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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