It looks like Alan Sokal, the physicist most famous for committing a hoax, is now trying to further dumb-down the definition of science. Activist Jerry Coyne, giddy to have an ally for this agenda, quotes him extensively. So let’s take a critical look at Sokal’s arguments.
Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world.
Note that from the start, Sokal defines science as a “worldview.” Okay. But if science is a “worldview” that does this, it would mean that such primacy must always apply in all areas of life. Otherwise, it’s not much of a “worldview.” The problem is that it is too easy to find examples of people with this scientific “worldview” who do not give primacy to reason and observation. Consider Richard Dawkins and the way he promotes the pseudoscientific nonsense about a religious upbringing being a form of child abuse.
Second, why is it that those who claim to have this “scientific worldview” can never seem to agree on much? Consider the multiple examples of atheist vs. atheist, whether the topic be feminism, guns, or religion.
Third, do not lose sight of the simple fact that this description also applies to confirmation bias – anyone engaged in confirmation bias will tell you they are giving primacy to reason and observation and using a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world.
This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test.
And folks who are engaged in confirmation bias have a very critical spirit – for they also rely on disconfirmation bias when it comes to competing viewpoints. But the key thing to note in Sokal’s description is that the “testing” can be in the form of observations OR experiments. In other words, as long as someone is making some type of observation, there is no need for experiment. Experiments become superfluous to science.
One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).
Yes, but how are we supposed to know that the “fallibilism” exists? Just because someone claims they hold to “fallibilism” does not mean they do. It just means they know they are supposed to convey the notion they are holding onto beliefs tentatively. Go with the flow. Social behavior. For example, we have seen it is very common for New Atheists to posture as if their atheism is tentative and open to revision. Yet we have also seen that by probing with some simple questions (what would you count as evidence for God?), such posturing is an illusion.
Until Sokal comes up with a method for determing that fallibilism exists, I’m afraid that criterion is completely useless. As such, Sokal has no way of distinguishing confirmation bias (and disconfirmation bias) from science. And that comes in very handy for any activist trying to masquerade as a scientist. As such, Sokal is doing subtle damage to science here. Having stuck the knife into the back of science, he then proceeds to twist it: