Rest assured that if you read this blog, you are getting some solid and cutting edge criticisms of the Gnu atheist movement. Back in May, I wrote a short essay that seriously undercut one of the foundational premises of the whole Gnu movement. It was entitled, Dumbing down science to advance an agenda. If you have not read my essay, you should take a look. To date, no Gnu has been able to address my criticism and show it to be wrong. As further evidence that my critique is rock solid, just a few days ago Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York, raised an objection that is almost identical to the one I raised:
This appears to be a widespread assumption among scientists, recall for instance Jerry Coyne’s argument that plumbing is a science because it deals with empirical evidence, which plumbers use to evaluate alternative “hypotheses” concerning the causal mechanism of your toilette’s clog. But there is a fallacy of equivocation at work here, as the word “science” should be used in one of two possible meanings, but not both: either Krauss, Coyne et al. mean that (a) science is any human activity that uses facts to reach conclusions; or they mean that (b) science is a particular type of social activity, historically developed, and characterized by things like peer review, granting agencies, complex instrumentation, sophisticated analytical tools etc.
(b) is what most people — including most scientists — mean when they use the word “science,” and by that standard plumbing is not a science. More importantly, philosophy then can reasonably help itself to facts and still maintain a degree of independence (in subject matter and methods) from science.
If we go with (a), however, some nasty consequences ensue. Besides the fact that we would have to grant the title of scientist to plumbers, it would follow that I am doing “science” every time I pick the subway route that brings me somewhere in Manhattan. After all, I am evaluating hypotheses (the #6 train will let me get to 86th Street at the corner with Lexington) based on empirical evidence (the subway map, the directly observable position of the stations with respect to the Manhattan street grid, and so on). You can see, I hope, that this exercise quickly becomes silly and the word “science” loses meaning.
One Gnu activist tries to respond to this critique – Jason Rosenhouse. Rosenhouse, who has a history of rejecting science and replacing it with cherry picking and emotionalism, has decided to come to the rescue of scientism. We’ll take a look at his effort in the next posting.