When I first became aware of “scientism,” a while back, it was invariably a charge leveled by religious people at scientists. To be accused of scientism was to be accused of being insufficiently respectful of religion. More specifically, it was to be accused of not acknowledging religious “ways of knowing,” as legitimate. Since I don’t think religious ways of knowing should be accorded any respect at all, I tended to think that scientism was a fine thing to be guilty of.
It seemed obvious to me then, and still seems obvious to me now, that the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge about the physical world is by applying the common sense investigative techniques that everyone applies in their everyday lives. You gather the facts, formulate theories, test your theories by acquiring more facts, and so on. Since these methods obtain their most precise and fruitful applications in the work of scientists, it seems reasonable to say that science is the only way of knowing.
But it turns out that when you say such a thing, certain humanities professors get their feelings bruised. Apparently it’s some great insult to suggest that historians, say, behave like scientists in doing their work. Pretty soon you find yourself arguing endlessly over arbitrary definitions of what science is, and, even worse, getting involved in petty academic turf wars. Fine then. I’m not interested in having that argument. So let’s just agree that what really matters is that you have solid justifications for any knowledge claim you make, and that the distinctively religious approaches to knowledge are entirely unreliable. Grant me that, and I will be happy. Then we can avoid hackneyed debates about the precise boundaries of what is science and what is not.
That said, Pigliucci sure has some strong opinions about those boundaries. At the end of his post he writes:
This appears to be a widespread assumption among scientists, recall for instance Jerry Coyne’s argument that plumbing is a science because it deals with empirical evidence, which plumbers use to evaluate alternative “hypotheses” concerning the causal mechanism of your toilette’s clog. But there is a fallacy of equivocation at work here, as the word “science” should be used in one of two possible meanings, but not both: either Krauss, Coyne et al. mean that (a) science is any human activity that uses facts to reach conclusions; or they mean that (b) science is a particular type of social activity, historically developed, and characterized by things like peer review, granting agencies, complex instrumentation, sophisticated analytical tools etc.
(b) is what most people — including most scientists — mean when they use the word “science,” and by that standard plumbing is not a science. More importantly, philosophy then can reasonably help itself to facts and still maintain a degree of independence (in subject matter and methods) from science.
If we go with (a), however, some nasty consequences ensue. Besides the fact that we would have to grant the title of scientist to plumbers, it would follow that I am doing “science” every time I pick the subway route that brings me somewhere in Manhattan. After all, I am evaluating hypotheses (the #6 train will let me get to 86th Street at the corner with Lexington) based on empirical evidence (the subway map, the directly observable position of the stations with respect to the Manhattan street grid, and so on). You can see, I hope, that this exercise quickly becomes silly and the word “science” loses meaning.
“Nasty” consequences? That’s a strong word. Certainly if you describe someone as a scientist, or say they are doing science, then most people will assume you are referring to someone in a lab coat. But saying that someone is behaving scientifically creates no such confusion and is a perfectly common way of speaking. I would not quite say that plumbing is a science, but I would certainly say that plumbers behave scientifically.
I have previously used the example that someone who tries to find their missing car keys by retracing his steps is taking a scientific approach to the problem of finding his keys. A nonscientific approach to the same problem would be to pray to God for guidance regarding the location of the keys. You might argue that this is a silly example, since even the most hardened religious fundamentalist would take the scientific approach in this case. Indeed, but that is precisely the point. The methods of science are so obviously reliable and natural that we all apply them routinely in our daily lives. It was precisely this sort of consideration that led Thomas Huxley to say:
Science is nothing but trained and organized common sense, differing from the latter only as a veteran may differ from a raw recruit: and its methods differ from those of common sense only as far as the guardsman’s cut and thrust differ from the manner in which a savage wields his club.
Quite right. It is doubtful that modern philosophers of science have improved on this definition. (Leaving aside the politically incorrect reference to “a savage”, of course).
If my car keys example is too trivial, then simply consider a weightier question, such as the best way of treating an illness. There is no shortage of people who routinely turn to religion and superstition in this context. Suddenly it’s not so silly to point out that there are reliable and unreliable ways of obtaining knowledge, with science on the right side and everything else on the wrong side. And that’s why Pigliucci’s charge that, “…this exercise quickly becomes silly and the word “science” loses meaning.” is itself silly. This usage of “science” rules out all sorts of other approaches that people actually use: religious experiences, divine revelation, the authority of clerics, gossip and anecdotes on questions requiring technical expertise, astrology, and countless other pseudosciences, for example. There is nothing silly about emphasizing the superiority of science relative to these other methods.
Pigliucci does not really disagree with any of that, I suspect. He’s as outspoken as anyone against religion and pseudoscience. So what are we really arguing about here? I think it’s reasonable to group the good investigative methods under the label “science,” while he thinks that’s an unreasonable overextension of the word. Whatever. Do you see what I mean about this debate often dissolving into pointless semantical games?
We have not yet reached the main issues, but since this post just crossed the thousand word mark with no end in sight, I think I we’ll just call this part one and come back to it in a subsequent post. So long for now!