Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Trouble with Scientism?

Philip Kitcher is a philosopher who specializes in the philsophy of science. He is a professor at Columbia University in New York, USA. He's well known in the atheist, skeptical community and he's an outspoken critic of creationism.

He just published an article in The New Republic entitled: The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.

Many of the debates on the issue of "scientism" depend on how you define "science." As you can see from the subtitle of his essay, it's about the two cultures. Kitcher separate the search for knowledge in the humanities from the search for knowledge in the natural sciences. Here's what he says ...
It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.”
It's clear the he thinks of "science" as something that only natural scientists do. This is a different definition that the one I prefer. I think of "science" as a way of knowing that involves evidence, skepticism, and rationalism. I agree with Rush Holt [Rush Holt on Science and Critical Thinking] that critical thinking is an important part of science as a way of knowing and I agree with him that the scientific approach can be used everywhere—even in philosophy departments.

Kitcher's view is different. That leads him to define scientism as ...
The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.
That's a really stupid definition of scientism. I don't know anyone who actually thinks like that. Do you know any "natural science imperialists" who dismiss the humanities and the social sciences?1

I believe that people in the humanities and social sciences use the same approach as those in the natural sciences. I call that way of knowing "science" but if someone wants to come up with a better name, I'm all ears. As far as I'm concerned, science (as I define it) is the ONLY way of knowing that has actually been successful in discovering true knowledge. I guess that makes me guilty of "scientism."

It's very easy to refute scientism as I define it. All you have to do is show that there's some other way of knowing that produces universal truths or true knowledge. Perhaps philosophers have discovered truths using some other way of knowing?

1. I criticize evolutionary psychology. The reason why I'm so critical is precisely because they don't conform to the scientific way of knowing. They are not doing "good science" by any definition of the word "science."


  1. I'm curious to know where you would place mathematics. It usually does not involve evidence but proof, and it's certainly a way of knowing, but it's often given a place besides science, even liberally defined.

    1. I don't know how to answer that question. Perhaps it's related to the question of where you put language and writing.

    2. I'm not sure I understand your answer correctly. Are you saying that maths are only a language for science to use and that they don't create knowledge on their own?

    3. Which part of "I don't know how to answer that question" did you have trouble understanding?

    4. Mathematics is not a science. It's the Queen of the Sciences :P

    5. Hey Laurence, fair enough, no need to be snappy, I was just interested in your opinion. It's the second part that I was curious about, but "I don't know" is fine by me. Thanks for the blog, always interesting.

    6. A quick comment on:
      1) I'm curious to know where you would place mathematics. It usually does not involve evidence but proof, and it's certainly a way of knowing, but it's often given a place besides science, even liberally defined.

      and 2) Mathematics is not a science. It's the Queen of the Sciences..
      Mathematics is not an _empirical_ science. It is a (closed) system of logic.
      When we construct, for example, a mathematical model of enzyme action, we use the model to extract information about the inner working of the enzyme -- but only by fitting (adjusting the constants of) the model to _experimental data_.

      In my view, mathematics can never tell us anything new about the physical world. Rather, given experimental data and a model "explaining" (or interpreting) those data, we can calculate with certainty the outcomes of that particular model.

      Re claim 2: I think it's misleading to say that mathematics "rules" over the empirical sciences. It is most accurate to say that mathematics is a language with which we can build models of nature that are then subjected to empirical testing.

      I sometimes hear (usually from opponents of science) that there is a "progression" in the sciences, with biology at the bottom or the "weakest", then chemistry, then physics, and finally "pure mathematics" at the top or "strongest". This is obviously false, inasmuch as math is not empirical. (I'll try to leave, later on, some comments on the nature of science.)

      [My background: Nucleic acid enzymology: structure, function, mechanism and regulation; evolution of RNA and protein enzymes; sometime student of history & philosophy of science, esp. nature of science and role of theory in interpreting instrumental data.]

  2. I'm curious to know where you would place mathematics. It usually does not involve evidence but proof, and it's certainly a way of knowing, but it's often given a place besides science, even liberally defined.

    The difference between science and mathematics is that the rules of the game are clearly defined in mathematics, that's why you can have proofs. Scientists deal with the real world which is beyond their control, so they have to rely on evidence to strengthen the case for their theories or reject them, but they can never have a proof for anything in the mathematical sense because nature can always throw a complete surprise at us. However, the core principles of deriving knowledge are the same in both areas, that's why the division is somewhat artificial. In neither area is sloppy thinking and making stuff up a valid way of deriving knowledge. I personally like to define science in the broadest sense simply as proper epistemology, i.e. the set of all approaches that have been proven to be useful in obtaining knowledge. That definition has the advantage of reflecting the historical development of what we today call science - at no point in the process did someone sit down and codify the scientific method, people were trying to figure out the world around them with whatever tools they had at their disposal, and with whatever biases they had in place, sometimes they advanced knowledge approaching problems in what we today recognize to be a completely incorrect way, but more often when they did that, they did not advance it; eventually proper methodological practices emerged while the improper ones were rejected. And under that definition there is no boundary that separates the hard sciences from the humanities - as long as the people in the humanities adhere to the core epistemological principles of science, they are doing science and the debate is pointless; the problem arises when they don't, which is unfortunately too often the case.

    There is also the question of the hierarchy of spheres of inquiry which is usually left out of the discussion and as a result many people in the debate lose proper perspective of the situation. I personally am a biologist and as a consequence I naturally do have some bias towards the discipline but I will nevertheless be the first to point out that biology studies a small subset of the universe and what happens in the universe is governed by the laws of physics, therefore physics is the fundamental science with everything else being a derivative of it in the following hierarchical succession: physics -> chemistry -> biology, etc., with each subsequent level constrained by what has been learned in the more general discipline. Now what the humanities study is mostly issues of intraspecific competition within the human species, which comes several levels deep within biology in the progression listed above - their proper place is in a tiny corner of the general study of human behavior, which is a subset of the general study of animal behavior, and so on. Now, obviously, we care a lot about the humanities because intraspecific competition is what we engage in every day in a myriad ways so all those issues are very dear to our heart. But when it comes to deriving knowledge, which is what the debate is about, that's the basic outline of the situation - the humanities should be constrained and guided by what has been learned in the disciplines above them in the hierarchy, that's more often than not not the case, thus the backlash against any suggestion that the current state of the affairs has to change. Finally, art done for purely aesthetic purposes has very little to do with obtaining knowledge about the world around us, so I have no idea why it is even included in the discussion.

  3. I would say that Kitcher's characterization of science is closer to the standard usage of the term than yours. I understand, though, that there is utility in a more broadly defined category, to contrast with the irrationality and mysticism of other supposed ways of knowing. But why not call it by its more traditional name: 'philosophy". Evidence, skepticism, and rationality are hallmarks of good philosophical thinking of all kinds. Science, as the term came into being, refers to that branch of philosophy that is based primarily on the evidence of empirical experiment. This includes the social sciences, to they extent that they can be founded on experiment, but excludes the humanities and what is now called philosophy (as well as mathematics).

    1. Fair enough. I agree with you that Kitcher's definition of science is closer to the views of the general public. However, Kitcher is a philosopher of science. He's aware of the demarcation problem and he's aware of the fact that popular definitions aren't necessarily right. At the very least, I expect him to mention that there are other points of view and those affect the definition of scientism.

      Do you know anyone who adheres to Kitcher's definition of scientism?

      Do you think he was properly using the philosophical way of knowing to defend his anti-scientism position?

    2. The demarcation problem is the problem of coming up with criteria for distinguishing between science and non-science that produce a sorting that matches our intuitive sorting patterns. We test proposed criteria by seeing whether, say, they correctly count all of physics, biology, etc., as science and also rule astrology and homeopathy as pseudosciences. But this process assumes that we are in basic agreement about which things are sciences and which aren't (save, perhaps, for borderline cases - for which a good criterion would be helpful). You and Kitcher don't even have this level of agreement - you are using different concepts.

      I have known scientists who are quite dismissive of anything that comes out of the social sciences or humanities - and Kitcher's description doesn't seem way off base in term of what they say. Typically, this kind of arrogant dismissiveness comes from physicists - even more so from theoretical physicists. (Witness, e.g., the recent kerfuffle involving Lawrence Krauss and David Albert.) There really are people who hold that anything outside the so-called "hard" sciences is suspect, and that really only physics should count. Kitcher seems to define scientism with their definition of science in mind - but he himself seems to support a more continuous picture, with scientific elements reaching all the way into the humanities.

  4. I'm confused - you say "that leads him to define scientism as...", but nowhere in the quoted section is there a definition of scientism - it reads as if he defined it in the text leading up to the quoted paragraph. Did you leave the definition out of the quote?

  5. > Do you know any "natural science imperialists" who dismiss the humanities and the social sciences?1

    Richard Feynman was famous for his contempt of the humanities.

    1. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDThursday, May 31, 2012 9:49:00 AM

      Fer realsies? The Richard Feynman who achieved considerable expertise in the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphics?

    2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDThursday, May 31, 2012 4:04:00 PM

      To delve further: was Feynman contemptuous of the idea of studying humanities, or was he contemptuous of the manner in which such study has typically been carried out?

    3. Feynmann was against the methodology. It was the chrysalis of his comparison of such studies as 'Cargo Cult Science'.

      He was very geeky when younger but became an accomplished artist, musician and writer.

      But the one area he continued to treat with disdain was philosophy. He simply couldn't see anything in it.

  6. "Do you know any "natural science imperialists" who dismiss the humanities and the social sciences?"

    Lawrence Krauss. He spends a decent chunk of his latest book bashing philosophy. It would have been a fantastic book if not for that.

    1. There are good reasons for being critical of the philosophy of science. This thread is an example.

      Just because you criticize a particular field for being non-scientific in its approach does not mean you are against everything in the humanities.

      Some of us are equally critical of traditional sciences.

    2. And so should he. The humanities as they currently stand are often not just un-scientific, but pseudo-scientific, in that they adopt the language and some of the techniques of science, but ignore the reasoning behind the use of those techniques. The social sciences use statistics, but far too often their conclusions are not supported by their stats; this is too often due to the fact that they use stats as a rhetorical device rather than a real investigative tool.

      There are some who attempt to place the humanities on a more secure footing (Richard Carrier, for example, with his advocacy of Bayesian methods in History). But this is only just starting; there is a long road ahead before we can say that the humanities exhibit the same kind of rigour that the physical sciences do. For the most part, the humanities are still stuck in the "school of thought" mode, and philosophy is certainly no exception.

  7. Larry, check out Arend Lijphart's 1971 article, "Comparative politics and the comparative method," in American Political Science Review no. 65 (pp. 682-693), and you'll get a sense of what it is that Kitcher is talking about. It is not a critique of science, or scientists, or the scientific method, etc. It is a critique of holding up an idealized version of natural science experiments as the gold standard of generating knowledge about humans.

    1. Hmmm ... did you really have to back to some obscure paper published 41 years ago to prove Kitcher's point?

    2. It's not obscure. It's central to mainstream political science as a discipline, and it is -- or papers like it are -- taught widely today in graduate-level political science courses.

      If I tried to explain speciation to a political scienist by citing Dobzhansky and Pavlovsky 1971 s/he might say, "That's an obscure 41 year old paper!" Obscurity is relative, I guess. It doesn't mean it's any less significant.

  8. Bayesian Bouffant, FCDThursday, May 31, 2012 9:55:00 AM

    "Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed."
    "Perception"? Well, so long as one acknowledges that perception is based on reality.
    And of course the natural "sciences" also suffered from spectacularly false theories, etc. Phlogiston, the ether, etc. etc. But the natural "sciences" overcame many of those by applying "the scientific method," i.e. empirical observation and experimentation. If the social "sciences" and humanities hope to improve, they ought to become more like the natural "sciences," i.e. they ought to become more scientific.

    1. cough, cough .... postmodernism, political correctness

    2. Why is it that it is only the opponents of "postmodernism" and "political correctness" who use those terms anymore?

    3. Why, yes, Larry it os a mystery as to why the only people who seem to use the terms "postmodernism" and "polilitcal correctness" are the ones who seem to oppose the ideas represented my by the terms. It's almost as if they are using those terms as dustbins for ideas that they don't like.

    4. Michael,

      I agree with you. I was being sarcastic.

      I really don't expect people who are motivated by political correctness to openly admit to it. And real postmodrnists try to avoid the term because of its bad reputation. But they still behave like postmodernists. The humanities departments at my university are full of them They don't believe in scientific evidence because what really counts is "personal experience."

    5. I don't think that what you just said was what I actually meant. I see the people who use the terms "political correctness" and "postmodernism" to be attaching those labels to ideas and/or actions they dislike, because they have already formed a dislike for "political correctness" and "postmodernism" but they themselves don't want to come out explicitly state why they dislike the aforementioned ideas and/or actions. Instead, these critics associate current ideas and/or actions with some past concept that they dislike and dismiss them because of the association rather than a direct logical argument.

  9. I just wonder, if people in the humanities and social sciences use the same approach as those in the natural sciences and you think of "science" as a way of knowing that involves evidence, skepticism, and rationalism, just what evidence, skepticism, and rationalism did you use to come to the decision that Joseph Mallord William Turner is the greatest of all painters? What's more, do you not "know" more after looking at a Turner painting than you did before?

    I think you are having at least as many definitional problems as you claim Kitcher has.

  10. Decide Humanity: Scientism, Or Natural Selection

    Humanity Must Decide: Scientism Or Natural Selection

    Scientism: A doctrine and method characteristic of scientists, and the proposition that scientific doctrine and methods of studying natural sciences should be used in all areas of investigation and in conduct of politics-social-cultural-civil affairs in pursuit of an efficient practical, as fair as possible, civics framework.

    Natural Selection: All mass formats, inanimate and animate, follow natural selection, i.e. intake of energy or their energy taken in by other mass formats.
    All politics, local, national and international, are about evolutionary biology, about Darwinian evolution, about survival, about obtaining and maintaining and distributing energy.

    Religion: is a virtual factor-component in human’s natural selection. Its target-function is to preserve-proliferate specific cultural phenotypes.
    Natural selection-religion are compatible with technology-capitalism but are obviously incompatible with science-scientism, that targets preservation-proliferation of the genotype.
    Science-scientism is an obvious threat to the survival of a cultural phenotype.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    Universe-Energy-Mass-Life Compilation
    For A Scientism Culture

  11. Your definition of science also includes the humanities? Now I know some background to what leads you to your flawed definition.

    Those readings I suggested will definitely help you...

    You don't yet have a clue. (This is not my usual tone but it seems to be the one you understand best).

  12. So some people still forget that reason is not the opposite of emotion, it's the opposite of stupidity. And knowledge is not the opposite of art, it's the opposite of ignorance.

    The problem is not that there are forms of knowledge that are not scientific (learning by rote the laws of the country, acquiring a good violin-playing technique), the problem is that so many forms of nonsense try to portray themselves as knowledge just because they eschew science.

  13. "That's a really stupid definition of scientism. I don't know anyone who actually thinks like that. Do you know any 'natural science imperialists' who dismiss the humanities and the social sciences?"

    That's a really stupid rejection of Kitcher's definition. To answer your question, yes, I can think of two, right off the bat: Stephen "philosophy is dead" Hawking and Lawrence Krauss.