Tag Archives: pragmatism

Skepticism, Science and Scientism

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 ‘alternative facts’ and anti-science attitudes, 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 science to maintain its 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.

Ptolemy model

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 PhilosophyScientific American Mind, April 27, 2012.

Law, Stephen, ‘Scientism, the limits of science, and religionCenter 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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A challenged democracy: wicked problems and political failures

The Conversation

Barry Jones, University of Melbourne

There is a crisis of confidence in the political system generally. The problem is by no means confined to Australia – it is endemic to the United States, many European states, Africa generally, most of Asia and South America.

I would define the crisis in contemporary Australian politics as a combination of interlocking factors:

  • sharply reduced political agenda;
  • refusal to analyse and explain complex (“wicked”) problems (climate change, jihadism, refugees);
  • convergence (largely out of fear) on major issues (taxation, national security); and
  • toxicity on trivial issues (personal attacks, “gotcha!” moments).

However, despite the frequently expressed low opinion of politics and politicians, and the toxicity and vacuity of our political discourse, paradoxically voters still overwhelmingly support the two major political groupings.

This is presumably pragmatism at a high degree. Voters say: “After all, I am voting for a government…”


The maximum variation in the combined vote for the major parties over five sets of elections in Australia in the period 2013-15 is only 2.1%. That aggregate vote has shown a slight long-term decline since the 1960s. In the 2015 New South Wales election, the aggregate vote for the two major political groupings amounted to exactly 80.0% – 45.7% to the Coalition, 34.3% to the ALP. This is strikingly consistent with the bar charts set out above.

Informal votes are generally higher than in the past, although the electorate is (at least on paper) far better educated.

Voters are (so far) loyal to the major parties on polling day but many cast their vote with pegs on their noses – and they have no interest in joining parties. Our major parties claim to have a total membership of about 80,000 – about 0.6% of voters. In reality, it is likely to be less than 30,000, not all of whom will know that they hold party tickets.

By contrast, total membership of sporting, especially football, clubs would be somewhere north of 800,000.

A system stumped by wicked problems

The current iteration of the democratic system demonstrates a striking incapacity to address sets of major issues, many described as “wicked problems”. Rittel and Webber defined wicked problems as being messy, circular or aggressive.

They argued that wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements; solutions to them are often difficult to recognise as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex, problems.

Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”.

The complexity of wicked problems is a challenge to linear thinking, reductionism and much professional education. Foreign policy provides some striking examples.

Every Middle East intervention by the West since the invasion of Gallipoli in April 1915, with the (contested) exception of the creation of Israel in 1948, has been misconceived, failed in execution and has created a new set of unexpected problems.

Current wicked problems include:

  • Terrorism and security issues;
  • The clash of civilisations updated;
  • Telling the truth and winning elections;
  • Evidence v. opinion: the attack on scientific method;
  • Information or entertainment: speeding up through media;
  • Climate change paralysis;
  • Dumbing down of political debate;
  • The policy abyss;
  • Recruitment of political elites;
  • Institutional failures – churches, welfare groups, sporting clubs, armed forces, political parties;
  • Corruption: vested interest vs community interest, lobbyists;
  • Foreign and defence policies, ANZAC revisited, how many universities could a submarine buy?; and
  • Tackling budget deficits by emphasising (i) cuts, (ii) asset sales and (iii) borrowing, while ignoring revenue (i.e. tax adjustment);

There are inbuilt tensions between the nature of major challenges and attempts to understand them or address them.

  • Wicked problems (climate change, ageing, jihadism) are very long-term issues;
  • Our political cycles are short-term (three-year parliaments for the Commonwealth, three or four for the states);
  • Media cycles are very short-term (news editors get tired of a story after 24 hours or so);
  • Social media turn-round times are shorter still.

A fundamental mistake was made by many writers, myself included, about the impact of the IT revolution. We assumed that access to new technology would open people up to the world that people would seek out the universal and long-term. Instead, technologies such as the iPhone have reinforced the realm of the personal, as exhibited in social media, with its emphasis on the immediate, the next few minutes, concentrating on family and close friends, reinforcing existing views.

Choice vs no choice

If there is a united front between the major parties on issues such as asylum seekers or foreign policy, then voters will have to be reminded that (as Talleyrand remarked) “not to choose is to choose” and that Australia is – like the US – becoming a state in which government and opposition are essentially two wings of the same bird.

For Australian voters, it is like choosing between Coles and Woolworths. At present, Australia is ruled by a Grand Alliance, which refuses to engage in serious examination of, say, climate change, planning for a post-carbon economy, education reform, rethinking foreign policy, or securing an appropriate revenue base for an ageing society with increasingly sophisticated health needs and the shadow of Alzheimer’s.

A central failure in the current political debacle has been the pursuit of populism, fearful of serious analysis of the major ongoing problems that face societies like ours. Both the Coalition and Labor are at fault in this.

I have sometimes fantasised that there could be room for a new party, called Courage, but I don’t see it on the horizon.

The problem for me is: how is an 82-year-old radical to vote if he wants to reform the world and get answers to basic questions, such as: how many submarines does Australia need? And how do we challenge a military culture? And plan for a post-carbon future? And protect the environment?

And preserve the rule of law? And entrench support for research, CSIRO, the ABC and the Bureau of Meteorology? And recognise the growing needs of an ageing population? And have a root-and-branch reform of the tax system? And put creativity and greater opportunity into the school system? And move towards a republic? And tackle reform on issues ranging from sexuality to urban land management (bad here, good in England)? And challenge the obsession that growth is an end in itself?

You tell me.

Tackling complex problems such as refugees and climate change will demand complex solutions. These cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”). “Retail politics”, sometimes called “transactional politics”, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected.

We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act
accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear.

A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis. This is compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

The electoral success of vision-free politics

To many voters, identification with a party is a reflection, not necessarily of self-interest, although that is important, but a reflection of their own values – values at a particular time.

The British Conservative Party has an outstanding record of having been consistently and demonstrably wrong on issues over 150 years, but had very forgiving supporters. The party actually benefited from the defeat of its great historic campaigns.

The Conservatives were for the Corn Laws, child labour, appeasement of Hitler and the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, and against Catholic and Jewish emancipation, manhood suffrage, Home Rule for Ireland, votes for women, the National Health Scheme and independence for India.

It is hard to identify a single issue that the Tories got right the first time round. That did not prevent them from winning elections. In the 20th century, under universal suffrage, the Tories held office for longer than Labour and the Liberals combined.

In Australia, the ALP alternative to conservatism is timidly progressive, fearful of causing offence, unable and unwilling to reform itself, totally controlled by factional apparatchiks.

Both major parties talk about “taxpayers” as if they were an entity with no function other than paying tax. In reality, they are people passing through a variety of changing roles, with higher or lower needs depending on what part of life they are in – but they are also spouses, parents, workers, students, patients, welfare dependents, customers, community activists.

After his near-death experience on February 9, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was questioned on ABC’s 7.30 and set out his vision-free priorities: “lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom”, emphasising that his government “believes in values and institutions that have stood the test of time” (unidentified, but presumably the Roman Catholic Church, the British royal family and the Institute of Public Affairs would be high on the list).

“Lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom.” Let’s unpick that.

In the next decades, will Australia’s population be rising, falling or static? If rising, will the percentage of Australians aged more than 60 be rising disproportionately? All demographers say “yes”.

Will this (in the absence of widespread euthanasia) mean a significant increase in the numbers of people requiring sophisticated, long-term medical treatment and/or hospitalisation, at great expense? How will any government, especially a smaller one, deal with a rising problem with increased numbers on a lower revenue base? How can it be done?

Will poverty, inability to afford medical assistance, decrepitude and isolation increase or reduce the prospect of “greater freedom”? For whom?

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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