|Stick or switch?|
Consider the Monte Hall problem, which puzzled even pros because they forgot that the problem was not probabilistic. Monte Hall did not use random chance to choose which door he would open. Let us call this tendency to apply the rules of probability even in non-random situations probabilism. Which serves as today's lead-in.
There are lots of situations in life that have aspects amenable to the scientific method. But not all do, and of those that do, those aspects may not be the most important. Unless you suppose that the most important thing about the Moonlight Sonata is the physics of vibrating strings. Yet, like the over-eager statistician or the determined probabilist, those enthralled by the success of Science!™ may try to use it where it fits ill.
Natural science in the Modern Ages applies to the metrical properties of material bodies. It can tell us about wavelengths of light, but cannot tell us about the sensation of red. (Which is "subjective" and therefore.... perhaps not real, but certainly to be dismissed.) As such, it is best suited to the domain in which it arose: the physics of local motion. However, it worked just as well in other areas of physics: optics, acoustics, electricity and magnetism -- all of which you notice deal with motions of some sort. In the following century, it was extended successfully to alchemy, thus conjuring chemistry. It applied pretty well to some portions of biology, esp. biophysics and biochemistry, genetics, etc. But some parts of the Scientific Revolution dropped off. Biology is not mathematized in the same way as physics and chemistry. And when it came to the social "sciences" it began to lose traction.
|Getting fitted for Science!|
Basically: the methods apply most successfully when its objects are inanimate, less well when they are animate, and poorly when they have a mind of their own. Subjects are, by their nature, subjective. A sack of potatoes and a human being will fall from a building according to the same laws of physics; but the sack of potatoes is less likely to object.
A while back TOF wrote a few words on the much maligned topic of scientism. This is a term taken with much umbrage by devotees of Reason who have evidently never heard of the Genetic Fallacy, since their reason for derogating the term is that it is oft used by... (wait for it)... creationists! Oh, the horror!
Of course, TOF remembers how "punctuated equilibrium" once came in for scoffing for the very same reason. Eldrege and Gould were scolded for giving comfort to the Enemy by implying that a mid-Victorian country squire did not get everything quite right. Of course, no other theory of that era escaped unscathed, and physics in particular underwent a revolution.
|In the pink|
Yes, it is the age-old war between Science!™ and Humanism, the Game of Spock and Bones.
|Coyne of the realm|
Does this sound provocative? Does it sound like physics-imperialism? Yes it does -- let's call it physicsism -- and those on the other end of it may now understand what humanists mean by scientism.
In TOF's previous essay on this matter, he used the example of enthusiasts for Statistical Process Control (SPC) who believed in their zeal that SPC was the answer to all problems in the factory.* This is a common affliction of all those who master a techne. They come to believe that the techne can be used in all circumstances, and that only that which the techne can address is "real."
(*) factory. Amazing as it may seem, at one time people used to work at making stuff.
The First Rhetorical FlourishBoth Pinker and Coyne muddy the water by affecting not to know what "scientism" even refers to. Coyne writes:
One of the problems has been the definition of “scientism,” which varies from commenter to commenter but is always pejorative. I take it to mean “science overstepping its boundaries” in the sense of Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria: scientists misusing science or technology to bad ends (racism or eugenics), claiming they will take over the humanities (as in E. O. Wilson’s notion of “consilience”), or making moral and political pronouncements that exceed scientific expertise or ambit.But this is not a problem if he pays attention to Wittgenstein, Feyerabend, Hayek, Midgley, and others -- all of them, be it noted, atheists or agnostics. If he wishes to say that creationists are sloppy thinkers, he will get no argument from TOF. But why rely upon creationists for the definitions of one's terms?
Pinker, at least, cites serious thinkers, which has the benefit of rhyming. He writes:
The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.”
The Second Rhetorical FlourishAfter first not defining scientism, or declaring it "anything but clear," the next step is to define Science!™ as "every kind of good stuff." Coel, a commboxer on the Coynesite, caught up in the fervor of scientism, proposes:
that science — interpreted broadly, as Jerry does, namely reasoned deductions from observed evidence — is indeed the only method of learning and knowing about the universe around us, and that if it is possible for humans to know something then science is the tool that will lead to it. That’s not the same as saying “science has all the answers” since there are many things that we may never be able to know.But of course, he has said exactly that, in the sense that the only knowledge science does not provide are in his belief system the things that we cannot know. Naturally, if "reasoned deduction from observed evidence" is all that is meant by science, then as TOF has said before, a police detective, a building contractor, or a Wall Street bond trader is a scientist.
In particular, Pinker states:
Scientism … is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise.But this means he is trying to annex Mathematics into the realm of "Science" as he (and Pinker) have just done with Engineering and Tinkering. But Mathematics does not proceed from "observed evidence" or "empirical facts." It proceeds from first principles. "Science" incorporates Mathematics only if we return to the medieval way of thinking, in which scientia meant "knowledge" of proximate causes. Given this, we can have Political Science, Military Science, etc.
Of course, Pinker is trying to capture the term "scientism" by using it in a positive sense for "science." But we already have the term "science" and conflating the two only muddies the discourse. Scientism has little to do with what "scientists themselves" are "immersed" in.
The Third Rhetorical FlourishBy 1) not defining scientism and by 2) defining science in broad generalities, the way is cleared to conflate scientism with science and criticism of the former with criticism of the latter. Oh, and religion sucks. In Coyne's case, the invocation of religion is a sine qua non, as it is his particular trailing hound. But Pinker went to lengths to cite left- and right-wing critiques of scientism, many of them on both sides secular, so his occasional use of "religion" as a "boo-word"* rings a bit like brass. It seems gratuitous.
(*) boo-word. Pinker applies this to "scientism," which in certain hands it definitely is; but his use of "religion" as a boo word slips past him because from the center of his coordinate system it looks clearly logical. Jacques Barzun noted back in the 1950s that "scientific" was already becoming a "success word" and was used in advertizing and such as a synonym for "good."We know it is a boo-word by the predictable reaction of commbox zealots shouting Amen! (or Boo!)
Thus, their riposte is: How can anyone think dark thoughts about Science!™? Look at all the Good Stuff it's done! "A litany of achievements," says Coyne, "that theology can’t hope to match, since it’s revealed nothing convincing about the cosmos."*
(*) cosmos. Those familiar with the original meaning of the Greek are permitted an ironic smile at this point.
Naturally, this is an example of the very scientism that Coyne claims does not exist. Theology has revealed nothing convincing about the cosmos. Why must it be about the cosmos?
The Pea Beneath the Shell
Scientism is just what Pinker and Coyne say it is not: the belief in the omnicompetence of science, that the methods of the natural science are the only way to knowledge about reality. Certainly, enough commboxers responeded in such a way, smuggling unexamined assumptions in through terms like "reality" and "evidence."
Aristotle's RevengeTake the commboxer Coel, previously cited, he (or possibly she) states:
I’d say that physical *is* the only stuff that exists, so long as that is taken to include *patterns* of physical stuff.which is silly. A pattern of physical stuff is not itself physical stuff. If it were, Coel could deliver twenty kilograms of pattern. He (or she) is unclear on the nature of the physical! What he (or... the heck with it) has stumbled upon is the distinction of matter and form, but since ignorance of Aristotelian principles has been cultivated for centuries, he does not realize it.
A thing is a union of matter and form, and it is the form that gives the thing its powers. When we see a basketball, we do not see two things, a basketball and a sphere. The sphere just is the form of the basketball. Similarly, an atom of chlorine and an atom of sodium are made of the same matter, the same parts -- protons, neutrons, electrons. What makes one a flammable metal and the other a poisonous gas is the number and arrangement of those parts. The fact that non-physical stuff like number, arrangement, or pattern are crucial for doing natural science does not make them physical things themselves. It's actually the form of which we have knowledge, not the matter.
Try this on for size: I’d say that mathematical *is* the only stuff that exists, so long as that is taken to include *material instantiations* of mathematical patterns.
Tahāfut al-TahāfutAfter Pinker (and Coyne) went to great lengths to justify Science via consequentialism, citing all the wonderful fruits of science, Coyne commboxer dcarpenter had to go and spoil it by writing in response to a Green critic of science who complained that science was destroying the planet:
Science - that is, "open debate, peer-review, and double blind methods" is a necessary endeavor for a level of technological progress that could affect the stability of our climate. But that doesn't mean that science caused climate changeOne wonders what double-blind methods are used in astronomy. Perhaps it is not scientific. Open debate can occur in a kitchen or an art gallery. And peer review comes from medieval theological panels reviewing for orthodoxy. But of course if science did not really cause the bad things, then what justification is there for saying it really caused the good? This sort of cherry-picking and confirmation bias is common (and not only to devotees of scientism). Miracle drugs and nerve gasses, airliners and ICBMs, etc. -- Science is responsible for both or neither.
Pinker commboxer bpuharic states:
As Pinker points out, the laws of nature admit to no purpose, so their objection is fruitless. And humanity has yet to come to grips with this radical, profound statement. Certainly the humanities haven't. Is there any more radical idea than that the universe doesn't revolve, Ptolemaic-like, around us?Never mind how he misunderstands how the Ptolemaic model was grasped in its time, but if nature admits no purpose, then human beings, being part of nature, can have no purpose and therefore, including scientists, must act at random.
Pinker mentions eugenics:
Eugenics was the campaign, popular among leftists and progressives in the early decades of the twentieth century, for the ultimate form of social progress, improving the genetic stock of humanity.But eugenics was not scientism because it was wicked -- oops, there's that purpose/value thingie that bpuharic says does not exist -- but because the scientists who advocated it went beyond the bounds of science. They went from "Darwinism IS true" to "therefore, we OUGHT to breed people like horses." It does not matter that Fischer wore a white lab coat and assured people that it was scientificalistic to the max. The scientists were not doing Science when they stepped over into Setting Public Policy. This would be just as true if eugenics was a great idea instead of a bad one. The issue of scientism is the pretense that one is doing science rather than politics or philosophy or some other field of human endeavor.
|Nope, no God here.|
(*) analogical thinking. Some years ago, the College Boards dropped the analogy questions from the general intelligence exam. Schools then stopped teaching it and now only us Old Farts™ have any grasp of it.
First PaulS responded:
One problem with your analogy is that a metal detector is a physical object and the scientific method is a process.
|If the only instrument you own is a hammer|
every problem looks like a nail.
A second boxer, Sastra, adds:
The scientific method though is not like a metal detector. It’s more like a way of using a metal detector — or a detector of any kind. Careful, cautious, honest … checking against other detectors, digging, consulting with other people using their detectors, building models, making predictions, analyzing results, eliminating bias, changing assumptions with new information, challenging other discoveries and working with others to figure out a consistent answer to the common puzzle what is under the ground? Metal, stone, oil?This is delicious, since Sastra describes precisely a bunch of folks determinedly using their detector, checking against other detectors, consulting with other people using their detectors, and building models(!) from the data given by their detectors -- apparently they must be trying to do Science!™ rather than, say, look for lost coins and keys. But she has provided an excellent precis of scientism, which we will call detectorism. The only way they will discover anything non-metallic is by using some other instrument, such as their eyes, or a shovel.
The Infiltration of SciencePinker mentions a bunch of folks -- Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith -- some of whom okay, but some of whom were responsible for the most godawful incoherence to afflict the Modern Ages. Descartes was okay in his science, though Newton trumped him; but he is responsible for the substance dualism that has bedeviled Moderns with silly things like the Mind-Body "problem."(*) Hobbes was a totalitarian. Hume undermined efficient causality (and hence Modern Science). Rousseau concocted the most non-empirical political philosophy that ever erected guillotines. Oy. But Pinker supposes that these folks were all crypto-scientists. Oh well. One wonders at the absence of Newton, Hooke, et al.
(*) Mind-Body "problem." Why does no one ever speak of the Sphere-Basketball problem? If you don't know why these are parallel, then you don't understand what Descartes screwed up.
Pinker then lays out the variety of ways science can contribute to the humanities, reminding one of Deming's observation of a professional manager that "he knew everything there was to know about the business except what was important." Science can of course make contributions to those aspects of a field that are scientific. Acoustics can help design better concert halls, even perhaps better clarinets. But that is accidental to music. Science does not compose the Clarinet Concerto in A.
To which the response is: what scientist ever claimed this? And the answer is that Science then addresses music only peripherally. When one has understood the acoustics, the physics of vibrating reeds, the effect of lengthening and shortening the air column, one has still not understood the essentials of the concerto.
Pinker says that Science will aid the humanities:
- by giving us a better take on human nature, [but Modern Science denies that there are natures or essences!]
- by the use of statistics and data analysis to settle questions of social and political science, [in which case they better damn well hurry, because for now it falls into two categories: obvious or wrong. Besides, statistics and data analysis are Mathematics, not Science.]
- by providing fertile new ground: the study of how the workings of the human brain, as revealed by science, provide more depth to the social sciences, literary analysis, and even studies of music. [How this will do so is left unsaid. One may as well say a study of the human arm will provide more depth to golf. One may doubt the depth while admitting the possible interest. But any depth at all provided to the social "sciences" would be welcome.]
Intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated by insights from the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. Powerful tools have been developed to explore them, from genetically engineered neurons that can be controlled with pinpoints of light to the mining of “big data” as a means of understanding how ideas propagate.The mining of Big Data provides models with terms that do not correspond to any physical factor and may as often obscure understanding as anything else. But that is a separate issue and affects the real sciences as well.
It might be interesting to learn which intellectual problems from antiquity are being illuminated. In fact, one wonders if any intellectual problems from antiquity are known to the folks opining. On Coyne's blog, eric tells us that
The Techie and the MBAJoseph Moore comments at Wm Briggs' blog in a manner apropos of this here post.
Perhaps an example from a slightly different area: in the high-tech business world out here in California, I run into many people who are brilliant – at technology. Being brilliant at business requires an entirely different skill set. It is possible, in fact, it is more common than not, that the genius programmer or engineer lacks any hint of business intelligence. But what is really frustrating for us business types: More often than not, the techies are evidently incapable of recognizing that they are NOT experts in business. This leads to all sorts of amusing interactions that are very much akin to the discussions between scientists and philosophers. The techies are absolutely stone-cold certain they understand everything, and that the business people are just being obstreperous; the business folks are flabbergasted by the idea that they would even need to explain some of the ideas that are being dismissed. (Emph. added).