Scientism and Pseudoscience: A Philosophical Commentary

homeopathyI have built a reputation for being a critic of scientism, which my dictionary defines as “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” Indeed, I am putting together a new volume on the topic for Chicago Press, which will be co-edited with my long time partner in crime, Maarten Boudry (a couple of years ago we put out an analogous collection on pseudoscience, a topic that I actually see as in some sense the mirror image of scientism). The contributors include colleagues who participated to a workshop I co-organized with Maarten at CUNY’s Graduate Center back in 2014.

But “scientism” can also be a label that defenders of pseudoscientific notions use to dismiss good science they don’t like, from evolutionary biology to atmospheric physics. So a paper I recently published in the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry takes on this alternative aspect of scientism, chastising a number of authors who rejected a very sound critical paper on the ethics of homeopathic “treatments.”

What happened was that back in 2012 the journal Bioethics published a commentary by K. Smith entitled “Against homeopathy—a utilitarian perspective.” In it, the author mounted an ethical challenge to homeopathic practice, framed in utilitarian terms, as the title obviously suggests (though a similar critique, I think, could be mounted also on both deontological and virtue ethical grounds).

Smith presented a systematic argument that began with an explanation of the theoretical implausibility of homeopathy and, in particular, of the two fundamental principles of the practice — the “law of similars” and the “law of infinitesimals.” He then engaged the empirical literature on homeopathy, finding it woefully insufficient to establish any of the claims on which the approach is based.

Smith also very carefully examined the possible benefits of homeopathy, including non-invasiveness and cost-effectiveness; its holistic approach; the possibility, range, and strength of placebo effects; and its fostering of patients’ autonomy regarding healthcare decisions. He concluded that “the benefits of homeopathy are rather minimal.”

Next, Smith went on to equally systematically analyze the possible disutilities of homeopathy: the risk of failing to seek conventional healthcare; the waste of resources that results from supporting homeopathic practice (since it is known not to work, outside of placebos); the problem raised by unwarranted credence, i.e., the credibility that homeopathy gains when it is endorsed by medical practitioners or healthcare agencies; the simultaneous weakening of support for evidence-based medicine and the weakening of support for types of “alternative” therapies that actually do work (e.g., some forms of meditation, massage, etc.). His conclusions were that “investment in homeopathy by public healthcare providers is unethical as it entails a waste of resources … the effect [of such investment] is important and amounts to a serious net disutility.”

I would have honestly thought all of the above to be a rather uncontroversial no-brainer. But, of course, I was wrong.

Bioethics published four responses to Smith’s paper (together with Smith’s counter-response), and that’s where things got interesting, and the s-word began to be carelessly thrown around. Let me give you some of the highlights:

One of the respondents, R. Moskowitz, began with the strange assertion that “if homeopathy is based on a mystery, that does not prove it to be a fake,” a type of “reasoning” that could just as well be used (and in fact has been used!) to defend the practice of astrology. He then went on, boldly and strangely, to turn the criticism that homeopathy works by placebo and via the natural self-healing of the human body into a positive: “can a higher compliment be paid to a medicine than that its action cannot be distinguished from a gentle, spontaneous, and long-lasting cure requiring no further treatment?” Well, if a medicine does not do anything beyond the spontaneous healing of the body, is it still medicine? And why do we charge patients for it?

A second critic, I. Sebastian, brought up a fallacious argument from authority, citing Nobel Prize winner Luc Montagnier’s (a virologist) support for homeopathy as somehow relevant to the discussion, in lieu of actual evidence originating from properly controlled, large, and well-statistically analyzed experiments. She characterized “allopathic” medicine as based on a deductive-nomothetic model (thus displaying only a superficial understanding of the philosophy of science), claiming that that is not the “model” adopted by homeopathy, for which somehow uncontrolled and anecdotal evidence is supposed to be sufficient. She then went on to accuse Smith of thinking that Mahatma Gandhi was unethical (because he was a proponent of homeopathy), which is an example of a colossal non sequitur (as well as yet another recourse to irrelevant authorities — Gandhi was not a medical researcher). Finally, and without any irony whatsoever, she concluded: “If Dr. Smith’s argument were simply an exercise in ivory tower philosophizing, it would be of little concern — but knowing that the health and in fact the lives of others may be affected by such thinking is very disturbing.” Indeed.

The third critic of Smith was one P. Bellavite, who rather idiosyncratically, preferred to focus only on a defense of the homeopathic principle of similitude — the idea that diseases causing certain symptoms are to be cured by the ministration of substances that produce similar effects on the body. He engaged in a manifest example of mumbo jumbo, i.e., talk that appears to be technical but in fact says nothing of substance whatsoever. His mention of “reorganizing regulation systems” and of “neuro-immuno-endocrine homeodynamics” was an artful mix of vacuities and obfuscatory language, as Smith clearly saw in his rebuttal.

Finally, let me turn to L. Milgrom and K. Chatfield, the authors who explicitly invoked scientism in the context of the exchange we are analyzing. To begin with, their response was self-contradictory: on the one hand, they wished to defend homeopathy on the ground of scientific evidence; on the other hand, they accused Smith of being scientistic precisely because he demanded such scientific evidence. It is either one or the other; they cannot have it both ways. Nonsensically, Milgrom and Chatfield complained that Smith avoided utilitarian scrutiny of conventional medicine, which of course not only was not the scope of the original article, but also would help homeopathy not at all.

We then come to the crux of the issue with the following extended quote:

“More perplexing is Dr Smith’s claim that homeopathy could weaken support for science-based medicine. Such fear is rooted not in science but in scientism, i.e. the unscientific belief that compared to other forms of knowledge, science is the absolute and only justifiable access to truth. Taken to the extreme, scientism defaults to Internet-fueled inquisitorial intolerance which, supported by certain academics, sections of the media, and (usually anonymous) blog sites, systematically vilifies anything considered ‘unscientific,’ e.g. the campaign to undemocratically rid Britain’s NHS of its homeopathy/CAM facilities. Fortunately, not all share such fundamentalist views, especially at the frontline.”

And here is my counter-commentary from the paper, in full:

To begin with, notice that Smith has never claimed that science is the “only justifiable access to truth,” much less that scientific knowledge is “absolute,” claims that truly would qualify as scientistic. He has simply treated medical research as a science, from which it follows that any claim about the medical efficacy or lack thereof of any treatment ought to be substantiated with the best scientific evidence available. I don’t know about you, but I quite like the medical advice I receive to be science-based. Notice also the semi-paranoid reference to undemocratic conspiracies to undermine homeopathy. As Smith himself explained in his rebuttal, public information campaigns about the lack of substantive evidence in favor of a particular practice, and calls for it not to be funded with taxpayers’ money, are — on the contrary — eminently democratic. Finally, also notice the use of the pejorative term “fundamentalism,” accompanied in the paper by a reference to an article by Holmes et al. where the word “fascism” is repeatedly used when writing about demands for scientific approaches to medical research. This sort of highly emotive talk — accompanied by precious little substantive evidence to back up one’s extraordinary claims — is one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience and in this case also represents an egregious, ideologically motivated misuse of the term “scientism.”

So, as you can see, my criticism of real instances of scientism does not preclude me from seeing clearly when the term is simply used as an excuse for lazy thinking and patently pseudoscientific “theorizing.”

46 thoughts on “Scientism and Pseudoscience: A Philosophical Commentary

  1. brodix

    If the principle of homeopathy were generally valid, many of us would likely be dead from all the chemicals currently leaching into the world’s supply of water.

    That said, I do think that as an old practice, there was some grain of intuitional isight into the nature of chemistry, before it was scientifically explored. A bit like angels dancing on the head of a pin predated an effective understanding of microbial life forms.

    So with all the hand waving, finger pointing and ideology on all sides of the issue, there is little clarity into how it all developed, historically and intellectually.

    The problem with life being so short and constantly having to cram a worlds worth of knowledge into every new generation.

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  2. Massimo Post author

    David,

    yes, Bioethics is a major journal, which, as you say, is disturbing. The four authors in question are a mixed of clinicians associated with hospitals, and of independent clinicians with their own practice. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 천천히 (@luciposterae)

    I googled the names of the respondents and found out that they are either practicing homeopath or the academics espousing homeopathy. None of them seems to hold any degree in professional philosophy. In principle, I appreciate the editors of Bioethics for letting the interested party to engage with the socially-relevant philosophical argument. Anyhow, it seems to have only strengthen the validity of Smith’s original stance. From the perspective of a philosophy student, however, I feel sorry for my peers who are desperately endeavoring for publishing their works on this prestigious journal.

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  4. ejwinner

    Massimo,
    your argument seems pretty cut and dried to me, and hard to get around. Homeopathy is really a pull on hope, and hope sometimes blinds the hopeful to the obvious.

    But an odd thought did pass through my mind: If we can accept string theory as science, despite lacking empirical grounding or demonstrability, why not astrology? Perhaps the stars act on our lives by vibrating strings between dimensions? Maybe astrologers need more math? Or string theorists less?

    I’m sure string theorists and astrologers are both hopeful the matter will soon be resolved.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Steve Stewart

    ejwinner: “If we can accept string theory as science”

    Actually, there are many- including physicists- who deny that string theorists are engaging in science. See recent article in Nature titled, “Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics.”

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  6. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    … some of these uses [of “scientism”] are inappropriate, as they aim simply at dismissing without argument an approach that a particular author does not like.

    How true!

    Hi ej,

    If we can accept string theory as science, despite lacking empirical grounding or demonstrability, why not astrology?

    The difference between science and pseudo-science is essentially about quality. String theory is “science” because it is a best-efforts attempt to improve current models. If there were an easy way of testing it the relevant people would bite your hand off to try it. To claim that string theory was “true” would, of course, go beyond the evidence and be unscientific, but to pursue string theory as a promising avenue of enquiry is entirely scientific.

    Astrology, on the other hand, is not a best-efforts attempt to improve current models. Here there are indeed easy ways of testing it, and the practitioners shy away from any such testing. It totally fails the test of being self-critical and of believers trying to ensure that they are not fooling themselves. It might have been a good-faith attempt 1000 years ago, but it is not nowadays.

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  7. Massimo Post author

    ej,

    I think on string theory vs astrology Coel is right, but do check out my three-part series on the Munich conference on this blog for an in-depth treatment.

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  8. brodix

    To the extent Coel is right, in that String theory is a best effort, it would seem to be a case of reductio ad absurdum, in that there seems to be some underlaying issue gone wrong, possibly with insisting the wave properties of nature must always be based with some essential physical entity, i.e. a string, that vibrates.

    As Coel din’t respond to my posting this in the last thread, I’ll post this old interview with Carver Mead, one of the godfathers of the computer revolution and his views on particles versus waves;
    http://freespace.virgin.net/ch.thompson1/People/CarverMead.htm

    For those who don’t feel inclined to click the link, I’d post a few paragraphs;

    “During a lifetime in the trenches of the semiconductor industry, Mead developed a growing uneasiness about the “standard model” that supposedly governed his field. Mead did not see his electrons and photons as random or incoherent. He regarded the concept of the “point particle” as an otiose legacy from the classical era. Early photodetectors or Geiger counters may have provided both visual and auditory testimony that photons were point particles, but the particulate click coarsely concealed a measurable wave.”

    “Mead does not banish the mystery from science. He declares that physics is vastly farther away from a fundamental grasp of nature than many of the current exponents of a grand unified theory imagine. But he believes he can explain the nature of the famous mysteries of quantum science, from the two slit experiment where “particles” go through two holes at once to the perplexities of “entanglement,” where action on a quantum entity at one point of the universe can affect entities at other remote points at speeds faster than the speed of light. In his new interpretation, quantum physics is united with electromagnetism and the venerable Maxwell Equations are found to be dispensable.

    But Mead does not bow humbly before all of Einstein’s conceptions. He dismisses the photoelectric effect as an artifact of early twentieth century apparatus. He also believes that General Relativity conceals more than it illuminates about gravitation .”All the important details are smoothed over by Einstein’s curvature of space time.” Gravity remains shrouded in mystery.”

    The electrons were real, the voltages were real, the phase of the sine-wave was real, the current was real. These were real things. They were just as real as the water going down through the pipes. You listen to the technology, and you know that these things are totally real, and totally intuitive.

    But they’re also waves, right? Then what are they waving in?

    It’s interesting, isn’t it? That has hung people up ever since the time of Clerk Maxwell, and it’s the missing piece of intuition that we need to develop in young people. The electron isn’t the disturbance of something else. It is its own thing. The electron is the thing that’s wiggling, and the wave is the electron. It is its own medium. You don’t need something for it to be in, because if you did it would be buffeted about and all messed up. So the only pure way to have a wave is for it to be its own medium. The electron isn’t something that has a fixed physical shape. Waves propagate outwards, and they can be large or small. That’s what waves do.

    So how big is an electron?

    It expands to fit the container it’s in. That may be a positive charge that’s attracting it–a hydrogen atom–or the walls of a conductor. A piece of wire is a container for electrons. They simply fill out the piece of wire. That’s what all waves do. If you try to gather them into a smaller space, the energy level goes up. That’s what these Copenhagen guys call the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But there’s nothing uncertain about it. It’s just a property of waves. Confine them, and you have more wavelengths in a given space, and that means a higher frequency and higher energy. But a quantum wave also tends to go to the state of lowest energy, so it will expand as long as you let it. You can make an electron that’s ten feet across, there’s no problem with that. It’s its own medium, right? And it gets to be less and less dense as you let it expand. People regularly do experiments with neutrons that are a foot across.

    A ten-foot electron! Amazing

    It could be a mile. The electrons in my superconducting magnet are that long.”

    “Point particles got us into terrible trouble. If you take today’s standard theory of particle physics, and the standard theory of gravitation, it is well known that the result is “off” by a factor of maybe ten to the power of 50. That’s 10 followed by 49 zeroes. The amount of matter in the universe is way, way more than what is observed. And that discrepancy comes, at its heart, from assuming that matter is made made up of point particles.

    What’s the problem with them?

    Because point particles are assumed to occupy no space, they have to be accompanied by infinite charge density, infinite mass density, infinite energy density. Then these infinities get removed once more by something called “renormalization.” It’s all completely crazy.. But our physics community has been hammering away at it for decades. Einstein called it Ptolemaic epicycles all over again.”

    This gives the idea. If we can get our neolithic brains away from the idea that reality has to be some object to grasp and consider the processes are what give rise to that sense, it might come together.

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  9. Massimo Post author

    brodix,

    while I don’t object to *occasionally* carrying over a conversation from one thread to the next, your comments rapidly brought us to a point that seems to me to have nothing whatsoever to do with scientism, pseudoscience, homeopathy or medical ethics. Which were the subjects of the post. Please try to stay focused.

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  10. Robin Herbert

    Coel,

    “The difference between science and pseudo-science is essentially about quality.”

    I am not sure that this distinction works even as an approximate rule. I am sure that most of us here would regard paranormal research as pseudo science, but it is, in the main, conducted by mainstream academics in mainstream institutions using experimental design that could not be faulted without also classifying a significant proportion of science also as pseudo science.

    I have heard it said, by a solid skeptic of paranormal phenomena, that there are drugs on the market on the basis of flimsier evidence than there is for the ganzfeld effect. It was not a vote of confidence in the ganzfeld effect.

    I have pointed out before that the ‘P’ in PEAR stands for ‘Princeton’, which hosted a department dedicated to this pseudo-scientific endeavour for 25 years and still allows their page to link off their domain name. The PEAR people might say, ‘well – fault us, our meta analysis shows overwhelming statistical significance for the effect we claim’. Indeed it does. That is one reason why I am never impressed by meta analyses. A meta analysis for ganzfeld experiments, restricted to those done in mainstream universities, also shows strong statistical significance, well beyond what can be explained by the file drawer effect. I don’t think you could necessarily call any of this work ‘poor quality’ and the practitioners are not, in the main charlatans, they are sincere.

    Their beliefs and desires affect their outcomes in the same way that beliefs and desires of many scientists can affect their outcome.

    The fact that very little paranormal research makes it into peer reviewed literature is more because of the nature of the subject matter, rather than the quality of the research.

    I wonder if those here would classify Daryl Bem’s “Feeling the Future” paper as science or pseudo science, or on the border. It was interesting that Bem, defending his word, actually seemed to have a better understanding of statistics than some of his critics.

    The quality issue in science is recognised and being addressed, but even with best practice there will always be poor quality science at the edges. This will, in the main, not be pseudo science but simply science not done properly.

    Incidentally, I would not call astrology even a pseudo science, not these days at any rate.

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  11. brodix

    Massimo,

    Sorry about that. It does seem the line between science and pseudo science is not only fuzzy, but shifts significantly, depending on one’s point of view and it goes without saying that everyone has a bias.

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  12. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    I am not sure that this distinction works even as an approximate rule. I am sure that most of us here would regard paranormal research as pseudo science, …

    I would suggest that properly conducted and properly interpreted research into claims of the paranormal is indeed science rather than pseudoscience.

    I have heard it said, by a solid skeptic of paranormal phenomena, that there are drugs on the market on the basis of flimsier evidence than there is for the ganzfeld effect.

    That might well be true. Although there is nowadays a big emphasis on testing new drugs, a lot of older ones were grandfathered in to the system (and being out-of-patent there is no incentive on any drugs company to test them). Further, given the sums of money involved, there is a lot of scope for drugs companies to promote their drugs and get them approved even where the evidence is flimsy.

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  13. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    “I would suggest that properly conducted and properly interpreted research into claims of the paranormal is indeed science rather than pseudoscience.”

    It seems to me that if someone has a properly designed experiment to demonstrate pre-cognition and the experiment shows statistically significant evidence for its hypothesis and the only interpretation is that this experiment shows evidence for pre-cognition, then that is properly conducted and properly interpreted. So that, then, is science.

    So would a poorly conducted or poorly interpreted research in general count as pseudo science?

    It seems to me that this would put much paranormal research into the science category and a good deal of neuroscience into the pseudo-science category. That may be true, for all I know.

    Massimo, do you agree? Would Daryl Bem’s “Feeling the Future” or ganzfeld effect experiments count as science, pseudo-science, or on the border?

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  14. Robin Herbert

    Also, I am not sure where the “properly conducted and properly interpreted” criterion puts something like, say the initial BICEP2 announcement, there appears to be problems in both the conduct and the interpretation of that research.

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  15. Coel

    So would a poorly conducted or poorly interpreted research in general count as pseudo science?

    Given a quality continuum of you’d have perfectly conducted science being at one (unattainable) end of the continuum. The best actual science would come close to that; poorly done science would be lower down, and below some (fuzzy) threshold would be pseudo-science.

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  16. Coel

    … say the initial BICEP2 announcement, there appears to be problems in both the conduct and the interpretation of that research.

    That is just normal human-done science; short of perfection but still science .

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  17. Robin Herbert

    Hi Coel,

    If Massimo will excuse the continuation, I did say I would give you examples of Richard Dawkins purple prose where it seemed to me that he appeared to have forgotten that the “gene as intelligent agent” metaphor was just a metaphor. Here are some (my italics):

    “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This is a truth which still fills me with astonishment.”

    “Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

    They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

    They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

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  18. brodix

    Robin,

    It reminds me of the ecologist’s comment about how if aliens were to land on earth, they would think cattle were the dominant species, given the amount of land and resources devoted to them and their food production.

    Dawkins surely exemplifies the problem of reductionist thinking.

    Our thought process is sequential and in its more simplistic manifestations, does result in a linear, goal oriented effect, but that is invariably part of some larger cycle.

    To try to steer this back to the topic at hand, science, in its skeptical, reductionist methods, does tend to isolate itself from larger contextual structures, both sociological and physical. So even though this is a necessary part of the process of clarification, some degree of contextuality and humility might also create a more objective sense of perspective. Otherwise we make a religion out of science.

    Feedback.

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  19. Robin Herbert

    I think that one of the features of science, that is exploited by pseudo science, are the false positives you often get, even when you do science with best effort and are ostensibly doing everything correctly.

    This is not a problem for science generally because these false positives are later ironed out by lack of replication.

    But a collection of these false positives generated by something where there really is no effect to study, gives the impression that there is something behind it. A meta analysis of a set of false positives will result in a spuriously large statistical significance.

    I don’t think that there is really anything that can be done about this, it is probably better to have pseudo science around the edges of science than to try to second guess what will and what won’t be a real effect.

    But, as the article suggests, it is poor form for a respectable journal to be actually feeding this effect.

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  20. Alan White

    Are there any useful comparisons to be made between the classical criticism of “verificationism” and the two senses of “scientism” here? Wondering out loud.

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  21. ejwinner

    Massimo, Coel, Steve Stewart,

    Well, my tongue was somewhat in my cheek when I wrote that – I do know the difference between string theory and astrology!

    Yet, the string theory of today may yet prove the ‘astrology’ of history’s yesterday. Future generations will decide.

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  22. davidlduffy

    A couple of (only) slightly more impressive defences of homeopathy from the special edition of Social Science and Medicine 2006 61(11). They claim a quantitative scientistic biomedical approach completely misses the point. I’ll skip the bits on feminist epistemologies of science and rhetorics of evidence, but merely say these have the same flavour as any other claims that scientism is at work and is a bad thing.

    http://philpapers.org/archive/GOLOEA-2
    Goldenberg. On evidence and evidence-based medicine: Lessons from the philosophy of science

    “the Evidence Based Model [EBM] that is currently promoted either restricts itself to physical evidence alone, or casts such evidence at the top of a hierarchy that tends to devalue any evidence ‘lower down’”. The hierarchy of evidence promotes a certain scientistic accounting of the goals of medicine, which, the worry goes, is incommensurable with the proposed reorientation of medical practice toward the patient’s search for meaning in the illness experience. The bridging of scientistic “measure” and existential “meaning” has received some attention in the critical EBM literature … with the general consensus that we need an “integrated” model of evidence that properly reflects modern health care’s constitution by diverse academic traditions—including the humanities, social sciences, and the pure and applied sciences—that rely on equally diverse notions of evidence.

    While EBM values evidence that is statistical in nature and general in its application, and therefore places quantitative data derived through the application of recognised study designs at the top of its pre-graded hierarchies of evidence, the phenomenological approaches rooted in hermeneutics, ethnography, sociology, and anthropology, regard evidence as primarily narrative, subjective, and historical in nature.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16376470
    Barry. The role of evidence in alternative medicine: Contrasting biomedical and anthropological approaches

    Problems with alternative medical practice and rhetorics of evidence
    1 Alternative interventions are often complex and multi-stranded; e.g., most alternative
    practitioners also recommend lifestyle changes such as diet
    2 Alternative therapies are quite different when practised in the NHS versus outside
    3 Committed users of alternative therapies interact with a therapy quite differently from
    biomedically minded patients
    4 The phenomenon labelled `placebo effect’ in RCTs is recognised as a powerful intrinsic
    component of alternative healing
    5 Few alternative therapies are allied to powerful industry interests
    6 EBM can be used as a tool to limit threats to biomedicine’s power from alternative therapists
    7 NHS managers are unlikely to appreciate the benefits of alternative therapies in the absence of
    hard data
    8 RCT evidence alone will not lead to implementation of alternative therapies into the NHS
    9 Patients who choose alternative therapy are often against orthodox treatments, whatever the
    evidence

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  23. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    So it still might be science if it is not properly conducted or properly interpreted?

    Sure, since all human science falls short of perfection, and a concept like “properly conducted” is not a binary yes/no, it’s a continuum. The qualification to count as science is thus whether it is “good enough”.

    … Richard Dawkins purple prose where it seemed to me that he appeared to have forgotten that the “gene as intelligent agent” metaphor was just a metaphor.

    Sorry, I’m not impressed by your quotes; I just don’t read them that way. For example, note the “robot vehicles blindly programmed” (added emphasis). I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of effort that goes into misinterpreting Dawkins!

    Hi ej,

    Yet, the string theory of today may yet prove the ‘astrology’ of history’s yesterday.

    The big difference is that astrology was claimed to work and was thought to work. Currently no-one claims that string theory works; it’s a research programme that is trying to find something that works.

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  24. Philip Thrift

    It is curious that homeopathy advocates would use the “scientism” attack if they don’t advocate that there are entities outside materiality that makes their solutions work. (Homeopathy could be pseudoscience but not anti-materialism.) On the other hand, intelligent design advocates use the “scientism” attack because they do advocate that there are entities outside materiality that are needed. So if there is a “scientism” attack, the agenda is different if it comes from homeopathy or ID. (And ID wouldn’t be either science or pseudoscience.)

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  25. brodix

    Ej,

    Coel is right. String Theory would be more like epicycles. A model based theory, but with even less proof than epicycles. Just much more complex, as complexity is its solution and defense, since it makes it unfalsifiable and completely opaque.

    Possibly a meta-solution would involve complexity theory, as a way to actually distinguish between what we really do know and observe, versus the endless assumptions built into our models and the thoughts processes from which they arise.

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  26. Massimo Post author

    ej,

    “If we can accept string theory as science, despite lacking empirical grounding or demonstrability, why not astrology?”

    Because string theory is still in play, astrology isn’t. I’ve become convinced that the best way of thinking of pseudoscience isn’t in terms of testability (since a lot of pseudoscientific notions are, in fact, testable) but rather in terms of a notion that has been sufficiently examined by the relevant epistemic community of scientists, found irremediably wanting, and yet its supporters insist that it’s valid.

    So astrology counts, string theory not (yet). But parapsychology counts, I think, as does cold fusion.

    This also means that I partially disagree with Coel about the difference being one of quality. There is a lot of bad science out there, which is science nonetheless. But it’s true that, by definition, there isn’t any “good” pseudoscience.

    Robin’s example of (some) drugs is pertinent: right, the evidence in favor of specific drugs being effective is less than the evidence for paranormal phenomena, but the broader concept that drugs influence human behavior / physiology and, in the proper formulation, work, is not pseudoscience. So the category of drugs that don’t work is bad science (presumably done because of financial interests).

    Robin,

    “I wonder if those here would classify Daryl Bem’s “Feeling the Future” paper as science or pseudo science, or on the border”

    Pseudoscience. I think the evidence, Bem’s honest attempts notwithstanding, is overwhelming against any category of paranormal phenomena, so to insist that there is something there begins to put one more and more firmly into the category of pseudoscience. There was a reason PEAR closed down: it didn’t convince the pertinent epistemic community.

    Incidentally, there is more than significant doubt that both PEAR and Bem conducted their experiments properly and analyzed their data appropriately, despite being professionals. (Again, being a professional scientist is no guarantee against doing sloppy work.)

    “say the initial BICEP2 announcement”

    Sloppy science, but not pseudoscience because it was done within a currently accepted paradigm.

    “So it still might be science if it is not properly conducted or properly interpreted?”

    Yes, of course. Humans are fallible, scientists are no exception.

    I’m not going into the Dawkins thing. He hasn’t been a practicing scientists since the mid-’70s, what he does is science popularizing, not science.

    Alan,

    “Are there any useful comparisons to be made between the classical criticism of “verificationism” and the two senses of “scientism” here?”

    Not sure, can you elaborate?

    Coel,

    “I never cease to be amazed by the sheer amount of effort that goes into misinterpreting Dawkins!”

    To be fair, he seems to gladly lend a big help to people who misinterpret him!

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  27. Alan White

    Massimo–

    What I meant is that some defenders of homeopathy that you criticized (quite well) above seem to wish to duplicate the success of the attack on classic verificationism but are clueless about to consistently follow through with the attack. So some see science as trying, like classic verificationism, to restrict meaningfulness of claims to data-based foundations. But they see that (e.g.) moral and aesthetic claims appear to be meaningful without such foundations, and clumsily try to slide homeopathy’s claimed meaningfulness in on some like basis (maybe placebo effects might just reflect subjective beliefs like religious faith?).

    But while verificationism is certainly an inadequate account of the full semantics of science, no one should want to exclude empiricism and reliance on data as the backbone of science, and even as the ground of credences about scientific claims. So I see your legitimate attack on scientism as a sort of updated attack on verificationism as a complete account of what’s meaningful in science but alongside your wish to preserve its empirical foundations. Homeopath-apologists see part of what you’re trying to do but think that licenses both criticism of data-as-the-sole-ground-of-meaningfulness and expansion of meaningfulness to include any sort of widely shared belief, even if that shared belief is subjective. After all, 9 out of 10 in a recent taste test preferred Coke to Pepsi!

    Sorry if that’s still not clear. Part of the problem is while there are limited ways to be correct, there are unlimited ways to argue fallaciously.

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