Atrocious Science Clichés


This article from Wired (5 Atrocious Science Clichés to Throw Down a Black Hole) describes a couple of clichéd terms which sometimes creep into science writing. I can also suggest some others that have crept into the more political writing about science which we should also try to get rid of.

Wired lists:






And I would add to this list words like:


“philosophical naturalism,”

“supernatural,” and


These are particularly used by creationists and others attacking science. But they are also often used carelessly be scientists and supporters of science when defending science.

I would like to see these terms replaced by proper reference to evidence. After all, that is what science is all about.

On this I recommend the article What Questions Can Science Answer? by Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance. I particularly recommend it to anyone who likes to use these latter terms.


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18 responses to “Atrocious Science Clichés

  1. Ken,
    It occurs to me those terms (“naturalism,” “philosophical naturalism,” “supernatural,” and “materialism.”) are not properly ‘scientific’ terms, so I can agree that they have no place in strictly ‘scientific’ discourse. No working scientist should have his/her work stopped by anyone’s ideas about these terms, nor should their (strictly scientific) work ever entail the use of these terms.

    I think these terms begin to be used when people are not doing science, but are rather reflecting on science in light of other things (religion, morality, etc.).

  2. I agree – they are used more politically, in commenting on science, and culture. But, like all words they mean different things to different people and they can (and very often do) present an incorrect caricature of science. Particularly when used by the opponents of science.

    But I also object to the use of these words by those politically defending science as they often cover up the real issue which is evidence. (“Naturalism” often seems to be a code word for evidence-based).

    I am pleased to see that I am not alone in this concern. I have a lot of time for Sean Carroll so am heartened that we seem to agree on this. I think Victor Stenger also talks a similar way.

    When I hear scientists use these words I think it betrays either sloppy or opportunist thinking. (And yes, I agree, opportunism is sometimes necessary).

  3. Cheers Ken,
    But (again) these terms are not about science itself; they are used to refer to philosophical appreciations/understandings of science.

    ‘Naturalism’ (whatever it is & whatever it is not) doesn’t affect ‘science’ at all. Rather, it refers to a view (philosophcial) that ‘nature’ is all there is to reality.

  4. You are repeating the obvious, Dale. My point about how these terms can be, and often are, misrepresentative of how science works or is done, still stands.

    I personally don’t want anybody arbitrarily defining what I think “is all there is to reality.” That’s why I try to keep away from those terms (not always possible, though), or ask people to define them.

  5. honest question, how do you think the term “naturalism” functions (or could function?) in a way that messes with “how science works or is done”?

  6. Depends who is using the term, why and what they are using it for. For example, the Wedge strategy uses this and similar terms in a hostile, anti-science way – and with a political anti-science agenda. Those people have certainly done their best to mess with how science is done in things like US State Education Board science standards where such words were used.

    Why the need to put things in a tidy box anyway. I think the science discovery process is a lot messier than people seem to realise. Scientists are humans – the process is not algorithmic.

    I like Neil deGrass Tyson’s description of the scientific method: “Do whatever it takes to not fool yourself when trying to understand the world around you.” see Do whatever it takes…

    Not a “materialism,” or “naturalistic” in sight.

  7. Ken,
    I’m wanting to be clear and specific here. Can you give an example of a use of the word ‘naturalist(ism)’ that is ‘anti-science’ or harmful to science?

    My guess is that:

    …whether or not we agree with the definition of whoever is using the term…
    …it is very hard (impossible?) for any use of the term ‘naturalist(m)’ to be ‘anti-science’ or harmful to science…
    …the term refers to (some kind of) a philosophical view…

    In short, I’ve never seen the world ‘naturalist(m)’ used in a way that is ‘anti-science’ or harmful to science itself.

    Now, I’ve definitely seen it used in a way that is anti-’this’ philosophical view, but never in a way that is attacking or trying to alter the scientific method or anything…

    Which is why I’d love to see if you can provide an example of an ‘anti-science’ use of the term ‘naturalist(m)’.

    I’m genuinely interested if you’ve seen one.

  8. Dale – have you read the wedge Strategy?

  9. Or have a look mnat/listen to the lates Talking Heads Diavlog Ronald Numbers & Paul Nelson: Science Saturday: Inside the Mind of a Creationist ( Haven’t watched it yet but as Paul Nelson – a creationist – is talking about naturalism to Ron Numbers I think he may be presenting it as a way of attacking modern science.

  10. Dale – getting closer to home – also have a look a Matt’s recent comments – eg. Different ways of knowing….

    It is a common anti-science theological position to use such terms (a smokescreen for avoiding evidence) – even though some people may use it in a more honest way.

  11. Or what about Dembski’s latest anti-science tirade at FIRST-PERSON: Science czar as science abuser

  12. Quote from Dembski:

    Intelligent Design entails that naturalism in all forms be rejected. Metaphysical naturalism, the view that undirected natural causes wholly govern the world, is to be rejected because it is false. Methodological naturalism, the view that for the sake of science, scientific explanation ought never exceed undirected natural causes, is to be rejected because it stifles inquiry.

  13. Thanks for the quote Damian,
    (I’m unable to listen to talks or search documents for quotes at the moment, [just shifted, no internet at home, plus processing regos for faithful science event, plus study/work, plus, etc.] so your quoting is helpful)
    My understanding of the ‘Wedge strategy’ a la Dembski is that it is a hugely confused-and-confusing attempt to conflate philosophy and empiricism into a ‘new’ kind of ‘theistic science’. In contrast, I’d want to keep these distinct and explore the relationship between them (rather than conflate them).

    So I’d join Ken and any others in criticising the above usage of the term ‘naturalism’. There is absolutely no need to ‘reject’ methodological naturalism, or attempt to change scientific methodology to suit philosophical/metaphysical views. In other words, a scientist using natural(ist) methodology need not (indeed should not!) bring their metaphysics/philosophy into their work. He/she can have a wide variety of metaphysical/philosophical views about what he/she happens to be studying with a natural mode of analysis.

    Very helpful quote indeed.

    I’d hardly say that this is a science ‘cliche’, though? Atrocious? Yes! Cliche? I think not.

  14. Dale – I just go further. I don’t think scientists should use these terms either – even if they are defending science against such attacks. I understand why they do it – but I think it is opportunist – and rather a trap. Because it buys into the attacker’s desire to gloss over the role of evidence and checking against reality. That is what we should be talking about.

    I am pleased to see people like Stenger and Carroll tend to agree.

  15. Ken,
    I suppose I don’t care who uses the term as long as they use it in philosophical discussions, and use it appropriately.

    Your favourite term ‘reality’, by the way, is not a term that would need to be accurately defined for any working scientist to do his/her job. Any discussion about what things are ‘real’ is more than a strictly ‘scientific’ discussion.

    And I still think that the above quoted use of ‘naturalism’ is indeed atrocious, but not an ‘atrocious science cliche’.

  16. Yes – I don’t know that I have ever seen such terms in scientific writing at the technical level. It does crop up in some of the more popular writing and writing about science. But, having seen the use its been put to, and understanding how science really works, I must admit I now cringe whenever I hear people like Eugenie Scott or Barbara forrest (people I admire) use it.

  17. It’s hard to see that Alvin Plantinga doesn’t play the same game as Demsbki:

    Given the spotty character of the evidence–for example, a fossil record displaying sudden appearance and subsequent stasis and few if any genuine examples of macroevolution, no satisfactory account of a mechanism by which the whole process could have happened, and the like12–these claims of certainty seem at best wildly excessive. The answer can be seen, I think, when we realize that what you properly think about these claims of certainty depends in part on how you think about theism. If you reject theism in favor of naturalism, this evolutionary story is the only game in town, the only visible answer to the question: Where did all this enormous variety of flora and fauna come from? How did it all get here? Even if the fossil record is at best spotty and at worst disconfirming, this story is the only answer on offer (from a naturalistic perspective) to these questions[...]

    A Christian therefore has a certain freedom denied her naturalist counterpart: she can follow the evidence where it leads. If it seems to suggest that God did something special in creating human beings (in such a way that they are not genealogically related to the rest of creation) or reptiles or whatever, then there is nothing to prevent her from believing that God did just that.

    He plays a bit of ‘bait and switch’ in the piece between reflections on science and science itself but the basic point seems to be the same as Dembski quoted above.

    I’m starting to think Ken might be right on this one, perhaps Methodological Naturalism is a rod we’ve made for our on back. What I think most people mean is we need things to be testable and supernatural causation isn’t, so why don’t we just say that?

  18. Oh, I should add the tired old rubbish like

    “for example, a fossil record displaying sudden appearance and subsequent stasis and few if any genuine examples of macroevolution, no satisfactory account of a mechanism by which the whole process could have happened”

    adds to my increasingly low opinion of anything he has to say on science.

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