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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I’m with Massimo

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 11.15.18 AMMassimo Pigliucci has taken a lot of heat for his criticisms of “new Atheists.” Pigliucci accuses NAs of being overconfident scientists who tread naively onto philosophical turf. I’m inclined to agree with him: NA’s are sometimes loudly making basic errors, inappropriately associating their views with “science,” and are sometimes making sophisticated excuses to rationalize their lack of rigor. For those who hope to have correct beliefs, a more cautious approach is warranted.

A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne published a critique on his blog directed at an essay that Pigliucci published last September, titled “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement.” Among the various blogs I read, I’ve generally found Pigliucci’s blog, Rationally Speaking, to be one of the most intellectually satisfying. But Coyne disagrees, saying:

I’ve been put off by [Massimo’s] arrogance, attack-dogishness (if you want a strident atheist, look no further than Massimo), and his repeated criticisms of New Atheists because We Don’t Know Enough Philosophy. (If you substituted “Theology” for “Philosophy” there, you’d pretty much have Terry Eagleton).

The parenthetical phrase made me wince, since it alludes to the Courtier’s Reply argument that can be used as a sophistic excuse for lack of rigor. It is also pretty rude to equate the professional discipline of philosophy with that of theology, which Coyne believes is utterly vacuous. Later in the same post, Coyne made another alarming remark:

Note to readers: when you see the word “nuanced” used in criticism of atheism, run!

This sounds juvenile to me. All mature fields have nuances — “minor distinctions; subtlety or fine detail” — and you can’t just barge into an established field without carefully navigating those nuances. But that’s exactly how NA scientists sometimes sound when they make overreaching philosophical pronouncements.

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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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