• July 28, 2014

Science Warriors' Ego Trips

Galileo and Me: Science Patriotism as Ego Trip 1

Tom Stoddart, Getty Images

In Scotland, a scientist uses sonar in an attempt to find the Loch Ness monster.

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close Galileo and Me: Science Patriotism as Ego Trip 1

Tom Stoddart, Getty Images

In Scotland, a scientist uses sonar in an attempt to find the Loch Ness monster.

Standing up for science excites some intellectuals the way beautiful actresses arouse Warren Beatty, or career liberals boil the blood of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. It's visceral. The thinker of this ilk looks in the mirror and sees Galileo bravely muttering "Eppure si muove!" ("And yet, it moves!") while Vatican guards drag him away. Sometimes the hero in the reflection is Voltaire sticking it to the clerics, or Darwin triumphing against both Church and Church-going wife. A brave champion of beleaguered science in the modern age of pseudoscience, this Ayn Rand protagonist sarcastically derides the benighted irrationalists and glows with a self-anointed superiority. Who wouldn't want to feel that sense of power and rightness?

You hear the voice regularly—along with far more sensible stuff—in the latest of a now common genre of science patriotism, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science From Bunk (University of Chicago Press), by Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at the City University of New York. Like such not-so-distant books as Idiot America, by Charles P. Pierce (Doubleday, 2009), The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby (Pantheon, 2008), and Denialism, by Michael Specter (Penguin Press, 2009), it mixes eminent common sense and frequent good reporting with a cocksure hubris utterly inappropriate to the practice it apotheosizes.

According to Pigliucci, both Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist theory of history "are too broad, too flexible with regard to observations, to actually tell us anything interesting." (That's right—not one "interesting" thing.) The idea of intelligent design in biology "has made no progress since its last serious articulation by natural theologian William Paley in 1802," and the empirical evidence for evolution is like that for "an open-and-shut murder case."

Pigliucci offers more hero sandwiches spiced with derision and certainty. Media coverage of science is "characterized by allegedly serious journalists who behave like comedians." Commenting on the highly publicized Dover, Pa., court case in which U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent-design theory is not science, Pigliucci labels the need for that judgment a "bizarre" consequence of the local school board's "inane" resolution. Noting the complaint of intelligent-design advocate William Buckingham that an approved science textbook didn't give creationism a fair shake, Pigliucci writes, "This is like complaining that a textbook in astronomy is too focused on the Copernican theory of the structure of the solar system and unfairly neglects the possibility that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really pulling each planet's strings, unseen by the deluded scientists."

Is it really? Or is it possible that the alternate view unfairly neglected could be more like that of Harvard scientist Owen Gingerich, who contends in God's Universe (Harvard University Press, 2006) that it is partly statistical arguments—the extraordinary unlikelihood eons ago of the physical conditions necessary for self-conscious life—that support his belief in a universe "congenially designed for the existence of intelligent, self-reflective life"? Even if we agree that capital "I" and "D" intelligent-design of the scriptural sort—what Gingerich himself calls "primitive scriptural literalism"—is not scientifically credible, does that make Gingerich's assertion, "I believe in intelligent design, lowercase i and lowercase d," equivalent to Flying-Spaghetti-Monsterism?

Tone matters. And sarcasm is not science.

The problem with polemicists like Pigliucci is that a chasm has opened up between two groups that might loosely be distinguished as "philosophers of science" and "science warriors." Philosophers of science, often operating under the aegis of Thomas Kuhn, recognize that science is a diverse, social enterprise that has changed over time, developed different methodologies in different subsciences, and often advanced by taking putative pseudoscience seriously, as in debunking cold fusion. The science warriors, by contrast, often write as if our science of the moment is isomorphic with knowledge of an objective world-in-itself—Kant be damned!—and any form of inquiry that doesn't fit the writer's criteria of proper science must be banished as "bunk." Pigliucci, typically, hasn't much sympathy for radical philosophies of science. He calls the work of Paul Feyerabend "lunacy," deems Bruno Latour "a fool," and observes that "the great pronouncements of feminist science have fallen as flat as the similarly empty utterances of supporters of intelligent design."

It doesn't have to be this way. The noble enterprise of submitting nonscientific knowledge claims to critical scrutiny—an activity continuous with both philosophy and science—took off in an admirable way in the late 20th century when Paul Kurtz, of the University at Buffalo, established the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (Csicop) in May 1976. Csicop soon after launched the marvelous journal Skeptical Inquirer, edited for more than 30 years by Kendrick Frazier.

Although Pigliucci himself publishes in Skeptical Inquirer, his contributions there exhibit his signature smugness. For an antidote to Pigliucci's overweening scientism 'tude, it's refreshing to consult Kurtz's curtain-raising essay, "Science and the Public," in Science Under Siege (Prometheus Books, 2009, edited by Frazier), which gathers 30 years of the best of Skeptical Inquirer.

Kurtz's commandment might be stated, "Don't mock or ridicule—investigate and explain." He writes: "We attempted to make it clear that we were interested in fair and impartial inquiry, that we were not dogmatic or closed-minded, and that skepticism did not imply a priori rejection of any reasonable claim. Indeed, I insisted that our skepticism was not totalistic or nihilistic about paranormal claims."

Kurtz combines the ethos of both critical investigator and philosopher of science. Describing modern science as a practice in which "hypotheses and theories are based upon rigorous methods of empirical investigation, experimental confirmation, and replication," he notes: "One must be prepared to overthrow an entire theoretical framework—and this has happened often in the history of science ... skeptical doubt is an integral part of the method of science, and scientists should be prepared to question received scientific doctrines and reject them in the light of new evidence."

Considering the dodgy matters Skeptical Inquirer specializes in, Kurtz's methodological fairness looks even more impressive. Here's part of his own wonderful, detailed list: "Psychic claims and predictions; parapsychology (psi, ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis); UFO visitations and abductions by extraterrestrials (Roswell, cattle mutilations, crop circles); monsters of the deep (the Loch Ness monster) and of the forests and mountains (Sasquatch, or Bigfoot); mysteries of the oceans (the Bermuda Triangle, Atlantis); cryptozoology (the search for unknown species); ghosts, apparitions, and haunted houses (the Amityville horror); astrology and horoscopes (Jeanne Dixon, the "Mars effect," the "Jupiter effect"); spoon bending (Uri Geller). ... "

Even when investigating miracles, Kurtz explains, Csicop's intrepid senior researcher Joe Nickell "refuses to declare a priori that any miracle claim is false." Instead, he conducts "an on-site inquest into the facts surrounding the case." That is, instead of declaring, "Nonsense on stilts!" he gets cracking.

Pigliucci, alas, allows his animus against the nonscientific to pull him away from sensitive distinctions among various sciences to sloppy arguments one didn't see in such earlier works of science patriotism as Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1995). Indeed, he probably sets a world record for misuse of the word "fallacy."

To his credit, Pigliucci at times acknowledges the nondogmatic spine of science. He concedes that "science is characterized by a fuzzy borderline with other types of inquiry that may or may not one day become sciences." Science, he admits, "actually refers to a rather heterogeneous family of activities, not to a single and universal method." He rightly warns that some pseudoscience—for example, denial of HIV-AIDS causation—is dangerous and terrible.

But at other points, Pigliucci ferociously attacks opponents like the most unreflective science fanatic, as if he belongs to some Tea Party offshoot of the Royal Society. He dismisses Feyerabend's view that "science is a religion" as simply "preposterous," even though he elsewhere admits that "methodological naturalism"—the commitment of all scientists to reject "supernatural" explanations—is itself not an empirically verifiable principle or fact, but rather an almost Kantian precondition of scientific knowledge. An article of faith, some cold-eyed Feyerabend fans might say.

In an even greater disservice, Pigliucci repeatedly suggests that intelligent-design thinkers must want "supernatural explanations reintroduced into science," when that's not logically required. He writes, "ID is not a scientific theory at all because there is no empirical observation that can possibly contradict it. Anything we observe in nature could, in principle, be attributed to an unspecified intelligent designer who works in mysterious ways." But earlier in the book, he correctly argues against Karl Popper that susceptibility to falsification cannot be the sole criterion of science, because science also confirms. It is, in principle, possible that an empirical observation could confirm intelligent design—i.e., that magic moment when the ultimate UFO lands with representatives of the intergalactic society that planted early life here, and we accept their evidence that they did it. The point is not that this is remotely likely. It's that the possibility is not irrational, just as provocative science fiction is not irrational.

Pigliucci similarly derides religious explanations on logical grounds when he should be content with rejecting such explanations as unproven. "As long as we do not venture to make hypotheses about who the designer is and why and how she operates," he writes, "there are no empirical constraints on the 'theory' at all. Anything goes, and therefore nothing holds, because a theory that 'explains' everything really explains nothing."

Here, Pigliucci again mixes up what's likely or provable with what's logically possible or rational. The creation stories of traditional religions and scriptures do, in effect, offer hypotheses, or claims, about who the designer is—e.g., see the Bible. And believers sometimes put forth the existence of scriptures (think of them as "reports") and a centuries-long chain of believers in them as a form of empirical evidence. Far from explaining nothing because it explains everything, such an explanation explains a lot by explaining everything. It just doesn't explain it convincingly to a scientist with other evidentiary standards.

A sensible person can side with scientists on what's true, but not with Pigliucci on what's rational and possible. Pigliucci occasionally recognizes that. Late in his book, he concedes that "nonscientific claims may be true and still not qualify as science." But if that's so, and we care about truth, why exalt science to the degree he does? If there's really a heaven, and science can't (yet?) detect it, so much the worse for science.

As an epigram to his chapter titled "From Superstition to Natural Philosophy," Pigliucci quotes a line from Aristotle: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." Science warriors such as Pigliucci, or Michael Ruse in his recent clash with other philosophers in these pages, should reflect on a related modern sense of "entertain." One does not entertain a guest by mocking, deriding, and abusing the guest. Similarly, one does not entertain a thought or approach to knowledge by ridiculing it.

Long live Skeptical Inquirer! But can we deep-six the egomania and unearned arrogance of the science patriots? As Descartes, that immortal hero of scientists and skeptics everywhere, pointed out, true skepticism, like true charity, begins at home.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

Comments

1. schultzjc - April 25, 2010 at 09:14 pm

So your point is...that Pigliucci is rude? You spent all those paragraphs for that? Pigliucci is mostly correct - in the logical sense, not the social or political sense. It's a shame that his rudeness attracts this kind of attention.

2. rch1952 - April 26, 2010 at 09:54 am

"The problem with polemicists..." Coming soon to a polemic in the Chronicle!

3. kathden - April 26, 2010 at 01:16 pm

Polemic is a common rhetorical strategy in the sciences and academics more generally--not in textbooks but as part of the activity of publishing one's research and theorizing. By itself, it is not necessarily to be bemoaned as evidence of ethical shortcomings. And it can be useful for working out differences between approaches.

But all warfare is demoralizing to some degree, and polemos is war. When the passions stirred up override better judgment, polemicists often their own positions.

Romano has from time to time proved his talents (if not his bona fides) as a polemicist, so he knows whereof he speaks. By his own standards this is rather mild. And what he is trying to show is that Pigliucci is so passionate and indiscriminate in his denunciations of "irrationality" that he ends up weakening the very distinctions on which his sense of the rational depends.

4. lexalexander - April 26, 2010 at 02:18 pm

I'll spare you the polemic and instead simply ask why those who argue for supernatural causes should be taken seriously when their evidence amounts to "Well, it MUST be."

That's not a rhetorical question, btw.

5. lexalexander - April 26, 2010 at 02:38 pm

I also suspect that some of the attitude that some scientists evince stems from frustration that unserious people are being given voices not only in the media but even at tables where policy is being set. Even the snarky ones have been a lot more reserved than I would have been.

6. 22000394 - April 27, 2010 at 08:43 am

I suspect the author of this unfortunate essay has never really dealt with the pseudoscientists. The problem is that this is not a debate about reason, or method, or fact. This is at heart a political and religious war to have public dollars teaching religion in the public schools; the antiscience crowd is not simply opposed to science; they are willing to be dishonest in furtherance of their goals. A recent speaker at my own institution had one message to the general audience and a very different message when he spoke to the Christian faculty group. The judge in Dover commented in his written decision about the likelihood of perjury in the testimony of the school board witnesses.

And in Louisiana, prior to Edwards v. Aguillard, one of the attorneys for the creationists (who came, I believe, from the ICR), made it clear to me that this was not a discussion about the nature of science. When I asked him how it could be that creationism was science if the Academy, and the NCBT, and other professional organizations of scientists said it wasn't, his reply was simple: "Because they're not Christians."

7. sauria - April 27, 2010 at 08:58 am

Maybe the frustration is there because on some topics like evolution and global climate change seemingly everybody feels they "should" be given a voice for their opinion. Nevermind that the scientists who study those issues have been trained for many, many years on the details and evidence. I'm a scientist, but I don't think people should take me seriously when I try to argue the intricacies of tax code just because I have an opinion on it.

8. salrosario - April 27, 2010 at 09:53 am

What if we called it "science fiction", and covered both evolution and intelligent design?

9. johntoradze - April 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

#6 - 22000394
Dead on. Exactly right.

10. marka - April 27, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Hmm ... to me this article is spot on, remarking upon scientism, the conversion of the practice of science to an all-encompassing belief system -- religion by any other name. 'Scientists' should not be in the business of polemics, and in 'serious' journals correctly point out the limits of any particular research -- the ifs, ands, or buts. Hubris & arrogance go hand & hand, and when self-anointed 'scientists' pretend to know more than they do, they simply undercut their own arguments. No wonder many folks now turn a deaf ear -- 'scientists' continue to cry wolf, wolf, but no wolf is apparent. See, e.g., WMD, H1N1, vulcanists (who predicted Iceland's latest?), etc., etc., etc. For more on the inverse relationship between 'experts' confidence & accurate predictions, see Tetlock, et al http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/tetlock

11. unusedusername - April 27, 2010 at 01:25 pm

So while Kurtz is wasting his time studying claims of cattle mutilations and spoon bending, Pigliucci has decided he has better things to do with his life and get on with real science. Who's the fool?

12. optimysticynic - April 27, 2010 at 02:41 pm

As I recall from my days on the playground (oh so many years ago), name-calling begat further name-calling and frequently a punch or two. So, kudos, Mr. Romano for trying to elevate the discussion a bit. As for the "war" that science, rational thought and presumably social good are in with "the other side" [see 22000394], I am mostly struck by the fact that neither side can envision even the slightest hint of a common ground. Another relfection of broader cultural hardening of camps, the science-pseudoscience conflict needs a common enemy against which to unite---- an invasion from outer space, perhaps...

13. inverse_agonist - April 27, 2010 at 05:18 pm

Sure, Freud is interesting in a historical sense. On the other hand, psychiatry and clinical psychology moved on from psychoanalysis a LONG time ago. We use things like fMRI, modern genetics, and molecular biology, now. We don't need the id when we know what the hypothalamus and the amygdala are. We can actually measure those and test predictions about them. Romano seems to have missed the memo.

Gingerich is an astronomer, not a biologist. "Intelligent design" in any sense really is as stupid as Flying Spaghetti Monster theory. No practicing scientist thinks "our science of the moment is isomorphic with knowledge of an objective world-in-itself." Lots of annoying religious people accuse us of saying such things, though.

Scientists understand themselves to be testing models of reality and revising those models as data comes in. They just don't follow certain philosophers into La La Land and conclude that tribal creation myths and modern cosmology are equally reasonable and you're an imperialist oppressor for saying otherwise. Or make absurd claims like "the fact that many people have believed in magic for a long time is evidence for magic."

How would humanities scholars feel if people with no idea what they were talking about were successful at spreading the most absurd nonsense about their discipline? Imagine having to go to court to prevent the state from teaching children that Jacques Derrida was a logical positivist, who was also a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes. Now imagine that it's socially unacceptable to call people spreading this idiocy idiots. Imagine writing a book to dispel this Derrida/positivism/Hobbes absurdity and getting criticized for being arrogant enough to do so. Moreover, this criticism is coming from a physicist that never reads philosophy. He's really more of a numbers person, never liked big words much.

Claiming that evolution is "just a theory" and some sort of magic must have been involved sounds just as stupid and tedious, if you haven't been too lazy to learn anything about biology. We're supposed to restrain ourselves from saying so, because ignorant people with unwarranted social influence might cry about it.

14. eumaios - April 27, 2010 at 06:19 pm

Meanwhile, Noah's Ark has been found. Again. You can read about the discovery here:

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/04/27/noahs-ark-found-turkey-ararat/

Note that Fox has the story in their "Science & Technology" section. And it must be true, because the people making the claim say that they even used carbon dating (which religious folk accept when it seems to support their foregone conclusions, though all forms of radiometric dating are of course worthless when they suggest that the planet is older than 6,000 years).

I think we need more and ruder science warriors, not fewer and nicer.

Good post, inverse_agonist.

15. diogenesc - April 27, 2010 at 08:24 pm

Warrne Beatty? Really?

16. blindboy - April 28, 2010 at 06:45 am

I think the advance of neuroscience and empirical psychology has some of our philosophers worried that they will be exposed as purveyors of mere verbiage and that many of their traditional lines of enquiry will be either totally usurped or become even more irrelevant to intelligent discourse of serious issues than they already are. Consider the current pathetic efforts by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Jerry Fodor to undermine natural selection. As far as I can make it out their argument runs something like......" our logic clearly demonstrates that horses have feathers...therefore despite all appearances to the contrary they must have feathers."

In balance there is a lot of really bad science and even more bad science writing and reporting from organisations who should know better as well as those who care for nothing beyond their profits.

17. kalibhakta - April 28, 2010 at 07:14 am

good--God--

just when I feel all fed up with PZ Myers, a column like this comes along. from romano we learn that ID requires no supernaturalism, that scientists are irritating gits obsessed with what is "provable," that sarcasm is OK for book critics but not for scientists.

romano does make some good points: there is such a thing as blind scientism (but criticism of ID ain't it). the science wars are ultimately an result of competing evidentiary standards (so why the red herrings about ID, the Loch Ness monster, and the alleged statistical improbability of life?)...

on the latter: some big problems with that line of thinking, dude. aren't odds, where meaningful, based on comparison? think of a horse race: Secretariat is the odds-on favorite because more people are betting on him than any other horse. where's the other horse when you're talking about the universe? where are the other universes that were more likely than ours? and, what sense does it make to try to calculate the odds for something that has already happened?

18. aldebaran - April 28, 2010 at 10:34 am

It's amusing to read most of the defenses here of the rude and obnoxious "science warriors", which amount to little more than, "well, he started it". You need to elevate the debate, mighty warriors, and not lower yourselves to the level of the opposition.

If you do not raise the tone of the debate, then you merely prove Feyerabend's point about science as religion. By this, I do not mean that science *equals* religion. I mean that those whom Romano rightly calls "science warriors" have an *irrational emotional attachment* to science as the one and only way of truth. Anyone who doubts that this is the case need only read the Savonarola-like rhetoric of Dawkins and his epigones. Romano does well to call the science warriors on this point--not that it is likely to do much good.

So, no worries, eumaios at #14: You are almost certain to get your wish, and witness even more rude, vulgar, and obnoxiously polarizing science warriors swarming from the hills to the attack, like the obedient, unthinking pismires they are. (My turn for a little polemical language, since everyone else is getting in on the fun!)

19. runbei99 - April 28, 2010 at 11:21 am

I confess to a certain sympathy for the (arrogant?) science warriors. A degree of indignation, certainly, is overdue when it comes to confronting the blind-beliefers. OTOH, scientific objectivity compels a certain lack of arrogance, a flat-footed, earthy examination of the opposition's claims. Perhaps, for example, if science warriors knew more about religion (i.e., its deep background in experience) they would be able to tell the fundies how they betray their own roots. Prayer and meditation are simply the tools of scientific exploration of religious claims - not politicking or huffing from the pulpit. (If the proof is subjective, so what? The master of yoga, Paramhansa Yogananda, remarked, "At the inner end of the human nervous system, the mind, interiorized, communes with God." Not an experiment that either side is likely to make anytime soon... At the level of ideas, the best discussion of the intersection of spirituality and science that I've seen is J. Donald Walters's remarkable Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can't. Not a well-known book; but then, there's a scientific case to be made for the notion that books without emotional bias seldom are. ?

20. aldebaran - April 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Missed this earlier at # 13:

"No practicing scientist thinks 'our science of the moment is isomorphic with knowledge of an objective world-in-itself'."

This is a ridiculous statement. Any number of practicing scientists believe exactly this. What's more, they believe that their method is isomorphic with a method that leads to objective and absolute truth. Of course, scientists tend to laud skepticism, except when it points toward themselves, or toward the methods and presuppositions of their own discipline. As Romano rightly states, true skepticism does not spare *any* all-too-human area of knowledge and endeavor, and that includes--or should include--science and its methods.

21. gfelis - April 28, 2010 at 05:48 pm

aldebaran (#18) said: "If you do not raise the tone of the debate, then you merely prove Feyerabend's point about science as religion. By this, I do not mean that science *equals* religion. I mean that those whom Romano rightly calls "science warriors" have an *irrational emotional attachment* to science as the one and only way of truth."

*sigh*

There is nothing irrational about "attachment" - intellectual and even emotional - to the one method that demonstrably has led and continues leading to the discovery of new truths about the world, reasoned critical inquiry grounded in evidence. Not all evidence-driven rational inquiry is science per se, but all honest truth-seeking inquiry springs from the same basic epistemological principles. If we recognize those principles, we must recognize that science has EARNED any epistemological privilege we grant it, and that faith and superstition and magic and wild-eyed conspiracy mongering have earned nothing but epistemological disdain. Those who cling to faith and its close relatives - pretending that these "other ways of knowing" really can tell us something about the world in which we live despite their dismal record of total failure in that regard - thereby reject honest truth-seeking inquiry. Feyerabend's epistemological anarchism is preposterous precisely because it not only ignores the distinction between successful, productive epistemologies and failed epistemologies, it denies a priori the very possibility of making such distinctions. Rejecting such a ludicrous position has nothing to do with "emotional attachments," and everything to do with the idea that quaint old concepts like "truth" and "justification" actually matter.

And pardon me if I do not take seriously the criticisms of those who tut-tut over the tone of their intellectual opponents while simultaneously (1) insulting those oppenents with overheated rhetoric, and (2) glossing over or misrepresenting substantial points at issue.

22. blindboy - April 28, 2010 at 05:54 pm

Well said gfelis! Just imagine what our standard of living would be like without all those major philosophical and theological advances of the last few hundred years! LOL

23. aldebaran - April 28, 2010 at 08:18 pm

gfelis:

Whether emotional attachment is intrinsically irrational or not, it is the height of irrationality to be so attached to your viewpoint that you mimic those whom you condemn. While my own little rhetorical exercise was clearly, I thought, labeled as half-serious, your po-faced advocacy of "might makes right" ("We have earned the right to be disdainful and contemptuous of our intellectual opponents") is as disturbing as it is primitive, so thank you for unwittingly proving my, and Romano's, point.

"And pardon me if I do not take seriously the criticisms of those who tut-tut over the tone of their intellectual opponents while simultaneously (1) insulting those oppenents with overheated rhetoric, and (2) glossing over or misrepresenting substantial points at issue."

I could not agree more. The problem is that you are directing your remarks to the wrong side, as your own overheated rhetoric ("preposterous", "ludicrous", "total failure") clearly demonstrates.

24. aldebaran - April 28, 2010 at 09:26 pm

Oh, and P.S., gfelis:

Another reason why your pompous, oh-so-solemn defense of the Scientism gave me a chuckle is because it so accurately exemplifies the perspective skewered in Romano's satirical, but deadly accurate, opening paragraph. Re-read it; it fits you perfectly!

25. lexalexander - April 28, 2010 at 09:33 pm

aldebaran: If you are both able and willing to suffer fools gladly, more power to you. For me, life's too damn short to waste doing that.

On a slightly more practical level, there's another reason to bring the snark: Scientists often aren't just writing for one another in journals, they're competing with non-scientists -- and frequently devious/insincere/bought-and-paid-for nonscientists -- in the court of public opinion.

Out in the world in which most nonscientists live, a certain level of contempt for BS is required just to show that you're serious and competent. To affect policy in this country, you not only have to win on the merits, you also have to LOOK like you're winning, particularly given how abjectly bad our news media are (and I say that after 25 years in journalism). That's only one of the many dubious gifts that 24-hour cable "news" has given us, and it ain't going away any time soon.

Squashing the dishonest like bugs is essential for the sane to get and keep a place at the tables of policy-making. That it also can be deeply satisfying from time to time is just gravy.

26. blindboy - April 28, 2010 at 11:56 pm

aldebaran I think you are making a kind of category error with this statement "they believe that their method is isomorphic with a method that leads to objective and absolute truth." It may be that some scientists believe that they are seeking the absolute truth but I would think the vast majority are happy with a workable model. In a very important sense truth per se is not the issue; the more important issue is the value of the proposed model in making accurate predictions. If you consider Dalton's model of the atom it is actually wrong (compared to later models) in almost every detail yet it was a good enough model to drive chemistry forward for a considerable period of time.

The great frustration that has emergerged amongst the science community in recent years has arisen from the existence in the general population, and manifested in media, of simple ignorance, wilful ignorance,deliberate obfuscation and various forms of emotional attachment to irrational positions. This is increasingly intefering with the application of good science to important issues.

If the only serious complaint that is being made is about manners you will have to forgive us for our rudeness. Unreasonable behaviour breeds unreasonable responses. I think it is called human nature!

27. chaszz - April 29, 2010 at 01:31 am

The hero Descartes nailed a dog to the wall to investigate whether its screaming was real or mechanical. He had the opinion that animals were machines without feelings. A little less skepticism and a dot of compassion would have been welcome here, I think. This little incident always domaintate my thoughts about the hero. Just think, science might heven have managed to make it this far had this paragon of rationality never even lived.

28. jesuszamorabonilla - April 29, 2010 at 05:49 am

Have you thought of the amazing fact that practically no debate like this between 'science' and 'ID' (or other ways of introducing religion into science) happen here in the old Europe.
You americans seems to us teenagers having just discovered both science and religion.

29. cjb30 - April 29, 2010 at 08:13 am

Aldeberan:"The problem is that you are directing your remarks to the wrong side, as your own overheated rhetoric ("preposterous", "ludicrous", "total failure") clearly demonstrates."

The problem is that you are directing your remarks to the wrong side, as your own overheated rhetoric ("disturbing", "primitive", "unwitting") clearly demonstrates.

You don't have the moral high ground. Stop being ridiculous.

30. aldebaran - April 29, 2010 at 11:19 am

cjb30:

If you really think that words such as "disturbing" and "unwitting" are as inflammatory as "preposterous", "ludicrous", and "total failure", the I recommend that you invest in a dictionary. You have a valid point, however, that I should not lower myself to the level of my interlocutors, yourself included.

31. aldebaran - April 29, 2010 at 11:32 am

blindboy:

I think that you ascribe a level of epistemological modesty to scientists that few of them possess. Still, let's leave mainstream scientists aside, for the moment, and stick to the subject of the article, the "science warrior". Your claim of modesty falls apart completely when one applies it to the likes of a Dawkins, or to the other "science patriots" whom Romano targets in this article.

"If the only serious complaint that is being made is about manners you will have to forgive us for our rudeness."

It's not the only serious complaint. The other serious complaints are about being nothing more than a mirror-image of your opposition; about epistemological arrogance; about self-importance and misguided egotism (see Romano's dead-on first paragraph); and, perhaps most important of all, about choosing a poor rhetorical strategy, one that, while it may provide short-term emotional gratification, may actually harm your cause in the long run.

Anyway, I am all for discussing the subject of Romano's article, but not for reducing this subject to a mere culture war, which then devolves into one side or the other claiming its tactics are justified. Any side in a war can always justify itself.

As my first post in this thread stated (and which responses by others have only proven true), the arguments of the complainers here amount to nothing more than, "Well, HE started it!" When your side shows greater maturity than the Stegosaurus-saddlers, then it will receive greater respect. Until your side is ready consistently to display such maturity, however, don't be aghast to see that that respect is withheld.

32. cjb30 - April 29, 2010 at 11:45 am

Aldeberan: If you really think that words such as "disturbing" and "unwitting" are as inflammatory as "preposterous", "ludicrous", and "total failure", the I recommend that you invest in a dictionary.


And I recommend that you invest in a textbook describing psychological defence mechanisms. Do you honestly not perceive your posts as being pompous, rude and condescending?

33. gfelis - April 29, 2010 at 11:55 am

aldeberan: It's not an ad hominem argument to call something preposterous if you give reasons why it is in fact preposterous, and it is not a defense against reasoned criticism backed by arguments to whine about the sharp language in which the argument's conclusions are stated. You have given no reasoned defense of your position, or Romano's - and Romano's essay was the primary target of my final paragraph, incidentally, although it certainly also applies to you as well. Both of you are tut-tutting the tone of criticism without addressing the actual substance of your critics' arguments - Pigliucci's or mine.

Really, you have two legitimate options: (1) Give any reason whatsoever to believe that faith, superstition, magical thinking and conspiracist cherry-picking can generate justified beliefs about the world we share. (2) Stop whining about the sharp criticism aimed at those who claim without warrant that faith and its close epistemological cousins can actually lead us to truths.

The option you've chosen, and to a lesser degree the option Dr. Romano has chosen - whining about others' tone without addressing the substance of their criticism, however sharply worded that criticism may be - is not legitimate. Not only is it illegitimate, it is so transparently illegitimate that it ought to be embarrassing. Alas, the defenders of unreason have never demonstrated any capacity for embarrassment.

34. cjb30 - April 29, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Aldeberan:The other serious complaints are about being nothing more than a mirror-image of your opposition; about epistemological arrogance; about self-importance and misguided egotism (see Romano's dead-on first paragraph); and, perhaps most important of all, about choosing a poor rhetorical strategy, one that, while it may provide short-term emotional gratification, may actually harm your cause in the long run.

Actually, full on attack and ridicule is a very useful strategy. Reason doesn't work on the unreasonable; making them feel like idiots does. Apparently, many ex-creationists cite ridicule as a major force in driving them to properly examine their position.

Incidentally, what "rhetorical strategy" would you recommend? How would it differ from shutting up entirely? In fact, would it differ at all?

35. aldebaran - April 29, 2010 at 04:27 pm


The rhetorical strategy I would recommend to those who advocate science and cool, calm reasoning would be, most of all, to adhere consistently to the values they claim to uphold. That means always taking the high road in debate, showing proper epistemological modesty, admitting the "asymptotic" nature of scientific inquiry, avoiding name-calling, referring constantly to undisputed facts and evidence, and admitting that, while science does not claim omniscience, it rightly claims precedence in areas of practical, empirical inquiry.

On the other hand, if the reasoning abilities and rhetorical strategy that some of you folks have demonstrated in response to Romano's article and my remarks are the best you can do, then shutting up might indeed be your best rhetorical strategy. ;-)

36. dkhan - April 29, 2010 at 05:11 pm

It is always appropriate to ridicule the ridiculous.

Attempts to reason with those who deny the very validity of reason are folly. And since we live in a culture in which major social, political and scientific policy decisions are based on unreason, attempts to counter their influence with cool, dispassionate reason cannot succeed. Sarcasm and satire are not only understandable in such circumstances, they have a long history as acceptable, and occasionally successful, weapons. From Aristophanes to Swift, Voltaire to Mark Twain to Mencken, satire and ridicule have always been used as tools against unreason. Denying their legitimacy is a desperate attempt by the unreasonable to silence reason.

"Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." --Thomas Jefferson

37. cjb30 - April 29, 2010 at 05:40 pm

Aldebaran: The problem with "cool", "calm" debate is that it gives undeserved credibility to ignorant and dangerous crackpots. If, for example, someone claims that beetroot can cure AIDS, and that antiretroviral drugs are a Western plot to sterilise Africans, then how exactly are you supposed to reason with them? Respectfully engaging such viewpoints implys that they are worthy of consideration. Any attempts to take the high road will simply be exploited as a weakness.

Scientists do show proper "epistemological modesty"; if they didn't, then the whole enterprise would grind to a halt. If, however, your definition of
"epistemological modesty" involves being nice to quacks, charlatans and fanatics, then count me out.

38. anton83049 - April 29, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Re:cjb30 at 37.

Yeah, Galileo, sit down and shut up. We ALL know the sun revolves around the earth. You too, Dr. Marshall, it is established FACT that stress and stress alone causes ulcers!

39. calf_mu - April 30, 2010 at 04:22 am

1. "And sarcasm is not science."

No. Sarcasm is a form of communication, and scientists are allowed to wield it at their discretion.


2. "If there's really a heaven, and science can't (yet?) detect it, so much the worse for science."

Why? Science doesn't care about the existence of heaven. There are many questions that fall outside the scope of science. Actually, out of all the human endeavors, science seems to be the only one humble enough to admit its own limits of knowledge.


3. "Far from explaining nothing because it explains everything, such an explanation explains a lot by explaining everything. It just doesn't explain it convincingly to a scientist with other evidentiary standards."

The theory that "everything is made of quarks, leptons, and bosons" explains a everything but explains nothing. It is not related to standards of evidence; Pigliucci means that the proposed explanation is not rich enough. That Prof. Romano doesn't understand this point, I find this of concern.


In conclusion, Pigliucci's book may have been sloppy, but so was this review of it.

40. aldebaran - April 30, 2010 at 09:27 am

cjb30:

I think it's possible to argue quite rigorously without necessarily dignifying the opposition. At any rate, it all boils down to what you want to accomplish. To me, it is axiomatic that one does not prove one's superiority to a given faction by adopting that faction's techniques of argument. If it's a fight you want, however, then the approach advocated by a Dawkins, a Harris, or a Pigliucci will gcertainly take you there.

On the other hand, I admit that brute-force ridicule and other such devices may be necessary, but *only* as a last resort. Are we really in such desperate straits vis-a-vis the stegosaurus-saddlers, now? Where you and I seem to differ is that I do not think so. Even if we are, though, my view is that a fist waved in another's face only gets another fist waved back at you. So, if the science warriors' aim is to provoke a brute-force battle against the ignorant mob, and they feel that they can win the battle, then, by all means, place that bet. I don't think that they can, myself.

The key, in my view, is to keep science proper in the schools, and properly taught there. The battlefield involves our youngest minds. Again, though, people such as Dawkins do the science warriors' side no favors when, for instance, they publicly wonder whether it is bad for children to read the Harry Potter books "because they may cause an anti-scientific attitude". You must admit, there is a lot of silliness on your side, as well; all Romano and I are suggesting is that you get your own house into better order.

As for epistemological modesty, the scientists who recognize that asymptotic nature of their work, and who recognize that science is not capable of answering every question, or applying itself to every field of endeavor (even Pigliucci, to his credit, admits that some forms of truth may exist that do not correspond to scientific srtandards), those scientists do practice such modesty. There are a good deal, however, who do not. Many people, I think, scientists or not, wholean on the religious crutch of Scientism for the same reason that others lean on the crutch of conventional religion: Because they have a visceral, emotional need for certaintly, predictabilty; a sense of control and absolutes.

By contrast, my own personal perspective is that of extreme skeptical about humans' claims to *any* sort of knowledge in their current (low) level of evolution, and that it is a sign of personal maturity and wisdom to acknowledge, as Thomas Edison stated, that "we don't know one-tenth of one percent about anything". The greater universe has no obligation to respect the linmitations of the minds that contemplate it, be they predominantly religious or scientific in their orientation.

41. tolerantly - April 30, 2010 at 11:04 pm

"Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania."

Ahahahahaha. This tells me all I need to know before I wade through the many paragraphs of excuse-making for not having done the science homework.

Humanities bores! You want to know why people ignore you? It's because you live in an utterly solipsistic world where no other disciplines are worthy of respect or even recognition. You know their own world better than they-- you are, after all, cultural critics! And my god, the nonsense you pump out for each other.

Believe it or not, I've never met a scientist who started out with disrespect for humanities. It's only when they see the non-standards you hold yourselves to that they begin to suspect that you're working a con. And they're frequently shocked when they find you won't accord their work the same respect they were prepared to accord yours.

Latour's a charlatan, incidentally, but he's no fool. Clever, but wrongheaded. Or was. Apparently he's recently noticed his own wrongheadedness, which is nice.

42. aldebaran - May 01, 2010 at 11:23 am

"Ahahahahaha. This tells me all I need to know before I wade through the many paragraphs of excuse-making for not having done the science homework."

This last comment really does not even rate a reply, but I can't restrain myself. If forced to choose, I'll take the humanties bores over the science boors---especially when the latter assert their superiority over what they do not even, by their own admission, bother to read.

Anyway, it's not enough that we have advocates for a culture war of science versus religion. Now we have to have one of science versus the humanities. That's just great: Very mature, and a real sign of advanced thinking!

43. ramber - May 03, 2010 at 09:41 am

<Comment removed by moderator>

44. colonelzen - May 03, 2010 at 09:31 pm

I'm afraid that Dr. Romano's article fails for a trivial reason: nonsense exists.

By the logic of the article, if enough people believe a thing it is not nonsense.

I find that idea to be nonsense ... likewise for Creationism or Intelligent Design.

45. jayssss - May 03, 2010 at 10:07 pm

At the very best, it seems that this reviewer is also rude and smug. However, unlike the author of the book that is --theoretically, at least--under review, the reviewer and review itself is also woefully bereft of issues that a legitimate and useful review of this book would have.

I think it is accurate to say that Pigliucci does have a very good idea of what science is. He was both a practicing research biologist and philosopher (if I understand correctly, only coming to a lot of philosophy work after being a faculty member in evolutionary biology department doing evolutionary biology research).

It seems to me that even if Pigliucci is someone that does not suffer fools gladly, perhaps that might warrant some mention, but not going on and on about it. (While he would not know me now and we only interacted once briefly in passing I, myself, have been kind of dished by Pigliucci in a minor interaction where he misunderstood my point. A fact that he might be "abrupt" does not mean that he does not have good points in a book, though.)

From this review, though, it seems to me that the reviewer has very strange views of science and does NOT have good points. At least from the poor arguements and lack of relevant details in this review--it seems to me the reviewer does not have a good idea of what would have been useful points upon which to base his review on. On the basis of this review, it seems a reasonable hypothesis that on matters of actual science and points in the book, the reviewer might very well be a fool that the author would not tolerate well at all.

The Chronicle should get someone to review books like this that 1) displays more interest and deeper appreciation of what science and a rigourous biologically-based philosophy of science are 2) includes more actual details of the book and details that are important for an adequate book review, and 3) and that comes from a reviewer who does not have such a blinding issue with a hard core science viewpoint. This review does not show any of these, in my view. I would not object if the reviewer were negative about the book and somewhat skeptical about a kind of scientist and their viewpoints, but it should be far better argued and with more relevant details, not merely an anti-science/anti-scientist and inadequately argued screed.

It would seem a reasonable hypothesis that the reviewer seems likely to be someone that for reason has a grudge against biological science or scientists. Perhaps he has some other redeeaming values as a reviewer in other areas of philosophy, but I find this review of science related isseus to be full of useless, irrelevant and poorly argued "smoke and mirrors" that are of no value in a review of a book of this type and make rather intellectually naive or foolish comments about the science and philosophy of biology.

This rude, smug, irrelevant, intellectually-bereft, and poorly argued review is an embarrasment to the Chronicle, in my view.

46. canberran - May 07, 2010 at 09:04 am

The comments to this article seem to validate the need for this article in the first place. The unthinking hubris that belittles rather than enquires is attractive, but dangerous.

Hubris and arrogance are dangerous because they close the mind to new ways of thinking about things - just because the blend of empiricism and mathamatical rationalism that we tend to call "science" has led to huge advances in solving all sorts of problems doesn't mean that we're finished yet. People in academia may not notice, but humankind still faces many significant problems, and our current methods seem incapable of providing useful answers in many situations. Sure, we can continue to throw more effort at applying the same old methods to intractable problems in the hope that we just haven't tried hard enough yet - and in some cases that will yield useful results. But in other cases, maybe there is some heretic out there who actually has something useful to contribute, something outside the orthodoxy, that will give us new insights. But we're too busy calling her a psuedo-scientist to notice.

Now, I'm as intolerant as the next person of fools and idiots. The irrational annoy the hell out of me. But maybe - just maybe - that's because I share some of the irrationality that make them so stupid. Maybe I need to overcome my own hubris, even if they're still stupid. In my own field, I began my graduate study with a contempt for the "opposing" position, but forced myself - against my better inclinations - to investigate why people could believe anything so stupid. Guess what - I learned something. I still think they're wrong, but I enriched the way I think about problems. Imagine that. Learning from idiots.

47. canberran - May 07, 2010 at 09:33 am

jayssss:

What gives you the idea that Romano was writing a book review? This article is in the "Opinion & Ideas" section of the site, and advances a perfectly legitimate response to the ideas presented in a recently published book - but it does not set out to be a book review. Why should it?

Additionally, your contention that the author of the article must have a grudge because they find a certain position to be self-defeating is rather surprising. I have conversed with many scientists who are critical of those who Romano labels "science warriors". And yet they do not wish to hand in their party cards. Richard Lewontin, Stephen Gould and Steven Rose spring to mind as champions of what they do and critics of those who they think do it poorly. Do you think they have a grudge against biological science or scientists?

As for presenting 'useless, irrelevant and poorly argued "smoke and mirrors"', I suggest that you have missed the point of the article. Hubris is bad - whether it be in the name of "science" or any other set of ideas. If someone was to think that is a useless point to make, then I could only suggest they spend more time reflecting on how methodological issues can make real differences to the lives of real people.

48. wbeaty - May 18, 2010 at 09:24 pm

So, because we're fighting with people who basically are the worst sort of trolls, this makes it OK to become trolls ourselves? And in the eyes of the audience, trolls can only be defeated by bigger trolls? No, I don't think so.

Actually, whenever I see someone searching for justification for deception-based emotionally-driven behavior, it says much about their own ethical principles and character.

49. wbeaty - May 18, 2010 at 09:35 pm

> Hubris and arrogance are dangerous because they close the mind to new ways of thinking

canberran, they also remove any chance for us to become teachers. It always struck me as odd that so many Skeptics seem to be searching for a way to destroy the hated opponents, rather than educating them. It doesn't work. Well, it only can work if we achieve extreme political power; where we're finally able to send all those disgusting (derogatory name) away to the camps. Mere verbal violence can backfire by making our opponents stronger and better able to defeat us.

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