Tag Archives: Maarten Boudry

Science Unlimited, Part Two: The Humanities

This is the Second Part of a review of “Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism”, edited by Maarten Boudry and Massimo Pigliucci. Part 1, focusing on pseudoscience, is here.

The Claim of Scientism can be stated overly crudely as “science is the only way of answering questions”, which of course is guaranteed to raise hackles. But in the non-strawman version scientism does not assert that humanities can never contribute to knowledge, instead it asserts that ways of finding things out are fundamentally the same in all disciplines. Any differences in methods are then merely consequences of the types of evidence that are available, rather than reflecting an actual epistemological division into “different ways of knowing”. The prospect is not, therefore, of a hostile takeover of the humanities, but of a union or conscilience (to use a term that E. O. Wilson revived from Whewell).

In its least offensive statement, scientism states that science is pragmatic, and that it will use any type of evidence that it can get its hands on. The best understanding is produced by combining and synthesizing different approaches, asserting that — since the natural world is a unified whole — different approaches to knowledge must mesh seamlessly and combine constructively.

The remant of a supernova explosion which was recorded in AD 1006 by Chinese, Egyptian and European sky watchers.

As a real example, an astronomer could be studying the visible remnant of a supernova explosion. Knowing the age of the remnant would be crucial for calculating “hard physics” such as the energy of the explosion. So the astronomer would be very interested in sightings of the explosion found in thousand-year-old Chinese records.

But to interpret such records, and accurately date the supernova, one would need to know a lot about Chinese culture of the time, their calendar and how they counted years, how they referred to different positions in the sky, how they interpreted celestial events, and how that was bound up with their lore and religion. In other words, one would need to know a lot about history and culture, which are normally regarded as part of the humanities, not part of the physical sciences.

So would an astronomer start worrying that by using ancient records they were straying outside of science? Could they legitimately use such information, or might the resulting paper get rejected during peer review as being “not science”?

It has been suggested that these markings, made 6000 years ago in India, are a sky map recording an ancient supernova.

To a scientist, any such worry would be absurd. Of course historical records, of all types, are valid information that can be used to calculate the energy of an exploding star; why wouldn’t they be?

Scientists would, obviously, concern themselves with the reliability of the information, just as they do for any scientific information, but it wouldn’t occur to them to worry about any supposed line of demarcation, nor to worry about crossing it. Their whole world view — likely so obvious to them as to be unquestioned — tells them to regard everything as within bounds, all knowledge as within their purview.

Let’s take another example, that of migration patterns of human peoples over thousands of years. Anyone studying our past would use all the information they could get, whether that is “scientific”, “cultural”, “historical” or whatever. This might include archaeology, cultural patterns within archaeological finds such as pottery, geophysical surveys of the landscape, analysis of ancient pollen, genetic analysis of living peoples, genetic analysis of ancient skeletons, analysis of languages and language families, and consideration of historical records and cultural traditions.

Any attempt to create an epistemological divide between “science” and “history” is untenable. On what date in the past does the study of ancient humans stop being “history” (part of the humanities) and start being archaeology (is that a humanity or a science?) or paleontology (definitely a science)?

If the reply is that there is no clear demarcation, but instead a messy transition, then that concedes the point, since within the transitional period all types of evidence would be relevant and valid, and must combine coherently and consistently towards a unified truth about what did happen.

That must be the case, unless you are going to throw out the whole concept of objective truth, and argue that truth is socially constructed, and so declare that you simply don’t care whether or not your cultural history is consistent with the archaeology.

Of course the day-to-day practice of history is very different from that of, say, biochemistry, simply because the types of evidence available are very different and that dictates the style of investigation. The historian cannot adopt the test-tube style of a chemist. But then nor can the astronomer and nor the practitioner of other historical sciences such as geology or paleobiology.

The availability of evidence determines the styles of investigation that are practical and possible, and science, being pragmatic, will adopt whatever methods work in that circumstance — and then attempt to mesh the different approaches into a coherent whole.

A style of literary analysis based on feeding a whole corpus into a computer and counting particular words and phrases is a valid way of studying literature. It doesn’t replace more traditional methods, it complements them. How well such tactics work is something to be carefully assessed, but one shouldn’t reject them a priori while muttering about the over-reach of science. Adding in new methods and styles of investigation can only be a boon; they can only aid us in reaching a better and more complete understanding.

The “unity of knowledge” thesis, in which styles of learning from both the huamnities and the sciences can collaborate constructively, strikes me as both reasonable and conciliatory. A few years ago, though, such a statement by Steven Pinker in the New Republic received a bad-tempered response from non-scientist Leon Wieseltier. As discussed by Russell Blackford in his contribution to this volume, “many humanities scholars will interpret Pinker with alarm”, since they interpret the claim as being that “all problems are solveable through distinctively scientific techniques”, such that “contributions from the humanities — or even from such social-science disciplines as anthropology — are unwelcome or irrelevant”.

But such an interpretation is either a misunderstanding or a strawman, since, as Blackford also states: “it is not obvious who makes such a claim”. While many scientific techniques can contribute to knowledge about human history, culture and other domains that are labelled “the humanities”, none of this, Blackford continues, “goes anywhere near displacing, as opposed to supplementing and assisting, traditional forms of erudition and scholarship”.

In one of the more scientistic essays in the volume, Boudry agrees with the unity-of-knowledge thesis, or more precisely he asserts the commonality of epistemology.

My plumber may be quite adroit in inevstigating a leakage, but I would not ordinarily call him a scientist. […] From an epistemic point of view, however, there are plenty of commonalities between what a biologist is doing in the lab and what the plumber is doing when he trying to locate a leak in my water supply. The plumber is making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. […] It would certainly be a peculiar usage of language to call my humble plumber a scientist, but then again, it would be strange to think that any point of epistemological interest hinges in withholding that status from him.

Philip Kitcher’s essay is billed as opposing scientism, being a lengthy paean arguing that “history and humanities are also a form of knowledge”, and describing the ways in which the style of enquiry must necessarily adapt to the subject matter. But this is only opposing the strawman version of scientism, not a scientism that anyone advocates. Kitcher himself concludes that: “human enquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts”, offering “a partnership in which different strengths and styles are acknowledged and appreciated” and where “constructive criticism is given and received”.

A stance that is actually opposed to scientism would reject such a synthesis, and would argue that the natural sciences are irrelevant to the social sciences, the arts and to the humanities. This could arise, for example, if human minds really were a “blank slate” created entirely by culture, with genetics and biology playing no role.

Thus, while scientism argues for a consilience in which the social science and the humanities should look to biology and evolutionary psychology for partnership and two-way constructive criticism, the anti-thesis is the rejection of that synthesis in preference for the ideology that these disciplines operate in fundamentally different domains such that they needn’t talk to each other.

The compilation by Boudry and Pugliucci doesn’t contain any contribution arguing for such a divide, though such blank-slate and postmodernist ideologies have traction in too wide a swathe of academia. While an attempt at such a essay might have been an interesting addition, the thesis doesn’t seem to me remotely tenable, and neither of the editors have any sympathy with postmodernism.

Forthcoming Installment: the supposed divide between science and philosophy.

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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.