Author Archives: Coel

Science Unlimited, Part One: Pseudoscience

Philosophers Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci have recently edited a volume of essays on the theme of scientism. The contributions to Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism range from sympathetic to scientism to highly critical.

I’m aiming to write a series of blog posts reviewing the book, organised by major themes, though knowing me the “reviewing” task is likely to play second fiddle to arguing in favour of scientism.

Of course the term “scientism” was invented as a pejorative and so has been used with a range of meanings, many of them strawmen, but from the chapters of the book emerges a fairly coherent account of a “scientism” that many would adopt and defend.

This brand of scientism is a thesis about epistemology, asserting that the ways by which we find things out form a coherent and unified whole, and rejecting the idea that knowledge is divided into distinct domains, each with a different “way of knowing”. The best knowledge and understanding is produced by combining and synthesizing different approaches and disciplines, asserting that they must mesh seamlessly.

A non-scientistic approach might reject this unified view. It might, for example, see sociology as divorced from biology. It might assert that culture is sufficiently independent of underlying biology that the biological sciences are irrelevant and can be ignored when dealing with sociology or politics or economics, which instead are independent and self-contained disciplines, complete in themselves. I would argue that this view is, at best, a needlessly self-limiting handicap, and at worst makes such disciplines prone to error and ideological fads.

A more fundamental rejection of scientism might see knowledge as having multiple and distinct sources. For example, one might argue that one domain of knowledge (“science”) arises from empirical evidence, whereas another, quite separate domain could arise from a priori reasoning. One could then assert that knowledge within one domain cannot be arrived at from another domain, and may not even be valid within other domains. Some would argue that the domains of ethics and mathematics are examples (of which more in later installments of this review).

In their introduction to the book, Boudry and Pigliucci explain that the question of scientism is one of two demarcation problems. The first is how to distinguish science from pseudoscience. The second is whether and how to distinguish “scientific” knowledge from other types of valid knowledge.

In his chapter, Pigliucci summarises philosophers’ responses to the first demarcation problem. For a while it was thought that Popper’s ideas of falsification provided a straightforward and clear criterion: if ideas can be falsified they are “science”, if they cannot then they are pseudoscience.

But it was soon realised that it’s not that easy. If a prediction turns out wrong, then clearly some part of the overall model is wrong, but one usually has considerable latitude in choosing which parts of the model to update. One can therefore protect a particular idea from falsification by instead adjusting something else. For example, if galaxies are found not to be rotating as expected, one could conclude that Newton’s law of gravity is falsified (we are dealing here with weak-field gravity where relativistic effects are negligible, so Newton’s gravity should work), or one can instead invoke additional, unseen “dark matter”.

A second problem is that Popper’s criterion gives no guidance on the practicalities. A prediction of a solar eclipse in thirty years time, based on well-tested models, is surely “scientific”, but it cannot be directly tested within the next decade. How about an eclipse prediction for a million years hence, or one for a million years in the past when no-one was there to record it? How about a prediction in particle physics that to test would require an accelerator ten times more energetic than we can currently build?

There’s a third problem: Is Popper’s maxim descriptive or prescriptive? If the latter then by what authority? Physicists generally regard the development of string theory as scientific (which is not the same as regarding it as proven), yet it is not readily testable. Some philosophers, including Pigliucci, have therefore claimed that it is not science but is rather metaphysics. But by what authority? If one were asked to justify the falsification criterion, how would one do it?

For the above reasons some philosophers have concluded that the task is hopeless. Pigliucci points to Larry Laudan as arguing that “demarcation projects are a waste of time for philosophers, since — among other reasons — it is unlikely to the highest degree that anyone will ever be able to come up with small sets of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to define science, pseudoscience, and the like”.

Pigliucci himself regards this as too pessimistic, and instead argues for an account of science based on Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” concepts. There might not be neat criteria, but there are enough diagnostic characteristics that, in practice, it is possible to tell one from the other.

Personally I would argue that there is indeed one straightforward criterion distinguishing science from pseudoscience. It was stated by Feynman in his 1974 commencement address Cargo Cult Science, an essay still worth reading, for example for its prescience about the replication crisis in some areas of science.

For someone who was rather dismissive of academic philosophy, Feynman was actually pretty insightful about the nature and philosophy of science. He summed up science saying:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

That’s it. Pseudoscience is when you treat adherence to an ideology or belief as more important than the evidence for it. Science is when you’re genuinely trying to adjust your beliefs to the evidence. Humans are hugely prone to cognitive biases, so can readily slip into pseudo-scientific thinking. Many of the methods developed by science — for example, randomised, double-blind trials — are attempts to minimise human cognitive bias.

By this definition, possibilities of ghosts, psychic powers, the supernatural and such are not ruled out by fiat, they are not “pseudoscience” because of the claims being made, they are pseudoscience because the evidence for the claims is grossly insufficient.

Feynman’s criterion also explains why Popper’s falsifiability is insightful. If one is genuinely trying to refute ones ideas, by making predictions and then testing them, then one is least prone to ideological bias. Pseudoscientists, such as homeopaths, astrologers and conspiracy theorists, look only for evidence that will confirm their beliefs, and scheme up excuses for why they cannot or should not look for refutations (an anti-scientistic appeal to “other ways of knowing” is a favourite).

But falsification is only part of the story. As above, sometimes one cannot test a prediction even if one would like to. That alone doesn’t make the enterprise pseudo-scientific; what matters is whether belief takes precedence over evidence. Thus, if a string theorist were to make dogmatic claims going well beyond the evidence then they’re not acting as a scientist. But a physicist who considers that string theory is a promising and worthwhile avenue to explore, while remaining critically aware of the difficulties of testing it, is indeed being entirely scientific.

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Does the problem of induction defeat scientism?

Quillette magazine recently published a piece written by Spencer Hall giving: “The Philosophical Case against Scientism”. He begins:

Scientism is the claim that science is the only source of knowledge.

Let’s accept this definition, though it’s important to note that no-one defending such a thesis would interpret “science” in a narrow sense, but would regard it broadly as including the gathering of empirical evidence and rational analysis and conceptualising about that evidence. Thus, “scientism” would not, for example, deny that historians can generate knowledge, it would instead claim that they are doing so using methods that are pretty much the same as those used also by scientists. The differences in approach then arise from the pragmatics of what sort of evidence is accessible, not from their being distinct and separate “ways of knowing”.

The philosophical case that Hall presents is based on the problem of induction. No amount of observing a regularity proves that it will still hold tomorrow. The supposition that it will requires a “uniformity of nature” thesis that the future will be like the past, and since we cannot obtain empirical evidence from the future, that thesis — it is claimed — cannot be proven by science.

Hall then argues that science finds this “Past–Future Thesis” indispensable, but declares:

… either the PFT can be justified on non-empirical grounds, or it cannot be justified at all. If we accept the first horn, then we are conceding that scientific observation is not the only source of knowledge, and thus that scientism is false.

Hall then declares that the PFT is indeed true, and says:

… since there is no empirical way of defending PFT, we are forced to conclude that defending the assumption — and ultimately defending science itself — must rest on a philosophical foundation rather than an empirical one. And, thus, it follows that the claim that science is the only source of knowledge is false.

He then, rather derisively, declares this to be basic stuff akin to “remedial pre-algebra”, and finishes with: “If popular science writers wish to defend scientism, they would do well to demonstrate a modicum of understanding of the best arguments against their position”.

So, according to Hall’s argument, science is not the only source of knowledge because: (1) we know that the PFT is true, and (2) we know that from philosophy rather than from science.

But strikingly absent from Hall’s article is any philosophical defence of PFT. If one wants to use this example to show that philosophy can produce knowledge where science cannot, one first has to show that philosophy proves the PFT true. Yet Hall does not do this.

So this refutation of scientism fails right there. Showing that science cannot answer a question is only halfway to a refutation of scientism, since one then needs to show that some “other way of knowing” can produce a reliable answer.

But can the use of induction be defended? Personally I think it can, though as a matter of probability and likelihood, not of rigorous proof. (But then it is accepted that science never produces absolute proof, but only provisional, most-likely models that are better than any known alternatives.)

Hall indeed considers this, suggesting that: “… if we look at the past, we see that the future resembles the past all the time, so there’s an overwhelming probabilistic case for the PFT”, but then objecting that: “in appealing to what’s happened in the past as a guide to what will happen in the future, the would-be defender is assuming the very thing in question”.

But, we can consider the set of all events, past and future. And we can consider picking from that set, and encountering a sequence of picking one thousand white balls in a row and then the next ball being black. Obviously, the likelihood of that happening will depend on the probability distribution governing picking from the set, and — ex hypothesi — we don’t know that, since we don’t know about future events. But, that sequence will have some probability, and so we can consider the ensemble of all possible probability distributions.

If there are long periods of stasis of unknown length, it is more probable that one is somewhere within the period of stasis rather than exactly at its end. That follows simply because there is only one “slot” at the end of the sequence but lots of slots that are not at the end. Given a long sequence of normality, and picking our location on that sequence at random, it is more likely that we will be somewhere boring in the midst of the sequence, rather than at the highly particular “last day of normality” right at its end. In essence, we’re not using the past as a guide to the future, we’re using it as a guide to the present time, and asking whether it is unusual.

This analysis requires as to conceptualise a birds-eye overview of the timeline, but it doesn’t require any assumption about the future and it doesn’t require knowing the probability distribution of future events.

Of course it is no guarantee, and for all we know the probabilities could be such that normality is coming to an imminent end. But, the sub-set of probability distributions that make it likely that, after having picked a thousand white balls in a row, the next is a black, is much smaller than the set of all possible probability distributions. Only a very special and particular probability distribution could make it more likely that we are exactly at the end of such a sequence, rather than anywhere else along it. And, given that we don’t know the probability distribution, that is unlikely. So it is more likely than not that a sequence of stasis will continue with the next pick.

Again, this argument does not depend on assuming a uniform probability distribution, it only depends on their being a probability distribution, and on considering the super-set of all possible such probability distributions.

This line of reasoning has been proposed by Ray Solomonoff, who formalised and developed it into his “Formal Theory of Inductive Inference”. I’m not aware of any refutation of the argument and so I currently regard it as a sufficient resolution of the problem of induction. (Though part of the point of writing a blog piece about it is that, if it’s wrong, someone might tell me why!)

As regards scientism, a last question arises as to whether the above argument counts as “science” or as “philosophy”. It is certainly a rational analysis involving mathematical reasoning. It is not a rebuttal that can be observed empirically with a pair of binoculars or a microscope. But then no sensible account limits science to what can be directly observed. That’s only the half of it. Science is just as much about the concepts and rational analysis that make sense of the empirical world. Thus the above rebuttal is squarely within the domain of science, and so the attempt to defeat scientism fails.

Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”?

Can one imagine people saying that Cancer Research UK or the Battersea Dogs Home are inherently violent? I mention two charities because “promotion of religion” still attracts charitable status in the UK along with tax exemptions. That should surely change given that half the nation now thinks the world would be more peaceful without religion.

I would concur with those saying that the Abrahamic religions, at least, have an inherent tendency to violence. That’s because they think that morality flows from the God and that moral conduct consists of believing in God and doing what God wants. From there, it’s a rather small step to thinking that anyone not of the right religious opinion is necessarily immoral for rejecting that religion’s beliefs and dictats. Hence one has a moral licence — or even a moral duty — to correct their errors, using force if sadly necessary.

The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself. The Eid al-Adha festival is a public holiday celebrated throughout the Islamic world, honouring the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac for no better reason than that God wanted him to.

Liberal Christians tend to squirm on this topic, changing the subject by saying that the important part of the story is that God rescinded the instruction. But do they go further and admit that Abraham’s intention to kill his own son was a moral failing on his part, and that a righteous man would have flat-out refused? No, they still laud Abraham’s obedience, and they even take that line in story books given to their kids (honest, they do!).

The story likely has no historical basis, but even so, if such stories are told as spiritual lessons, shouldn’t the supposedly peaceful Abrahamic religions now repudiate it? Until the mainstream religious opinion is moral condemnation of Abraham’s obedience, I submit that religions do indeed have an inherent tendency to violence.

Nick Spencer disagrees, saying that “You have to be pretty bone headed to believe — really and truly believe — that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small”.

So Imams in Pakistan do not preach in favour of their blasphemy laws, saying that blasphemers and apostates should be killed? No Imam has ever called for any punishment of Salman Rushdie? Friday prayers in Iran have never voiced hatred of the Great Satan, and mosques throughout the Islamic world never express any animosity towards Israel and the Jews?

Many Islamic countries prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Several dozen people have been killed in Pakistan for mere accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh, multiple secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamists merely for criticising Islam. Other Islamic countries imprison, flog and outlaw secularists for speaking up.

This is not violence by lone rogues, but violence widely supported by mainstream Islamic opinion. Even voicing opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is itself considered blasphemous and so can get you killed, with wide swathes of that nation’s people openly supporting the murderer.

Nick Spencer’s claim reflects the gentle and anodyne theology of today’s Church of England, but Western Christianity has long been neutered by the Enlightenment and by secular values of church–state separation, individual rights, and religious liberty. This is tamed religion. But religion in the raw prevailed through much of the history of Christendom, and still blights the Islamic world.

Spencer continues: “Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.”.

And yet the Crusades and the Inquisition were not isolated aberrations, they were manifestations of how the Christian churches were for much of their history. And on the recent genocidal efforts, Third Reich Germany must take the prize, and yet was thoroughly religious and theistic. The fact that it was a nation that was 94% Christian that murdered millions of Jews with genocidal intent is something that Christians still don’t want to admit.

Spencer can rightly point to the large-scale atrocities of the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (motivated, by the way, by totalitarian communist ideology, not by the irrelevant point that they were “atheistic”), but is that what today’s religious apologists are reduced to? “Yes, half the nation thinks the world would be more peaceful without us, but “only” a third think we’re inherently violent and … well, we’re not quite as bad as the totalitarian communist regimes”. As exculpation goes, that’s feeble!

Progress means accepting that we must not impose our ideology by violence even if doing so would be justified or even demanded by our God, our religion or our ideology. Because, judging by our religious history, we sure as hell cannot rely on Gods to be peaceful!

That Enlightenment principle is now widely accepted in the West, but can we hope that it will become accepted by those for whom the whole ethos of Islam, and indeed the very name itself, means “submission” to the will of God?

On Michael Shermer’s defence of moral realism

“Is there anyone (other than slave holders and Nazis) who would argue that slavery and the Holocaust are not really wrong, absolutely wrong, objectively wrong, naturally wrong?”

Yes, I would (and I don’t think I’m either a slave holder or a Nazi). That quote ends Michael Shermer’s recent defence of moral realism on his Skeptic blog.

My disagreement with Shermer comes down to what we even mean by morality being “objective” rather than “subjective”. Indeed this particular disagreement can account for a lot of people talking past each other. Shermer explains: Continue reading

NASA launches satellite ‘TESS’ in hunt for exoplanets

With the launch of NASA’s TESS satellite due this very day, this is a popular-level account of TESS and exoplanet hunting that I wrote for The Conversation (and which has been re-published by the BBC Focus Magazine). Actually this is my version, prior to their editing.

Previous generations have looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered whether they are also orbited by planets; our generation is the first to find out the answer. We now know that nearly all stars have planets around them, and as our technology improves we keep finding more. NASA’s newest satellite, TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), scheduled for launch on Monday, will extend the hunt for small, rocky planets around nearby, bright stars. Continue reading

“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [Amazon.co.uk link; amazon.com link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes: Continue reading

The cosmological multiverse and falsifiability in science

The cosmological “multiverse” model talks about regions far beyond the observable portion of our universe (set by the finite light-travel distance given the finite time since the Big Bang). Critics thus complain that it is “unfalsifiable”, and so not science. Indeed, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci states that instead: “… the notion of a multiverse should be classed as scientifically-informed metaphysics”.

Sean Carroll has recently posted an article defending the multiverse as scientific (arXiv paper; blog post). We’re discussing here the cosmological multiverse — the term “multiverse” is also used for concepts arising from string theory and from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but the arguments for and against those are rather different. Continue reading