More on the Myths of Science

Further to the rant by Jerry Coyne about James Blachovicz piece which I reacted to here, there’s more. Forbes’ Ethan Siegel responded and so did Bill Storage at The Multidisciplinarian. Hat tip @chrisoldfield in all cases.

Where to start? It’s still all about turf wars over broad and narrow definitions – and I’ve said what I needed to say. Science (broadly) has many methods it shares with many other rational and creative disciplines, but (narrowly) has one specific distinguishing feature that makes it scientific – science as a species. Framing it’s hypotheses logically-objectively and empirically-falsifiably.

The recurring problem though is the turf-war, the arrogance of (some) scientists believing there are no bounds to what (narrow) science can speak about authoritatively. Obviously anyone can (broadly) speak about anything they like, but if we’re staking claims, good fences make good neighbours, and narrow definitions have their place.

The problem arises with the so-called “priviledged” position of science, in the minds of some scientists. Bill Storage in his piece opens with what he sees as a given:

“[S]cience deserves the special epistemic status that it acquired in the scientific revolution. By special epistemic status, I mean that science stands privileged as a way of knowing. Few but nihilists, new-agers, and postmodernist diehards would disagree.”

And he makes that claim from authority – that the history of science has been so successful – so it must be true.

Priviledged as “a” way of knowing. Sure. But not “the priviledged way” of knowing anything and everything across the broadest purview of scientific interest just because of its interest. Not all of science’s interest is science. The particular point in my response to Coyne’s rant was science’s fence with its philosophical neighbours. It needs to satisfy the standards of both camps. Coincidentally, today Nassim Taleb also tweeted this:

The graphic is from this post by The Logic of Science, which I haven’t fully digested yet, but it’s on the side of defending science against the accusations of arrogance (that I am making). But on this point it is wrong, a category error about the species that makes it special or priviledged. Several very astute comments in the various threads following from those two tweets above. Not all accusations of arrogance are spurious or ad-hominem.

Talking “about science” – as in the content of science – scientists can be as scientific and fallibly human as they like. The content is science, of scientific quality, or it isn’t. Science has the priviledge of deciding.

But, talking “about” science – as in the fences about it and the fields beyond them – science does need to get that not everything is scientific, not everything is objectively decidable, not necessarily evidentially, not even statistically. And Taleb would know.

The metaphors substituting plumbers and mechanics for scientists (in the graphic) are completely spurious, and missing the aboutness. Wake up science. Many of us accusing you of arrogance are sincerely trying to help you, and the rest of us into the bargain.

[Incidentally though, and probably ironically, and definitely very risky given the post-modern new-agey “attack is the best form of defence” tone of the original piece, ….

… the mechanic – the careful, self-knowing, scientific, mechanic, the kind we can trust – is precisely the vehicle used by Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and in derivation by Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soul Craft. Just sayin’.]

2 thoughts on “More on the Myths of Science”

  1. As i explained to my son:
    Science has got a lot to say about a father / son relationship, genetics, environment and all sorts.
    But as soon as you start talking about the ACTUAL relationship we have, science is as useful as a chocolate teapot.
    Love, respect, etc is something that science refuses to acknowledge, never mind quantify.
    It’s a hard limit, and one that science enthusiasts pretend does not exist.

  2. Yes, good example. I keep using “species” to contrast with single populations of humans which are never “repeatable experiments” – so scarecly scientific. Thanks. Do share.

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