John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”

June 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

The science writer John Horgan became well known for his 1996 book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the era of “fundamental science”—the kind of science that yielded big discoveries like the structure of DNA, evolution, and quantum mechanics—was coming to an end. That is, all the paradigm-changing views of the universe had already been made.

Since then, of course, we’ve learned about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs Boson, gotten indications that quantum mechanics may have fundamental flaws, and so on. String theory, though it may be untestable and thereby die, became a big deal. Now you may say that Horgan’s right—that these discoveries aren’t “fundamental”—but I’d never bet on humanity reaching the end of world-changing scientific discoveries about the universe. Still, in 2015 Horgan defended his earlier conclusion in the pages of Scientific American.   He wasn’t calling for science to stop, of course, but promoting the depressing conclusion that we’d found out pretty much all the “fundamental” truths we’d ever get.

I think he was and is wrong.

Now, also in the pages of Scientific American, Horgan has a new “opinion” piece that is again a bit of science-dissing in that it’s the usual criticism of “scientism”, which he defines as science overstepping its boundaries and impinging on “other ways of knowing”, like religion (!) and the “knowledge” we get from psychedelic visions.

But Horgan’s main target is “consilience,” a term used by E. O. Wilson, who wrote a book by that title proposing a sweeping project: the absorption of all forms of “knowing” and endeavor into science. That would include morality, art, psychology, literature, philosophy, and so on. All knowledge would and should, claimed Wilson, be analyzed using the toolkit of science, leaving no room for the humanities as we know them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

My first response is one I made in my exchange with Adam Gopnik at Letter on “ways of knowing”: religion (see Horgan’s title) is not a “way of knowing”, and neither is ingestion of ayahuasca (which Horgan tried and is regularly used by shamans to derive “visions” that Horgan sees as “ways of knowing”).

Horgan says these mystical  drug-induced visions  are ones “in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things.” I’ve recounted my own LSD-induced vision in which my hidden truth, which I wrote down on a piece of paper because it sounded so profound, turned out to be “the walls are fucking brown.” And if you do glimpse truths when you’re on drugs, they’re either private experiences or other claims that, when you’ve come down, must be verified with the toolkit of science. “The universe is one” is not a truth except in the trivial sense that it’s all made of matter and energy.

Since my views on the ambit of science (construed broadly) have been set out in the exchange with Gopnik, I won’t repeat my arguments here, but I deny Horgan’s claim that there are “ways of knowing” about the cosmos that do not employ the empirical toolkit of science. (See also pp. 185-196 in my book Faith Versus Fact.).

But I do agree with Horgan that the Grand Project to subsume art, literature, philosophy and morality completely into the “harder” sciences is futile. The thing is, hardly any scientist I know agrees with Wilson or with Horgan’s characterization. Yes, Sam Harris does think that science can determine what is right and wrong to do, but few agree with him about that (I dissent as well). And even the most “scientistic” scholar I know, Steve Pinker, doesn’t entertain the notion that full consilience is feasible. As Pinker said in the New Republic:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

In the last sentence Pinker raises a point that is the subject of one of the best short pieces he’s written, the one below from The New Republic (click on screenshot; this piece was later attacked by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier):

You should read this article as a palliative for Horgan’s, as Pinker is calling not for the ingestion of all other disciplines by science, but an expansion of the humanities by using the toolkit of science. Surely science can inform morality, art, analysis of literature, politics and history.  Here’s part of Pinker’s view:

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

And of course even religion has been altered by science (I wouldn’t use the word “enriched”), at least in terms of science disproving some of the foundational claims of religion, like the existence of a creation event of biological life by God, the existence of Adam and Eve, the Exodus, and so on. In that sense, any morality that gets its force from from religion loses considerable ground.

But on to Horgan.

First, I again deny that there are ways of knowing about the universe (which is, after all, what Horgan means by “fundamental knowledge”) that do not require the empirical toolkit of science: observation, testing, doubting, predicting, and so on.

But Horgan has other points to make. First, he doesn’t think consilience is possible. Here’s he’s probably right, for we simply will never have the knowledge to connect all human endeavors through scientific hypotheses. Some depend on unknowable historical or evolutionary events, others on knowledge inaccessible to us. Even if, in principle, all phenomena reduce to the motions of molecules, we will never be able to scientifically explain why Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina the way he did or why it affects each of us differently. And no scientist I know, save perhaps Ed Wilson, thinks that we should try to do this, though there are Darwinian analysis of parts of literature.

But Horgan goes further, arguing that we haven’t even achieved consilience within scientific disciplines. Physicists are still arguing about quantum mechanics and string theory, we don’t yet have a unification of all fundamental physical forces (gravity stubbornly refuses to consiliate), we don’t understand how physical processes in the brain produce consciousness, and even evolutionary biologists still argue about the importance of group selection.  But the existence of unsolved problems, some of which will never be solved, does not support Horgan’s argument that greater consilience isn’t feasible. We simply can’t imagine what science will find in the next few centuries and, as Pinker notes, consilience is being achieved in archaeology and linguistics.

It turns out that Horgan thinks consilience is unfeasible for this reason:

If consilience entails convergence toward a consensus, science is moving away from consilience.

I’d take issue with that, too. Scientists are a lot more in agreement on matters of truth than they were 200 years ago. We have a consensus about the major features of evolution, about the structures of molecules, about how DNA and metabolism work, about the age of the Universe, about who were the ancestors of humans, and what the fundamental particles were. Of course we’ll never agree on everything, but to say that “science is moving away from consilience” in effect says that we know less than we used to. And that’s not the case. We have a lot more consensus than we used to. When I was young, there was a big argument about whether the continents moved. We now know that they do.

Further, Horgan asserts that besides being unfeasible, consilience is undesirable. He says he once thought it was desirable, but realized that a pluralism of “ways of knowing” is extremely valuable. Horgan’s argument for pluralism comes from his view that it brings to bear more “ways of knowing” on unsolved questions. But his claim here is weak:

But increasingly, I see pluralism as a valuable, even necessary counterweight to our yearning for certitude. Pluralism is especially important when it comes to our ideas about who we are, can be and should be. If we settle on a single self-conception, we risk limiting our freedom to reinvent ourselves, to discover new ways to flourish.

Wilson acknowledges that consilience is a reductionistic enterprise, which will eliminate many ways of seeing the world. Consider how he treats mystical visions, in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things. To my mind, these experiences rub our faces in the unutterable weirdness of existence, which transcends all our knowledge and forms of expression. As William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences should “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

. . . Wilson is a gracious, courtly man in person as well on the page. But his consilience project stems from excessive faith in science, or scientism. (Both Wilson and Pinker embrace the term scientism, and they no doubt think that the phrase “excessive faith in science” is oxymoronic.) Given the failure to achieve consilience within physics and biology—not to mention the replication crisis and other problems—scientists should stop indulging in fantasies about conquering all human culture and attaining something akin to omniscience. Scientists, in short, should be more humble.

And that’s it. (The relevance of the “replication” crisis is obscure, and at any rate isn’t ubiquitous.) It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. Horgan has a long digression about a shaman’s drug-induced vision of snakes, which, in fact, Wilson says could be genetically ingrained in our psyche. Further, we may learn how drugs like ayahuasca unleash our neurons to produce these visions of evolution-installed fears. A shaman’s vision is not immune to the tools of science.

At any rate, look at Horgan’s last sentence above: “Scientists, in short, should be more humble.”  Where have you heard that before? That’s right—from theologians. Although I believe Horgan is a nonbeliever, here he’s being soft on belief, implying, as he did in the title, that religion has something to say about the nature of truth and scientists should give theologians a break. Well, the nature of religion may tell us why it exists and makes certain claims, but that involves a scientific analysis of religion—an analysis Horgan spurns. You know who needs to be humble? The religionists, because they harbor far less doubt than do scientists!

As Horgan says:

Wilson needn’t have worried. Scientific omniscience looks less likely than ever, and humans are far too diverse, creative and contrary to settle for a single worldview of any kind. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with much of that: worldviews include subjective issues from outside science, and of course we’ll keep on with these futile arguments about “who we are” (arguments, by the way, that might be partly settled by evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology!). But this is not the point. The point Horgan makes is that there are other ways of knowing what is true about the world beyond science, and science should stop sticking its damn nose into the tent of the humanities. But this is a straw man. Almost nobody claims that literature, music, and art will or should be completely subsumed by science (though they are, at bottom, consistent with it), but on the other hand Pinker is right in claiming that we should not tell scientists to stop impinging on the humanities.

I’ll end with Pinker’s closing of his lovely New Republic article, in which he answers critics who say that the invasion of humanities by scientific practices is “naive and simplistic”:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Sometimes when I read Horgan, and see his endless criticisms about the limits of science, his concentration on scientific disagreements and ignoring genuine consiliences, and his claim that science is but one of many “ways of knowing”, I wonder if the man—despite being a teacher of science writing—really likes science.

h/t: Hos

Weekend reading: three easy pieces

September 5, 2020 • 12:30 pm

I commend three items to your attention for weekend reading, assuming that you’re not gallivanting about this Labor Day weekend, mingling with crowds and spreading viruses. You can access each article by clicking on the screenshot of its title.

First up we have an attack on science, seen as “scientism”, from Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who works at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. I’ve written a few times about Feser, most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven. (Yes, someone gets paid to think about that kind of stuff!) Feser was furious at my critique and issued a bunch of ad hominems, including the usual claim that I’m theologically unsophisticated and need to read more Feser—the usual riposte to an attack on Sophisticated Theology®. (Feser is a nasty piece of work, and lets no attack go unrebutted, usually with lots of nasty counterattacks that tout his own superior wisdom.)

That aside, he’s now written an attack on scientism in The American Mind, the organ of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.  From reading it, you’d gather (well, I gathered) that Feser really knows very little about how science is actually done, adopting most of his criticisms from the rather erratic Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science.

Here’s one sign that Feser is scientifically unsophisticated (my way of a tu quoque response):

There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.

Never in my life did I make a mathematical model, though many scientists do. Darwin didn’t make a mathematical model, either about natural or sexual selection, and many scientists either make verbal models or simply describe phenomena and hypothesize about them or simply let them become part of our knowledge about nature. People like Feser don’t seem to realize that an important part of science is simply describing stuff.  Mathematics, while immensely useful in science, isn’t always necessary if you don’t need a mathematical model, though statistics is essential for reaching sound conclusions about quantitative data.

But you can read the piece for yourself; after all, that’s the point of this post. When I read it last week, I found myself saying over and over again, “Wait! That’s not a good description of science.” And if you don’t understand enough about science to describe it properly, and especially if you rely on Paul Feyerabend as your go-to expert, you’re going to produce an attack that will be embraced only by those who already despise science—like Feser. (Feser also seems to think that the pandemic is overblown.) It’s ironic that Feser, a Catholic, disparages science by saying it’s our “state religion.”  “See! You’re as bad as we are!”

Here’s Graeme Wood in The Atlantic going after Vicky Osterweil’s new book meant to justify looting as a positive social force.  It’s a humorous and well written piece, and it’s clear Wood doesn’t much like the book:

My view wasn’t that Osterweil’s interview with NPR shouldn’t have been published, but that the interviewer didn’t ask her any hard questions about her ridiculous thesis. NPR finally agreed, and walked the article back a bit.  Wood argues—and I agree—that we need to hear the best case possible for excusing looting, but also that NPR wasn’t critical enough. An excerpt:

Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.

In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.

Finally, we have this provocatively titled article from Inside Higher Ed, and the answer to the title question is “yes.” Well, it’s a bit misleading—the title is apparently chosen to make the article look more au courant in the George Floyd era. Lecturing isn’t exactly racist, but it does, say the authors, discriminate against minorities, who learn better using other methods.

Before you dismiss the piece entirely, read it (it’s short). There are apparently data showing that some minorities don’t learn as well in lectures as they do under a method called “active learning”. I haven’t looked that method up, but, if the purpose of lectures is to help students learn, and if the authors’ studies really show that active learning is better for everyone than are lectures, then we need to rethink how we teach. Of course there’s considerable inertia here, as that’s the way we’ve always done stuff, and there’s a pleasurable frisson of showmanship involved in lecturing. Remember, though that the evidence seems to come largely from the authors’ own research:

An excerpt:

Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.

Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.

Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.

Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.

But for a one-off, like a visiting talk or a short series of talks on board a ship, I still think lectures are the way to go.

Have a good weekend!


Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

July 27, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed either scientism or “ways of knowing” on this site (the two ideas are connected). I’ll reiterate my views very briefly. “Scientism” has two meanings, as Maarten Boudry notes in his piece below, but the most common non-pejorative meaning is that of science making claims outside of its ambit, something that almost never happens these days.

I’m more interested in the idea whether there are “ways of knowing” beyond those involving science or “science broadly construed” (“SBC”, i.e., any profession, including plumbing and car mechanics, that uses the empirical method and relies on hypotheses, tests, and confirmation as ways of understanding the cosmos). As far as I can see—and I’ve asked readers about this—I’ve found no way beyond SBC to ascertain what’s true about our universe.

The most common area to claim that there are ways of knowing beyond the empirical is of course religion, but theology has never found a single ascertainable truth about the Universe that hasn’t been confirmed (or disconfirmed, as in the Exodus) by empirical research. You can’t find out what’s true about the Universe by reading scripture or waiting for a revelation. Even “scientific revelations” like Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its own tail, which supposedly gave rise to the ring structure of benzene with alternative single and double bonds, had to be confirmed empirically.

Maarten Boudy has a new blog piece that discusses these ideas, but also highlights a new paper that, he says, puts paid to the notion that there are ways of knowing beyond science. Click on the screenshot to read it. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.) As you can see from the title, Maarten tells it as it is:

Boudry, by the way, is co-author of this collection of essays, which, though mixed in quality, is generally good and gives a good overview of the “scientism” controversy. (Click screenshot for Amazon link.) The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,” and has said so many times. Massimo is deeply preoccupied with demarcating “science” from “nonscience,” and sees me as having messed up that distinction.

Here’s Maarten’s link to the new paper and a useful classification of four flavors of scientism:

Now yesterday I read a clever new paper in Metaphilosophy – yes, there really is a journal by that name – in defense of scientism, which follows the second strategy. The Finnish authors, known as the Helsinki Circle, present a neutral definition of “scientism”, distinguishing between four different flavors represented by the quadrant below. The four positions follow from two simple choices: either you adopt a narrow or a broad definition of science, and either you believe that science is the only valid source of knowledge or that it is simply the best one available.

The differences between “natural sciences” and “sciences” here, as Maarten wrote me, is this:

“Natural sciences” is just physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

“Sciences” includes the human and social sciences, (like “Wissenschaft” in German).

But I’d prefer the distinction to be between “science” (what is practiced by scientists proper) and “SCB”, or the use of the empirical method to ascertain truth (SCB includes the human and social sciences). Given that slight change, I’d fall into the lower-left square. The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.

But never mind. Boudy and I are more concerned with the criticisms of science that fall under the rubric of “non-pejorative scientism”, and he mentions two:

The authors want to draw attention to the other three versions of “scientism”, which are more defensible but nonetheless interesting and non-trivial. In the rest of the paper, they discuss how the different interpretations of scientism fare under two lines of criticism: (a) that scientism is self-defeating because the thesis itself cannot be demonstrated by scientific means; (b) that science inevitably relies on non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as metaphysical assumptions or data from our senses.

I’ve addressed both of these, but Maarten concentrates on the second. (My criticism of [a] is that you don’t need to demonstrate a philosophical or scientific underpinning of the methods of science to accept it, because science works—it enables us to understand the Universe in ways that both enable us to do things like cure smallpox and send rovers to Mars, and to make verified predictions, like when an eclipse will occur or the light from stars might bend around the Sun). Justification of science by some extra-scientific method is not only futile, but unnecessary.

Maarten refutes (b) handily:

Here I want to focus on the second objection. Does science “presuppose” the existence of an external world, or lawful regularities, or the truth of naturalism, or other metaphysical notions? No it doesn’t. These are merely working hypotheses that are being tested as we go along. I’ve argued for this position at length myself, in a paper with the neurologist Yon Fishman and earlier with my Ghent colleagues. As the authors write:

“One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. If it is impossible to achieve this kind of knowledge, then the efforts would just be in vain. But hoping that something is the case is not the same as believing that it is the case.”

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No, because that’s a trivial point. It’s obviously true that science could not even get off the ground without sensory data, but this input too is being refined and corrected as we go along.

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air. This reminds one of the old Hindu cosmology according to which we live on a flat earth supported by four big elephants. Pretty solid, but what are the elephants standing on? On the back of a giant turtle. And that turtle? On the back of an even larger turtle. And so it’s turtles all the way down, ad infinitum.

Boudry’s Argument from Turtles also goes, I think, for (a): if you must justify using scientific methods through philosophy, how do you justify the value of philosophy in settling such a question? But never mind. If people dismiss science as an activity because philosophy (or science itself) provides no foundation for the empirical method, I’ll just ask them, “Have you ever been vaccinated or taken antibiotics?” If they say “yes,” then they already trust in science regardless of where the method came from. (It comes, by the way, not from a priori justification, but through a five-century refinement of methods to hone them down to a toolkit that works. Remember, science used to include aspects of the Divine, as in creationism as an explanation for life on Earth or Newton’s view that God tweaked the orbits of the planets to keep them stable.)

I’ll be reading the Metaphilosophy paper (click on screenshot below to access and download it), but let me finish by self-aggrandizingly saying that Boudry does agree that SCB is part of the nexus of empirical methodology that includes “real science”

For me, an essential part of scientism is the belief in one unified, overarching web of knowledge, which was defended most famously by the philosopher Willard V.O. Quine. Take an everyday form of knowledge acquisition such as a plumber trying to locate a leak (I believe this analogy is due to the biologist Jerry Coyne). Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”, but that doesn’t mean that my plumber is engaged in some “different way of knowing”. He’s also making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. The main difference is that he is working on a relatively mundane and isolated problem (my sink), which is both simple enough to solve on his own, and parochial enough not be of any interest to academic journals. Plumbing is not a science, but it is continuous with science, because it makes use of similar methods (observation and logical inference) and is connected with scientific knowledge, for example about fluid dynamics. The plumber or detective or car mechanic is not doing anything radically different from what the scientist is doing.

Take that, Massimo!

And here’s a reading assignment:


Nathaniel Comfort gets all angry about a tweet from Steve Pinker

October 12, 2019 • 10:30 am

Two days ago I wrote a critique of a curiously disjointed and poorly written article by science historian Nathaniel Comfort: a critique of science and “scientism” published in Nature. It was a garbled mixture of postmodern and woke sentiments, making a bogus claim that discoveries like the microbiome and epigenetics have radically altered our “sense of self”, with an ancillary claim that “other ways of knowing” can help us define “the self”.  Here’s Comfort’s garbled last paragraph:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

I won’t repeat my criticisms of Comfort’s piece; plenty of readers also found it bizarre. I’ll say only that nobody, including we biologists, defines the self only in biological terms, but in fact the use of biology to help us understand the notion of self is both uncontroversial and a non-problem.  Steve Pinker kindly emitted two tweets criticizing Comfort’s piece and calling attention to my critique. To wit:

Now, on his website Gentopia, whose motto is, oddly, “here lies truth” (Comfort is not a scientist but a historian of science), Comfort answers not me, but Pinker’s tweets, or, rather the second tweet. Click on the screenshot to read another rant. And note that he misspells Pinker’s first name—twice. In the title, too! But Pinker’s name is spelled correctly in his tweets, the ones Comfort attacks.

Apparently I am too small a fish to merit a response from Comfort, which is fine. I’ve never pretended to be as smart or influential as “Stephen”. Rather, Comfort is eager to go after Pinker’s second tweet, and can’t resist a few ad hominems, showing what a nasty piece of work Comfort is (neither Steve nor I addressed Comfort’s appearance, which of course is irrelevant). I’ll give just a few of Comfort’s responses:

I’m now used to the ritual of Jerry Coyne (@whyevolutionistrue) attempting a takedown of my stuff. To my perverse delight, though, the Harvard psychologist and hair model Stephen Pinker took a poke at me. Couldn’t resist that. What follows is the tweet stream I sent out in response, clarifying some points in the article and differentiating further between science and scientism.

Hair model? Seriously, dude, your animus is showing!

Anyway, you can look at Comfort’s “tweetstream” yourself (he goes by the name of Pomo Shaman!), none of which dispels the notion that he’s pushing a postmodernist critique of science, indicting the field because it’s been misused by people to do bad stuff (like the humanities, architecture, and nuclear physics). But the end of his piece shows both his anger and his “novel” claim that science has been misused, which of course is not novel at all, and certainly not worth a diatribe in Nature. (Or was his disatribe about how new discoveries have altered our sense of self?). I’ve bolded the telling parts, but Comfort’s anger peeks through in the interstices:

The question isn’t *whether* science and society interact, it’s *how.* We can have disagreements on the how—I show you my evidence, you show me yours, we hash it out—but not the whether.
I’m not arguing with a flat-Earther.

Historians don’t “hate realism,” for chrissakes. We’re more realistic than scientists like Pinker who live in an ideal world of pure reason, failing to acknowledge the messiness of the real world. [JAC: LOL!]

Thinking you have uniquely privileged access to reality is scientism, not science. It is to live in a sterile, blinkered world, populated only by the stately march of the anointed intellects toward the one & only Truth. That’s like the worst kind of superstitious evangelism.

It’s also chauvinistic, narrow, parochial, and bullying. It’s tyrannical, ham-handed, intolerant of dissent. How unscientific! And if Pinker knew his history, he’d know how science can be—has been—marshaled in the name of tyrannies large and small, across continents, down the centuries.

Umm. . . Pinker does know his history, and has made the point about science’s misuse several times in his writings. Comfort goes on:

Science can be great! It makes many, many positive contributions to knowledge & to society. It need not be put in the service of oppression, nor is it always. But it’s indisputable that it has been, many times. You can start with Karl Brandt and work your way down.

The thesis of my @nature piece, then, once again, is that insidious applications of science are due not to the science itself, but to the ideology that sometimes accompanies it: Scientism. Capeesh?

He also says this:

Yes, I am anti-scientism.
Scientism = science + hubris.
Scientism = science + arrogance.
Scientism = science + vanity.
Scientism = science + cruelty.
Scientism = science + ignorance.
Scientism, in other words, is science plus something shitty.

If that was your point, Dr. Comfort, why didn’t you make it explicit? What you said is this:

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

That’s not saying that ideology coupled to science can do bad stuff; it’s saying that the ideology that “science is the only valid way to understand the world and social problems” is what’s problematic.  In fact, one can make a case that if you mean “a general understanding of reality that is agreed on by all rational people”, science (construed broadly) is the only way to understand the world. The values that we bring to diagnosing the world’s ills don’t come from science, but, as I said in my critique, implementing those values to effect a desired solution is also an empirical problem. Capeesh?

Comfort emits a final dose of bile, not omitting his woke and postmodernist equation of Pinker’s views with the “male gaze.”

One last thing: @sapinker’s arrogant and bullying scientism is both a symptom and a cause of the WEIRD male gaze that’s dominated science for centuries is Exhibit A in the case for why we need more diversity in science. Hence the last point in my essay.

Male scientists who aren’t arrogant, scientistic pricks (and I know many): There’s no need to say, “Not all scientists.” If this doesn’t describe you, it’s not about you, and I doff my hat to you, sir.

In fact, Pinker’s tweet is not anything close to a demonstration of why we need more diversity in science. I’ll show it again:

Does “Stephen” Pinker’s claim here come from racism, the privilege of old white males, or sexism? I can’t imagine how. It is an empirical claim that has nothing to do with gender or ethnicity. Comfort’s use of the postmodern “male gaze”, his call for diversity, and his implication that Pinker is an arrogant scientistic prick (seriously, dude, look at that last word!), is a form of virtue-flaunting.

After reading this, I now think that Comfort is not only a muddled, woke postmodernist, but also a nasty one. Hair model, indeed!

h/t: Michael


Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon

A misguided attack on scientism in Quillette

May 12, 2019 • 10:30 am

How many times do I have to criticize attacks on scientism, all of which use various permutations of the same three claims? Here they are:

1.) There are “other ways of knowing” that don’t involve science. These often involve “why” questions, like “Why am I here? (i.e. what is my purpose?)” or “Why is the universe here”?

2.) The scientific method (or rather, the use of empirical analysis and observation, confirmation, testing, making predictions, and so on) cannot be justified a priori by philosophy, and involves untestable or fallacious assumptions.

3.) Science is  trying to take over the humanities, and this unwarranted extension of science to places where it doesn’t belong is true scientism.

The article below that just appeared in Quillette rehashes the same tired old arguments, and I’m tired of refuting them. But I’ll take up the cudgels once again. To see my numerous and previous criticisms of scientism, go here.

Read the article by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s a criticism of an earlier piece by Bo and Ben Winegard (also in Quillette) called “In defense of scientism.”


The nice article by the Winegards uses a narrow definition of scientism: “science based social policy” (SBSP) which they say is “the view that social policy should be based on the best available theory and data; in other words, that social policy should be decided using the weight of the evidence. And that is all scientism is—the view that scientific attitudes and methods can enhance all modes of empirical inquiry and should, therefore, be promoted.” Well, some would disagree with that. Others define scientism as “the extension of science beyond its proper bailiwick.” Two such construals of that are 1.) The claim that science devalues nonscientific realms like art and literature, and 2.) Science tries to construct an objective morality, saying that empirical investigation alone can tell us what and what is not desirable and good.

The Winegards address both of these construals, admitting that science can’t replace art and literature, which convey emotion and experience rather than empirical truth. But they also argue—and I agree—that science can helpfully infuse areas like sociology, literary criticism, and other areas that try to make claims about reality. And they agree with me that no, science can’t tell us objectively what is good and moral and desirable, for those are subjective preferences. But once you agree on those preferences—and in morality many of us do adopt similar consequentialist views—then science can tell us how to best achieve them; for how to achieve a desired goal is an empirical matter.

But Aaron Neil, a researcher at the Canadian think tank Cardus, wants to go beyond what the Winegards say, in particular conveying the first two tropes given at the top.  I’ve refuted both of these claims before, most extensively in my book Faith Versus Fact, but I’ll try again, and will also try—and probably fail—to be brief. My refutations of claims 1 and 2 as emitted by Neil are these:

1.) Neil fails to tell us a single bit of knowledge that wasn’t derived by science, though he bloviates at length about how this is possible. If there are “other ways of knowing”, what is the knowledge produced by those ways? If it’s so pervasive, Neil should be able to give us many examples. But he fails miserably, coming up dry.

2.) Indeed, you can’t justify philosophically the use of the empirical method to produce truths about the universe. But the justification is not by philosophy, but by usefulness. In other words, the scientific method works to tell us truths about the universe, and some version of it (the varieties of empirical methods that I call “science construed broadly”) are the only way to find out facts. To paraphrase theology, we justify science by works rather than faith.

Let’s take Neil’s two claims in reverse order (his quotations are indented):

1.) The scientific method can’t be justified by philosophy, and involves untestable (and sometimes failed) assumptions. Here are some of the philosophical attacks on science leveled by Neil:

a. Science is self-refuting in saying that “scientific truth is always provisional.” To wit:

Although the Winegards present an innocuous definition in their essay, they commonly drift into the less benign form of scientism identified by Hayek. The Winegards’ Hayekian scientism manifests itself early in their piece with the claim that “Truth is always provisional.” As they correctly note, scientific “truths” appear to be true so long as they provide “the best available theory” based on the evidence at hand. However, not all truths bear this hypothetical quality. Ironically, the very statement, “Truth is always provisional” is not itself a provisional truth claim. If it is always true that truth is always provisional, this statement is self-refuting. Not all truth claims are theoretical statements that are vulnerable to empirical falsification. Take the proposition, “there are no square circles.” This is not a hypothesis that is true so long as scientists do not discover a square circle. Logically, a circle can never be a square.

Do I need to waste time on this? It’s philosophical pilpul. Instead of saying “truth is always provisional”, let’s restate it as “science doesn’t tell us anything with absolute certainty, but we have degrees of certainty about various things, and are more confident about some scientific truths than others.”  That revision is sufficient to refute Neil’s philosophical twiddling.

b. Science is based on untestable metaphysical assumptions. To wit:

. . . as the greatest critics and advocates of modern science have argued, science is full of extra-scientific assumptions.

Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, saw that far from doing away with faith and metaphysics, the scientific enterprise of the “godless anti-metaphysicians” rested upon its own “metaphysical faith.” In The Gay Science, Nietzsche explains that science depends on dispelling personal convictions and replacing them with provisional hypotheses. However, Nietzsche argues, the scientific attempt to disallow a priori convictions is itself based on “some prior conviction…one that is so commanding and unconditional that it sacrifices all other convictions to itself.” For scientific inquiry to occur, the conviction must “be affirmed in advance” that “‘Nothing is needed more than truth.’” Implicit in the modern “scientific spirit” is the metaphysical belief that “truth is divine.” Therefore, he argues, “there is simply no science ‘without presuppositions.’”

If Nietzsche provides an example of a moral assumption implicit in the scientific method, David Hume, the great skeptic and pioneer of the modern empirical project, provides a philosophical one. For Hume, “all inferences from experience suppose that the future will resemble the past.” To observe that a cause follows from an effect, and to conclude that the same effect will always follow from the same cause, assumes that nature remains the same. This assumption is impossible to prove. “It is impossible,” writes Hume, “that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.” In other words, arguing for uniformity in nature based on experiences assumes that uniformity already exists. To prove the consistency of the causal relationship would require stepping outside of empirical experience.

Again, this is easily refuted. First, not all scientists think that the pursuit of truth is the most important thing they do. But as scientists it is our job to pursue truth and that’s all, though many of us do value truth above nearly everything. (For example, many of us would prefer to be told we have a fatal disease than be lied to.) Further, if you are interested in solving problems like “How can we stem global warming?” or “How can we quash this outbreak of measles?”, then science is the only way to go. The so-called a priori assumption that the empirical method is the best way to find truth is not a prior conviction, but the result of centuries of experience of what works and what doesn’t.

As far as Hume is concerned, science does not assume that the future will resemble the past. Indeed, evolutionary biologists assume that the future will NOT resemble the past. The resemblance we do see, and this is not an a priori conviction but also the result of experience, is that the laws of physics appear to remain unalterable in our universe, so in that sense future laws and events (i.e., as instantiated in the evolution of stars) can be assumed to resemble the past laws and events. We use uniformitarianism insofar as our experience tells us this applies. We do not assume it a priori.

It’s a common mistake of people like Neil to think that scientists once sat down and constructed a scientific method, complete with dictums like “value truth above all else”, “assume the future will be like the past”, and “empirical investigation, replication, and so on are the best ways to find empirical truth”. No, those procedures developed from experience when people learned about the best ways to find truth.

2.) There are other ways of knowing. I discuss this at length in Faith Versus Fact, concluding that if you want to know facts about our universe, the scientific procedure (“science construed broadly”) is the only way to proceed. This does not denigrate philosophy or mathematics, both of which are logical systems that are very important in doing science and in thinking hard about what you’re doing. Mathematics does not tell us truths about the universe, but truths about the logical system it comprises. That’s why we can sensibly speak of “proof” in mathematics but not in science. Philosophy, by teaching us how to think clearly and logically, can point out errors in our thinking and lead us to conclusions that aren’t obvious. One of them is the Euthyphro Issue, which teaches us that most religious people get their morality not from religion itself, but from secular and extra-scriptural sources. That is not a truth about the universe, but a logical (and valuable!) truth that comes from reflection and perhaps some observation of how people construe morality (the border between this kind of philosophy and science is very tenuous).

What are the other ways of knowing? Neil discusses two areas.

a. Ways to answer “why” questions. To wit:

A notable example of this scientistic shift from method into metaphysics comes from Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins who, like Dawkins, is a prolific author as well as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University. During the question and answer period following a discussion of The God Delusion, Dawkins was asked whether science provides the answers to the great existential ‘why’ questions. In his reply, Dawkins declared that questions like “why does the universe exist” are “silly” questions that do not deserve answers. Peter Atkins makes a similar point in a recent article. He argues that questions like “Why are we here?” are “not real questions because they are not based on evidence.” Real questions, according to Atkins, are questions “open to scientific elucidation.”

Unfortunately, for Dawkins and Atkins, the belief that all questions must be open to scientific explanation is a metaphysical commitment, not a scientific one. Science does not say that only scientific questions are worth pursuing. Nor does science say that every aspect of reality can be explained by science. Lurking beneath their rejection of the non-scientific lies a fundamentally extra-scientific worldview. In their dismissal of the deepest questions concerning human existence, Dawkins and Atkins speak not as dispassionate scientists, but as partisans to their own philosophical picture of reality.

This can be dispelled easily when we realize that what Dawkins and Atkins (both scientists) are talking about as “fake questions” are “questions that cannot be answered with any certainty.” They are construing “real questions” as questions that have answers that we can all agree on, and can have some certainty about the answers. And for those kinds of questions, Dawkins and Atkins are correct, for only science can answer questions that have answers like that. Sure, you can say, “I had a vision of Jesus,” but there is no way to verify it. Beyond this kind of subjective “truth”, we must turn to science. If questions like “Why are we here?” do have “correct” answers, or answers that most of us can agree on, then pray tell us what the answers are, Dr. Neil! For religions, which occupy themselves with such questions, cannot agree of any answers.

b. Areas that constitute “other ways of knowing.” Disturbingly, besides philosophy, which I’ve already discussed, the only field mentioned by Neil is theology. (I’m not sure whether he thinks theology can really tell us any truths.):

Science is not the only form of knowledge. There are valid non-scientific ways of approaching reality. In fact, before the empirical science of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, science (from the Latin scientia) simply meant “knowledge.” For the ancients, natural philosophy (the rough pre-modern equivalent to modern science) and philosophy were ‘sciences’ because each intellectual discipline contributed towards knowledge of reality. Not only were philosophy and theology considered legitimate ways of knowing, the medievals placed natural philosophy below philosophy and theology. It may be tempting to dismiss the medieval hierarchy as an example of pre-modern ignorance. Before too quickly discounting it, consider first the following explanation behind the ordering provided by Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologian-philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Lower sciences,” Aquinas writes, “presuppose conclusions proved in the higher sciences.”

And that’s about it: philosophy and theology (“natural philosophy” is just another word for “science”). Neil doesn’t mention literature or art or music or any of the other classic but bogus “ways of knowing.” (I’m not denigrating these areas, but claiming, as I did in my book, that they are ways of feeling rather than ways of knowing.)

Again, it’s extremely telling that despite Neil’s repeated claim that “science is not the only form of knowledge,” he cannot give us a single example of “knowledge” that comes from outside science. That alone invalidates this part of his argument.

For further discussion of the fallacious “other ways of knowing” claim, read pp. 185-196 of Faith Versus Fact, and for a longer discussion of the scientism canard, read pages 196-224—a section that goes over many of the issues discussed by Neil as well as the Winegards.


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.

Ways of Knowing: my talk in Bangalore

December 28, 2017 • 1:36 am

Here’s the full content of yesterday’s talk in Bangalore, “Ways of Knowing: Science versus Everything Else”, along with the questions at the end. Due to my poor hearing and occasional inability to make out Indian-accented English, I had to ask for some help in translating a few questions.

It was livestreamed but is now on YouTube. It was delivered at the Indian Academy of Sciences as part of an outreach program that has just been initiated by a number of Indian scientists.

I won’t listen to this, as I hate hearing my own talks, but it did create a great deal of discussion among the audience, which continued for an hour at tea after the talk. The older folk were more resistant to the notion that religion was not a way of knowing anything true about the cosmos, but many students came up to me after the talk and expressed sympathy with my viewpoint. By and large, and as in America, it appears that most Indian scientists are nonbelievers.

If it’s a bad talk, please don’t tell me!

Amitabh Joshi, who introduced me, was my host at the Nehru Institute in Bangalore.

Oy! Rebecca Goldstein versus Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus)

July 12, 2017 • 10:30 am

I am doubly aggrieved this morning, for even us battle-hardened website bosses can be hurt, especially when it’s by a friend. Or at least I thought philosopher Rebecca Goldstein was a friend, as our relations have always been amiable and I’ve admired her work. So I was hurt when I discovered yesterday, by accident, that she took after me big time for being a prime example of  a “philosophy-jeering scientist.” This was in a piece posted about a year ago at The Big Think, in which Jag Bhalla interviews Goldstein about the purview of philosophy. In the third bit of the interview, “What’s behind a science vs. philosophy fight?“, Goldstein levels some severe criticisms at scientists who diss philosophy, claiming that those scientists don’t even understand philosophy or what its task is. And I’m the prime example of such a jeerer. I’m a bit hurt that she never told me she published this, as it’s my own custom, when I criticize a friend in a piece of writing, to let them know I’ve done it. But let’s leave that aside and get to the arguments.

Now Rebecca does a very good job in explaining what philosophy is good for: she says it’s to “maximize coherence”. By that she means the logic and reason of philosophy is good for dispelling incoherent or inconsistent arguments—a method pioneered by Socrates and now given his name.  She also agrees that philosophy has nothing to say about the truth of the natural world, for that’s not its job.  But, she adds, it can contribute to our understanding of the real world by helping scientists ponder the implications of their theories, as they did when quantum mechanics was being formulated.

I agree with all that! In fact, I’ve said precisely that. My latest take on the value of philosophy, in a critical post about Bill Nye, says pretty much what Goldstein said. My words:

My own view is that philosophy is valuable in adjudicating questions about morality and politics, and has also contributed, though to a lesser degree, to the progress of science. Since philosophy specializes in clear thinking and logic, and examining arguments through “thought experiments,” it’s helped clarify our thinking about moral issues (i.e., the trolley problem, abortion, our duty to those less fortunate), political issues (viz., Mill’s On Liberty and The Subjection of Women), and religious issues (I’ve long maintained that Plato’s Euthyphro argument is one of the best contributions of philosophy to thinking about God).

What about science? Well, some philosophers like Dan Dennett and Phil Kitcher have applied their professional skills to discussions of evolution and sociobiology, and have made very real contributions to scientists’ thinking about those issues. Indeed, both of those men have a strong scientific mindset, a mindset sufficient to criticize scientific ideas in a useful way. Their contributions aren’t all that different from the Gedankenexperimentsmade by Einstein and Niels Bohr, for instance, in their epic battle about the meaning of quantum mechanics. Philosophy plays a substantial role in interpreting quantum mechanics and other issues in modern physics, whether or not physicists like Lawrence Krauss admit it (he’s a big detractor of philosophy). Nye doesn’t touch on any of this; it’s above his pay grade.

I will claim that philosophy by itself cannot tell us anything new about nature. It can help us do that using its powers of logic and analysis, but ultimately it is science—reasoned and testable observations of nature that produce provisional “truth”—that must tell us about the nature of the cosmos. But that’s not philosophy’s bailiwick, for the field involves ways of thinking about problems, not telling us what’s real. And it’s none the worse for that.

Now granted, this was in July 5, nearly a year after Rebecca’s post, but my position has been pretty much the same all along. And given that I expressed it in a small meeting that Rebecca and I went to a few years ago, she should know that (it’s also in Faith versus Fact, published two years ago.) And yes, there are some scientists who don’t seem to appreciate the value of any philosophy, for scientists or anyone else: these seem to include Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and it’s clear that I disagree with them. But in the Big Think article I’m touted as the Prime Miscreant among their ranks.

First comes a supposed demolition of my argument that philosophy, like math, is not a “way of knowing”. I’ve carefully defined what I meant by that, in Faith versus Fact and elsewhere, as “ways of knowing what’s true about the natural world and cosmos.” I’ve argued, for instance, that math tells us a kind of truth, but a truth about the consequences of its assumptions. Goldstein agrees with me, saying this

 Now whatever it is that philosophy is trying to do (and it’s notoriously difficult to make this clear) it isn’t trying to compete with the empirical sciences.  If it were, it would be just as deluded as the philosophy-jeerers say it is.

. . . Mathematics is a prime example of non-empirical knowledge that is, unassailably, knowledge.  But its aprioricity comes at a price—namely its truths are all necessarily true, which means they describes all possible worlds, and therefore don’t give us knowledge about our specific world, the way the sciences do. The sciences use mathematics to express their truths, but the truths themselves are discovered empirically.

Now what is a scientist “philosophy jeerer”? Goldstein explains:

And a good part of the reason why philosophy-jeerers presume that philosophy must be trying to compete with the physical sciences is that they just can’t imagine any useful intellectual work that doesn’t lead to knowledge as they know it, which is knowledge of physical reality achieved by way of the empirical sciences, with a methodology requiring that theories, no matter how abstract, ultimately be subjected to testing so that our wrong-headed intuitions can be corrected.

Whatever that is, it surely isn’t me, and doesn’t resemble anything I said.

And indeed, all I’ve claimed, when saying philosophy isn’t a “way of knowing,” though it’s very useful to ethicists, scientists, and the average person, is that philosophy can’t tell us what’s true about the cosmos. I was simply including philosophy on a list of things that people have claimed are “ways of knowing” that compete with science, and trying to clarify that, like literature, math, and religion, philosophy can’t tell us anything about what’s true in the natural universe.

But Goldstein apparently thinks I’m trying to say something deeper. Here’s part of her conversation with Bhalla:

JB: I’m reminded of David Sloan Wilson’s observation that “philosophy gave birth to the sciences and parental care is still required” and that “it is the job of philosophers to think clearly about concepts.” That’s a yawning chasm from biologist Jerry Coyne’s response to Blachowicz—“Neither philosophy nor poetry are ‘ways of knowing’… it’s not the business of either to find out truth.” And I’m particularly interested in philosophy’s practice of rigorous non-numeric logic. The “highly quantified” thinking that Blachowicz says scientists typically rely on, doesn’t seem to capture all useful truths (they’re not all in “the numbers”). And hard though it may be, can you say more about what philosophers seek to do?

RNG: Well, before going on to say what it is that philosophy does, the kind of intellectual work it performs, I’d like to spend a bit of time with Coyne’s statement, because it so beautifully demonstrates what philosophy-jeering scientists don’t get. I’m surprised that Coyne, who understands his own field, evolutionary biology, so well and gets quite annoyed when outsiders lodge non-sophisticated objections against evolution, would make such a non-sophisticated statement about another field. I suspect it was made in haste, before he’d thought through the implications.

JB: Please, do point out Coyne’s hasty misstep.

RNG: Coyne’s statement would be absolutely correct if it were understood to read: “It’s not the business of either [philosophy or poetry] to find out truths about physical reality.” Coyne would be on safe ground there, damnably safe, because that statement isn’t only true but trivially true. It’s about as informative as saying that it’s not the business of firefighters, qua firefighters, to choreograph ballets (especially with their full gear and boots on).  [JAC: my emphasis]. But if you don’t understand Coyne’s statement to be asserting this trivially true proposition, then what you have is a proposition that’s not only false but self-falsifying, because it is itself a philosophical claim. So if it’s true, then it’s false, which is just about as false as you can get.  Coyne has demonstrated, in only a couple of sentences, the philosophy-jeerer’s tendency to bumble his way into philosophy without realizing it.  And this is because of the difficulty in making clear what it is that philosophy does.

JB: So philosophers know they’re not doing science, but some vocal scientists don’t know they’re doing philosophy! And that brings us back to what it is that philosophy does.

RNG: Perhaps the most effective way to try to say what philosophy does, and how it makes headway, is to simply point to an example of philosophical work.  And we have an example close to hand, because what I was just doing, in going to work on Coyne’s statement, was a paradigmatic philosophical exercise: closely analyzing what a proposition could mean, distinguishing various possible meanings, each with its own corresponding truth-conditions, and then showing that, under the analysis, the proposition collapses into incoherence.

This is what bothers me. First, I am by no means, nor have ever been, a “philosophy jeering scientist.” Second the statement that I made is indeed the one in bold that Goldstein considers “trivially true.” Well, perhaps it is to a practicing philosopher like her, but not to the general public, who thinks that science is only one “way of knowing” what’s true about the universe, and that philosophy, math, literature, and religion are others. Perhaps it’s trivially true to Goldstein, but I think needs “unpacking” for the layperson.

The rest of her argument I don’t quite understand, and perhaps readers can explain it to me—as well as telling me how Goldstein has construed my “trivially true” statement in a new and different way that falsifies it. If I was indeed doing philosophy, and my statement was “true and trivially true”, what’s the beef?

So my second tsouris comes from being misunderstood. Yes, a trained philosopher could parse and interpret my statement so that it “collapses into incoherence,” but I’m not responsible for that parsing.

Enough. Perhaps I seem defensive, but so does Rebecca.  The rest of what she says is, as usual, very good, and I’ll quote her here on the value of philosophy:

The kind of progress philosophy is after isn’t the same as the progress sought by the empirical sciences, namely to discover the nature of physical reality.  And it isn’t the same as the progress sought by mathematics, which aims to discover conceptual truths about abstract structures. Rather, it’s a kind of progress that has to do with us, the complicated reason-giving creatures that we are. Philosophy is trying to maximize our coherence. We are creatures who happily coexist with many inconsistencies, and it’s the business of philosophy to make that coexistence a less happy one.  Philosophers pay careful attention to what’s being asserted, separating out different possible meanings with their associated truth conditions, forcing hidden premises out into the open and probing the arguments and intuitions behind them, laying out the range of possibilities revealed when you’re forced to justify your inferences, which often reveal new possibilities that are worth pursuing in their own right. And sometimes these possibilities feed new scientific research (as philosophical analysis opened the way for interpretations of quantum mechanics beyond the “Copenhagen interpretation” of Niels Bohr) or even mathematical research (the incompleteness theorems of Kurt Gödel are a good example) or they help us to make moral progress, as when our general ethical intuitions concerning the rights and dignity of human beings were philosophically demonstrated to be incompatible with, say, the practices of slavery. Maximizing coherence has been the job description of philosophy ever since Socrates wandered the agora making a general nuisance of himself by subjecting his fellow citizens to the kind of interrogation that revealed their inconsistencies and incoherencies. It’s not surprising that the reductio-ad-absurdum was the form of argument to which Socrates most frequently resorted, and it’s distinctively of that type of reasoning that you call non-numeric logic.  And it’s useful intellectual work to do, this attempt to maximize our coherence, at least if you value truth, as the philosophy-jeerers so clearly do.


NY Times hires science disser as op-ed writer

May 4, 2017 • 10:00 am

Late last month, the New York Times hired conservative Bret Stephens as an op-ed writer. Only 43 years old, Stephens had previously worked at the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013.

While Stephens isn’t an out-and-out denialist of global warming, he’s always tried to minimize its potential effects on our planet. As Physics Today wrote in 2013:

As recently as November 2011, in a column headlined ‘The great global warming fizzle,’ Stephens described ‘the case of global warming’ as a ‘system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen’ that, like religion, ‘is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.’

Stephens doesn’t appear to reject outright the data on temperature rise, or even the finding that humans are involved. But he energetically mocks warnings as hysterical alarmism. In a 2008 column he wrote with a smirk:

“What manner the catastrophe might take isn’t yet clear, but the scenarios are grim: The climate crisis is getting worse faster than anticipated; global warming will cause refugee crises and destabilize entire nations…. And so on.”

In December 2009, he published on the incident that he and others framed with the loaded term climategate. He charged that it involved ‘some of the world’s leading climate scientists working in tandem to block freedom of information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process, and obscure, destroy or massage inconvenient temperature data.’ That column carried the headline ‘Climategate: Follow the money’ and the subhead ‘Climate change researchers must believe in the reality of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God.’

They added that Stephens “has a record of indicting climate scientists through mockery.”

And indeed, in his very first column,”Climate of complete certainty” (April 28), Stephens continues this gambit, mocking not anthropogenic climate change, which he actually admits, but science itself, which, he says, has given us false certainty about the phenomenon. This is a confusing message, for it gives denialist readers some ammunition not just against climate change, but against the science that has ferreted out its existence and cause. Climate scientists, he argues, have, like other scientists with convincing data, “descen[ded] to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.”  In other words, he’s indicting science for being arrogant and giving a false idea of certainty. And just as surely, that gives ammunition and hope to denialists.

First, his admissions:

The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?


None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.

But then he goes on to undercut both the nature of the threat and the “certainty” of science itself using these arguments (quotes from the article are in quotation marks):

  • Polls and experts were virtually certain that Hillary Clinton would win the election, showing the fallacy of certainty.

    “When Bill Clinton suggested to his wife’s advisers that, considering Brexit, they might be underestimating the strength of the populist tide, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, had a bulletproof answer: The data run counter to your anecdotes.

    That detail comes from “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s compulsively readable account of Clinton’s 2016 train wreck. Mook belonged to a new breed of political technologists with little time for retail campaigning and limitless faith in the power of models and algorithms to minimize uncertainty and all but predict the future.

    There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous. Ask Clinton.

With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to climate change.”

The analogy to Clinton is flawed: scientists don’t take polls, we make testable predictions about climate, our “data” don’t consist of asking people what they’ll do (some of whom have motivations to lie), and the effects of global warming are already clear. Yes, polls can be wrong, and so can science, but that says nothing about whether the data supporting climate change are convincing. They are (see here, for instance). He adduces no evidence against climate change, but simply is telling readers to be deeply suspicious of science, as if science were the equivalent of a political poll.

  • Climate scientists falsely convey an attitude of complete certainty, demonizing opponents as lunatics and moral inferiors.

“Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

First, no scientist ever says they have the absolute truth. A spirit of openness toward conflicting data is in fact part of the true spirit of science (of course we’re humans, and that’s not the spirit of some scientists!). We always operate on probabilities, making the best inference we can from data. Yes, the data supporting climate change may be wrong, but the likelihood of that is very small. We do not have “total certainty”, but we have enough assurance to begin to take the problem very seriously and try to do something about it. (Stephens cavalierly dismisses climate-change models as “sophisticated and fallible”, as if they are surely wrong.)  But what is the “hyperbole” that Stephens is talking about?

And really, “ideological intentions” underlie our desire to prevent the destruction of our planet? Why would scientists have a bias against finding climate change and an ideology that prompts them to lie about its possible disasterous effects? How would we benefit from that? As for making “few converts”, nearly half of all Americans already accept anthropogenic global warming, not a bad figure given that its disastrous effects aren’t yet clearly visible to the average person.

Further, surely the opposition to global warming is not based on scientists’ supposed “moral superiority”—no more than opposition to evolution (as strong in America as is opposition to climate change) does not rest on evolutionists acting “morally superior.” It’s based on religion; just as climate change is based on secular faith or wish-thinking that “everything’s all right.”

The parallels between Stephens’s attitude and Americans’ denial of evolution becomes clear at the end when he makes his last argument:

  • The “total certainty” evinced by scientists in general degrades their credibility.

“None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.

I’ve taken the epigraph for this column* [JAC: see below] from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who knew something about the evils of certitude. Perhaps if there had been less certitude and more second-guessing in Clinton’s campaign, she’d be president. Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

We see here that Stephens’s real objection is not science, but “scientism,” normally taken to be the extension of science into areas where it supposedly doesn’t belong, but to Stephens it’s a form of scientific arrogance.

But there is no scientist who would say that we are absolutely certain about climate change, or about evolution, either. Stephens is tilting at a windmill. The best data available tell us that both pheomena are real, and the probability we are wrong is very, very low. Yes, we could both be wrong, but Stephens is using that very small possibility to do down science as a whole and—let’s face it—to give heart to climate-change denialists.

The Washington Post which is owned by the New York Times, has written a critique of Stephens’s column, as has Slate.  The Post‘s piece in particularly good at pointing out the ambiguities and misstatements in Stephen’s column. They asked the Times’s editorial-page boss James Bennett, responsible for overseeing Stephens’s column, to respond to their critique, and got this response, which they call “Editorial Page Editor’s Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage”:

If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time, we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.

The crux of the matter here is whether the questions Bret’s raising and the positions he’s taking are outside the bounds of reasonable discussion. I don’t think a fair reading of his column remotely supports that conclusion — quite the opposite, actually. He’s capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate, and engaging that debate directly helps each of us clarify what we think. We’re already getting some spirited and constructive responses, and I’m looking forward to reflecting those views in our pages, too.

A “fair reading” of Stephens’s column shows that he’s concluding that science can’t be trusted in general, and perhaps for climate change as well—at least as far as the certainty of the phenomenon is concerned.

In hiring Stephens and allowing him to spew anti-science rhetoric as opinion, the Times is doing the equivalent of publishing an evolution-criticizing piece by a closet creationist. To see that, just rewrite Stephens’s column, but substitute “evolution” for “climate change”. Would such a piece merit inclusion on the paper’s op-ed page?


*[Column epigraph]

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.

But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

— An old Jew of Galicia