Is this scientism?


Is there science happening here? I need a biologist to tell me.

PZ Myers and Laurence Moran say “Physicians and engineers are not scientists” (a point argued with, I think, malicious intent). Meanwhile Jerry Coyne and others think that car mechanics and plumbers are doing “science, broadly construed.” Sam Harris and Steven Pinker suggest (or at least imply) that scientists will ultimately overtake the humanities; Massimo Pigliucci has strenuously critiqued this latter view, calling it “scientism.”

This debate revolves around a basic rhetorical fallacy: the claim that “scientists” have a unique legitimacy attached to their beliefs, together with a claim of demarcational privilege to decide who is and isn’t a scientist. The arational imposition of intellectual privilege is, I think, the essence of the fuzzily defined “scientism” that non-scientists find threatening. It’s threatening because it is a threat. It attacks the legitimacy of entire classes of scholarship, and the Myers/Moran attack on engineers is one example.

This style of argument is used to de-legitimize a perceived opponent, or (as in Pigliucci’s case) to defend the legitimacy of his own profession. Such defenses are, according to Coyne, “defensive” — check out Coyne’s reaction to a historian who proposed that scientists might benefit from studying history. To paraphrase his position: we (scientists) don’t need you (non-scientists), you need us. On this level, the debate has nothing to do with science or the quality of ideas; instead it is a purely sophistic (and egoistic) effort to disqualify others.

I’ll pause now to remind the reader that I’m an engineer. Speaking as an engineer, I think there is a clear distinction between engineering and science: engineers have to actually get things right or they may suffer immediate economic, functional or ethical consequences. Scientists, on the other hand, have to pass their work through a process of critical review by their peers. The latter process is important to the long-term filtering of ideas, but peer review doesn’t have the same falsifying power as a collapsing bridge, an exploding boiler, a crashing train, a killer radiation leak or a misfired missile. So if we’re talking about legitimacy, I’d sooner trust the beliefs of a randomly selected engineer over those of a random scientist.

But Moran and Myers think engineers are something less. They are annoyed by Ken Ham’s claim that creationists can be successful in scientific careers, something that was argued during the Bill Nye / Ken Ham debate. They are so annoyed by the creationists that they are willing to degrade entire classes of scholars in order to win a fake point.

Following the Ham/Nye event, the subsequent debate-over-the-debate led to an exchange between William Saletan and Sean McElwee over whether scientists can be creationists (see Saletan’s original article, McElwee’s rebuttal, and Saletan’s reply). PZ Myers jumped in to argue that engineers are not scientists, with a subsequent reply by Jason Rosenhouse who says, “Engineers are scientists, full stop.” Moran’s response to Rosenhouse:

Engineers have a Bachelor’s degree in engineering and they typically work for a construction company or in the IT department of a large corporation. They are not scientists. Full stop.

It’s true that some engineers do science but usually they have a higher degree in engineering and usually they are academics. There’s no possible way you could assume that all engineers are scientists just because they are licensed engineers and wear the ring.

[In Canada, engineers commonly wear an "iron ring" associated with a pledge or oath to remind them of their social responsibility (do biologists take oaths or pledges pertaining to honesty and professional ethics? Engineers and physicians commonly do). A popular urban legend is that these rings are forged from material salvaged from a collapsed bridge, probably a legend that evolved to deepen the symbolism.]

There is exactly one reason for Myers and Moran to make this argument: they want to delegitimize the beliefs of engineers. Apparently we’re meant to ignore the fact that Bill Nye (the “science guy,” the one representing science in the creationism debate) only holds a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering. Myers’ argument was even worse, since he bluntly called Saletan a liar for suggesting that engineers are comparable to scientists. How dare we engineers presume to elevate ourselves!?

I found it difficult to read Moran’s brief argument in its entirety. Numerous counter-arguments readily came to mind, like “Biologists are ass holes, full stop,” or the more succinct, “Screw you, Larry.” But I think there’s an opportunity here to connect this argument with a deeper fallacy that is constantly percolating in debates over hot issues. That fallacy has a simple form, “You should listen to me and ignore others for reason X.” It doesn’t matter what X is because there is a fallacy regardless.

When creationists argue that one can be a legitimate scientist and still believe in some form of creationism or intelligent design, they are right, but that doesn’t matter. The simple truth is that a person can “safely” hold any arbitrary belief as long as it has no predictive (contradictable) consequences for their direct scientific work. I’m not saying that creationism is “compatible” with science; I’m saying that one can do excellent specialized scientific work regardless of opinions on ultimate origins, first causes, guiding forces or whatever — things like young-Earth creationism are further out of bounds, but not impossible. I personally know a number of practicing, well published scientists and mathematicians (and a larger number of academic engineers) who quietly believe in some form of intelligent design. I suspect that most scientists also hold erroneous or superficial beliefs about disciplines outside their expertise — there are some, for instance, who seem to believe that the fields of moral and legal philosophy will be largely replaced by neuroscience (and the opinions of actual philosophers are taken to be irrelevant on this claim). But that doesn’t disqualify them as scientists or thinkers.

Saletan is completely right when he says, “you can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” Rosenhouse is plainly correct when he says, “It is trivially true that it is possible to hold crazy ideas in one branch of science while doing good work in another.” Trivially true! For Myers and Moran to respond that “engineers are not scientists” is just cheating, it’s sophistry. Surely Moran and Myers realize that it’s irrelevant when creationists claim to have allies within the scientific profession. They nevertheless seem willing to engage in this fallacy with the clear intent to control the podium and disqualify the very existence of a debate. Why isn’t it enough for Myers and Moran to have the correct view on origins; why do they also demand recognition of their superior intellectual legitimacy?

Throughout the history of science, there has always been a sort of class warfare over who deserves credit for discovery. Many discoveries relied on key contributions from assistants, machinists or technicians who went largely uncredited. Even Myers, in his rebuke of Saletan, notes that “there was a whole series of people who contributed” to inventing the MRI, but still the Nobel prize for this invention only went to two guys. Those two guys hogged all recognition for work done by hundreds or thousands of people. (This phenomenon of selective recognition is something that really annoys Sean Carroll). In the 18th or 19th centuries, the “real” scientists were usually self-important aristocrats who relied on lower-class artisans to flesh out the details for them. (See, for example, the frustrating story of Stephen Gray, a scientific assistant who discovered electrical conduction, but was not recognized as a legitimate scientist in his lifetime and was relegated to poverty).

Today, a lot of scientific progress is enabled by incremental improvements in instrumentation, computing resources and communication networks — advances largely attributable to engineers. Without the important roles played by engineers, most scientists would be completely stuck. Looking at all the roles that need to be played, it seems horribly arrogant to suggest that any of them are just along for the ride.

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