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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

a discussion on scientific progress and scientism

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Pretty funny, but not much related to this post

Scientific progress depends on an expectation of continuous innovation, on encouraging an attitude of willingness to experiment, rejecting established authority of every sort, on the assumption that new experiments will bring out new realities and force us to revise our knowledge.’
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia

Discuss ‘scientific progress’ in the light of this statement.

Canto: This is very interesting. As a ‘fan’ (remembering that this word comes from ‘fanatic’) of scientific progress, an evidence junky, and also a humanist, I can see, and have experienced, a collision between the scientific process, which involves a respect for evidence rather than people, and the strongly held cultural/religious beliefs of people, which they hold fast to as identifying and solidifying principles. For example, the Aboriginal belief, handed down and taught, that their people have inhabited this land for eternity, while scientists are trying to determine precisely when the first home sapiens arrived here, and how old the continent of Australia actually is, given the pre-existence of Gondwana, Pangaea and the rest. 

Jacinta: A belief probably not held by that many Aboriginal people, most of whom have been educated in institutions that treat science seriously. That’s to say, more recent generations, and this is a problem everywhere – ‘established authority’ can also mean traditional beliefs and practices, even the old established language. The tribal language, the local language, being abandoned everywhere for more global forms of communication. 

Canto: Yes I read yesterday an essay topic about the growth of English as an international language, often as a person’s second or third language – and I recognised immediately that the essay was out of date as it stated that about 900,000 used English that way. It’s well over a billion now and rising fast. 

Jacinta: And the language of science is largely English – plus mathematics. It’s funny that there are actual scientific endeavours to preserve many of the 7,000 languages that exist in the world, while scientific communication relies largely on a universal single language…

Canto: Yes, and a person can feel that contradiction, that kind of tugging both ways, within themselves. Like following Scottish or Jewish traditions at times of celebration, enjoying the fun, and then thinking – why am I doing this? I don’t believe in first-footing or plate-breaking or whatever. 

Jacinta: People follow these traditions because they work, or at least they think so, but not always in the traditional way. And many such followers are well aware of this – that these activities don’t work as lucky charms so much as social glue. But that’s the trouble with glue – you get stuck. 

Canto: You’ve heard of the missionary who tried to Christianise the Andaman Islanders and was speared to death for his efforts? Most people’s responses were of the ‘serves him right’ type. But wasn’t that because the missionary was just trying to substitute one set of myths for another? If he was trying to introduce a new fishing method, or, I don’t know, something modernising and scientific…

Jacinta: We’ll have to get onto so-called ‘scientism’ at some stage, but here’s the thing. Maçães writes about ‘rejecting established authority of every sort’, and Richard Feynman apparently described science as belief in the ignorance of experts, but when we come upon, say, the Piripkura people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso, whose continued existence in the face of western diseases and cattle-raising gunmen we’re not even sure about, converting such people into scientific modernists who should question why they’re having difficulty surviving and adapting, seems very arrogant somehow. 

Canto: This is where humanism comes in, and it’s a fraught kind of humanism. Many would say – look, all these tribes will disappear, because their way of life is outdated and ‘in the way’, which doesn’t mean the people will disappear, they’ll gradually get absorbed into the broader population, modernised, urbanised, educated and homogenised into our diverse modern world. If they’re lucky enough not to die of disease and gunshot wounds. 

Jacinta: And their expertise in traditional hunting, gathering and fishing will be found to be not so much ignorant as obsolete within the mechanised world of food production and consumption. And this is happening everywhere, from the Limi of south-western China to the Bushmen of Botswana. Could it be said that they’re the victims of scientific progress? It’s hard to distinguish science and technology from other aspects of modernism I suppose, but this is the complex other face of science’s otherwise refreshing respect for innovation, experiment and evidence rather than ‘experts’, or just plain old people. 

Canto: So what do you think of ‘scientism’, which is I think a rather vague claim about the steamrolling arrogance of science, and what about the possibly self-destructive implications of relentless scientific advancement?

Jacinta: You know there might be something in the criticism, because as I try to get my head around the complexities of, say, electromagnetism, or neurological interactions, I find myself less drawn to some of my earlier loves, literature and the visual arts. I don’t know if that means I’m arrogantly dismissing them, but I do know they’re not engaging me in the old way. I find science more exciting, and maybe that’s dangerous…

Canto: In what way? 

Jacinta: Well, the motto of this blog is ‘rise above yourself and grasp the world’, but that kind of engagement – in something so large if not abstract as ‘the world’….

Canto: The world isn’t abstract – it’s everything. Everything found in time and space. It’s absolute reality. 

Jacinta: Well maybe, but that engagement in ‘everything’, it rather detaches you from the smaller world of the people around you, and – and yourself. Rising above yourself entails escaping from yourself and you can’t really do that, can you? 

Canto: The sciences of biology, neurology, genetics and so forth are the best ways of learning about ourselves. It all comes back to us in the end, doesn’t it? Our mathematical equations, our experiments, our discoveries of black holes, the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, they’re all about us, somehow. The things we do. And it seems it helps our understanding and sympathy. Science is about finding out things, like finding out about other people. The more we find out, the less we tend to dismiss or hate, or fear. Look at those who commit acts of terror. Surely ignorance plays a major role in such acts. A refusal or inability to find out stuff about others. A lack of curiosity about why people are different in the way they look and act. Science – or the scientific impulse, which is basically curiosity – opens us up to these things, so that we no longer hate or fear mosquitos or spiders or snakes or Christians or Moslems or Jews. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, so what’s the buzz about scientism? Let’s end this post by discussing a quote from an essay on scientism written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist. Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Canto: Well I’m not impressed with this argument, I must say, probably because I don’t agree with the implied definition of science it presents. Science, to me, is an activity, driven by curiosity, which provides dividends in the form of a greater knowledge which raises more and more questions. I rarely worry whether it’s the only source of human knowledge, because that raises the question of what ‘knowledge’ is, and I’m not so interested in that enquiry. Much more interesting to try and work out how life came from non-life, how our planet got covered in water, whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the solar system, how different parts of the brain interact under particular circumstances, etc etc. I don’t know or care whether you call those enquiries ‘science’ or not, I only know that you won’t get answers to those questions by just sitting around thinking about them. I mean, you can start by thinking, forming a hypothesis, but then you have to explore, gather evidence, conduct experiments, test then modify or abandon your hypothesis…

Jacinta: I thought the ‘net’ analogy used in that quote was pretty inept. Of course it’s reminiscent of the old Kantian categories, the grid or net by means of which we know things, which separates the noumenal world of things in themselves from the phenomenal world of perception/conception. But Kant’s problem was that the noumenal world was just a hypothesis that couldn’t be tested, since we only have our perceptions/conceptions – enhanced somewhat by technology – with which to test things.

Canto: Probably another reason why so many scientists, especially physicists, seem dismissive of philosophers of science. Another problem with those that go on about scientism is that they insist that there are other ways of knowing, but you can rarely pin them down on what those ways of knowing are.

Jacinta: Yes they’re often religious or new-age types, and spiritual knowledge is their stock-in-trade. And if you don’t have that spirituality, which doesn’t need to be explained, then you’ll never understand, you’ll always be a shallow materialist. There’s no response to that view.

Canto: Yes, we’re obviously on the autism spectrum, though not so far along as real scientists. Meanwhile, let’s keep exploring…

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2019 at 9:27 am

Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am