Pseudoscience and Continental Philosophy

pseudoscienceDespite recent loud claims to the contrary, there is a significant difference between two modern styles of doing philosophy: so-called analytic philosophy tends to be structured around rigorous arguments, is often dry, and concerns itself mostly (though not always) with matters that are rather arcane and of little social significance. “Continental” philosophy, by contrast, is frequently written in a more engaging, essay-type style, and its practitioners tend to be interested in pressing political and social matters. Unfortunately, it is also often (though not always) rather obfuscatory in language, and occasionally downright nonsensical.

Despite feeling more comfortable with the analytic approach, I do think this split in modern philosophy (which, roughly, originated with Kant, often considered the point of bifurcation) is highly unfortunate. I think philosophy is the sort of thing the ancient Greeks were doing (I mean, they did come up with the name!), it is rooted in the use of reason to arrive at understanding, and it concerns itself with pretty much any subject matter.

Another way to put this is that I think it would be good if analytic philosophers learned how to write in a less rigid and formal manner, as well as to concern themselves more with matters of practical import. By the same token, it would be nice if continentalists were to strive to be less obscure and more rigorous. There are weak sign of progress on both counts, but I’m not holding my breath.

A particular microcosm of the analytic / continental divide is represented by the difference between philosophy of science (analytic) and “science studies” (continental). Just like in the case of the macrocosm described above, this one has unfortunate consequences: in an ideal world, it would be nice if philosophers of science expanded their concern to issues of scientific ethics, for instance, and where a bit more critical of science and its practices, when required. Conversely, it would be good if science studies scholars were a bit more cognizant of what scientists actually do, and showed less of an anti-science reaction as part of their general anti-establishment ethos.

In a recent column for The Philosophers’ Magazine I presented in detail one particular instance of the problem, based on a strange paper by Babette Babich, published in the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, and entitled “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.”

It is hard to tell what the main thesis of Babich’s paper actually is, though there is an underlying current of distrust in the authority of science and a great deal of criticism of philosophers of science who are — in the author’s mind — a bit too servile in their cheerleading attitude toward science. The interesting, and a bit maddening, thing is that Babich, like many Continentalists, does have a point: we do live in an era where science is held to be the savior of mankind, despite having brought on us as many disasters as good things.

She is also right that philosophers of science have historically rarely been critical of scientific research or of the scientists that engage in it, though this has began to change in the right direction since the times of logical positivism at the beginning of the 20th century.

The problem is that Babich’s attempt will simply give more excuses to both philosophers of science and scientists to keep ignoring the entire area of science studies and rehearsing instead the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s. She mixes up legitimate criticism of scientific practices and science’s power structure with a defense of decidedly pseudoscientific or highly debatable notions, like HIV-AIDS denialism, homeopathy, cold fusion and climate change denial.

Babich’s paper clearly demonstrates the problem with a number of works coming out of science studies programs: the concern with science’s power structures, as well as with the more or less hidden agendas of governments, corporations and individual researchers is well placed and absolutely deserves close scrutiny. But such scrutiny is undermined by a facile criticism that is founded on a significant lack of understanding of the underlying science and that insists in putting in the same basket good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. But the existence of gradations and borderline cases doesn’t mean there are no distinctions to be made, and making those distinctions is both intellectually necessary and socially useful.


Categories: Metaphilosophy, Philosophy of Science

37 replies

  1. I’ve not even read Pinker’s book. The type of criticism that Dan mentioned earlier, I have in the past noted myself in looking at reviews of the book, plus Massimo’s psychological take on him, plus the fact that he’s tilts pretty strongly Pop Ev Psych, put it on my “why bother” shelf.


    Wait, wait.

    Maybe he and his wife can team up to write “A History of Violence at the Googleplex”!

    Just practicing my healthy, life-extending sarcasm!


  2. Hi Massimo,

    “Indeed. But your son also lives in a world where Trump, if elected President, could unleash Armageddon on a whim. That too wasn’t possible in earlier generations.”

    Good point. Pinkerton uses a telling word about the statistics, he says they “rollercoaster”. Yes, one of the things about a rollercoaster is that it always comes back to the same place. You can see from some of Pinker’s graphs that there are long periods in the past are the same as now and no obvious trend.

    A Trump presidency could send us on another round of the rollercoaster.


  3. David,

    “We genuinely need things like symbolic cognition, regimes of ecologically specific tools, for the same reason we need scientific enterprises like biology: because the machinery of most everything is either too obscure or too complex. The information we access provides us cues, and since we neglect all information pertaining to what those cues relate us to, we’re convinced that cues are all that is the case. And since causal cognition cannot duplicate the cognitive shorthand of the heuristics involved, they appear to comprise an autonomous order, to be something supernatural, or to use the prophylactic jargon of intentionalism, ‘irreducible.’”

    Keeping in mind that everything from language, to religion, to money function symbolically, it should be emphasized that such devices are every bit as important to understand as how to make nuclear weapons and smartphones. Yes, Continental philosophy does appear lost in the weeds of subjectivity and political posturing, but then the “shut up and calculate” crowd has given us string theory and multiverses. Reductionism can be as limited as subjectivity.

    The natural world does bubble along in a bottom up fashion and we do use these top down frames to understand it, so there does seem to be some circularity between the two approaches. For instance, math is reductionistically symbolic.

    There is no objective point of view, no matter how far pattern is distilled from substance, nor is there a platonic realm of symbolic truth.

    When you push against nature, she pushes back, even metaphorically. These two schools are on opposite sides of the same reality. Sort of like liberals and conservatives.


  4. The issue of formalism and non formalism is interesting. Obviously there can be no completely formal language of philosophy, although there seem to be some who still hold out hope.

    But for important or puzzling things, I often create my own formalism, not for anyone but myself. I find it useful to sort things out in my head, to see just exactly what I am saying. Sometimes I will spot an assumption that leads me to abandon the line of thought. Often this allows me to state things better in plain language.

    So I think formalisms might have a useful role in the development of an argument that can be left aside at the presentation of it.

    In fact scientists and even mathematicians often eschew formalisms where they can see a formalism would be possible, it is often just a waste of time being explicit about it.

    Formalism for formalisms sake is always, unhelpful.


  5. Ej, actually, the Los Alamos story is more myth than reality.

    Hans Bethe had already almost completely ruled that out, in advance of Trinity, after (shock me) Edward Teller raised the possibility. Some scientists later got irked that Enrico Fermi nonetheless was taking bets on the possibility:


  6. What about the critical approach to science and social issues as demonstrated by the likes of C S Peirce, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper? They were at home in science but were equally concerned about the responsible application of science and technology. The dichotomy of analytical and continental philosophy looks like the result of over specialization and also the adherence to fads and fashions in both traditions.
    See the alternative which can be called critical rationalism which Bryan Magee suggested in his memoire that he called an apology for philosophy☺


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