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.