By Tim Harding B.Sc.
(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
September 2017, Vol 37 No 3)
In these challenging times of anti-science attitudes and ‘alternative facts’, it may sound strange to be warning against excessive scientific exuberance. Yet to help defend science from these attacks, I think we need to encourage scientists to maintain their credibility amongst non-scientists.
In my last article for The Skeptic (‘I Think I Am’, March 2017), I traced the long history of skepticism over the millennia. I talked about the philosophical skepticism of Classical Greece, the skepticism of Modern Philosophy dating from Descartes, through to the contemporary form of scientific skepticism that our international skeptical movement now largely endorses. I quoted Dr. Steven Novella’s definition of scientific skepticism as ‘the application of skeptical philosophy, critical thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).’
Despite the recent growth of various anti-science movements, science is still widely regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for the discovery of empirical knowledge, that is, knowledge derived from observations and experiments. Even theoretical physics is supposed to be empirically verifiable in principle when the necessary technology becomes available, as in the case of the Higgs boson and Einstein’s gravitational waves. But empirical observations are not our only source of knowledge – we also use reasoning to make sense of our observations and to draw valid conclusions from them. We can even generate new knowledge through the application of reasoning to what we already know, as I shall discuss later.
Most skeptics (with a ‘k’) see science as a kind of rational antidote to the irrationality of pseudoscience, quackery and other varieties of woo. So we naturally tend to support and promote science for this purpose. But sometimes we can go too far in our enthusiasm for science. We can mistakenly attempt to extend the scope of science beyond its empirical capabilities, into other fields of inquiry such as philosophy and politics – even ethics. If only a small number of celebrity scientists lessen their credibility by making pronouncements beyond their individual fields of expertise, they render themselves vulnerable to attack by our opponents who are looking for any weaknesses in their arguments. In doing so, they can unintentionally undermine public confidence in science, and by extension, scientific skepticism.
The pitfalls of crude positivism
Logical positivism (sometimes called ‘logical empiricism’) was a Western philosophical movement in the first half of the 20th century with a central thesis of verificationism; which was a theory of knowledge which asserted that only propositions verifiable through empirical observation are meaningful.
One of the most prominent proponents of logical positivism was Professor Sir Alfred Ayer (1910-1989) pictured below. Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in his bestselling 1936 book Language, Truth, and Logic. Ayer’s thesis was that a proposition can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical content, otherwise it is either a priori (known by deduction) or nonsensical. Ayer’s philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and the 18th century empiricist philosopher David Hume.
James Fodor, who is a young Melbourne science student, secularist and skeptic has critiqued a relatively primitive form of logical positivism, which he calls ‘crude positivism’. He describes this as a family of related and overlapping viewpoints, rather than a single well-defined doctrine, the three most commonly-encountered components of which are the following:
(1) Strict evidentialism: the ultimate arbiter of knowledge is evidence, which should determine our beliefs in a fundamental and straightforward way; namely that we believe things if and only if there is sufficient evidence for them.
(2) Narrow scientism: the highest, or perhaps only, legitimate form of objective knowledge is that produced by the natural sciences. The social sciences, along with non-scientific pursuits, either do not produce real knowledge, or only knowledge of a distinctly inferior sort.
(3) Pragmatism: science owes its special status to its unique ability to deliver concrete, practical results: it ‘works’. Philosophy, theology, and other such fields of inquiry do not produce ‘results’ in this same way, and thus have no special status.
Somewhat controversially, Fodor classifies Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Boghossian, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking as exponents of crude positivism when they stray outside their respective fields of scientific expertise into other fields such as philosophy and social commentary. (Although to be fair, Lawrence Krauss wrote an apology in a 2012 issue of Scientific American, for seemingly dismissing the importance of philosophy in a previous interview he gave to The Atlantic).
Fodor’s component (1) is a relatively uncontroversial viewpoint shared by most scientists and skeptics. Nevertheless, Fodor cautions that crude positivists often speak as if evidence is self-interpreting, such that a given piece of evidence automatically picks out one singular state of affairs over all other possibilities. In practice, however, this is almost never the case because the interpretation of evidence nearly always requires an elaborate network of background knowledge and pre-existing theory. For instance, the raw data from most scientific observations or experiments are unintelligible without the use of background scientific theories and methodologies.
It is Fodor’s components (2) and (3) that are likely to be more controversial, and so I will now discuss them in more detail.
The folly of scientism
What is ‘scientism’ – and how is it different from the natural enthusiasm for science that most skeptics share? Unlike logical positivism, scientism is not a serious intellectual movement. The term is almost never used by its exponents to describe themselves. Instead, the word scientism is mainly used pejoratively when criticising scientists for attempting to extend the boundaries of science beyond empiricism.
Warwick University philosopher Prof. Tom Sorell has defined scientism as: ‘a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.’ In summary, a commitment to one or more of the following statements lays one open to the charge of scientism:
- The natural sciences are more important than the humanities for an understanding of the world in which we live, or even all we need to understand it;
- Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore if the humanities are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it; and
- Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.
At the 2016 Australian Skeptics National Convention, former President of Australian Skeptics Inc., Peter Bowditch, criticized a recent video made by TV science communicator Bill Nye in which he responded to a student asking him: ‘Is philosophy meaningless?’ In his rambling answer, Nye confused questions of consciousness and reality, opined that philosophy was irrelevant to answering such questions, and suggested that our own senses are more reliable than philosophy. Peter Bowditch observed that ‘the problem with his [Nye’s] comments was not that they were just wrong about philosophy; they were fractally wrong. Nye didn’t know what he was talking about. His concept of philosophy was extremely naïve.’ Bill Nye’s embarrassing blunder is perhaps ‘low hanging fruit’; and after trenchant criticism, Nye realised his error and began reading about philosophy for the first time.
Some distinguished scientists (not just philosophers) are becoming concerned about the pernicious influence of scientism. Biological sciences professor Austin Hughes (1949-2015) wrote ‘the temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.’
Prof. Hughes notes that advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. He writes ‘as a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.’
Limitations of science
The editor of the philosophical journal Think and author of The Philosophy Gym, Prof. Stephen Law has identified two kinds of questions to which it is very widely supposed that science cannot supply answers:
Firstly, philosophical questions are for the most part conceptual, rather than scientific or empirical. They are usually answered by the use of reasoning rather than empirical observations. For example, Galileo conducted a famous thought experiment by reason alone. Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string. Drop these linked objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object. But the linked objects together are heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This logical contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption about heavier objects falling faster is false. Galileo figured this conclusion out in his head, without the assistance of any empirical experiment or observation. In doing so, he was employing philosophical rather than scientific methods.
Secondly, moral questions are about what we ought or ought not to do. In contrast, the empirical sciences, on their own, appear capable of establishing only what is the case. This is known as the ‘is/ought gap’. Science can provide us with factual evidence that might influence our ethical judgements but it cannot provide us with the necessary ethical values or principles. For example, science can tell us how to build nuclear weapons, but it cannot tell us whether or not they should ever be used and under what circumstances. Clinical trials are conducted in medical science, often using treatment groups versus control groups of patients. It is bioethics rather than science that provides us with the moral principles for obtaining informed patient consent for participation in such clinical trials, especially when we consider that control groups of patients are being denied treatments that could be to their benefit.
I have given the above examples not to criticise science in any way, but simply to point out that science has limitations, and that there is a place for other fields of inquiry in addition to science.
Is pragmatism enough?
Coming back to Fodor’s component (3) of crude positivism, he makes a good point that a scientific explanation that ‘works’ is not necessarily true. For instance, Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (c. 90CE – c. 168CE) explained how to predict the behavior of the planets by introducing ad hoc notions of the deferent, equant and epicycles to the geocentric model of what is now known as our solar system. This model was completely wrong, yet it produced accurate predictions of the motions of the planets – it ‘worked’. Another example was Gregor Mendel’s 19th century genetic experiments on wrinkled peas. These empirical experiments adequately explained the observed phenomena of genetic variation without even knowing what genes were or where they were located in living organisms.
Schematic diagram of Ptolemy’s incorrect geocentric model of the cosmos
James Fodor argues that just because scientific theories can be used to make accurate predictions, this does not necessarily mean that science alone always provides us with accurate descriptions of reality. There is even a philosophical theory known as scientific instrumentalism, which holds that as long as a scientific theory makes accurate predictions, it does not really matter whether the theory corresponds to reality. The psychology of perception and the philosophies of mind and metaphysics could also be relevant. Fodor adds that many of the examples of science ‘delivering results’ are really applications of engineering and technology, rather than the discovery process of science itself.
Fodor concludes that if the key to the success of the natural sciences is adherence to rational methodologies and inferences, then it is those successful methods that we should focus on championing, whatever discipline they may be applied in, rather than the data sets collected in particular sciences.
Implications for science and skepticism
Physicist Ian Hutchison writes ‘the health of science is in fact jeopardised by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response in other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association’. Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science — scientism. By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research.
The late Prof. Austin Hughes left us with a prescient warning that continued insistence on the universal and exclusive competence of science will serve only to undermine the credibility of science as a whole. The ultimate outcome will be an increase in science denialism that questions the ability of science to address even the questions legitimately within its sphere of competence.
Ayer, Alfred. J. (1936), Language Truth and Logic, London: Penguin.
Bowditch, Peter ‘Is Philosophy Dead?’ Australasian Science July/August 2017.
Fodor, James ‘Not so simple’, Australian Rationalist, v. 103, December 2016, pp. 32–35.
Harding, Tim ‘I Think I Am’, The Skeptic, Vol. 37 No. 1. March 2017, pp. 40-44.
Hughes, Austin L ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis, Number 37, Fall 2012, pp. 32-50.
Hutchinson, Ian. (2011) Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing.
Krauss, Lawrence ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ Scientific American Mind, April 27, 2012.
Law, Stephen, ‘Scientism, the limits of science, and religion’ Center for Inquiry (2016), Amherst, NY.
Novella, Steven (15 February 2013). ‘Scientific Skepticism, Rationalism, and Secularism’. Neurologica (blog). Retrieved 12 February 2017.
Sorell, Thomas (1994), Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, London: Routledge.
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