Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sociologist of Science vs the Philosopher of Science

An entertainingly critical review of Massimo Pigliucci, *Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk*, U of Chicago Press, 2010, by the sociologist of science Barry Barnes. http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=20527
It would be fun to hear from readers who have read the book.
I have wondered if the demarcation problem is making a come-back (witness the popular interest in Frankfurt and Lynch).


  1. Thanks Eric,

    but I do not know whether Pigliucci is a good representant of the "Philosopher of Science" (cf. the title of your entry); he actually is a biologist turned philosopher a couple of years ago. I have not read the book, but I have seen him in action a couple of times and "science warrior" does seem to be an adequate label, or "Dawkins-boy" might fit him as well. I hope there are still a lot of philosophers of science out there, that are more aware of the fragility of science than Pigliucci. (And I like Barnes review, but why "sociologist of science"? Is it not all "science studies" nowadays?)

  2. Jeroen, your point about Pigliucci is well taken!
    Nevertheless, I wonder how many philosophers of science appear to be contemplating the 'fragility of science.' (I think there are a lot of dogmatic realists out there.)

  3. Dawkins Boy? C'mon people, I've been critical of Dawkins on a variety of levels for a long time: http://bit.ly/dDzouT

    As for being the new kid on the block in philosophy, do I sense a bit of snobbish attitude against a former scientist?

    I find it pretty interesting that I'm too critical of science for my science colleagues, and not enough of a philosopher for my new colleagues. Oh well.


  4. Dear Massimo (if I may?),
    Will you respond to the Barnes review?

  5. Dear Eric, I am conflicted about responding to reviews. I've got very positive ones (The Times, New Scientist) and pretty negative ones (Chronicle). The latter usually are either by people who think I'm a science warrior, or by people who don't like my take on global warming.

    I might wait a bit longer and perhaps write a post putting it all together.

    Incidentally, here is another example where I try to defend philosophy against scientistic attitudes... http://bit.ly/chnbsI

    (Okay, now I'm beginning to think that I'm getting too defensive ;-)

  6. Everyone agrees that there is an important distinction between good science and bad science (or science and "pseudoscience", if you prefer). But a lot of people are easily duped. They don't see the giveaway signs of bad science.

    Massimo takes pains to emphasize that the distinction here is blurry and complicated. With this in mind, he aims not to defend a hard and fast demarcation criterion, but rather to arrive at some helpful advice by examining paradigm instances of good and bad science.

    I have to say I don't see anything remotely objectionable in this project. I also don't really see where Barnes' STS critique gets its purchase.

    To be blunt, STS is a spectator sport. Sociologists of science are welcome to sit on the sidelines, shouting that the distinction between good and bad science is socially constructed, culturally relative or whatever. None of this undermines the important project of working out what, in 21st Century Western society, that difference actually amounts to.

    Pigliucci, like the rest of us, is worried about an immediate social problem, namely the problem of snake-oil salesmen draping themselves in the regalia of science to flog dangerous products to unsuspecting customers.

    To see this as a serious problem, you don't have to adopt any "flatpack" philosophical stance regarding realism, naturalism or relativism. You just need to think that deception is wrong.

  7. Jonathan, I have not read the book (and it is unclear if you have), but I take it the interesting problem is not one of outright "deception" and "snake-oil salesmen." While that exists and can be very dangerous, it doesn't raise many philosophic questions. I presume the interesting cases are when (well intended) practices that look and are funded like (and not to mention are marketed like) science, turn out to have disastrous social consequences or, more often, just create misguided expectations. It is not obvious that knowing "paradigm instances of good and bad science" is very helpful in those instances.

    In the review this is discussed as follows:
    "the most salient chapter is the second, on 'Almost Science', wherein string theory and evolutionary psychology figure among exemplars inhabiting 'a complex . . . intellectual landscape that occupies a transitional zone between science proper and activities that may not be entirely "scientific"' (55). Just how one is supposed to evaluate 'almost science' isn't made entirely clear. Whether out of tact or for some other reason the author pulls his punches somewhat in appraising it; perhaps some of his best friends are almost scientists. But the significance of the chapter here is that it acknowledges just how difficult it is (to say the least) to specify what is distinctive about science, and to identify precisely where the boundary allegedly encompassing it should be drawn, immediately prior to a series of chapters wherein a wide variety of beliefs and convictions credited by many millions of people are rapidly and confidently dismissed as bunk, 'nonsense'."

    What you say above does not speak to this, so I welcome hearing more about why STS is unable to help out in that project, and why Pigliucci can.

  8. Hi Eric,

    I'm no authority on this - I only looked at the first two chapters and skimmed through the rest. But what I have seen leads me to wonder whether Barnes may have rather missed the point of the book.

    I don't think it's really meant as a substantive contribution to the philosophical literature on the "demarcation problem". Pigliucci emphasizes over and over again what a hard problem this is. He discusses evolutionary psychology and string theory in this context, not in order to dismiss them as bunk, but rather in order to highlight the complexities of demarcation.

    Instead of getting bogged down in such complexities, Pigliucci wants to replace the dichotomy with a continuum and focus on the extremes. His aim is to explain to the general reader the telltale signs of dangerous hokum masquerading as science, and he does not think a hard and fast "demarcation criterion" is required to do this. I agree.

    Barnes writes:

    "If you find it so hard to tell just what should count as science, the question may come, who are you to tell us what counts as bunk?"

    Barnes seems to think that the vagueness of the science/non-science distinction makes all discrimination impossible. But one can acknowledge the existence of borderline cases with respect to X while retaining the ability to ascribe X in clear-cut cases, and this is the approach Pigliucci wants to take.

  9. Gee, what has changed since 1983 about demarcation being a dead issue? So why is Massimo even raising the issue? Kind of like studying Homer?

    To Jonathan:

    Heliocentricity was considered bunk for a long time. We need something other than cultural commitments before we assign anything to the "bunk" category.