This is my first contribution to IOaT, and I am thrilled to have been invited. Philosophy of science is a new discipline to me, having crossed over from evolutionary biology during the past few years. Indeed, this first post is about how interesting (and somewhat puzzling) it is to be considered too much of a scientist by my new colleagues in philosophy, and too much of a philosopher by my old ones in the sciences. I also feel a bit awkward writing a sort of defense of a review (actually two) of my recent book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Then again, that was the original reason I was invited to write here, so I’ll try to get over my own embarrassment and make what follows not about me but about a general point that I do think deserves discussion.
In a recent review of the book in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Barry Barnes accuses me of being a “science warrior,” echoing another negative review penned (keyboarded?) by Carlin Romano in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where the term used was “science patriot.” (In case you are wondering, there are in fact positive reviews of the book, for instance here, here, and here.) What both authors vehemently objected to was my apparently uncompromising attitude of defense of science at all costs, and “cocksure hubris” (Romano) in criticizing certain notions as bunk or, as the Bentham-inspired title of the book puts it, nonsense on stilts.
This struck me as rather strange for two reasons. On the one hand, the entire idea of the book is that the famous demarcation problem introduced by Popper — how to tell science from non-science and pseudoscience — is in fact immensely complicated, not the least of which because science itself is a heterogeneous enterprise with its own history of blunders (this is the part that ruffles the feathers of some of my scientistic colleagues, like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne). I should clarify at this point that the book is aimed at the general public, not professional philosophers, and that a major goal of it is to help people appreciate how science and philosophy can work together to provide us with the best understanding of a huge variety of issues that are actually pertinent to our personal lives or to society at large (e.g., the non-existing connection between vaccines and autism, “skepticism” of climate change, and denial of the HIV-AIDS connection, to name a few).
On the other hand, just because the science-non science-pseudoscience landscape is complicated it doesn’t mean that the extremes aren’t easy to spot. Fundamental physics and evolutionary biology are solid sciences, no matter what some misguided philosophers may think of the latter. That is why, to Romano’s horror, I called Bruno Latour to task for his rather silly essay on Einstein’s relativity (where it’s clear that he doesn’t actually understand the theory), or I criticized Paul Feyerabend for cheering creationists at the time of a temporary legal victory in California. By the same token, I classify as bunk (apparently to Barnes’ astonishment) a wide variety of notions ranging from astrology to ufology to intelligent design. In doing all the above, however, I actually provide reasons for the reader to understand why some ideas really do belong to the trash heap of history at the same time that judgment about other ideas needs to be held in check until better understanding and more facts will come along.
What I think is important here is to try to stir a course that keeps us as far as possible from the Scylla of scientism (the uncritical and hubristic promotion of science as the only form of worthwhile knowledge) and the Charybdis of extreme postmodernism (the equally uncritical attitude that all knowledge is socially constructed to the extent that — as Feyerabend put it — society should balance scientists with “magicians, or priests, or astrologers.” And yes, I am aware that Feyerabend actually preceded the postmodern wave and the science wars).
I think philosophers of science have crucial roles to play, both within academia itself and in the public arena. We are generally sympathetic to science and understand its power and importance to society. But we are also well positioned to be critical of science’s excesses because of our understanding of its methodologies and assumptions, as well as appreciation of its nonlinear history. This makes philosophy an ideal bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” an invaluable asset not just to scholarship, but to public welfare as well.
Yet, serious philosophy of science also comes with the intellectual integrity to call a spade a spade. Creationism, astrology, ufology and the like really are bunk, and we should make no bones about labeling them as such. Reason and empirical investigations into the nature of things surely have limits, and arguably nobody understands those limits better than philosophers of science. But we cannot pretend that we live in a world where the highest danger is too much reason. Barnes rightly notes (though not in a positive light) that for me “this [the separation of science from pseudoscience] is a moral problem and not simply a technical or aesthetic one: belief in science is conducive to our good, whereas belief in non-science or pseudoscience, of which instances are worryingly abundant, is conducive to harm and has to be opposed.” Not quite what I said. I am not advocating belief in science, but understanding and appreciation of science, of which there is far too little in our society. And yes, belief in pseudoscience is indeed harmful, and sometimes lethal — just look at the millions of people in Africa who don’t believe that HIV causes AIDS, or the millions of American parents who are not going to vaccinate their children on the unfounded fear that they will develop autism.
This isn’t science warfare or patriotism, it simply is taking seriously our intellectual and ethical duties as philosophers and human beings.