Pharyngula

Andrew Brown does it again, and writes another clueless screed against one of those damned atheist scientists, in this case Harry Kroto. It’s a common sort of objection, that these scientists are all mere logical positivists (or as Brown prefers to label them, “illogical positivists”), and as we all know, the philosophers have rejected logical positivism, therefore he’s wrong. But that’s only because bad philosophers and Andrew Brown only seem able to view scientists through the lens of philosophy, not as scientists, and rather consistently screw up their perceptions in odd ways. It’s like watching poets trying to interpret plumbers, criticizing them on an arcane insistence on patterns and rhythms, not noticing that the plumbers really, really don’t care, and their criteria for accomplishment is that the pipes don’t leak, not whether they fit into a neo-classical archetype or what-the-frack-ever.

So here’s the gist of Brown’s irrelevant complaint:

By the standards of very clever men who believe some very silly things, Harry Kroto is a quite unremarkable scientist. Unlike some other Nobel prize winners, he is not an enthusiastic Nazi, a Stalinist, a eugenicist, or even a believer in ESP. He did play a prominent, and I think disgraceful part in the agitation to have Michael Reiss sacked from a job at the Royal Society for being a priest. But the video of his speech at the Nobel laureates meeting this year in Lindau, Austria, is something else. Much of it is great stuff about working for love, not money; and about the importance of art, but around eight minutes in he goes off the rails. First there is a slide saying (his emphases): “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Think about this for a moment. Is it a scientific statement? No. Can it therefore be relied on as true? No.

But formal paradoxes have one advantage well known to logicians, which is that you can use them to prove anything, as Kroto proceeds to demonstrate. Or, as he puts it: “Without evidence, anything goes.” Remember, he has just defined truth (or TRUTH) as something that can only be established scientifically. So nothing he says about ethics or intellectual integrity after that need be taken in the least bit seriously. It may be true, but there is no scientific way of knowing this and he doesn’t believe there is any other way of knowing anything reliably.

It is not an auspicious beginning to announce that at least your target isn’t a Nazi, and to bring up a completely irrelevant issue (on which I also disagreed with Kroto); it’s a bit of poisoning the well with a taste of ad hominem. But let’s cut straight to the statement Brown finds objectionable: “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” And there, I disagree with Brown completely: it is an eminently scientific statement. It may make philosophers gack up their breakfast, but who cares?

Science is a process of empirical rationalism that produces testable answers about the nature of the universe. We learn new knowledge, knowledge that actually holds up to critical scrutiny and testing against the real world. The pipes don’t leak — not much, anyway, and we have a method that allows us to test and tighten everything up. And yes, we have evidence that it is true: I can show you a cell phone that uses the principles of quantum physics, I can show you statistics on infant mortality that are improved by vaccinations and antibiotics and hygiene. We have progressively deeper understanding of ourselves and our environment that is produced by this powerful tool.

Science works. That is the criterion for saying it is a way “to determine truth with any degree of reliability.” That is a valid statement, and yes it can be relied on as true, in the scientist’s sense of the word: provisionally and usefully. Both of Brown’s denials were simply wrong.

But there’s another part of Kroto’s statement that bugs Brown, and that he doesn’t really address. This is the missing part of his argument, and the one he fills in by telling us that we were expected to giggle at the claim…the idea that science is the only useful tool we have.

The illogical positivism of Kroto’s talk is symptomatic of a widespread problem. Although Kroto is exceptional in his self-confidence and lack of intellectual self-awareness – few other people would state as baldly as he does that science is the only way to establish the truth – no one in the audience seems to have reacted with a healthy giggle. They may have felt there was something a bit off about the idea, but the full absurdity was veiled by layers of deference and convention. The great attraction of telling everyone else to think, to question, and to take nothing for granted is that it makes a very pleasant substitute for doing these things yourself.

You know, if someone tells me there is only one way of doing something, and I want to show that they’re wrong, the very first thing I think of is to demonstrate an alternative. If someone were to say something truly false and giggleworthy, like for instance, “all cats are black,” what I’d do is go out and find a Siamese and a white Persian and wave them in his face. Isn’t that obvious?

I have often heard apologists wax indignant at statements by scientists that science, that is this kind of objective, constantly tested, empirical rationalism, is the only way to determine the truth of a matter. Usually it’s theologians who want to insist that they have another path. But never do they actually show me something about which we have reliable knowledge that was not determined by observing, measuring, poking, testing, evaluating, verifying…all that stuff that is part of common, mundane science.

So show me something that we reliably know without testing it against consequences in the real world, and then maybe I’ll see the joke here. Of course, if you tell me “love” or “ethics”, the usual answers I get from the clueless, I’ll giggle at you, instead.


Jerry Coyne also has an opinion — we seem to be thinking alike. Also, just like me, he can’t watch the Kroto video either, because the Lindau group insists that we install some awful Microsoft abomination called “silverlight” or something.