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.

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Ken Ham: making a new generation of Atheists

Bill Nye vs Ken Ham, Feb 4, 2014In just a few days, Bill Nye will go head-to-head with creationist Ken Ham in a debate that has generated a lot of controversy in the online skeptical community. Many are concerned that this debate will attract attention and confer an appearance of legitimacy on Ken Ham’s organization, Answers in Genesis, and its fundamentalist ideas. But I want people to pay more attention, to think harder about this debate, so that they can realize the degree to which biblical creationism is a despicable fraud.

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Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

Look, science!

Look at all that science!

Skeptical arguments generally live in the domain of rhetoric and informal logic. Most informal arguments hinge on the correct identification of logical fallacies. There has been a slow growth in the number of alleged fallacies since the dawn of internet debate. Novel fallacies are usually a re-branding of established fallacies, with the goal of simplified rhetorical clarity. I’m concerned that this also promotes a false confidence that leads to shallow thinking and mis-identification.To paraphrase Occam, “fallacies are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In this post, I’m going to pick on two examples: Prothero’s observations about credential mongering, and Myer’s anti-theology “courtier’s reply” argument that has been referenced by Dawkins and others. I chose these specific examples because they seem to be shaky arguments that can be aimed against each other. I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these arguments in their original context, but these arguments are not able to live independently as authentic fallacies.

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Planet of the Ape Theists

At the risk of re-blogging too much from “Reason With Me,” I just had to highlight this post about the Planet of the Apes, a beloved movie from my childhood that delivers a potent allegory for faulty theological reasoning. This film reminds of science fiction’s power to explore deeply controversial topics in a manner that is accessible to everyone. Good science fiction can address the substance of an argument while providing some distance from the passion.

Reason With Me


Spending so much time debating with theists makes me feel like I am living on the Planet of the Apes. Theists constantly quote from their ancient texts while denying reason and science. The theists sound shockingly like Dr. Zaius, the Minster of Science but also the chief Defender of the Faith. The apes use their ancient scrolls to justify hunting, beating and enslaving humans. They defend taking away the rights of other sentient beings based on ancient folklore.

Dr. Zaius states that “there is no contradiction between faith and science… true science.”


But Cornelius, wonderfully played by Roddy McDowell, is the embodiment of reason and the scientific method. Cornelius finds ancient artifacts that would suggest that man came before the apes (sort of a reverse evolution theory). Cornelius is accused of heresy.

Dr. Zaius isn’t that far removed from Christian apologists today who try to…

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Bring out the crazies

Sigh. Immediately following the Newtown tragedy, all varieties of media lit up with critiques about groups who might try to capitalize on the event to serve their own political motives. These critiques were initially directed at gun-control activists. But now a growing variety of crazies — some of them in positions of influence — are using Newtown as a backdrop to air their own fringe viewpoints. Among the more popular fringe ideas are coming from the prayer-in-school and anti-evolution camps, who are circulating messages like this one, titled “Darwin at fault for massacre,” that appeared in my local paper. According to the letter’s author, Geoff Vongermeten:

Not until Darwin goes away and in the view of humanity being specially created by God in his image can we ever hope to stem the tide of mass murder and war. Cain started it. Darwin legitimized it. Who’s going to stop it? The tools are not the problem. The philosophy is the problem!

While my local paper is known for attracting cave-dwelling weirdos, PZ Myers has assembled a round-up of comments that commanded substantial influence during the past week. The most common viewpoint seems to be that Newtown was divine punishment. A popular poem has been circulating which insinuates that Jesus wanted to “take back his schools,” i.e. Jesus had the Newtown children assassinated so that he could open an elementary school in heaven. These ideas are completely zany, but they are echoed by people like James Dobson who command a large national audience.

Conservative Christians seem to blame all tragic events on modernity, on science or secularism, or because of gays or other groups who they think aren’t receiving enough hate from our culture. I suppose it shouldn’t be too shocking that might see Newtown as a divine act, since the God of the Bible so often orders or permits infanticide. Even the first Christmas was marked by an act of mass infanticide. So that isn’t shocking. But what is shocking is that people of the 21st century still believe that this is a good model for a just and moral society. That’s plain nuts.

Massacre of the Innocents