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On Massimo Pigliucci on scientism: part 1 – what is science?

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Massimo Pigliucci, who seems like a nice enough bloke…

 

I’ve written a couple of posts on scientism (all references below), which is for some reason a topic that always gets me exercised. So a recent brief interview with the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, on the Point of Inquiry podcast, has set me back on the wagon. This blog post will be a piece by piece analysis of (some bits of) the interview. 

I’ll begin with the Point of Inquiry host Kavin Senapathy’s intro, in which she gives a definition of scientism as:

this idea that the scientific method is the only worthwhile way of answering questions, and that any question that can’t be tackled using science is therefore unimportant or frivolous, and this often seems to apply to areas of social or political concern. In practice, those with a scientific approach try to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science. So this is really an ideology

So scientism is an ideology (and Pigliucci agrees with this later in the interview). I must say I’m skeptical of both terms, but let me focus for now on ‘ideology’. I once recall, during a meeting of secular and religious humanists, an old bloke beside me describing atheism as an ideology. The term’s often abused, and almost invariably used as a put-down. Only the other day, our former PM, John Howard, not known for his scientific literacy, complained that the recent federal election was marred by ‘climate change ideology’, by which he clearly meant the view that anthropogenic global warming is an issue. 

More important here, though, is the attempt to define scientism, which makes me wonder if scientism is really a thing at all. The problem for me here is that it’s obvious that any area of ‘social or political concern’ will benefit from rigorous thought, or inference, based on various forms of evidence. Whether you want to call it science or not isn’t, for me, a major issue. For example, a state’s immigration policy would best be based on a range of concerns and analyses about its population, its resources, its productivity, its degree of integration, its previous experience of immigration, its relations with neighbours, the needs and aspirations of the immigrants, and so on. These factors can’t simply be intuited (though politicians generally do base their decisions on intuition, or ideology), but whether such analysis rises to the level of science doubtless depends on how you define science. However, it would clearly benefit from science in the form of number-crunching computer technology – always bearing in mind the garbage-in-garbage-out caveat. 

So, it’s not about ‘colonising’ – it’s about applying more rigour, and more questioning, to every area of human activity. And this is why ‘scientism’ is often a term of abuse used by the religious, and by ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘new age’ aficionados, who are always more interested in converts than critiques. 

Returning to the interview, Pigliucci was asked first off whether it’s a common misconception among skeptics that there’s a thing called ‘the scientific method’: 

Yes I think it is, and it’s actually a common misconception among scientists, which is more worrisome. If you pick up a typical science textbook… it usually starts out with a short section on the scientific method, by which they usually mean some version of… the nomological deductive model. The idea is that science is based firstly on laws…. the discovery of laws of nature, and ‘deductive’ means that mostly what is done is deduction, the kind of inferential reasoning that mathematicians and logicians do. But no scientists have ever used this model, and philosophers of science have debated the issue over the last century of so and now the consensus among such philosophers is that scientists do whatever the hell works….

(I’ve ‘smoothed out’ the actual words of Pigliucci here and elsewhere, but I believe I’ve represented his ideas accurately). I found this an extraordinary confession, by a philosopher of science, that after a century of theorising, philosophers have failed abysmally in trying to define the parameters of the scientific process. I’m not sure if Pigliucci understands the significance, for his own profession, of what he’s claiming here. 

I have no problems with Pigliucci’s description that scientists ‘do what works’, though I think there’s a little more to it than that. Interestingly, I read a few books and essays on the philosophy of science way back in my youth, before I actually started reading popular science books and magazines, and once I plugged into the world of actual scientific experimentation and discovery I was rarely tempted to read that kind of philosophy again (mainly because scientists and science writers tend to do their own practical philosophising about the field they focus on, which is usually more relevant than the work of academic philosophers). I came up, years ago, with my own amateur description of the scientific process, which I’ll raise here to the status of Universal Law:

Scientists employ an open-ended set of methods to arrive at reliable and confirmable knowledge about the world.

So, while there’s no single scientific method, methodology is vital to good science, for hopefully obvious reasons. Arriving at this definition doesn’t require much in the way of philosophical training, so I rather sympathise with those, such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who are targeted by Pigliucci as promoters or practitioners of scientism (largely because they feel much in the philosophy of science is irrelevant to their field). But first we really need to get a clearer view of what Pigliucci means by the term. Here’s his attempt at a definition:

Scientism is the notion that some people apply science where either it doesn’t belong or it’s not particularly useful. So, as betrayed by the ‘ism’, it’s an ideology. It’s the notion that it’s an all-powerful activity and that all interesting questions should be reducible to scientific questions. If they’re not, if science can’t tell you anything, then either the question is uninteresting or incoherent. This description of scientism is generally seen as a critique, though there are some who see scientism as a badge of honour.

Now I must say that I first came across scientism in this critical sense, while watching a collection of speeches by Christians and pro-religion philosophers getting stuck into ye olde ‘new atheism’ (see the references below). Their views were of course very defensive, and not very sophisticated IMHO, but scientism was clearly being used to shelter religious beliefs, which cover everything from morality to cosmology, from any sort of critique. There was also a lot of bristling about scientific investigations of religion, which raises the question, I suppose, as to whether anthropology is a science. It’s obvious enough that some anthropological analyses are more rigorous than others, but again, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over such questions.

But the beauty of the scientific quest is that every ‘answer’ opens up new questions. Good science is always productive of further science. For example, when we reliably learned that genes and their ‘mutations’ were the source of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory of evolution, myriad questions were raised about the molecular structure of genes, where they were to be found, how they were transferred from parents to offspring, how they brought about replication and variation, and so forth. Science is like that, the gift that keeps on giving, turning ‘unknown unknowns’ into ‘known unknowns’ on a regular basis. 

I’ve read countless books of ‘popular’ science – actually many of them, such as Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, James Gleick’s The information, and Oliver Morton’s Eating the the sun, are fiendishly complex, so not particularly ‘popular’ – as well as a ton of New Scientist, Scientific American and Cosmos magazines, and no mention has been made of ‘the scientific method’ in any of them, so Pigliucci’s claim that many scientists believe in some specific method just doesn’t ring true to me. But let me turn to some more specific critiques.

When Sam Harris wrote The Moral Landscape…he wrote in an endnote to the book that by science he meant any kind of reasoning that is informed by facts. Well, by that standard when my grandmother used to make mushroom risotto for me on Sundays, she was using science, because she was reasoning about what to do, based on factual experience. Surely that doesn’t count as science [laughing]… Even if you think of ‘food science’ as a science that’s definitely not what my grandmother was doing. It’s this attempt to colonise other areas of expertise and call them science…

In my view Pigliucci disastrously misses the point here. Making a delicious risotto is all about method, as is conducting an effective scientific experiment. It’s not metaphorical to say that every act of cooking is a scientific experiment – though of course if you apply the same method to the same ingredients, MacDonalds-style, the experimental element diminishes pretty rapidly. Once someone, or some group, work out how to make a delicious mushroom risotto (I’m glad Pigliucci chose this example as I’ve cooked this dish countless times myself!) they can set down the recipe – usually in two parts, ingredients and method – so that it can be more or less replicated by anyone. Similarly, once scientists and technologists work out how to construct a functioning computer, they can set down a ‘computer recipe’ (components and method of construction) so that it can be mass-produced. There’s barely any daylight between the two processes. The first bread-makers arguably advanced human technology as much as did the first computer-makers.

I have quite a bit more to say, so I’ll break this essay into two parts. More soon.

References – apart from the first and the last, these are all to pieces written by me.

Point of Inquiry interview with Massimo Pigliucci

Discussion on scientific progress and scientism, posted April 2019

A post about truth, knowledge and other heavy stuff, posted March 2013

politics and science need to mix, posted August 2011

On supervenience, posted January 2011

Roger Scruton and the atheist ‘fashion’, posted January 2011

a critique of Johnathan Ree’s contribution, posted January 2011

Marilynne Robinson tries her hand at taking on ‘new atheism’, posted January 2011

After new atheism: where now for the god debate? Talks by Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Jonathan Ree

Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2019 at 11:50 am

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.

 

*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.

TRIP HIGH/LOWLIGHTS

– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.

 

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

the low-down on antioxidants

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forget ORAC, just eat them coz they look so yummy

forget ORAC, just eat them coz they look so yummy

I’m going to risk alienating other colleagues here, but this post follows on from the last set in being inspired by work conversations, this time about plants and antioxidants. A plant was brought in by a staffer who apparently dabbles in naturopathy on the side, and its antioxidant properties were extolled. What do I know about antioxidants? Very little, except that some years ago red wine and various berries were being sold to us as containing life-enhancing quantities of these good molecules or whatever they are. It had something to do with binding to and neutralising ‘bad’ free radicals in our bodies. Of course I had no idea what free radicals were. Then later, via the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and other sources, I heard that the experts were back-tracking heavily on these life-enhancing properties.

So, what with being told in the staff room that antioxidants could cure cancer or some such thing, while elsewhere hearing that they’ve been wildly over-hyped, I’ve been considering for some time that I should do a post on these beasties, for dummies like me.

As usual, the first thing that greets me when I attempt to research this kind of thing is the pile of propadandist rubbish you have to wade through in order to find bona fide, science-based info sites. The good thing is that, over time, you get quicker at dodging bullshit.

I immediately homed in on a link saying ‘beware of antioxidant claims’, as being right up my alley. It took me to the ‘Berkeley Wellness‘ site out of the University of California. There I’m given the first definition – that an antioxidant is ‘a substance that helps mop up cell-damaging substances known as free radicals’, which leaves me hardly the wiser. I’m also told that selling products with claimed antioxidant properties is real big business in the US.

I’m also introduced to the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) concept. My neighbour has an ORAC diet book and I’ve wondered what it meant. It seems that in the USA there’s a trend towards advertising the ‘antioxidant power’ of products based on ORAC scores – 7,300 ORAC units per 100 grams for a certain cereal, for example, or 6000 ORACs for a pack of corn chips. Are these numbers reliable, and what do they mean exactly?

Not much, apparently. The fact is that antioxidant interactions in the body are extremely complex and little understood. ORAC is only one of a number of different antioxidant tests used by different scientists in different labs, and even when they use the same test, such as ORAC, different labs come up with widely different results. Let me quote the Berkeley site directly:

Moreover, ORAC and other tests measure antioxidant capacity of substances only in test tubes. How well the antioxidants suppress oxidation and protect against free radicals in people is pretty much anyone’s guess.

A lot can happen to antioxidants once a food is digested and metabolized in the body, and little is known about their interactions. What has high antioxidant activity in a test tube may end up having little or no effect in the body. Preliminary research has found that when people eat high-ORAC foods, their blood antioxidant levels rise, but such results still don’t prove that this translates into actual health benefits.

The article ends with the usual smart advice. Choose a balanced diet, don’t eat too much, not too heavy on the meat, and with a fair quantity of whole grains, nuts and legumes, fresh fruit and veg, and you’ll get all the antioxidants and other nutrients you need. Actually, this article from I fucking love science, which gathers together expert advice on avoiding cancers, covers it all – keep your weight down, keep to the above-mentioned diet, exercise regularly in moderation, watch the sugar and salt intake and usually she’ll be right, whether it’s cancer, heart disease or whatever.

Not much more to say, really. But no doubt a lot more can be said about the science, and I’ll say just a bit about it here. Antioxidants, as the name suggests, are compounds that reduce oxidation in the body. Free radicals – unstable molecules – are produced when oxygen is metabolised. Free radicals remove electrons from other molecules, damaging DNA and other cellular material. They’re necessary for the body to function, but an overload can cause serious problems, and that’s where a common-sense diet comes in – though there are other factors which can bring about an overload, including stress, pollution, smoking (pollution by another name), sunlight and alcohol. Everything counts in large amounts.

Antioxidants come in many varieties. Nutrient antioxidants found in a variety of foods include vitamins A, C and E, as well as copper, zinc and selenium. Non-nutrient antioxidants, believed it have even greater effects (raising antioxidant levels), include phytochemical such as lycopene in tomatoes, and anthocyanins, found in blueberries and cranberries. I can’t find any clear info on the difference between non-nutrient and nutrient antioxidants, and it doesn’t appear to be important. There is, of course, a lot of ongoing research on all of this, and it would be easy to get obsessed with it all, raising your stress levels and sending those free radicals zinging through your body in legions. And if that’s what you want, why not buy this book, for a small fortune, and find out all that we currently know about how frying food affects its nutritive value, with particular attention to antioxidants. Of course, by the time you’ve finished it, it’ll likely be out of date.

There’s a ton of material out there on antioxidants, but Wikipedia is an excellent place to start, and to finish. One key piece of advice, in this as with other matters of diet, is – don’t rely on supplements when you can simply improve your diet (recent large-scale trials have shown they don’t work anyway). Get what you need from real food, as far as you can.

Written by stewart henderson

February 1, 2015 at 9:52 pm