Trying to Rescue Scientism

In an attempt to rescue scientism, Gnu advocate Jason Rosenhouse needs to water down the definition of science as follows:

applying the common sense investigative techniques that everyone applies in their everyday lives. You gather the facts, formulate theories, test your theories by acquiring more facts, and so on.

By watering down science like this, Rosenhouse can then make his atheism seem sciencey.  He then complains when other scholars have problems with his simplistic definition:

Pretty soon you find yourself arguing endlessly over arbitrary definitions of what science is, and, even worse, getting involved in petty academic turf wars. Fine then. I’m not interested in having that argument.

So he labels his Gnu atheism as science by watering down the definition of science and when he is challenged about his definition, he loses interest in the argument.  In others words, he just wants to attach the word ‘science’ to his subjective opinion – atheism.  He wants that word.  He needs that word.  He must have it. So screw all that endless arguing.  And that makes sense since Rosenhouse does not come to the table as a scholar on this issue; he comes to the table as an advocate with an agenda.  And it is the agenda that badly wants to coopt the label ‘science.’

So how does he respond to the criticism both I and Pigliucci have raised?

 Certainly if you describe someone as a scientist, or say they are doing science, then most people will assume you are referring to someone in a lab coat. But saying that someone is behaving scientifically creates no such confusion and is a perfectly common way of speaking. I would not quite say that plumbing is a science, but I would certainly say that plumbers behave scientifically.

It is good that he admits “if you describe someone as a scientist, or say they are doing science, then most people will assume you are referring to someone in a lab coat.”  That tells us that Gnus are consciously trying to mislead people when they wear the “science” label on their sleeves.  They know exactly how “most people” will interpret their “science disproves God” rhetoric.

Rosenhouse claims the way around this is to speak of people “behaving scientifically.” Great.  But then why is it that in the very next paragraph, he abandons his solution and immediately reaches for the descriptions that create confusion?

I have previously used the example that someone who tries to find their missing car keys by retracing his steps is taking a scientific approach to the problem of finding his keys. A nonscientific approach to the same problem would be to pray to God for guidance regarding the location of the keys. You might argue that this is a silly example, since even the most hardened religious fundamentalist would take the scientific approach in this case. Indeed, but that is precisely the point. The methods of science are so obviously reliable and natural that we all apply them routinely in our daily lives.

“The methods of science?”  That’s just another way of saying “doing science.”  For the methods of science are exactly as Pigliucci described them:  “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.”

Finding your keys is only an example of the scientific method if we use the intellectually lazy, watered down definition of science.

And Rosenhouse continues to equivocate in the next paragraph:

 If my car keys example is too trivial, then simply consider a weightier question, such as the best way of treating an illness. There is no shortage of people who routinely turn to religion and superstition in this context. Suddenly it’s not so silly to point out that there are reliable and unreliable ways of obtaining knowledge, with science on the right side and everything else on the wrong side.

Notice the sleight of hand?  The best way of treating an illness?  I am assuming Rosenhouse means something called…medical science.  Medical 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.”  Yet Rosenhouse just tried to replace looking for your keys with medical science as if they are the same.

If Rosenhouse wants to keep his analogy alive, he should replace looking for keys with some other “common sense investigative techniques” and not science.  For example, many people out there would include homeopathy as a “common sense investigative technique,” for practitioners of homeopathy “gather the facts, formulate theories, test their theories by acquiring more facts, and so on.”  Lots of pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and cargo cult science would qualify as a common sense investigative technique.

Look, let’s make this simple.  There are two very serious flaws in this Gnu attempt to water down the definition of science for political reasons:

1.  It turns us all into scientists and thus robs the word ‘science’ of any true meaning.

2.  Since we are all scientists, what’s so special or valuable about “behaving scientifically?”  It’s not as if this watered down definition of ‘science’ has any great track record of success.  The world is filled with politicians, lawyers, corporate executives, media personalities, financial experts, etc. that are all “behaving scientifically.”  And what has this watered down science given us?  Hundreds of different opinions and all sorts of conflict. Or consider the Gnu Wars between the A+ Gnus and the older version Gnus.  Both sides would claim to be “behaving scientifically” and both would be correct if we apply Rosenhouse’s watered down definition.  Yet I see no great value in their approach, as it clearly generates more heat than light.

Science has a special track record of success only if we are talking about “a particular type of social activity, historically developed, and characterized by things like peer review, granting agencies, complex instrumentation, sophisticated analytical tools etc.”  If, on the other hand, science is just a “common sense investigative technique,” then it no longer has any special track record of success.

As you can see, the objection I raised back in May remains spot on:

For if science is nothing more than “the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge,” then dating, planning family vacations, and grocery shopping are all science. We’re all scientists!   In fact Coyne is even willing to drag the definition of science down to this level:

In the end, then, many of Kitcher’s arguments against “scientism” seem misguided—unless you conceive “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.”  But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment. In that sense, plumbers and car mechanics practice science when they diagnose problems.

Okay, Coyne thinks plumbing is science.  We’re all scientists!

Yet when Gnus use the word “science” to advance their anti-religious crusade, I don’t think they want people to think of dating, planning family vacations, grocery shopping, and plumbing.  After all, where are the “Grocery Shopping is Incompatible with Religion” postings?  Oddly missing.  On the contrary, in this context, the Gnus want us to think of “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.”   They want us to think of “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on.”

Don’t be fooled by their intellectually dishonest tactics.

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8 Responses to Trying to Rescue Scientism

  1. Crude says:

    You gather the facts, formulate theories, test your theories by acquiring more facts, and so on.

    So, uh… all religions formed as a result of science? Science has led people to believe in God and miracles?

    Huh.

  2. SafetyScissors says:

    I think the core of the matter is that science in the watered-down sense pretty clearly includes theology, but science in the rigorous sense equally excludes atheism. Thus, the whole game of setting up belief in God in opposition to the success of science and technology critically depends on keeping that distinction fuzzy.

  3. Michael says:

    So, uh… all religions formed as a result of science? Science has led people to believe in God and miracles?
    Huh.

    If you tried to make that argument, suddenly you would find people like Rosenhouse and Coyne switching to the rigorous definition of science.

  4. Michael says:

    I think the core of the matter is that science in the watered-down sense pretty clearly includes theology, but science in the rigorous sense equally excludes atheism. Thus, the whole game of setting up belief in God in opposition to the success of science and technology critically depends on keeping that distinction fuzzy.

    Very insightful.

  5. physphilmusic says:

    But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment.

    Is there any Gnu who would be willing to defend the logical implication of this statement that plumbers only came about after the Enlightenment? Or that people who lost their keys in the Oh-So-Dark Medieval Ages would just never find them because they didn’t know how to “behave scientifically” yet?

  6. Heuristics says:

    The best way I have found to think of it is like so:

    Science did not spring from a hole in the ground during 1700’s, people did not just start testing stuff for the fun of it. Take a look at the most well known work of science: “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” by Newton. It is not called “Scientific object movement equations” or any such thing. This is because the term science did not exist back then, the very term is a historical retrofit. What Newton did was participate in the field of inquiry called natural philosophy which was a branch of (yep) philosophy! That thing that every science fetishist hates… What Newton and his like did during that time that was different from before was not experimentation and testing for we have had engineers for thousands of years that tested all kinds of things. Its hard to build a bridge without having empirical data of how solid your building materials are or what methods have worked in the past.

    What was new was a new way of conceptualizing the world and it is this conceptualization that the atheists want to have, it is the concept of stripping the world of phantasms and intentionality and relocating them, not in the outside world but in the mind. The second part of it is to replace the language used to describe the world, instead of describing things in terms of teleology and how objects are in themselves they wanted to describe things mechanically and by only referencing the quantifiable relations between properties of objects. They don’t want truth, they want utility and relation,

    This philosophical project was a smashing success in terms of utility but it has had several notable problems:
    1. Nobody can sensibly use Newtownian language to speak about the mind, it cannot handle descriptions of things such as intentionality or joy.
    2. It cannot handle the description of objects, normally one tends to think that for example physics describes objects but it still only describes relations of properties of objects. This is out of necessity, it cannot do anything more since the only way to experiment is via measurement and the only way to measure is by looking at relations of how objects line up or move with relation to one another.
    3. The enterprise, as constructed, does not aim for truth, it aims for utility. It was constructed as a tool to help engineers build cool shit. The very foundational rhetoric that was used for it in the beginning was one where its predecessors never came up with anything that the engineers could use.

    As for the term science, why did it change from philosophy to its own thing when there was no methodological change that happened, there was just a philosophical framework that got popular? It happened during the middle of the 1800’s, after the new people in natural philosophy had an unprecedented success rate at utility among the academic and I believe it was a publicity stunt enacted so the faculties of physics and chemistry could differentiate themselves from the other faculties of philosophy making it easier to get funding since they could say that they actually bring results. But to this date you can still see the traces of the old ways in that the highest educational degree you can get is one of philosophy (phd, doctor of philosophy) nomatter if you study physics or morality.

  7. Heuristics says:

    I should mention that when I write “This is because the term science did not exist back then, the very term is a historical retrofit.” I mean that the meaning of the term has changed from then to now. Back then science meant a field of knowledge while now it means something like: “a field of knowledge by people in lab coats”.

  8. Gregory says:

    What is Science? How many ‘sciences’ are there?

    http://www.aitse.org/what-is-science/

    http://social-epistemology.com/2012/09/14/gregory-sandstrom-how-many-sciences-are-there/

    I’ll likely be following this up on my blog sometime in the coming month, after attending a conference on the history and philosophy of science, where I will raise the topics: scientism, methodological naturalism, anthropic principle, zoocentric misanthropy, and ‘extension’ as a counter-concept to ‘evolution’

    Be welcome, Mike and others to comment and provoke in any of these locations and I’ll do my best to respond to you there.

    Gregory

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