The trouble with “The trouble with scientism”

Philip Kitcher, one of my favorite philosophers, has waded into the “science wars,” though not in as invidious a way as has Elliott Sober.  Over at The New Republic, Kitcher has a new essay on the hubris of science: “The trouble with scientism: why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge.”  It’s a good essay, touting the progress that has been made in “nonscientific” fields, but do note the fields in the title: history and the humanities.  In fact, I construe “science” broadly: as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.  Those methods can indeed apply to history and some of the humanities.  But Kitcher’s own conception of science seems to be “the brand of inquiry practiced by natural scientists”: physicists, biologists, chemists, and so on. And so he construes “scientism” as scientists’ attacks on fields like anthropology and history.  I think Kitcher’s criticism is misguided because his conception of what is “scientific” is too narrow.

Kitcher’s claim is that we scientists, or those who practice “scientism,” have been overly awed by five observations about natural science:

The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

He then proceeds to show not only that other disciplines—notably history and the social sciences—have also progressed in a science-like fashion, but that science itself has also been dominated by false theories. In other words, while touting “other ways of knowing,” Kitcher also engages in some mild criticism of science itself for overreaching. You will be familiar with these tactics: they’re the stock in trade of accommodationist theologians.  Kitcher concludes:

So the five points of scientism rest on stereotypes, and these are reinforced by the perception of threats. As the budgets for humanities departments shrink, humanists see natural scientists blundering where the truly wise fear to tread. Conversely, scientists whose projects fail to win public approval seem to envision what John Dupré has called the “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Humanist,” a fantasy akin to supposing that post-modernist manifestos are routinely distributed with government briefing books. We need to move beyond the stereotypes and discard the absurd visions that often maintain them.

Now Kitcher is far more cogent than those theologians. He’s right that scientists have sometimes been overly enthusiastic about theories that are either more limited than originally conceived (he uses evolutionary psychology) or downright wrong (my own example is the early rejection of continental drift).  And he’s right that areas outside “traditional” science have made progress: scholars have, for example, helped reconstruct where the Bible came from, and uncovered many previously hidden facts about history. Further, his cautions about arriving at a Wilsonian “theory of everything” are useful.  Though ultimately all phenomena, including human social interactions, come down to the motions of molecules, we’ll never be able to understand our society using the tools of physics alone. Things as complicated as human society (nay, any society) are higher-order, emergent properties that often demand their own methods. (That does not, however, mean that those higher-order properties are not absolutely consistent with the laws of physics.  The claim of inconsistency is the purview of religion and fuzzy thinking. And even many aspects of human society can be explained by genes, which are certainly “low level” entities.)

But the main problem with Kitcher’s piece, I think, is that he contrasts science with fields that use the same methods of science: reason, observation, and doubt.   If you look at his examples of where scholars have produced increased understanding and progress, it is in disciplines like history, economics, ethnography, and archaeology—fields that rely on the same “ways of knowing” as does science.  Here are a few of Kitcher’s statements:

The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same. The historical linguists who recognize connections among languages or within a language at different times, and the religious scholars who point out the affiliations among different texts, use methods equivalent to those that have been deployed ever since Darwin in the study of the history of life. Indeed, Darwin’s paleontology borrowed the method from early nineteenth-century studies of the history of languages.

Who among scientists denigrates these achievements? Not I!  But all of these achievements rest on observation, questioning, reason, and testing—the methods of science.  There is in fact no strict demarcation between “science” and “non-science” when it comes to the methods for ascertaining what is real.  One commenter on this site even noted that the classic chestnut of “another way of knowing”—does my partner love me?—is also amenable to empirical scrutiny.  At any rate, I think Philip is barking up the wrong tree here, for few scientists would criticize efforts to determine who painted a picture using methods of dating and examination of brushstrokes and style.  All of us appreciate the efforts of linguists, who use the same methods that biologists once used to ascertain relatedness of species; and all of us appreciate the efforts of Biblical scholars to find out when the Bible was written and how the various parts derive from various sources.  Few of us denigrate these “ways of knowing.”

Here’s more from Philip:

While it is true that rigorous history and ethnography often give up generality for accuracy and precision, their conclusions can nonetheless have considerable importance. . . History and ethnography are used instead to show the readers what it is like to live in a particular way, to provide those of us who belong to very different societies with a vantage point from which to think about ourselves and our own arrangements.

Agreed!  But even those endeavors derive from observation, and are subject to testing and verification. Remember the big kerfuffle when Margaret Mead’s observations on Samoan culture were questioned? She was ultimately vindicated, as I recall, but it was through the efforts of scholars who examined her contentions, her notes, and tested the assertions of her critics.

Kitcher goes on.

THE DOMAIN OF the social sciences is the territory on which humanists and natural scientists frequently join battle . . .

To declare that there is a “natural unemployment rate” of 6 percent has a wide-ranging social and political impact, and it is entirely reasonable for critics to examine the evidence alleged to support such a declaration. Likewise, the outcry against early ventures in sociobiology was fueled by the perception that, while the claims advanced were sweeping (and sometimes threatening to the aspirations of large groups of people), the support for them was markedly less strong than that routinely demanded for theorizing about, say, insect sociality.

Economics, fuzzy as it is, can still make empirically testable claims, as can sociobiology.  These fields are both “science” if that word is construed broadly.

In the end, then, many of Kitcher’s arguments against “scientism” seem misguided—unless you conceive “science” narrowly as “what self-described scientists do.”  But science is more than a profession; it’s a method—a method of inquiry that arose from the Enlightenment. In that sense, plumbers and car mechanics practice science when they diagnose problems.

The real question is not whether science is being arrogant when criticizing other disciplines, but whether those other disciplines give us real knowledge about the universe.  That is, are other disciplines “ways of knowing”?  Clearly, history, anthropology, archaeology, and many of the social sciences are. But religion is not, and I’m sure that Kitcher (who is, I think, an atheist) is not implying that it is.  To say that archaeology is a way of knowing does not mean that revelation is a way of knowing. We need to keep that in mind whenever we talk about scientism.

At the end of his piece, Kitcher sticks his toe into murkier waters:

FOR A VARIETY of reasons, then, human inquiry needs a synthesis, in which history and anthropology and literature and art play their parts. But there is still a deeper reason for the enduring importance of the humanities. Many scientists and commentators on science have been led to view the sciences as a value-free zone, and it is easy to understand why. When the researcher enters the lab, many features of the social world seem to have been left behind. The day’s work goes on without the need for confronting large questions about how human lives can or should go. Research is insulated because the lab is a purpose-built place, within which the rules of operation are relatively clear and well-known. Yet on a broader view, which explores the purposes and their origins, it becomes clear that judgments of the significance of particular questions profoundly affect the work done and the environments in which it is done. Behind the complex and often strikingly successful practices of contemporary science stands a history of selecting specific aspects of the world for investigation.

I want to concentrate on his first sentence, which implies that literature and the arts are “ways of knowing,” but first let’s take up Philip’s contention that science isn’t “value free.”  Of course it isn’t: we consider some questions more important than others.  Explaining general patterns, like why male birds are more colorful than females, takes precedence over elucidating narrow issues like the diet of the magnolia warbler.  And questions that bear on human health and welfare are considered more important than how to to eliminate cancer from the Tasmanian devil.  Those priorities have to do with values and careerism.  Also, non-scientific considerations can lead to the misuse of science, as when it’s used to make weapons.  But that is not itself a criticism of the method of scientific inquiry, which has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe.  Religion itself has never given us one such truth that has stood the test of time.  If you know of one, by all means tell me.

Which brings us to literature and the arts.  I have been pondering for a while whether music, art, and literature are “ways of knowing”—endeavors that tell us truths about the world or ourselves.  When I was in Cambridge, I had a long talk with James Wood, the literature critic of The New Yorker and a delightful and erudite man, on precisely this point. I was pretty open-minded about this issue, but after talking with James, who seemed initially to favor the “ways-of-knowing” view of literature (I’m not sure what he thinks now), I concluded that the arts are not ways of knowing. As an example of how they could be, Wood cited The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s magnificent novella about the death of a rich man (read it if you haven’t).  Wood told me that it was so realistic that it was once used for teaching medical students what it was like to die.  And it is: something about it rings true, particularly its evocation of how one hates the prospect of losing life for good, and how one mourns a wasted life at its end.

But I realized that insofar that this novella tells us what it’s like to die, that is based on observation of dying people and expressing that observation in new and artistic ways.  That is, the work wouldn’t strike us as true and meaningful if it didn’t express something that was gleaned by observation of human behavior.  It is, in a way, a form of anthropology, and James pointed out to me the similarity between the stages of Ilyich’s dying and the five stages of death made so famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Her book, of course, derived from years of observing dying people, and gleaning generalities about their behavior up to the end.

And so it is with art and literature: they function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation.  Of course the arts have other functions as well: they can enable us to see in new ways, for example.  Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions?  And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.

It is indeed “scientism” to dismiss the real progress that has been made in history, archaeology, and other social sciences (though I’d be a bit hard pressed to identify real advances in economics). But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of “scientism” is in many ways a straw man.

I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication.  As one of my commenters said last week, “there are not different ways of knowing.  There is only knowing and not knowing.”  I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art.  But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.

h/t: Krishan

104 Comments

  1. Posted May 12, 2012 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of Jered Diamond’s discussion toward the end of Guns, Germs and Steel, in which he talks about the importance of finding historical “natural experiments” to support or contradict theories in the field. He argues that the “soft” science fields can and must work like the hard sciences if we’re to trust their conclusions.

  2. Posted May 12, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    Science is the effort to understand the world around us.

    The arts are a means to create a new world.

    Science may be used to understand the arts better, and artists may use tools and techniques derived from science to do what they do more effectively. And scientific discoveries about the arts may lead to other scientific discoveries in non-artistic fields.

    But I think it’s pretty clear that science and the arts are otherwise entirely different activities.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Art isn’t only about creating something new, it can also be a means of communicating an experience or idea. Which in the process creates something new. But that is the result rather than the only goal.

      But yes, art and science are completely different endeavors.

    • Posted May 13, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      And this is why I regard, in some of my moods, technology as the natural ally of art, or technology and what I’ve called craft. (Prescientific deliberate making.)

  3. Sastra
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    What distinguishes science from those “other ways of knowing” is its inherent respect for the critical opinions of other people. Not the tribe, not the individual, not the privileged group of enlightened insiders, but we are engaged in a common search for truth — or, rather, for what is likely to be true.

    When I try to think of an example of something I’d explicitly label “scientism” I always think of Ayn Rand’s purported claim that a Rational Man could, from reason alone, derive the superiority of Wagner’s music over any other. Now that I think is not a matter on which one could gain the universal consensus of of experts in the field.

    • Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Shades of Nick Matzke…

      /@

    • Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t totally dismiss the idea that music might be evaluated with objective criteria.

      If we feel confident assigning lesser value to something produced by a very young person with no experience or training, we’ve already admitted that evaluation is possible.

      Of course, one is under no obligation to enjoy any and all music that meets those criteria. This is the difference between the arts and “hard” science, it seems to me.

      We may be able to demonstrate why piece x is a more coherent, more intelligent, more skillful creation than piece y, but the stakes are not high enough to force us to so orient our tastes.

      If NASA gets an equation wrong, astronauts might die, and hundreds of millions of dollars are lost.

      If someone says “Carl Orff was a genius”, pretty much nothing happens.

  4. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Wow. After reading this, I had to restrain myself from standing up and applauding.

    I could not agree more that science is a METHOD, which can be applied to inquiries of all kinds, from discovering the movement of planets to buying a refrigerator.

    My own discipline, psychology, has been rife with problems of “fashion”, and at the same time has produced elegant knowledge. Discerning the difference is so important; we have been legitimately criticized for a lack of rigor, and at the same time have contributed greatly to the body of knowledge.

    The accusation of “scientism” strikes me as false. All of the points listed by the author as bias are VALID criticisms. If his point is that you can’t throw out entire areas of study, fine, but those criticisms are useful when evaluating specific studies to see whether the information coming out of them is real or fluff.

    Science has given us much specific knowledge, but more than that, it has provided a strategy for learning anything. It tells us whether the information we’ve acquired is valid, or approaches being valid. L

  5. Achrachno
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I think of the arts as ways of communicating, perhaps of convincing more effectively, by appealing to common human tendencies that may not be strictly rational. Scientific writing is quite different from literary writing, and seems to have less general appeal.

    Novelists can present important scientific ideas in ways that appeal to many more people than anything we scientist types write. Likewise, painters can get people to see things they might never have noticed otherwise.

    But, artistic tools are easily abused because they are not intrinsically tied to rational views. Boring scientists are forced to rationally defend their ideas: to present mind-numbingly detailed support. The arts can equally easily be used to convince people of stupid or evil things, things that are not in any rational sense true, as good or sensible things. Consider much of what goes on with advertising, religion, politics (e.g., L. Riefenstahl).

    • Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      +1

      I was going to make a similar point in response to Grania above…

      /@

    • Caroline52
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      Well said!

    • Posted May 13, 2012 at 3:51 am | Permalink

      Riefenstahl is a good example because it’s hard not to admire her genius at creating beautiful and arresting images and presenting her (or rather Hitler’s) message, while detesting the message. If you want to understand why the Germans loved and followed Hitler, watch “Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will” with subtitles.

  6. Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    As both a writer & an artist, I’ve given a lot of thought to just this point (possibly something to do with being engaged in a PhD considering the theory of aesthetics). For me, creativity in the ‘arts’ – ie: visual, writing etc – is about a way of ‘seeing’ – to translate, transcribe, transmute observations & feelings. As a sentient being, I don’t consider ‘feelings’ as something apart from ‘observings’ – they are both on the same plane, maybe at different points, but on the same plane as engaging with the world. And this is what the humanities should be engaged in exploring: how the lived human world expresses itself, integrates its various forms of knowing & so on. To me, science & the humanities should be given equal weight. They are both ways of knowing. To scientifically observe and measure & articulate facts about the universe does not detract from the wonder, the sense of the sublime articulated in theories concerning it.
    They are all ways of seeing, of knowing. When I write a story, be it from real experience or imagination, when I draw some fantasy beast or landscape, when I write a poem, it’s all based on imagination which transmutes some observation from somewhere, sometime, coming from curiousity as to what it looks, feels, sounds like. But it comes from observation. ‘Scientific method’ is integral to everything, not merely science, and always has been. The humanities are the partner of the sciences, both are driven by just as intense a curiosity about the world. They’re both in the same spectrum, both ways of knowing.
    Well, that’s my muddled thoughts on the subject anyway.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Well put.

      It seems to me that the fundamental error (ok, one of the fundamental errors) of religion is confusing the categories of science and humanities when it comes to spiritual — supernatural — claims. The way God purportedly makes you feel is conflated with the empirical evidence for God (or Spirit or what have you) so that an assertion about objective reality is supposed to be evaluated using the more subjective standards of art. The “wonder and sense of the sublime” is treated as a direct experience OF an observed fact — instead of the inference it really is.

      It’s like someone insisting that arguments over the existence of the Loch Ness Monster are necessarily on the same level as discussions about whether one ought to value the diversity and beauty of the environment and protect endangered species. One big problem falling out of this confusion is that those who don’t believe there is an extraordinary large aquatic animal in Loch Ness on scientific grounds are now placed as scientistic animal haters, incapable of natural aesthetic appreciation or engaging in the humanities. They’re using the wrong way of knowing about the beast.

      The fact that supernatural claims smack of reified abstractions certainly doesn’t help.

      • Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        Yeah – & I careful steered clear of the religion stuff as well – it doesn’t come into my work & it’s been left out of the sublime for a while now. Me? I’m one of them who prefers to think/hope/drea/fantasise that there’s a Loch Nessie, perhaps because I delight in the impossiblity or improbability of it. That ‘science’ hasn’t yet found evidence for or against never comes into it, for me. I also think of what Socrates (or one of them old Greek guys) said: nothing is impossible, merely improbable :-) It’s not something I takle seriously though. & it’s not something for ‘belief’ as such either. It’s either a fact or an unproven fact & at the moment, it kinda feels as though it falls within – or almost – Schrodinger territory :-D

      • Kevin
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        I think the error is more fundamental than that.

        It’s confusing what one “feels” versus what one can prove.

        It’s using the word “knowledge” in two completely different ways. One of which imparts information about a subjective belief, and the other than imparts information about an objective fact or set of facts.

        For example.
        1. My knowledge of music leads me to believe that Justin Bieber is a talentless hack.
        2. My knowledge of cosmology leads me to believe that there is a black hole at the center of our galaxy.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

          I think one of those is a value judgement (which is usually arguable and can rarely be established 100%), while the other is a question of fact which can in principle be determined conclusively (even if our current knowledge may be insufficient, more information may settle the matter).

        • Dan L.
          Posted May 14, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          Aww, give the kid a break. What is he, 14 or something?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        I’d love there to be a Nessie, though I think it unlikely (though not impossible. Nessie’s existence wouldn’t violate one scientific ‘law’, unlike e.g. God or the FSM). But IMO the only way to prove Nessie’s existence would be to detect him/her by scientific/technological means. ‘Different ways of knowing’ are just a nonsense invented by theologians and relativistic post-modern philosophers, so far as I can tell. It’s an extension of the ‘is-ought’ fallacy; what you use for evidence when you haven’t got any.

    • Caroline52
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      I pretty much agree. The phrase “a way of knowing” is ambiguous. If it means “a different KIND of knowing,” then, following JAC, I would say no: there is only knowing and not knowing. But if it means “a method for getting at real knowledge about the universe,” or, as JAC put it, “a different way of observing,” or of learning about reality, then I would say yes: of couorse there are different ways of getting at real knowledge. For example, our senses — sight, hearing, touch taste, and smell — are each a “different way of knowing.” At the same time, just our senses can fool us, any “way of knowing” we use is also susceptible to distortion via our cognitive biases, etc.

      So as JAC also points out, the humanities give us different ways of observing reality, as when, to use his example, we see an actual lily pond more vividly because Monet’s interpretation alerted us to certain patterns of light and shadow that fall upon actual lily pads, that we might not otherwise have noticed.

      Where I disagree is that I wouldn’t draw a contrast between “ways of knowing” and “ways of feeling.” Rather, I’d say that our feelings are themselves “ways of knowing,” –that is, methods for becoming aware of what’s true about the universe. Feelings are basically inferences. Walking in the forest, if I see a bear, I almost instantaneously appraise the implications of the bear’s presence for my well-being, algorithmically, and that appraisal triggers an emotion mode, such as fear, that automatically motivates me to do a behavior that is well calculated to respond in a way that protects my well-being, such as running away.

      Sometimes the appraisal is wrong, and the emotion leads me astray. But sometimes it is right. You could say, therefore, that the fear I feel is a “way of knowing” that the best thing for me to do, having encountered this free-roaming bear, is to turn and run away fast. My appraisal may or may not turn out to be accurate in any given case, but this particular appraisal-inference algorithm presumably evolved in human brains because in most circumstances throughout our evolutionary history, it tended to increase our chances of survival.

      Literature, for example, is among other things a “different way of knowing” (a diffeent method for finding out) about the experience of being human. (It’s different, for example, from learning through personal experience or direct observation of other people’s behavior.) It’s method for learning about the experience of fellow human beings in circumstances that we might never experience ourselves, enabling us to develop and widen the circle of our empathy, to include people very different from ourselves. And it’s a method for learning that other people have had similar experiences to us, which gives us real knowledge that we are not alone. And it’s a method for learning what it may be like to have an experience we might have in the future, which may give us real information that helps us decide whether to do something, how to prepare for it, and so forth.

      • Caroline52
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Come to think of it, maybe the ambiguity in the phrase “a different way of knowing” makes it what Dan Dennett calls a “deepity.”

        If so, that would explain why the proposition, “There are different ways of knowing” is so compelling to so many people — why it has an aura of seeming like it somehow MUST be true, though one’s not sure just HOW it could be true, or even what it means.

        Per Dennett, a “deepity” is an ambiguously worded proposition that can be read as making two claims, one of which is obviously false, but if true would be earth-shattering, and the other of which is obviously true, but trivial.

        Dennett’s main example is the proposition, “Love is just a word.”

        (See the talk he gave at the 2009 conference of Atheist Alliance International (AAI), entitled The Evolution of Confusion, on youtube; I assume it’s already been discussed more than once elsewhere on this website.)

        Yep. Love is just a word, and there are different ways of knowing.

        • Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

          I’m a little confused, Caroline. You are agreeing or disagreeing? I didn’t mean to involve a ‘deepity’ – when I said ‘way of knowing’, I meant to imply a ‘means’ of knowing, engaging tools that are extensions and refinements of the senses: feelings/emotions, imagination, reasoning….
          My response concerning the Loch Ness monster is playfully reasoned, my ‘feelings’ towards the thought of a Loch Nessie is the same: I like to imagine the improbable.

          • Caroline52
            Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

            Sorry, mtlawleyshire, my post was confusing. The first two paragraphs are a reply to you, in which I’m pretty much agreeing with you. I should have put the rest of my thoughts in a separate comment under JAC’s post, not continued on as if I was still replying to you.

            In my third paragraph, I should have specified that I was disagreeing with JAC’s comment that art isn’t a way of knowing, but rather a way of feeling. I wasn’t disagreeing with anything you’d said.

            Likewise, my second post, saying that the idea of “different ways of knowing” is an example of a “deepity” wasn’t referring to your use of the phrase — your explication of its meaning for you — at all. I was referring to how accommodationists use the phrase to defend religion as being just as valid as science to get at the truth.

            I entered that second post as a reply to my previous comment because it was in the nature of an addendum to it.

            • Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

              Thanks for replying – & clearing it up. Just goes to show how language itself skews things so that idiotic conflicts like between science & the humanities can occur – & needlessly :-)

  7. Kevin
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    More STRAW!!!!

    We need more STRAW, dammit!!!

    Again, another philosopher conflating the process of discovery with the results of that process.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      … what does STRAW mean?

      not being a troll, just want to get the joke…

      • eNeMeE
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:03 am | Permalink

        …to build more men for flogging.

      • Sastra
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        “Straw” is a reference to “straw man,” as in the “Straw Man Fallacy.” That’s when people invent a false, unlikely caricature of the other side and then attack that, instead of what people actually believe.

      • Hazur
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Perhaps you are not american. My Suggestion is google for images of strawman (they’re traditional here) and compare that to real persons. The point is that Kitcher claims to talk about persons that you can’t find in reality.

        • David S.
          Posted May 12, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          There are such persons. Alexander Rosenberg – a philosopher of science at Duke – is one.

          • Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

            I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosenberg is sort of what Kitcher might have in mind, but even there I’m not sure if it is accurate.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        A “straw man” is something you set up like a target, with the intention of knocking it over (defeating or destroying it). Straw in this case refers to dry hay or grass, a filler used to stuff an effigy or scare crow.

        It is an easy target. And it is a false representation of the target you claim to hit. For example, the Barack Obama that Republicans attack is a straw man, a non-existent creation of their own fantasy that does not correspond to the facts of the man, but it is a fiction that is easy to criticize. The straw man Obama is a muslim, not born in America, is a wild spender, a socialist, left-wing radical who has un-American values and wants to destroy the country we grew up in. You would have to be totally ignorant of the facts to believe any of that, yet many Americans are stupid enough to believe it. Sigh.

        Only fools allow themselves to be impressed and deceived when someone attacks and gains a victory over a straw man. When someone attacks a fake target, you say they are “just knocking over a straw-man”.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        facepalm – can’t undo

        bad karma is imminent

        last post for a while

        • Caroline52
          Posted May 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          Don’t go! Your question serves us as a “way of knowing” that none of us are alone in occasionally having the experience of not “getting” something that turns out to be something we would ordinarily expect ourselves to be able to “get.”

          Like when you can’t find your glasses, and then you realize they’re perched on your head. Or when you’re hunting for something on a shelf, and someone else points it out, and you think to yourself, “How could I not have seen that: I was staring right at it the whole time!”

      • Caroline52
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        I take it that “more straw!” here is a playfully sarcastic invitation to Kitcher to set up even more “straw men” — scads and scads of them — implying that Kitcher’s scientism advocate is such a blatantly obvious straw man as to indicate a general attitude, in Kitcher, of reckless abandon with respect to the inventing of straw men.

  8. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    While largely true that the arts, including literature and music, are not ways of finding new empirical knowledge of our natural world, and they are largely ways of communicating knowledge, this communication at least serves as a stand-in for knowing directly. There are many things that we all “know” simply because we’ve read them, and we trust others have done the hard work of verification. I’ve never measured the apparent displacement of a star caused by gravity, or solved Einstein’s equations, yet I “know” that gravity curves space and thus appears to bend light.

    There are many things we can come to know about people and society, people’s actions and their interior states, via literature and art. But as you say, all of this is originally known or discovered by people observing and reasoning, and then creating works of art, music, and literature.

    There is a kind of research and discovery in the arts: perhaps this could be called the science and technology of art. A writer can discover new metaphors, or new ways of structuring narrative. Musicians can discover or invent new musical forms, and artists can find new ways of representing ideas visually. There is much experimentation, reasoning, feeling, and it leads to the production of a tangible result that can be taught, learned, and known by others.

    What we have are perhaps natural sciences and cultural sciences, and some which bridge the gap like psychology, economics, sociology, and the other social sciences.

    Religion is something completely different. Religion is a kind of amalgamation of primitive forms of science, literature, history, music, philosophy, politics, and psychology.

    The metaphysical claims of religion, the creation of the universe and humans, the explanations of origins and the theories of the afterlife, are all speculations driven by the same natural human curiosity that drives scientists, and these inventions were in fact a kind of bad early science that had no mathematical formalism and no empirical methods. It is primitive bad science invented by ignorant people and elevated to exalted cultural status at a time when people were easily impressed.

    A lot of people put in a lot of work to develop the stories and beliefs and explanations associated with religion, just as a lot of work went into creating the systems of astrology. Both religion and astrology have powerful cultural inertia for this reason. They both deserve to have the status of historical curiosities, nothing more. When we finally abandon religion and assign it to the dust heap of history, it is the humanities and the arts and the social sciences that can pick up the slack left by whatever the inadequacies of “scientism” are.

    It is just more wishful thinking of the religious that they hold exclusive dominion over the areas of human knowledge and wisdom that fall outside of the scope of pure natural sciences. It is wishful thinking that the charge of “scientism” partitions the world into the domains of science vs religion. It is a mistake to pose science against religion; it should be framed as all serious and legitimate intellectual pursuits, including arts and humanities vs. religion, which is nothing but a cluttered, obsolete, and inferior mashup of primitive forms of current intellectual pursuits.

    • Tim
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      The metaphysical claims of religion, the creation of the universe and humans, the explanations of origins and the theories of the afterlife, are all speculations driven by the same natural human curiosity that drives scientists,…
      A lot of people put in a lot of work to develop the stories and beliefs and explanations associated with religion, just as a lot of work went into creating the systems of astrology. Both religion and astrology have powerful cultural inertia for this reason.

      I don’t agree with some of these assertions. It doesn’t seem to me that much work at all went into “developing stories and beliefs and explanations” of religion. It is true that a lot of work goes into defending the stories and propagating them, but one can name dozens of prolific novelists who have single-handedly produced as much effort into developing the stories and beliefs and explanations. Indeed, religion is an extremely conservative and stultifying – with an incredibly low creativity:ritual ratio. I think the cultural inertia of religion has much more to do with enhancing the status of the shamans who do the religious proselytizing.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        Over 3000 years there has been a lot of work done by a lot of people. Just try rewriting the Bible, and while you’re at it reproduce the reasoning and arguments of Aquinas and Augustine. It’s a lot of work. That is all I meant; many people have invested serious effort creating just one religion, not to mention all the others. Add to that the building of the churches, the fighting of the wars, the lifetimes of meditation by priests and monks, the endless pointless debates on fine points of theology, etc. and you have a cultural product that people won’t let go of easily.

        I totally agree with you that religion is conservative, desperately clinging to and preserving legacies of the past, an that a significant part has always been to exercise power over people and to provide a secure employment program for the “keepers of the faith”.

        One novelist is the effort of one person. How many novelists have a few billion fans who are enthralled to the extent that the work is a central aspect of their lives?

        None of this changes the main point, which is that religion is a mixture of primitive and now obsolete examples of various fields of study, including science, literature, history, politics, psychology, philosophy, etc.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          “How many novelists have a few billion fans who are enthralled to the extent that the work is a central aspect of their lives?”

          You’re talking about Twilight, right?

        • Tim
          Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          I’m sure our attitudes on religion are quite similar. Of course, you right that “is a mixture of primitive and now obsolete examples…”. But I still think that sum total of “religious output” is in fact extraordinarily small considering how many people have “worked on it” for 3000 years and especially, as you say, since this output enthralls a few billion fans. We completely agree on all this .. I just don’t that the prevalence and persistence of religion owes much to the relatively modest effort that went into developing it.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

            I see your points. We have populated enormous libraries in a few hundred years, while the production of religion is relatively sparse. On the other hand, a lot of religious development took place in the disadvantageous context of pre-literate and pre-industrial culture.

            But regardless of the relative amount of work, you are correct that there aren’t many people today who would reason that they can’t give up religion because of all the work that went in to it. On the other hand, there are probably so many people steeped in the propaganda today because of lots of people over thousands of years dedicating their lives to making it so.

            Let’s just say there are too many people today who think religion is a cultural artifact worth preserving, while you and I agree it is not worth preserving.

            • jg
              Posted May 14, 2012 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

              “Let’s just say there are too many people today who think religion is a cultural artifact worth preserving, while you and I agree it is not worth preserving.” It is one of the four olds after all. Not worth preserving, a burden on the people, source of hatred, ignorance! http://jamesmys.blogspot.com/2010/03/when-chinese-god-died-mao-zedong-and_18.html

              • Jeff Johnson
                Posted May 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                I guess your point is to demonstrate how religion corrupts the mind to the extent that rational thought is no longer possible. For example, witness the horrendously illogical conclusion that wanting to abandon religion is the equivalent of Maoist totalitarianism. Either it’s a bad joke, or it’s incredibly stupid; way, you very much embarrassed yourself here.

              • jg
                Posted May 14, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                Sorry, but religion proves over and over to be a virulent blight on humanity. Merely wanting to abandon it will not save any of us from it including you. Écrasez l’Infâme.

  9. Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    ““science” as I construe it broadly: the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.”

    While I agree with this definition, I think most philosophers of science would say it is too broad (like Pigliucci). But from my perspective, what they are saying is like saying “If you aren’t running in the Olympics, you aren’t running at all.” I may be running slowly (or even poorly), but I give credit for effort, and even the effort itself is “good for” an individual. In my opinion, the only real thing that demarcates science from non-science (with your broad definition), is methodological naturalism.

  10. Steve
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I found this post very interesting as I was raised in an artistic family (three painters and a sculptor in the last two generations)but I’m the outlier biologist.

    But, am I to understand that at one time you did not believe in continental drift? If so, I think it might make an interesting post describing your persnal “evolution” on the topic.

    • eNeMeE
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Continental Drift is now a theory, once considered false, and is an example of how ‘science’ has followed ideas that are just plain wrong.

      • Achrachno
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        I think it’s not so much that “science was wrong” as a matter of the theory of continental drift being missing some big pieces (like a mechanism)until some time in the 60s. It couldn’t really be accepted because it wasn’t all there yet.

        Once the deficiencies were worked out, geologists accepted it quite quickly — so that by 1970 or so it seems to have been totally settled. Probably with a few hold-outs.

        We’re always ignorant of lots of things, but as long as we have a system in place to correct our ignorance, we’re OK.

      • Posted May 13, 2012 at 2:01 am | Permalink

        I risk appearing both pedantic and off-topic, but in geological parlance continental drift is not a theory. Plate tectonics is the theory which explains continental drift ;-)

        • Achrachno
          Posted May 13, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          But the idea that the continents drift is also a theory, and one that was not at all obvious.

          Theories stacked on theories.

          • Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

            Continental drift was a hypothesis. The continents must have moved from a position from where they fit together like puzzle pieces to where they are today, – that is not a theory, it is a hypothesis. It was a hypothesis supported by fossil distributions and sedimentary environments. There was not enough data to support a theory of how it happened. That is like evolution was a hypothesis before natural selection was understood in 1859. When sufficient data became available, then a causal mechanism fell into place. Plate tectonic theory was testable, and later confirmed. Plate tectonics, with the details steadily refined as more data comes in, is a confirmed theory that explained continental drift.

  11. Grania Spingies
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    I think at least some of the problem is what people understand by the word “knowledge”. In any rigorously self-testing field of study, be it biology or history,knowledge is facts that careful study and testing have shown to be most likely true.

    Unfortunately the waters are muddied by “knowledge” being used interchangeably with “my experience of” or “my interpretation of”.

    The sentence: “It is my understanding that vaccines have lethal Thimerosal in them” implies some sort of knowledge on the part of the speaker. That the actual sentence constitutes nothing more than an opinion and an ignorant one at that, is obscured by the fact that most people equate the word “understanding” with some form of knowledge.

  12. gillt
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    The contrast between the methods of the two realms, which seems so damning to the humanities, is a false one. Not only are the methods deployed within humanistic domains—say, in attributions of musical scores to particular composers or of pictures to particular artists—as sophisticated and rigorous as the techniques deployed by paleontologists or biochemists, but in many instances they are the same.

    Doesn’t the process of attribution here involve various methods of validation among historians, chemists, and engineers? As if radiography was invented to scan paintings!

  13. Thanny
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I’m reasonably sure that Margaret Mead was quite the opposite of vindicated. Her picture of Samoan society was revealed to be a fiction, constructed through self-deception (she went there with an agenda) and misdirection (some of her informants were deliberately misinforming her as a joke).

    It was, of course, other cultural anthropologists who unmuddied the waters, using scientific methodology.

    • Posted May 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      That was my take on the matter, too.

      • Kevin Alexander
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        She wanted to show that, among other things, the practice of sexual repression was a cultural artifact when it seems obvious that, as it is a feature of almost every social species, it is most likely biological in origin.

        • Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

          It is, however, more complicated than either of these. Samoa may not have been as she thought, but the matter is rather complicated, as Kitcher alludes to. _Sex at Dawn_ is a recent book about this which tries to untangle it all (which barely addresses some interesting corner cases, like the Inuit).

  14. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I think great art can be a form of self-discovery for both the artist and the audience. A play or novel that places its characters in extreme situations can serve as a kind of psychological thought experiment that reveals truths about ourselves and the human condition that we otherwise might not have known.

  15. Krishan Bhattacharya
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Good essay, Jerry.

    I agree, in general, but I wonder a bit about this:
    “And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.”

    I think there may be possible to talk about aesthetic experience as a way of knowing. It might not overlap with the sciences, but surely there are things to know about the nature of subjective experience, and experiencing art can inform is about this subjectivity.

    How would you consider the progress -if that’s the word- that we have made in the production of art? It seems that the art being made today can tap into the emotions more reliably than art of old. Its not just that art is better today, than it was, say 10,000 years ago (although some would debate that). It’s that the total aesthetic space has been expanded, and the highest reaches of aesthetic experience more readily available. We can now make more kinds of art, and we (and by ‘we’ I mean other, more talented people than I) can make music that more reliably taps into our emotional circuitry than, say, the typical panflute melody of ancient Greece. When we listen to a great piece of music, our experience informs us about what we like, and what moves us, which in turn can be used to explore new musical forms that can take us to emotional heights that we may not otherwise have experienced.

    In this way, centuries of musical progress take us from the Greek panflute to the exquisite melancholy of ‘Kind of Blue’. At every step of the way, the improvement is not merely a technical one, but an aesthetic one, in which the artists have understood more and more about what musical forms can capture and invoke precise aspects of human subjective experience. Isn’t that a kind of knowledge? Or is there nothing new under the sun?

    • Susan Ingram
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure about that, can you say with certainty that the pictures painted on the walls of caves by the people 30000 years ago didn’t tap right into the emotions or help them develop an understanding of their world that was very important. Of course those pictures might not have been considered art back then but their equivalent of Wikipedia. To my mind none of the art we have today increases our knowledge of our world, all the insights are subjective; one person’s bliss is another person’s torture, if each individual’s reaction is personal to them alone it doesn’t seem to add anything to our collective knowledge.

      • Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

        I think this raises implicitly a vital point, which has to do with our main question.

        Only recently in some places, I would argue, that *art* becomes a (partially!) separable category, and this explains why it gets conflated with “knowledge production”. Now, the Inuit aren’t ancient, but they were until recently hunter-gatherers. They did not produce those soap-stone things until they became more sedentary. Instead, knives, clothing, those sorts of things, were personalized. But they were “functional” art (which arguably still exists in churches and parliaments) – the knife is carved in such a way we’d say is more or less religious – and so the two are blended together. The aesthetic quality is also part of the “magic”. Sure, these are superstitions, but that does not take back from how they are *intended*.

      • Krishan Bhattacharya
        Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        I’m not saying that people weren’t moved by cave paintings. I’m saying that painters today are better at moving people than they were 10,000 years ago, and this is because the arts have advanced in an appreciable-if-not-quite-measurable way.

  16. Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    “I think Kitcher’s criticism is misguided because his conception of what is “scientific” is too narrow.” Au contraire,I think Coyne’s conception of science is too broad:”the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.” This view goes ‘way back to Plato, Aristotle, or even the pre-Socratic philosophers, centuries before any endeavor was called science. However I wonder if Coyne considers Aristotle, “the father of biology,” to be a humanist or a scientist. Anyway, can “science” settle the issue of whether his conception of science is too narrow, too broad, or just right?
    But I guess this is a bit picky – both Kitcher’s and Coyne’s comments are insightful and well worth pondering.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the word “science” is important here. Jerry’s definition could be renamed something else, such as field of knowledge, or Academic area of study, or intellectual pursuit. The important point is to distinguish real fields of knowledge from religion, whose claim for knowledge is based entirely on “revelation” and the authority of ancient texts. In other words, religion has no source for real knowledge, only imagination and the pretense of knowledge.

      The point is to not allow religion, the only real usurper in claiming knowledge, to bleed into the humanities and arts and philosophy in order to claim epistemelogical legitimacy.

      The attack on science and scientism by the religious is an attempt to create a blurry zone of knowledge between hard science and religion, so that religion might have some wiggle room to claim some legitimate domain of religious knowledge. This comparison between religion and scientism is a false comparison. The comparison should be between every field which actually has methodologies and reasoned fact based procedures for gaining knowledge, and those which don’t qualify, of which religion is the greatest offender.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        Not only religion. There’s all sorts of pseudoscience – ‘alternative’ medicine, astrology, homeopathy, magnetic health gadgets and magic fuel pills and other forms of woo – claiming knowledge, and muddying the waters of the scientific method. And in some countries they may be more widespread than religion.

  17. Peter Beattie
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Not Kitcher’s best work, to say the least. Most damningly, he completely fails to recognise that ‘science’ and ‘scientism’ can’t be said to simply be this or that, but we (especially we philosophers) have to argue why it makes more sense to use this definition of a term rather than that. To presume that ‘scientism’ just is what he thinks it is, without giving a single thought to having a discussion about whether that concept even makes sense or is helpful in talking about a given problem, is to invite the inadvertent construction of all manner of straw-people. We have to talk about what ‘scientism’ should mean if the word is to be of any service. The smugly condescending John Haught was set straight about this by Dan Dennett, who said about the term (starting at 4:50):

    I don’t know anybody who’s guilty of it. It seems to me that ‘scientism’ has been invented as a sort of straw-man—or straw-person—so that any time anybody gets angry or anxious about science sticking its nose in something where they think science has no business sticking its nose they get to say, ‘Reductionism! Scientism!’, and these are epithets that are supposed to freeze everybody in their tracks: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s scientism again!’ Nonsense!

    Kitcher falls into the same trap. Notice how he adduces not a single concrete example of this alleged scientism in support of his contention that it somehow needs to be reined in. Pretty much the best he has got is a ludicrous caricature:

    If you were a mad devotee of mechanistic analysis, you might think of explaining this—“in principle”—by tracing the motions of individual cells, first sperm and eggs, then parts of growing embryos, and showing how the maleness of each year was produced.

    This is at best what Dennett, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has called “greedy reductionism”. And as David Deutsch explains in The Beginning of Infinity, reduction for its own sake is simply bad science in that some theories make sense only on a higher, emergent level of explanation—and good explanatory theories is what science is centrally about. Consequently, what Kitcher has to offer is just examples like this one:

    Not only did behaviorist psychology—itself motivated by the desire to make studies of human conduct “truly scientific”—dominate much of twentieth-century social science, but its influence was foreshadowed within nineteenth-century physics and chemistry with the proliferation of “ether theories.”

    What he indicts here as ‘scientism’, just like Friedrich von Hayek famously did in his Nobel Prize Lecture, is in fact just bad science. Not surprisingly, nobody is going to defend that, which makes Kitcher’s piece uncomfortably superfluous.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

      Nicely put, and I heartily applaud and agree with Dennet’s description of scientism.

      Scientism is a straw man that nobody practices. It is an attempt by religion to paint science into a small corner, thereby isolating the threat and creating a large buffer between itself and the study of reality based on reason and empirical method and verifiable results. I include here not only science but the social sciences and the humanities as reality based fields of study, whereas religion is in fact isolated in a tiny corner of unreality-based systems of thought.

      Some would like to imagine that scientific mistakes of the past, such as Skinnerism and the ether, discredit science in some way. On the contrary it is to science’s credit that it learns from its mistakes and corrects itself. That those mistakes were made in the past does not mean that today’s science is equally likely to be equally wrong. Mistakes are a natural part of an earnest effort to gain knowledge.

      Religion on the other hand pretends to be perfect and infallible, and hides behind a veil of mystery that presumably can not be questioned or tested by empirical methods. There is a remarkable similarity between what is invisible and what is non-existent. One is tempted to say they are identical.

      There is ample evidence that the corrections to science are not just trading a bad idea for another bad idea, but rather demonstrable improvements and refinements. Real progress is made that can be demonstrated by data and predictions and measurement.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 12, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

        Quite right, and an excellent note on Kitcher’s fifth point that I lacked!

        Being in doubt and making discernible mistakes are features, strengths actually. Not problems.

  18. Alektorophile
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Spot on. As an archaeologist, I have always considered myself a scientist, as my field in a broad sense uses the same methodologies of other sciences to acquire knowledge, i.e. as you so aptly put it, “observation, reason, and doubt”. We develop models based on what’s observed, we test hypotheses through excavations, we constantly adjust our views based on newly acquired data. That said, there are unavoidably major differences between archaeology and, say, physics or chemistry. Given that our experiments (excavation of a site) are not repeatable and given the extremely fragmentary nature of our data, we are limited in what we can do, and have to rely heavily on other disciplines, particularly on anthropology, to interpret our data (fundamentally in a way not dissimilar to how paleontology relies on biology). In a nutshell, the way to acquire knowledge in my field is fundamentally not dissimilar to to that of other sciences, but the nature of our data poses unique problems that affect our results.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Right or wrong (the latter probably), I envision archeology [as my spell checker insists on] and paleontology as akin to astronomy and cosmology – having unique objects, but if lucky being able to use statistics for repeats of general features. (Say, identifying different technologies of ceramics respectively stone tools.)

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    In fact, I construe “science” broadly: as the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge.

    This.

    Rote memorization of what you are told by superiors is the truth isn’t a sufficient way of knowing. In the end of that chain somebody has to use doubt and testing to learn about the environment.

    The areas that are lucky enough to be able to make testable theories will discern larger patterns. If they are really lucky it will enable knowing absolutes (say, the age of the universe or the standard model particles) and theories will start to interconnect fruitfully (say, cosmology and high energy physics). But it is not necessary for empiricism.

    As for Kitcher’s five observations, the above will predict that he is, ironically, not knowledgeable on the first to the forth.

    It hits me that evolution is employing “science” as I would define it. It is not “science” in the way Coyne defines it (no reason) or Kitcher want to narrow it down to.

    But the bayesian learning algorithm that populations of genomes employs as sets of alleles are taken by heredity from preselection to postselection (in the bayesian sense) is broadly using “empirical observation, doubt, and testing”. Learning happens when alleles are weeded out or fixated (selection in the biological sense, I take it).

    Who knows, maybe it is “use of reason” in the broad sense to keep fixated alleles around until the environment changes, instead of “mindlessly” or at least memory-less starting all over each generation?

    I don’t think observing that a natural process is “scientistic” in the refined sense that Coyne’s astute formulation more or less lends itself to will make Kitcher or theologians start to ponder their own mindless strawman.

    But it would be a neat argument to use: “Evolution is “scientistic” too. And if a natural process works that way, what are we scientists to oppose a method with many billions of years of success?”

    Things as complicated as human society (nay, any society) are higher-order, emergent properties that often demand their own methods. (That does not, however, mean that those higher-order properties are not absolutely consistent with the laws of physics. The claim of inconsistency is the purview of religion and fuzzy thinking. And even many aspects of human society can be explained by genes, which are certainly “low level” entities.)

    I don’t know of anyone that claims emergence doesn’t happen already in physics. Phase changes, hydrodynamics, solid state physics et cetera and so forth – all emergent properties.

  20. Roz
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the problem. It sounds like a long-winded way of expressing his inferiority complex or regrets

  21. MadScientist
    Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    What a strange title. Personally I’ve never heard a scientist claim that history was not knowledge, nor that various artistic crafts did not involve knowledge. However, the practitioners of most crafts demonstrate their knowledge by creating new things or improving on things that exist, unlike two claimed “other ways of knowing” that I can think of.

  22. Posted May 12, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    It would be difficult to argue that it requires a subject to collect objective knowledge. And for the same reason, it requires a subject to collect subjective knowledge (duh…). Both are codependent objective realities, even the subjective one… You can’t have the left without the right. Or good without evil. It is the same dynamic that is going on when we talk about objectivity vs subjectivity.

    Science deals with the objective world. But that in no way means that subjective experiences aren’t real or not true. Night can be seen as the absence of day, but it has a positive reality on its own, though it also is conditioned by day, if you know what “I” means…

    The sad feeling a song in a minor key brings is real. That the math of a minor key produces sad feeling is a reality that have objectively subjective basis.

    Scientism is the belief that only valuable knowledge can be gained through a scientific process. The problem is that subjectivity is what allows the concept of objectivity to make sense. And just like an eye can’t look at itself, we can’t directly look at our own consciousness. Well, it is possible. But in order to do that, you would need to be an objective watcher of your own subjectivity. I mean directly. Not through machines.
    And that is what a lot of oriental teachings are talking about. When you are able to do that, you can see a lot of things that the scientific method isn’t able to talk about…

    • gillt
      Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      It would be difficult to argue that it requires a subject to collect objective knowledge. And for the same reason, it requires a subject to collect subjective knowledge (duh…).

      I think you’re toying with words to cloud the waters.

      You can’t have the left without the right. Or good without evil.

      You’re mistaken: I’m a southpaw from hand to foot.

      Science deals with the objective world.

      How about “Science deals with the world.”

      But that in no way means that subjective experiences aren’t real or not true.

      You’re the only one saying this. An experience is subjective by definition. If you prefer, take objective to mean intersubjectively constant.

      Scientism is the belief that only valuable knowledge can be gained through a scientific process.

      And you call us reductionist? Is that all you gleaned from the post?

      The problem is that subjectivity is what allows the concept of objectivity to make sense.

      To paraphrase Feynman. It doesn’t matter how smart or beautiful your ideas are if you or they don’t agree with reality.

      And just like an eye can’t look at itself, we can’t directly look at our own consciousness. Well, it is possible. But in order to do that, you would need to be an objective watcher of your own subjectivity. I mean directly. Not through machines.

      Really, the difference between the instruments of science and transcendental meditation or out of body experiences is that one gives measurable and accurate results while the other not so much.

      And that is what a lot of oriental teachings are talking about. When you are able to do that, you can see a lot of things that the scientific method isn’t able to talk about…

      e.g.,?

      • Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        “To paraphrase Feynman. It doesn’t matter how smart or beautiful your ideas are if you or they don’t agree with reality.”

        And it doesn’t fit with reality that you can’t have subjectivity without objectivity?

        No mater how southpaw you are, when you turn right, left just stands on the other way…

        • jg
          Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          “To paraphrase Feynman. It doesn’t matter how smart or beautiful your ideas are if you or they don’t agree with reality.”
          Sorry, but hypotheses have to make sense and facts don’t. That means your smart beautiful ideas may very well be in conflict with observed experimental reality and all the rationality that supports it. That is how scientific revolutions take place. You should be able to state how science really works if you are trying to defend it.

          • gillt
            Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

            Feynman was not challenging scientific dogma in that quote; he was saying that ultimately our ideas must comport with reality to be considered useful. Nothing JT Fortier’s said makes the cut. Of course you’re incomprehension and hubris run deeper that you think a scientific revolution can be found in the simple aphorisms of Eastern mystics.

            • jg
              Posted May 13, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

              “Of course you’re [sic] incomprehension and hubris run deeper that you think a scientific revolution can be found in the simple aphorisms of Eastern mystics.”
              Indeed, but your incomprehension and confusing a famous George Beadle aphorism with that of an Eastern mystic is a first in human history.

      • jg
        Posted May 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        And that is what a lot of oriental teachings are talking about. When you are able to do that, you can see a lot of things that the scientific method isn’t able to talk about…

        e.g.,?

        If you insist. E.g. the buddha nature of a dog, which also satisfies the western ignoramus et ignorabimus. If you are not familiar with what buddha nature is then use soul as a proxy. If you are not familiar with, or do not believe in souls of any form then that is your problem, which still renders you silent by agreement with authoritative Mu as the answer.

        • gillt
          Posted May 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

          If you are not familiar with, or do not believe in souls of any form then that is your problem

          Is make believe a form?

          Does your guru have anything to say about the shifting of the burden of proof?

          • Posted May 13, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

            I love science and I think evolution is a very good explanation for life in general.

            But I also think consciousness is an uncreated property of our universe. That’s it. Nothing magical here. It is just a natural phenomenon.
            That it led us through evolution to experience our self on an individual basis is just a consequence of that uncreated property of our universe. An uncreated consciousness can only brings more complex conscious organic machines to a point where their self awareness makes them more and more aware of who they are (God’s own image…). Again, nothing magical here, but it is normal that in the past, that gave birth to what we call religions.

            As for the burden, well, I can’t look at your consciousness for yourself. And since science requires consciousness, science isn’t able to talk about what is first required to make the observations science needs to do. In other words, water can’t wet water, neither fire burn fire. Godel found a theorem about this…
            You have the responsability to not take for granted what your senses are telling you and see if there is a way that you wouldn’t know to find more about your self.
            Unless you believe in some absolute monorealism and that our senses and our intellect are not missing some informations…

            • Dan L.
              Posted May 14, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

              As for the burden, well, I can’t look at your consciousness for yourself. And since science requires consciousness, science isn’t able to talk about what is first required to make the observations science needs to do. In other words, water can’t wet water, neither fire burn fire. Godel found a theorem about this…

              Can you PLEASE not abuse Godel’s theorem this way? Godel’s theorem has nothing to do with water wetting water or fire burning fire. Some particularly powerful formal systems cannot be complete, consistent, and finite at the same time. That is Godel’s theorem. Nothing about fire or water there.

              And the fire/water thing is already really stupid. I can see where you might think it’s some kind of argument by analogy, but it doesn’t do any useful work from that perspective either.

              • Posted May 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

                Can you PLEASE not abuse Godel’s theorem this way?

                Admittedly it’s a bit of a stretch, but it seems that a central element in Gödel’s proof is the question or limitations of self-reference:

                In its absolutely barest form, Gödel’s discovery involves the translation of an ancient paradox in philosophy into mathematical terms. That paradox is the so-called Epimenides paradox, or liar paradox. Epimenides was a Cretan who made one immortal statement: “All Cretans are liars”. [Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid; Douglas R. Hofstadter; pg 17]

                Which is sort of the essence of “water wetting water” ….

            • gillt
              Posted May 14, 2012 at 11:30 am | Permalink

              I love science and I think evolution is a very good explanation for life in general.

              But I also think consciousness is an uncreated property of our universe.

              Those two sentences are at odds. Either consciousness is an emergent property of brain matter and evolution accounts for it and you believe in evolution or you don’t believe in evolution. You can’t have it both ways.

              • Posted May 30, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

                Those two sentences are at odds.

                Maybe. From some perspectives and by some definitions but not all.

                For instance, this Discover article describes the quantum coherence processes in green sulphur bacteria:

                From tunneling to entanglement, the special properties of the quantum realm allow events to unfold at speeds and efficiencies that would be unachievable with classical physics alone. Could quantum mechanisms be driving some of the most elegant and inexplicable processes of life?

                And a number of more or less credible scientists [Penrose, Hameroff among others], including those profiled in that article, think that those processes include consciousness itself.

                In which case one might argue that that mechanism, or that “property”, is the keystone if not the entire arch of consciousness which has driven evolution – in a way analogous to artificial selection which was, according to Jerry Fodor, the basis for Darwin’s theory – from square one.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted May 14, 2012 at 5:28 am | Permalink

        And… /italics.

  23. Vaal
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    One of your best posts Dr. Coyne! I really like Philip Kitcher’s work (I still crack open his excellent Abusing Science now and again because it’s so beautifully argued), but your post was spot on and covered most of the salient points.

    I’ve encountered people saying the other ways of knowing included the arts, but my response has been the same as Dr. Coyne’s: What do you mean by that? If the arts are giving us knowledge, then they are capable of telling us truths about the world. So give me an example of a “truth” told by an art, say, theater. The examples, inevitably some point about the human condition, bring on the next question “Ok…you say that’s a truth…how do you know it’s true about the human condition?” Are the arts some sort of amazing domain of knowledge that only delivers perfect knowledge and never delivers falsehoods? Surely not. Then how do you distinguish, how do you know, when claims made through an art are true?

    Inevitably the claims are things we already have accepted as true (or they can be false!) by other means – as Jerry points out, we’ve already observed these truths empirically. And insofar as they have been empirically observable, they enter the domain of science and it’s actually science that can deliver the more detailed, more rigorous, more reliable knowledge on the subject.

    Well…I guess this experience just repeats what Dr. Coyne has just written…so it’s another way of saying “+1″

    Vaal

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted May 13, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

      Art isn’t meant to tell us facts about the world; it’s meant to teach us truths about ourselves. And there’s no rule that says art is limited to truths already discovered by psychologists or sociologists. Of course artists incorporate their empirical experience into their work, but I would argue that the act of creation is in the best case also an act of self-discovery, in which artists learn something new about themselves and about their relation to the world, and convey that new knowledge to their audience.

      Indeed there are some art forms, such as science fiction, that deliberately place their audience in situations that no human being has ever experienced, specifically to find out how we feel about those novel situations. To me this seems like very much the same sort of exercise as (for instance) Marc Hauser’s trolley-problem thought experiments in morality. If those intellectual exercises can yield genuine knowledge about human psychology, then I don’t see why art can’t do the same on a more informal level.

      Obviously it takes some additional work by scientists to rigorously nail down any novel insights gained from art. But the claim that art can yield no new insights whatever, but can only recycle insights gained by other means, is, I think, mistaken.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 13, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        Interesting reply Gregory. I’m not sure in prniciple how much we’d disagree, but I see some room for questioning.

        For instance:

        — “Art isn’t meant to tell us facts about the world; it’s meant to teach us truths about ourselves.”

        I disagree. That type of generalization smacks to me of liberal theology or Karen Armstrongian apologetics for religion. “Religion doesn’t really make truth claims per se, it’s all about a subjective relationship to the divine or a life orientation…” or some such thing.

        But of course that ignores that much of religion does make truth claims. Similarly, much of art seems to not be merely about us, but about the external world, making claims about the external world. In fact, lots of religious art depicts religious propositions about the world (Jesus’ Resurrection, creation of the earth, story of how sin began, etc). And how do we discern the false from the true in art? It tends to be deeper empirical rigor that decides.

        And that is the problem I was pointing out: it’s not that art can’t talk about truths, or even can’t possibly discover truths: the question is how do we discern the truths?
        It’s like intuition – it seems we have intuitions that point to truths about the world, and others that upon more rigorous inquiry, are shown to point to falsehoods.

        We may think we are recognizing a truth via intuition or art…but since we could be wrong, how else do we tell? And as I said, this seems to be borne out when actual specific examples of “truths” delivered by art are given. I’m not sure I’ve seen one yet that wasn’t a case of “Ah yes, we recognize that as so true” that either wasn’t
        already an expression of our previous shared empirical experience. Though I’m open to the idea of art discovering how we feel about things.

        I’d think you agree though that, as per my other post, any “truth” delivered by art is a truth that is amenable to scientific inquiry (including how we feel about things) and rests on that bedrock. It will not be via art that we overturn scientific truths, but it would be by science that we judge or ratify the truths contained in art.

        Cheers,

        Vaal

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted May 13, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

          Well, yes, clearly art can depict facts (or truth claims) about the external world. Perhaps what I should have said is that art is not meant to discover such facts.

          But as I’ve said, I think it can lead us to discover psychological facts about ourselves, facts we might not have discovered any other way. How do we know that they’re facts and not false intuitions? The same way Hauser does: because regardless of whether our intuitions are appropriate or “correct” in any objective sense, the fact is that those are the intuitions elicited by those particular scenarios. That’s something worth knowing that art can teach us.

  24. Vaal
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    One more thing, my 2 cents on other forms of evidence:

    Science was derived from the most fundamental epistemological problems in trying to understand our experience. They are bedrock issues, and the rest of what we do rises upon that bedrock, in terms of science being the most epistemologically responsible endeavor we have.

    So, for instance, religious apologists make a mistake when they say that something like the Resurrection may not be based on scientific facts, but “historical” facts, using the methods of history. But historical facts must rest ultimately on the foundation of deeper scientific understanding of the world – and of the picture of the world carefully put together by science.

    This is why we provisionally accept as an historical fact that someone in ancient Egypt took a census – as such an act is known to occur and doesn’t violate anything we know scientifically. But we REJECT the next claim that, back then, the sun was actually the God Ra traveling across the sky in his solar boat. That anyone would have reported such a thing is not accepted as “fact” because it contradicts what we believe we’ve learned about the universe through science: we say they were mistaken.

    This is why “historical facts” like purported eyewitnesses to miracles and resurrections can not establish “facts” that contradict what we know scientifically. Scientific knowledge is based on the most fundamental principles of vetting claims about the world, and any method of fact gathering that can not compete with the best method we have, is beholden to and judged against the knowledge we’ve acquired on the best method we have (science).

    Vaal.

  25. stevehayes13
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Kitcher’s argument seems peculiarly anglocentric to me. If it were to be translated into, say, German, for instance, I suspect that it would appear nonsensical.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 13, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Especially to people who don’t speak German! ;)

  26. BillyJoe
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    “I’m reasonably sure that Margaret Mead was quite the opposite of vindicated.”

    The same goes for Khubler-Ross. I’m reasonably sure that her stages of the bereavement have been found to be false.

    Perhps Jerry can post articles on these two individuals to straighten this out.

  27. ivo
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    In Consilience, E.O.Wilson roughly takes the following view: science, in its broadest meaning, is the way of gaining objective knowledge about the world (including ourselves); the arts, on the other hand, have a whole different purpose: to communicate subjective states from human to human, by directly inducing them into the spectator.

    With this definition the sciences and the arts are obviously complementary, and one may even say, without stretching the language too much, that they are complementary ways of knowing. But if we adopt this view (which I find rather seducing), it becomes a mistake to dump together the arts and the humanities and to contrast them with the natural sciences, because, as noted here, many branches of the humanities share the goals and methods of (broadly constructed) science.

    So there, problem solved. Nothing to see here, everybody back to your labs now :-)

  28. krzysztof1
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    Very interesting and well-thought-out post! As a musician who is also very interested in science, I was intrigued by your statement that art and music “function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation.” I think that is true. I thought for a long time that, while the visual arts maintained some direct contact with the world, at least until Modernism was in full swing, music was always abstract, except for the occasional use of programmatic references. I no longer believe that, however. Your comment about art making us see in new ways also applies to music.

    I think the truth is that the best music is a reflection of the incredible complexity of the brain. Aaron Copland famously broke down the experience of listening into three “planes”: the sensuous, the expressive, and the sheerly musical. The sensuous (sonic-enjoyment) and sheerly musical (formal, intellectual, etc.) are fairly unproblematic. Copland admits that the expressive plane is troublesome to pin down. It may be that this is what you mean by “ways of feeling” vs. “ways of knowing.”

    Leonard B. Meyer wrote a book titled Emotion and Meaning in Music, which was a pioneering attempt to develop principles of how music works based on behavioral responses such as surprise, anticipation, etc. The study of music from that standpoint of how we respond to it has come a long way since then, and I’m not up on that literature at all. My point in bringing it up is that music is connected intimately to our responses to our environment, and provides a way to experience, say, excitement without actually placing us in fight-or-flight situations.

    Getting back to your comment about ways of knowing vs. ways of feeling: I think that one can speak of “knowing” music in the sense that one knows how to compose it, that is, one knows certain things that work and make sense in purely musical terms. In that sense music has its own logic, which involves things like repetition, pattern, continuation, and directionality. (These are all things that can be studied scientifically, I might add.) As to the ability of music to be a way of knowing that teaches us about the world, that’s a fascinating topic, but a difficult one. I KNOW that listening to a great piece of music can make me feel better about myself and the world, but of course that is a subjective feeling and doesn’t constitute knowledge. But it’s still an essential part of being human, of course.

  29. jgury
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    “The real question is not whether science is being arrogant when criticizing other disciplines, but whether those other disciplines give us real knowledge about the universe. That is, are other disciplines “ways of knowing”? Clearly, history, anthropology, archaeology, and many of the social scientists [sic] are. But religion is not” The real question is why so many future arrogant scientists never bother to take any writing classes seriously. If they did they might have gotten over a basic understanding of the problems of reification.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 13, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      The real question is why so many future arrogant scientists never bother to take any writing classes seriously.

      Actually this strikes me as not a real question.

    • gillt
      Posted May 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

      If they did [,] they might have gotten over [?] a basic understanding of the problems of reification.

      Good use of irony by writing poorly and incoherently jgury!

      According to you scientists already understand the problem basically–otherwise why would you state the need to move beyond or over it? If that wasn’t opaque enough, you then accuse them, despite granting them a basic understanding, of succumbing to the problem anyway, leaving one to wonder if you meant to say is that they don’t understand the problem at all.

      This in no way salvages your poor writing, though what you want to say is…

      If they did, they might have gotten a basic understanding of the problem of reification

      Or

      If they did, they might have avoided the problem of reification.

      Or even better

      If they did, they might have understood the basic problem of reification.

      • jg
        Posted May 14, 2012 at 5:19 am | Permalink

        “If they were not fighting iphone keypads and spell checkers, which were supposed to be turned off in class, they might have gone over reification” If you have gotten over reifications scientific arrogance means careful selection of who pretentiously insult. Like if they are much smarter than you are. Sam Harris fighting with Scott Atran for example.

  30. Anthony Paul
    Posted May 13, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    This seems to have been thought a minor point, but if you’re keeping track,I think it’s fine to define your terms however you like as long as the definition is clear. Having said that, I think Kitcher’s definition of science, which you think is narrow, is closer to the general idea of what science is for the majority of people. Your definition is fine, obviously, but seems like a definition that is specifically calculated to fit in with your argument. And I would also be genuinely surprised if engineers, and those who study what used to be called (as best I recall) the “hard” sciences, like physics and chemistry, would choose your definition if simply asked to define science.

  31. Posted May 13, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Let’s unpack this:

    – What is attributed as “science” is actually just ways of socially validating the predictive powers of claims and behavior. These are mere regularities of human perception and behavior — that work best.
    – By definition, there is no other ways of human knowing that is more predictive, accurate and reliable.
    – The charge of scientism is just a dishonest labeling and name-calling trick.

    Best not even to engage with it, since it is not an honest attempt at dialog.

    Emergent stuff is not magic not incomprehensible. Here is a decent example: Basic Principals of Biology — Luck/Chance/Uncertainty is a Big One

    http://wp.me/p167Bf-nV

  32. Posted May 14, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    “But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of “scientism” is in many ways a straw man.”

    You may not deny it, but many do. Your denial doesn’t make Kitcher’s observation a straw man. I think it captures the attitudes of many people who express opinions about science. (Sometimes, eminent scientists concur: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaO69CF5mbY)


6 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] seems to be the case with Jerry Coyne. For example, in his response to Kitcher, “The trouble with “The Trouble with Scientism“,” Jerry quite explicitly says that all that is worthwhile in the humanities is what […]

  2. […] and has provided no advancements or new technologies. Jerry Coyne has addressed the topic of “ways of knowing” far better than I […]

  3. […] months. Starting with Philip Kitcher’s article The Trouble With Scientism, there’s a reply by Jerry Coyne, by Andrew Sullivan then Jerry Coyne again, then Jason Rosenhouse just yesterday. It might be […]

  4. […] there are Jerry Coyne’s comments on Kitcher’s essay, which you can access here and here. (And, while I do not link to them, Massimo Pigliucci has a number of posts on scientism over at […]

  5. […] humanities have their own ways of knowledge production, but as Jerry Coyne has astutely pointed out in two articles responding to Philip Kitcher, all the methods that work that can be reasonably described […]

  6. […] view has been defended by Jerry Coyne, who, in a response to Philip Kitcher’s New Republic article, “The Trouble with Scientism,” has […]

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