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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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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Why PZ Myers is off my reading list

ImageSummary: PZ Myers has created a “rude” environment on his blog, where the emphasis on ridicule and insult can obscure the nuances that separate good scholarship from pseudo-scholarship.

[EDIT– It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that some of my generalizations in this post are unfair. I agree with the assessment. My comments below are motivated by a particularly bad experience in which I was heckled by a few participants, one of whom trotted out some literature from a holocaust denial publisher, which left me somewhat enraged. In this specific experience, constructive discussion was simply unable to gain a foothold amidst the cacophony. This does not change my critique of Pharyngula’s general style as a community, which echoes (and amplifies) the style of denunciation and ridicule that appears in PZ’s own writing. I don’t think this style is a good representation of science and it interferes with the mission of public understanding.]
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Dissecting the debate over PZ’s grenade

It is now ten days since PZ Myers’ Aug. 8 disclosure of rape allegations against a popular skeptic author, the online community continues to be galvanized in a chain reaction of heated discussions on many topics related to gender equity, sexual harassment and the politics of rape. Although I previously wrote that PZ Myers’ disclosure was improper, I now believe it may have significantly raised consciousness of these issues among free-thinking circles. I also wrote that the accusations point towards a much more general problem in modern professional life. Discussions of these problems are appearing everywhere in discussion fora and comment threads within the free-thinking blogosphere. Although the comments often reflect strong opinions (and sometimes mean-spirited opinions), I believe most participants possess flexible minds capable of evolving when exposed to new information. This debate has therefore created a rare opportunity to really deepen our collective understanding of an important but under-recognized issue.
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Sexism and Schism in the Skeptic Community

For years leading up to PZ Myers’ clumsy disclosure of rape accusations, the debate of sexual harassment and “rape culture” within the skeptical/Atheist movement(s) was steadily rising to a full boil. I am a little frustrated by this debate because I don’t attend the events in question; I read the books, magazines and blogs and listen to pod-casts. In most instances I turn to these materials because I’m interested in science and philosophy, not necessarily because I want to read about gender and social policy (much less about the self-referential politics of skeptical advocacy organizations). But gender issues are now in the spotlight, and that is probably not a bad thing because the problem is real as evidenced by a number of documented, independent events.
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PZ Myers’ Grenade

Several days ago, popular Atheist blogger PZ Myers made some incendiary claims on his site Pharyngula. Myers asked, “What do you do when someone pulls the pin and hands you a grenade?” Probably the worst response is to throw the grenade into a large crowd. But that’s what Myers did by posting criminal allegations on his blog — specifically, he posted an anonymous allegation of rape made against a popular author and speaker. In spite of the fractured culture that’s emerged in the skeptic/Atheist blogosphere, I like Pharyngula and I usually enjoy Myers’ writing. This time, I think there’s a consensus that he made a mistake (I’ll avoid linking to other blogs since there’s a lot of shouting about who’s buddies with whom). From my perspective, PZ’s question about the grenade should be translated into a more practical wording:

How should an individual or association respond to private allegations of criminal conduct?

There’s a quick answer (and I’ll offer more detailed explanations below): In general, if you have knowledge of a crime, you should immediately speak to a law enforcement representative and/or consult with an attorney before taking any action or making any public disclosures. Now since PZ is a blogger — and therefore arguably classifiable as some form of journalist — there may be other appropriate steps.
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