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:
. . . I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives. (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)
Sokal has dumbed down the meaning of science such that detectives and plumbers also do it. So what this means is that science does not need to be tied to experiments. Nor do scientific findings have to be published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. From Sokal’s perspective, such things are adornments and not necessary for science given the simple fact that plumbers and detectives do not conduct experiments and publish their results in peer-reviewed literature.
What’s worse is that there is no reason to stop with plumbers and detectives. As Sokal concedes, all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives do science. And with that step, Sokal strips science of its special authority. That is, in addition to plumbing and detectives, we do science when we date. We do science when we shop. We do science when we gamble on sports. Our politicians are doing science everyday and the talking heads on TV are doing science every night. Science, science, everywhere! We are all scientists! As long as you have an opinion that is backed up by some observations of the world, and as long as you claim you are willing to change your mind about your opinion, you are doing science. And thus it is not you making the claim, it is Science that makes the claim. What a wonderful way to inflate our opinions! Of course, someone can insist you are not doing science very well, but so what? What do you call science that is not done very well? Science. That’s the only word every activist craves.
Of course, once we have dumbed-down the meaning of science to including dating and shopping, then that means science no longer has a special track record of success. For the track record of science should go beyond cherry picking examples of success and include all the results of dating, shopping, gambling, and other daily life events. But oddly enough, when its time to talk track records, the dumbed-down definition of science is thrown under the bus and the rigorous definition conveniently takes its place.
So why is Sokal fatally undermining the authority of science? It turns out he has a familiar agenda:
And so, if I were tactically minded, I would stress — as most scientists do — that science and religion need not come into conflict.
Notice how Sokal personally attacks most scientists as being “tactically minded.” Sorry professor, most scientists could very well stress this because they are standing on principle and refuse to dumb-down the definition of science so that it becomes an available weapon for activists everywhere.
I might even go on to argue, following Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion should be understood as “nonoverlapping magisteria”: science dealing with questions of fact, religion dealing with questions of ethics and meaning. But I can’t in good conscience proceed in this way, for the simple reason that I don’t think the arguments stand up to careful logical examination. Why do I say that? For the details, I have to refer you to a 75-page chapter in my book ; but let me at least try to sketch now the main reasons why I think that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world.
. . . Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife.
This is not relevant to science unless such factual claims can be examined through experimentation. For example, Richard Dawkins made a factual claim – he claimed he experienced mild pedophilia as a child. Science cannot tell us whether or not this happened because science cannot test the claim.
But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so.
At this point the scientist seems to be relying on a stereotype that is common among the intellectually inbred academic atheists. What I typically encounter are theists who attempt to justify their beliefs with reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. I don’t find to many theists out there claiming, “Because my Bible said so!”
But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.”  It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.
It looks to me like Sokal’s understanding of “faith” comes from reading people like Sam Harris and not interacting with real people of faith.
And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.
Okay – note the word CONFLICT.
Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations.
Whoa! Sokal just dumbed-down the definition of science to include daily life activity and now he wants to ignore that and invoke physics, chemistry, and biology. Look, dating, plumbing, and shopping (which are science according to Sokal) don’t have to be a “publicly reproducible sense experience.” My plumber, for example, can work in private under the house and I don’t need to bring in a second plumber to “reproduce” his work. And notice how what started as “observation and/OR experiment” has sneakily become “observation AND experiment.” Plumbing, dating, and shopping do not need to be public, reproducible, or tied to any experiment.
Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts.
Plumbers, shoppers, detectives, and those who date also rely on intuition and revelation (having Aha! moments). And while they might not rely on “sacred texts,” they often rely on what they have been taught. Sokal does not seem to realize that by dumbing down the definition of science, his distinctions between science and religion evaporate. His entire argument collapses.
But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones?
None of this matters. Science, according to the dumbed-down definition, incorporates these methods. So how can there be CONFLICT when there is no solid distinction between religion and dumbed-down science?
At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?
This question is rendered nonsensical once we adopt Sokal’s dumbed-down definition of science.
Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?
You make the best guess while acknowledging you could possibly be wrong. It works with the science of plumbing, dating, and shopping. Why think it can’t work with religion? Is Sokal going to complain there is no consensus in religion? Well, there’s no huge consensus when it comes to the science of dating, plumbing, politics, or shopping. So what’s the problem?
Summary: Sokal dumbs down the definition of science so that it becomes indistinguishable from sneaky confirmation bias and everyday life activity. As such, science is stripped of its special, authoritative status and those who maintain it has a track record of success do so through cherry picking. Sokal seems oblivious to the fact that once he has dumbed down the meaning of science, the distinctions between science and religion become exceedingly blurred and any argument about conflict or incompatibility becomes incoherent and nonsensical.