Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

Advertisements

“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

Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. Continue reading

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

stanley_book
A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”). Continue reading

A review of “Beyond an Absence of Faith”

This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation

Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.

What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:

At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …

This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:

I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.

Continue reading