientism for a while. I suspect that, in part, it’s because he changed fields from biology to philosophy and wants to defend his turf against scientists who unfairly denigrate philosophy. (His examples of transgressors are Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Weinberg, and Lawrence Krauss).

Pigliucci’s examples of scientism include Sam Harris’s claim that science can give us objective answers to moral questions (I agree); that scientists unnecessarily denigrate philosophy when they actually do use philosophy in their work (I agree in part, although academic philosophy is largely useless to scientists); and that evolutionary psychologists commit scientism when they go beyond the bounds of evidence. Here I don’t agree. While I’m a critic of “flabby” evolutionary psychology, unsupported assertions are just that: making up hypothesis that transcend the evidence, a practice that’s not limited to evolutionary psychology but can be found in many areas of biology. Pigliucci also drags in 80-year-old eugenics pamphlets in his effort to show that “science does damage.” Well yes, it surely did, but we don’t do that any more, and you won’t find many scientists urging sterilization of the “feeble-minded.”

Pigliucci is concerned with the “demarcation” problem: not only distinguishing science from pseudoscience, but also from non-science (he considers “scientism” to be the extension of science into realms where it’s inappropriate). And his discussion has value.  But I was put off by the usual Coyne-dissing that Pigliucci commits in discussing scientism: making fun of my claim that plumbers, car mechanics, and electricians are practicing a kind of science when they try to solve empirical problems like “where does this leak come from?” or “why is this red light flashing on the dashboard”? His words:

One of my favorite villains here is my alter ego or archenemy—whatever you want to call him—Jerry Coyne, who actually went so far to say that plumbing is about the same as science. . . . Okay, well then, I can go to the National Science Foundation with my plumber and get some hundreds of millions of dollars to do some research on plumbing. Coyne’s clearly trying to extend the definition of science to anything that has to do with thinking straight about facts.

This isn’t true; that’s not what I’m trying to do.  What I’ve explained, especially in Faith Versus Fact, is that when plumbers or electricians or car mechanics investigate these problems, making and testing hypotheses, they are using tools from the toolkit of science and for all practical purposes, acting like scientists. I am not saying they are scientists, for crying out loud. They are simply using the empirical method that underlies scientific investigations.  Since Pigliucci defines science as “what scientists do,” then by definition plumbers and electricians and car mechanics cannot do science.

Well, fine. I will go along with Pigliucci’s definition, so long as he realizes that my discussion was aimed not at demarcating science from non-science, but in demarcating the empirical method (a method that has succeeded in telling us how the universe works) from “other ways of knowing”—things like literature, art, theology, revelation, and woo—that do not use the empirical method yet still, some say, tell us truths about the universe. I am trying to distinguish real “ways of knowing” from fake “ways of knowing”.

Indeed, later on in the talk, Pigliucci claims that science is a toolbox, a kit of empirical methods. He also asserts that science “grades into or is continuous with other disciplines”, like philosophy, mathematics, and social science. So why doesn’t it grade into some types of plumbing and car mechanics, methods that use tools from the scientific toolbox?

I’m not trying to say that his talk is worthless, but it’s not as valuable as Pigliucci thinks it is, especially because he’s been making these points for decades. Yes, some of what he says needs to be heard, like the claim that “there is no fixed scientific method.” But in the end, after watching this talk, I feel as if I’ve ordered a meal and have been served a Pavlova: a dessert that looks good but lacks substance and stomach-filling ability.

I’m certainly not one of those scientists who think that philosophy is worthless (and yes, I have read philosophy, though in the talk Pigliucci makes fun of scientists who haven’t). But in general I don’t think academic philosophy has affected science much. Surely scientists practice philosophy on their own (think of the arguments between Bohr and Einstein), but have they benefited from the lucubrations of academic philosophers writing for the academy? Not as much as Pigliucci thinks.

I’ve never considered Pigliucci my “archenemy” (I’d reserve that term for creationists like Michael Egnor), and I’m surprised that he sees me as his when we largely agree on most things. Our only difference, I think, is in what we consider “science.” But we’d agree on what methods give us reliable knowledge about the universe and what methods don’t; and that, to me, is the important thing. So I’ll write this off as a form of sexual selection: a male sage grouse puffing up his chest and leaping into the air. The grouse jumps, but the caravan moves on.

48 thoughts on “Massimo Pigliucci goes after “scientism” for the umpteenth time

  1. “So I’ll write this off as a form of sexual selection: a male sage grouse puffing up his chest and leaping into the air. The grouse jumps, but the caravan moves on.”

    What would be the female equivalent? I mean what metaphor would one use if Dr. Pigliucci and Dr PCC(e) were “Y-challenged”?

    BTW, I agree with your take on plumbers and mechanics and their use of a form of the scientific method. It seems straight forward and, well, elementally obvious. I suppose I’ll have to watch the talk to understand why Dr. Pigliucci disagrees.

  2. “Scientism” might go near the top of a list of words I can’t stand.

    I don’t know why Pigliucci can’t see your implication, that plumbers and electricians will employ the scientific method, broadly speaking, when confronting a problem in their fields. That seems obvious to me. It does seem strawmanish of Pigliucci to say that YOU think plumbers and electricians are scientists.

    1. Very much agree.

      A problem in plumbing or any other technical area is not a fact until the problem is solved.

  3. I’ve never considered Pigliucci my “archenemy” … and I’m surprised that he sees me as his when we largely agree on most things.

    Massimo just likes disagreeing with people. And one of the easiest ways of doing that is to strawman people, so he does.

    I suspect that, in part, it’s because he changed fields from biology to philosophy and wants to defend his turf against scientists who unfairly denigrate philosophy.

    Not only that, but academic philosophy overall very much has an inferiority complex, when they compare themselves to science. So they’re always trying to carve out a role for themselves and justify themselves.

    1. +1. If anyone understands Pigliucci, I would suggest it is Coel. I followed their interactions on his philosophy blog for the two or so years it was available. I never adequately expressed my appreciation for the unceasing efforts you put into pushing back against his jihad on scientism and the imagined superiority/seniority of philosophy over science. I thank you now as it was a highly educational experience for me.

  4. Can you be someone’s archenemy without an acknowledgement of the relationship by both parties? The label seems to me to imply a much more intimate relationship than one party simply declaring it to be the case while the other smirks in response.

    I wonder how Dr. Pigliucci would approach the demarcation of philosophy versus non-philosophy. Philosophy has always been tightly linked with spirituality and religion, which gets glossed over these days, especially for pet philosophers and I’d like to know how he approaches this domain.

  5. Ah, the “demarcation” issue. Every time I hear it, I remember the wonderful scene in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, where a pair of philosophers demand that a computer not calculate the answer to life, the universe, and everything because questions like that are solely the realm of philosophy. They demand rigidly defined area of doubt and uncertainty!

  6. “male sage grouse puffing up his chest and leaping into the air.”
    Made me laugh out loud. Thanks for this bit of levity.

  7. He really hasn’t been making these points for decades. Read his piece, The Case Against God, published in Skeptic magazine 20 years ago. See if there’s any difference in his argument than that of any “new atheist”. I agree with his arguement that you’re wrong when it comes to “supernaturalism is within the realm of science”, which you then started saying was about “claims”. But, I’m over that (sure I am).

    Anyway, read his piece below, which he would now argue skepic’s shouldn’t make.

  8. Impulsive off-the-top-of-my-head:

    I’d say a scientist has discovered something. Period.

    Whether or not a _professional_ scientist is intercalated in the bureaucracy of a government or philanthropic entity, corporation, etc. (how many places do professional scientists work? I don’t know) is, essentially, irrelevant. I use the example of Leeuwenhoek for this.

    Going to read some more of this – but I would think “going after scientism” is a good thing?… I recall a comment that said this was a word invented to use _against_ Darwin in his day?…

  9. I’d also add if anyone has listened in to the problem solving process of, say, a plumber – who will not only use words like “pressure” or “temperature” but _think_ about how those properties interact in a complex apparatus and construct hypotheses to test – it would be plainly clear : they are applying the intellectual tools produced by science. Yes it’s not fancy like quantum mechanics or the large hadron collider – and no, they don’t get paid like some scientists – but it doesn’t matter…. well, the pay, maybe.

    1. I’m a geologist/paleontologist. I’ve run into this exact issue numerous times: many people (including scientists, mostly physicists) simply cannot understand that the scientific method is an intellectual, not a physical, methodology. I’ve had to explain the concept of a natural experiment to far too many people who should know better….

      Frankly, I blame the way we teach science in our schools. We don’t actually teach the methods scientists use; we teach a very shallow history of the field, an odd assortment of facts, and a rigid method that’s never the same from one book to the next (I’ve found no less than 7 “The Scientific Method”s!). Doing so makes it seem like science is either a body of facts, or is a checklist that scientists run through. Move from #1 to #6 (or 4, or 9, or whatever) and you’ve done Science! It robs students of an understanding of the complexities and nuances of a scientific approach to gaining knowledge, or even in some cases the knowledge that that’s what science does!

      1. “ … a checklist that scientists run through. “

        Precisely- and if challenged, well … I’m not encouraged to do this.

      2. Let’s not blame the schools; they have to teach a lot of things, and it’s beyond the realm of possibility that they can convey anything other than a shallow understanding of a field.

  10. Is there any legitimate or successful method of discovering knowledge that science could NOT use?

    If the answer is “nothing,” then science is all we’ve got.

    1. Sure. Math is a prime example. Science doesn’t use proofs, math does. (I hold that these are different fields, as the methods are so different; obviously there’s room for debate here.)

      Betting is a good way to gain knowledge without using science. You bet on a card, then someone flips it and you find out if you bet right or not. You have to contort the scientific method pretty hard to fit this into the framework. It’s limited in scope, sure, but the knowledge is true none the less.

      Blind, random chance can discover new facts as well. Once we HAVE those facts, yes, we can apply the scientific toolkit to understand them–but the discovery, the addition of those facts into the available knowledge-pool of human kind–was not scientific. Happens all the time in paleontology.

      Music, art, and the like can provide knowledge, or new ways of viewing knowledge one has, in a non-scientific manner. It’s not irrational–aesthetics is a branch of philosophy–but it’s so different from science that again, while you CAN contort the scientific method to make it fit, it’s pretty obvious that we’re dealing with something else entirely here.

      There’s lots of ways to gain facts that are outside the scientific method. I mean, science has only existed for a few hundred years; obviously there’s more than science around. But science is the best tool we have for systematically discovering new facts about our universe.

      1. “Music, art, and the like can provide knowledge, or new ways of viewing knowledge one has, in a non-scientific manner.”

        No and yes.

        They can provide insight, illuminating knowledge, and foster understanding, but “music, art, and the like” simply cannot provide wholly new knowledge about the world.

        Art &c. from time to time might stumble across an idea or surface an intuition about the way things are (like Kekule’s snakes) but they don’t provide knowledge (Kekule and others had to perform experiments on benzene to validate the hypothesis of its hexagonal molecular structure).


  11. I enjoy Pigliucci’s writing, as well as his previous work on the Rationally Speaking podcast. But the question “is a plumber a scientist?” is about as interesting as “is a hot dog a sandwich?” There’s no content there.

      1. Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonja Sotomayor have offered their arguments for the question “is a hot dog a sandwich”.

  12. “Scientism” like “Islamophobia” is a fake term made up to drive a particular ideological purpose. In the case of the latter, it is to deliberately push the false idea that criticism of Islam is identical to anti-Muslim bigotry. In the case of the former, it is to deliberately push the false idea that there are other way of knowing about the real world which are distinct from empirical observations and logical extrapolations from those observations using the methods of science.

  13. “Jerry Coyne, who actually went so far to say that plumbing is about the same as science. . .”

    This kind of willful misunderstanding puts the man on precisely the same intellectual plane as any one of a dozen Frank Turek/Josh McDowell grade apologists. How embarrassing.

  14. I recall watching a video a few years ago, from a conference on “Naturalism” Sean Carroll put together, I think it was. Seemed you an ol’ Massimo were getting on then. That was short-lived, I guess?

  15. Here’s a quotation from Pigliucci’s book “Nonsense on Stilts” (p. 184). I think it explains why Pigliucci sees Jerry as his archenemy.

    “… let us remember once again that science does not and cannot pronounce itself on the truth of a metaphysical idea (such as the existence of God), something best left to philosophers and theologians; there lies the true distinction between science and religion.”

    I note that philosophers and theologians have been working on this problem (the existence of gods) for several millennia and haven’t come up with an answer. Science, on the other hand, is the only way of knowing with an excellent track record and it has shown that the probability of gods existing is very close to zero. Science did this in spite of Pigliucci’s claim that only philosophers and theologians could address this question.

    Jerry wrote an excellent book explainiong why Pigliucci is wrong about this so no wonder he’s peeved at Jerry.

  16. Pigliucci might have a leg to stand on when criticizing ‘scientism’ if his own pet project, that grab-bag of multi-level selection, lamarckism, and teleology known as the ‘EES’, had any solid science in it.

  17. I think his remarks about archenemies was probably playful, although who knows?

    I would have agreed with Pigliucci on the topic of scientism at one point, but my views have changed over time (I still think there are some instances in which it can be used colloquially, of course – there’s always that person who insists his or her point of view is totally rational, while other people are so emotional, when it’s clear that they have not transcended human preferences and are, in fact, just whining about rationality to get their way, just like whoever they’re arguing with wants to get their way – but that could also be more or less summed up with ‘being obnoxious’.)

    Other than that – in hindsight, I am hard pressed to think of why I thought ‘other ways of knowing’ are categorically different than any other type of observation / descriptive data, but I certainly did at one point. Maybe the West considers emotions and subjective life to be mysterious and beyond causality and this was my starting point before contemplative practice. Anyways, at this point, I would say anything we can discuss (and if we can’t discuss it, it’s a tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it,) falls into either descriptive or experimental ‘science’ (I realize that is a very broad definition, but I think the dictionary backs up that idea.) ‘Other ways of knowing’ are simply descriptive data, self-reported by a single observer. This is no different than a scientist going into the field with a field journal and simply describing, vs. trying to make anything happen. If a work of art sparks feelings of awe in observers, then that is a factual observation with a description of cause and effect. (And again, meditation has led me to believe that these causal patterns are far less ‘mysterious’ than we tend to view them in the West – the experience of an emotion may be qualia-like, but so is the experience of color, size, texture, etc. when making observations in a lab. There’s always an integration of the descriptive and the experimental in any scientific endeavor.)

  18. I like Pigliucci, but I’ve found the way he goes after Jerry Coyne a bit embarrassing on his behalf, particularly since he claims to follow ethical principles based on the development of virtue. I don’t find it virtuous that he fails to be a bit more charitable to Jerry’s argument.

  19. “One of my favorite villains here is my alter ego or archenemy—whatever you want to call him—Jerry Coyne”

    What dastardly piffle! Jerry Coyne is no villain—he is Angry Catman, superhero champion of science! Just as the Joker thinks Batman is the crazy one, Massimo has mixed up his heroes and villains.

    Since Massimo nominates himself as Angry Catman’s archenemy, he needs a supervillain name…

    “I’ll write this off as a form of sexual selection: a male sage grouse puffing up his chest and leaping into the air.”

    That’s it—the Sage Grouse! Angry Catman versus the Sage Grouse! Just like Batman versus the Penguin. Coming soon to a comic book shop near you!

  20. I think there’s a continuum going from true scientists to people who use science tools. Where we draw the line between scientist and non-scientist is somewhat arbitrary and not very interesting.

    A more interesting dichotomy is between concepts that are part of science vs assumptions that scientists make that are not provable by science and, therefore, fall under the category of philosophy. The scientific method itself is a philosophy and necessarily depends on ideas that must be assumed. Thinking about what we can find evidence for, vs what we must assume, is useful.

    I agree with you that the contribution of academic philosophy to science is minimal. That said, they can be helpful in coming up with interesting points of view on scientific subjects, perhaps inspiring scientists. An example that comes to mind is Thomas Nagel’s “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?”

  21. I’ll adduce to your view a quotation in a similar spirit, from Fashionable Nonsense:

    “I stress that my use of the term ‘science’ is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, ‘science’ (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)” ― Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

    In Shaping of Rationality, the author J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (apparently connected to Jerry’s beloved Templeton Foundation), claims that Sokal and Bricmont have already incorporated “crucial tenets of postmodern philosophy” when they argue that “rationality is always an adaption to a new situation” (as quoted by him on p. 40).

    The rivals of science, religion and postmodernism tend to either exaggerate their own value, or try to specify science to keep it inside some well-defined lines (so that hokus pokus and arrant nonsense can increase their share), but do this poorly. Where science stays in the lane is that it is about the methods, not about motivations (why) or values (how). This is NOT the same thing as science with ANY motivation or value (“how to inflict most pain”)!

    Science in other languages is “knowledge-generation”, the process of finding something out about the world to the best of our ability. There is no difference between finding out why the telly appears to not switch on, or why masses appear to produce (gravitational) attraction, only that the former knowlegde is irrelevant to humankind, while the latter is not. Some knowledge allows predictions, but even that is already bonus. A very fat bonus, even often the motivation why we do it, but not the only one. Maybe aerodynamics suddenly stop working tomorrow. On that side, the presuppositions fade in (laws of nature exist). Rather than hunting snarks, philosophers could learn about cognitive science to see why minds look for “true nature” and “essences”, which would be more productive.

    It’s true: old school positivists are about, and naïve realism is common (e.g. Phil “Thunderfoot” Mason, PEARL, physical evidence and reasoned logic). But so what? Scientists who think in this way can have hunches, conduct experiments, and get results just fine, regardless of how they feel about philosophy. Again, like plumbers. The famous “ornithology for birds” comes to mind. That doesn’t trouble philosophy in general. It just cannot offer much at that point (but its demerged offspring like cognitive science can).

    I think science, as other concepts, has prototype qualities: lab-coat-wearing-with-bubbling-test-tube-in-hand is the prototype, and the wider fuzzy area around is what “historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives” do. It’s having hunches, “sniffing tremendously at rat-holes” to find out whether the hunch is true. The principle is simple (in the abstract). The staggering complexity comes with advancing complex knowledge, and operating staggeringly complex sniffing-contraptions.

    Science could answer this: Can we construct a hammer-operated piano out of mice (as in one Monty Python skit)? That is knowledge, too. It’s as useless to humankind as “how much milk is in Jerry Coyne’s household at this time” but it’s information about some state of reality. Likewise, the knowledge can be used to build such a mice piano. But to make this a problem inherent of science is to confuse the general method of “knowledge-generation” with values that should guide why, and how and we want to interact with the world, or other beings.

  22. I wonder what Howard Wolowitz (TBB theory) makes of the remark about research into plumbing as he is involved as an engineer on the plumbing of the ISS. He was always getting stick from Sheldon about being an engineer, not being a real scientist, and now, Massimo Pigliucci’s having a go.
    I have a sneaking suspicion most earth bound plumbers gain from new materials and systems, both in planning and laying of pipes possibly directly and most probably indirectly from science.
    So yes, they would want research done and in many fields even if they don’t realise it, for it could favour them, plumbers that is, such as, lighter, robust more durable materials, diagnostic and search tools, test for toxicity, research poo flow at certain densities, at x time of day, for a laugh or… maintenance only at non peck times.
    To the not so obvious, as ‘they’, can measure drug usage( & types) through sewage urine samples from any given area…
    moving on, some of all those research dollars do end up in plumbers hands and spread around the neighbourhoods of this noble planet,
    that’s A Plumbers Philosophy “on Tap” and a
    a hats off to the Romans who developed sewerage systems and to those who built them.

    ” Roman drains were built to last and York still uses a section of Roman sewer, still doing its’ job after nearly 2000 years when the Victorian sewer around it is crumbling”
    from this nice site for UK GCSE History students.

  23. I think the problem is that Massimo Pigliucci is a total snob, and Coyne is not.

    This Coyne can have respect for a plumber’s methods and note that their investigation into a leak is fundamentally applying the tools of science.

    Pigliucci can only laugh in scorn, those mere plebs can’t be doing something so impressive.

    And of course, there is that nice little history of eugenics which hasn’t been seriously considered within science since the 1040s, while ignoring how philosophy as a field is divided into Western, Chinese, African etc… philosophies because the western cannon refuses to acknowledge that people outside of the west, could actually do valid philosophy.

    Science may have, in the past, been racist – but philosophy is racist right now.

  24. As some comments touch on, you can very well get a grant to study plumbing from an applied science perspective! I seem to remember some old upset when a local university got money for studying if wall hanged toilets recapture the added cost in easier room cleaning, valid use of research money but perhaps not the highest priority.

    And I am not sure why one can strawman philosophy merits or their lack, since it is a cultural question. Sweden has no obligatory philosophy in science or technology studies. Comparative philosophy is like comparative religion considered basal high school topics that have been dealt with before university. Personally I remember following a study buddy to a philosophy class first year at university, but quickly withdraw since that course had a large toolbox to learn but no practical use for it.

    But as for the main topic, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci persists in what I have been prompted to call his philosophism:

    scientists unnecessarily denigrate philosophy when they actually do use philosophy

    References needed.

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