Tag Archives: scientific method

Science and faith

I am spending some time dealing with family business so I am reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days. These could be useful with Christmas coming up. Victor Stenger has a very useful series of books on the relationship between science and religion. He is a very clear writer, combining a knowledge of the philosophy and history of science with stories from his own research experience in particle physics. This is, I think, his second to last book – I have yet to put up my review of his latest – God and the Atom.

Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger. Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60 Paperback: 408 pages Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012) Language: English ISBN-10: 1616145994 ISBN-13: 978-1616145996 Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists– believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history. Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history. Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region. Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality. The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 “Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion. Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict. An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict. Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist. Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75) In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case –  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, “We are not pleased.”” “Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a “plea agreement” that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars. As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history. On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity. Somewhat pessimistic! Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.


If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.” This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theory and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his earlier books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.

* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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Crazy ideas and “supernatural” phenomena


Credit: xkcd

I like this little list because it demonstrates that science doesn’t reject far out ideas, just because they are far out. The decision is made on evidence. Relativity and quantum electrodynamics are far out as far as those of us with ordinary experience are concerned. From my perspective they are as far out as personal gods who forgive sins. But they are well supported by evidence. Tested against reality. The other far out ideas on the list have no evidential support and therefore of no use.

I get annoyed when people lecture me about the “methodological materialism” of science. They want science to be opened up to “supernatural” phenomena.

Well, it doesn’t matter what you call it. In practice science does not ask if an idea or phenomena is “supernatural” – it asks for the evidence. People who ramble on about methodological and philosophical materialism in science are covering up for the fact that their ideas are rejected because they have no evidential support.

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Who is guilty of misusing science?

I know someone is going to accuse me of “scientism” for this. But I guess that goes with the science blogger’s job – and it’s a diversion anyway. It will hardly be the first time.

What I want to dispute here is the claim that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of a god!”

Now, I have no problem with private belief. And many people no doubt retain this “limits of science” argument as part of their private belief. We all have beliefs or quirks which we don’t feel the need, or wish, to expose to critical investigation. That’s fine by me.

But I do object to those religious apologists who make this “limits of science” claim, but at the same time resort to arguments from scientific knowledge, or even just from reasoning, to claim their god belief is completely justifiable, and that my god disbelief is not. You, know – those who prattle on about “fine-tuning” of physical and cosmological constants, of evidence for an origin of the universe as “proof” of the existence of their god! Even those who claim the facts of “moral truths” prove their god! And then go on to rule “out of order” scientific arguments used by those who don’t believe.

Don’t these people realise they are claiming one rule for themselves (use of “scientific proof” argument) and denying the same to others by claiming “limits of science”? You would think the contradiction was obvious but there seem to be just as many (probably more) books, newspaper opinion pieces, etc., out there claiming science has proved the existence of a god as there are claims that such subjects are “outside the limits of science.”

I think both claims are unjustified – they are just emotionally motivated “logic” arguing for, and protecting, a preconceived belief.

The “Scientific proof” of the theologian

The scientific proof of the religious apologist amounts to nothing more than weak claims that “the evidence of an Intelligent Designer is all around us.” Or that scientific explanations of life and the universe have huge gaps. That somehow when a scientist says “I don’t know” this “proves” the religionist’s myth-based belief must be true – bugger the need for evidence or validation of ideas.

That’s not scientific proof! You need to do a lot more than just badmouth scientific theories. In science you actually need to advance a structured hypothesis. One based on evidence that makes predictions which can be tested against reality. Hypotheses and ideas that stand up to scrutiny, are open to modification, even outright abandonment, in the light of evidence.

You know, the sort of science which leads to publications and conference presentations.


That sort of hypothesis would surely show a serious attempt to approach the questions scientifically – even if we were forced to acknowledge that we did not have the technology or mental capacity to provide a good answer. Whereas at the moment such talk of scientific proofs for gods is

The “limits of science”

As for the “limits of science” argument – this is never properly justified. If their god is part of objectively existing reality then surely the scientific approach is an acceptable way of investigating the claim. Of course science may not be up to that job. There are certainly areas which it finds difficult to investigate now – and there are potentially areas we may never be able to investigate because of limits in our technology and our intelligence. But at the moment the scientific approach is the best one we have to investigate difficult aspects of reality. And if science cannot sort things out then no-one has yet been able to produce an alternative, a specific “other way of knowing,” which could do the job – have they?

Yes, I know, these Sophisticated TheologiansTM have some clever arguments. Their god is outside space and time. Outside the universe. Therefore we have no way of investigating it. No way of detecting it even.

The obvious question that comes to my mind is “How do you know that? You seems to be so certain – what evidence do you have.” And isn’t this another one rule for me, another for you argument? After all –  you claim that god is answering your prayers, influencing events in the world, helping believers win races and overcome illness. Even causing a few hurricanes or earthquakes to discipline us for sinning! Going in for a bit of smiting! If that is the case your god is leaving an evidential trail which science can investigate.

But if you god is truly outside time and space, outside the universe, not only would we not be able to detect it, it would not have any influence here – would it? Haven’t you gone overboard in your attempt to protect your god from scientific investigation. You have ended up in defining your god out of any practical existence!

So before you start chanting “scientism” – ask yourself who is guilty of scientism? Of using science inappropriately?

Surely it is the religious apologist who claims “scientific proof” which is not at all scientific. Or who claims they know things about reality which they cannot possibly know. That they have an alternative “way of knowing” which can produce Truth with a capital T – but which they cannot even describe.

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Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.


Robin Ince, comedian, actor and writer, and Brian Cox, particle physicist and Professor at the University of Manchester.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the scientific process which even some supporters of science are not completely aware of, let alone critics. So it’s worth bringing out these points.

The place of science

Brian Cox and Robin Ince are clear that science cannot dictate to politics. Decisions in this and similar fields inevitably also involve non-scientific considerations. Considering the climate change issue they say:

“The loud criticism of climate science is motivated in the main not by technical objections, but by the difficult political choices with which it confronts us. This is important, because there must be a place where science stops and politics begins, and this border is an extremely complex and uncomfortable one. Science can’t tell us what to do about our changing climate. It can only inform us that it is changing (this is a statement based on data) and tell us the most probable reasons for this given the current state of our understanding. For a given policy response, it can also tell us how likely that response is to be effective, to the best of our understanding. The choice of policy response itself is not a purely scientific question, however, because it necessarily has moral, geopolitical and economic components.”

Decision making on politics and many other areas of society involves far more than just facts. Of course science can provide the facts, it can help inform the discussion, but social decisions also involve tradition, culture, emotions and feelings. And yes, prevailing social prejudices.

Unfortunately some critics do not see the difference between science, on the one hand, and politics or social decision-making, on the other. They slip too easily into the mistake of denying the science and/or slandering the scientists, and not debating the political, social and moral issues which really concern them. The mistake is really obvious among the climate change and evolutionary science sceptics/contrarians/deniers. And it can take really nasty forms (see, for example, discussion at Climate change deniers don’t understand expertise).

Scientific knowledge provisional but best we can do

Scientific knowledge is not absolute – we don’t make extravagant claims of Truth (with a capital T). There is humility in the scientific approach. Cox and Ince say:

“Science is a framework with only one absolute: all opinions, theories and “laws” are open to revision in the face of evidence. It should not be seen or presented, therefore, as a body of inviolate knowledge against which policy should be judged; the effect of this would be to replace one priesthood with another. Rather, science is a process, a series of structures that allow us, in as unbiased a way as possible, to test our assertions against Nature.”


“The wonderful thing about nature is that opinion can be tested against it.”

And just in case critics choose to interpret these descriptions naively – yes, scientists are human. Yes, individual scientists or groups are not as sceptical of their own ideas as an idealist might hope. But the nature of scientific knowledge, the checking against an objective reality and the social character of research helps overcome these very human prejudices.

Most working scientists have experienced more than once the horrible disappointment of their beautiful hypothesis being destroyed by an ugly fact. Maybe even finding the real fact mercilessly drummed into them by colleagues. But then picking themselves up and getting on with investigating a modified hypothesis or even new ideas. Being wrong is actually an important part of the scientific process.

It might take some time but, in the end, science has an inbuilt self-correcting process.

Scientific knowledge not just another opinion or belief

This validation against reality, the self-correcting and social nature of research and the provisional nature of scientific knowledge, makes it far more than just “another opinion.” Cox and Ince:

“Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do. It is not logical to challenge the findings of science unless there are specific, evidence-based reasons for doing so. Elected politicians are free to disregard its findings and recommendations. Indeed, there may be good reasons for doing so. But they must understand in detail what they are disregarding, and be prepared to explain with precision why they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to see science as one among many acceptable “views”. Science is the only way we have of exploring nature, and nature exists outside of human structures.”

Those critics who attempt to equate simple belief, faith or opinion with scientific knowledge, who try to bring that knowledge down to the level of opinion of belief, have their own agenda. They wish to promote their own beliefs, not by checking them against reality, but by denigrating the scientific process that does check against reality.

Criticism of the editorial by Cox and Ince came mainly in two guardian articles and a blog post. These, and many of the comments attending the articles, reveal  misunderstanding of the points I made above.

Science and politics

Jack Stilgoe, a sociologist at University College of London, chose to interpret Cox and Ince’s description of the different roles of science and politics as a call for separation of the two (see Science and politics needs counselling not separation”). The misinterpretation seems to be a mechanism for repeating criticism of real or imagined influence of politics within science. And a chance to disapprove of scientists who criticise attacks on science, as on the issue of climate change. He charges that:

“Those who claim to fight for science, by shoring up the boundaries around science, retreat from political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.”

It seems to me that those who are attacking and misrepresenting climate science and scientists are the ones who are intending destruction of its “political relevance, belittling science and damaging its public credibility.” Stilgoe is surely blaming the victim here.

Rebekah Higgitt, a curator and historian at the Royal Observatory Greenwich & National Maritime Museum, is more explicit claiming a common influence of politics in science (see Science, the public and the history of science):

“Scientists are people and they are funded by people. Choices about scientific research and its interpretation are also influenced by geographic, economic, moral and other frameworks. Failing to acknowledge this places an impossible burden on science and its practitioners and inhibits good discussion around different kinds of evidence and opinion.”

Here she is just trying to teach Cox and Ince to suck eggs. Scientists are well aware of all these frameworks and influences (current science funding regimes quickly bring this home to us). That is why they consider that evidence and the validation of ideas and theories against reality is so important. It’s fundamental to science and helps reduce the distorting influence of influences, frameworks and opinions.

I just wish that some sociologists and historians could understand that.

As for “different kinds of evidence.” Reference to scientific evidence in no way inhibits Higgitt’s opportunities of presenting alternative “kinds of evidence” and arguing for them. I am curious to know what they are. Her inability, or unwillingness, to present them seems to me the real reason such discussion is inhibited.

Denying the special role of science

The blogger Haralambos Dayantis finds Cox and Ince, and indeed all “geeks,” “arrogant” (see Why the Geek movement is bad for science). To him their description of science as “the only way we have of exploring nature” is a “fundamentally close-minded attitude” which “will only alienate the audiences who don’t already agree.”

Strange then that this blogger didn’t simply describe alternative ways to explore nature – it would have immensely strengthened his argument! Again I am curious. I wish these people would share their secrets.

As for audience appeal – hasn’t he got it exactly back to front? Cox and Ince argued for a special role for science based on its relationship to reality. In this case the close-minded ones are those who refuse to consider, or even misrepresent, the argument presented. And I don’t think this blogger even understood the argument.

Higgit is also is concerned about Cox and Ince’s description of the cognitive advantage science has because of its reference to reality. The validation of its ideas by checking against reality. She objects to the fact that:

“scientific evidence . . . . and ‘the scientific method’ are given a unique place in this discussion. It is the only thing placed as an “adjudicator above opinion.”

Worse, she implies that evidence relies only on reputation, ignoring the ability to check, reproduce and validate. It might be an emotional outburst, but she goes further. To hell with considering the evidence – she claims: “In the end, we are left simply with “Believe us.”

Stilgoe also misrepresents this cognitive advantage as a grab for dominance, even power:

“Churchill was right to have argued that science should be “on tap, not on top”. For Cox and Ince, this won’t do. For policy, they call science an “adjudicator above opinion”.”

By ignoring, even denying, the cognitive advantage its relationship with reality gives science, Stilgoe and Higggit reveal their own agenda – to present science as just “another way of knowing,” and inevitably contaminated by political influence, prejudice and bias.

I am disturbed these particular historians and sociologists of science are unaware of this special cognitive relationship between reality and science. Surely this is key to understanding modern science, its history and its role in society? That aspect of science is just a fact. It’s not a political grab for power.

Scientists sometimes need to remind society and politicians of that basic nature of science – if simply to fight the misunderstanding promoting by those who try to present scientific knowledge as just another opinion. And those who attempt to discredit scientific knowledge when they should be debating the policy and political implications of that knowledge.

Who is really guilty of arrogance?

Often these conflicts between scientists on the one hand and philosophers, historians and sociologists on the other derive from professional sensitivity. Sometimes participants feel their profession is being defamed, or at least under-rated or under-appreciated. I can understand the emotional need to “come out fighting.” Maybe I am doing a bit of that myself.

But in this particular situation scientists have not been misrepresenting philosophy or sociology – just attempting to win understanding for the special role scientific knowledge can play. These critics have responded because they themselves feel their specific professions are neglected in the discussion. Higgett expresses these feeling of neglect with her last demand:

“When scientists, rightly, get involved with discussing the nature of science (philosophy) and its role in society (history, social sciences) they might accept that there are other realms of scholarship that have thought about these things long and hard, and have important things to add to the conversation.”

Well, one can hardly deny participation of these “realms” in the discussion – and of course no one suggests otherwise. Rather, these specific contributions have been welcomed, if not completely accepted. But it is arrogant to claim these realms must have the final word. That sociologists and historian should just have to say “Believe us” and we should blindly follow. Especially as some of the comments may not even represent consensus views of their professions (even if these particular critics assure us they do). Personally I think they derive from basic misunderstandings of the nature of science.

For example, Higgett lectures Cox and Ince’s reference to scientific method by pointing out:

“There are many scientific methods and many, when studied in detail, are not particularly methodological.”

This response is a trite lesson on sucking eggs again. No working scientist is unaware of the complexity and creativity of research. Of the many ways of interacting with reality. Most of us will, like Richard Feynman, reject naive formulaic or algorithmic descriptions of method and instead describe it as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” And we all accept the need for evidence and validation against reality.

Higgett was challenged to give specific examples of these “many scientific methods”  and was not able to. She resorted instead to differences in specific methodology used in different disciplines:

“There are many methods in science – a field biologist works very differently to a theoretical physicist, works differently to a structural engineer, works differently to an experimental chemist etc. People work with models, with statistics, with exact numbers, with approximations, with theories, without theories – they make observations, develop experiments, crunch numbers, formulate RTCs.”

I think her answer was a diversion as clearly Cox and Ince were talking about the overall scientific approach, not specific methodologies. Her claim is easily interpreted along the lines of the “other methods of knowing” argument used by Sophisticated TheologiansTM and others when they attempt to discredit science. Those people also usually refuse to give specific examples.

An appeal to some historians and sociologists

Finally, I am responding here to specific arguments proposed by these specific historians and sociologists. I am not attacking the history and sociology of science professions themselves. I recognise that there is plenty of room for different trends and schools of thought within these professions and that the opinions presented in this discussion may only be minority ones (I hope they are). In fact, the whole-hearted endorsement of the criticisms by Steve Fuller, suggests this is the case. (Steve Fuller is a sociologist at the University of Warwick who was used as an expert witness for creationist defendant in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial. He writes and lectures in support of Intelligent Design and I find it hard to believe that his views are at all representative of his profession).

I think these specific people show with their criticisms that they don’t understand the fundamental nature of science which gives it a cognitive or epistemological advantage. Its intimate connection with reality. This helps overcome, or at least reduce, biases and social or political influences. This is why scientific knowledge should not be treated as mere opinion. And that is why simply pointing out this fact is not arrogant or a demand for unwarranted power.

To claim that it is avoids the real issues.

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Does science have a cognitive privilege?


Finding “self-evidence” and “self-justification”

You don’t often come across the term “cognitive privilege.” But  I did the other day – and knew immediately what it meant – or what was being implied by the term.

The theologian Brian Mattson used it in his blog post Does Scientific Materialism Deserve a Cognitive Privilege?  Its clear what he means, although his specific use of it is very confused. He accuses someone of, in effect, cognitively privileging “scientific materialism.”

(These theologians love to use words like “materialism” and “naturalism” when they critique science. The rarely bother defining the terms but they are usually stand-ins for scientific method or the implied scientific epistemological process.)

As he says:

“A “privilege” is a “right or immunity granted as a particular benefit, advantage, or favor.” The benefit, advantage, or favor being granted to scientific materialism is that it has the preeminent right to be the baseline. It is what we are to take for granted. There the edifice stands.”

He is supporting the complaints of Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel about modern science:

“Their point (a philosophically ruthless and perhaps uncomfortable one) is that scientific materialism is not entitled to privileged status at all. It is not self-evident, self-justifying, an edifice that must be taken for granted as the baseline. It is precisely this sleight-of-hand they are challenging, a sleight-of-hand so effective it has largely produced the widespread privileging of its construct . . . . . It is simply not the case that scientific materialism must be taken as true and that the burden of proof must be passed on to any and all challengers.”

So these guys are upset by the widespread acceptance that science is generally a reliable way of getting to know reality? They think this reputation is “privileged? That it hasn’t been earned? That we have pulled the wool over the eyes of people all these years? We have an unearned “privilege?”

They obviously haven’t really thought this through, or even looked around at our modern society. At most they will childishly chant “You can’t logically prove scientific method or knowledge is reliable.”

Crickey, do they really think that humanity should have held back. Refused to even contemplate trying to understand its environment or solve the problems it faced until someone had come up with a watertight deductive proof that science would work? Something to make it “self-evident” or “self-justifying?”

And, seriously, do they think that people would have paid any attention to such a deduction? Or taken seriously the philosophers or logicians who has produced it?

The proof of the pudding

We haven’t allowed such mental gymnastics hold us back. Humanity just went ahead and did the best it could. Trial and error has taught us what works best. The proof of the pudding was in the eating.

People respect scientific method and knowledge because of their own experience. They know it works. So they aren’t particularly interested in these complaints of lack of deductive proof.

And guess what – even scientists, those using these methods are not particularly interested in those deductive proofs either. They are practical people – if the methods didn’t work they wouldn’t bother with them. They would look for something else.

So if science has a good reputation it’s well-earned. People know from experience that it works. That’s why it’s respected. That’s why society and governments turn to scientists when there are problems and we are looking for solutions.

Science has cognitive respect – not privilege, and certainly not the unearned privilege suggested by Plantinga, Nagel and Brian Mattson.

An attempt to demand privilege as a right

Mattson’s complaint about the “cognitive privilege” of science is, however, revealing. Both Plantinga and Nagel have been critiquing the high standing of science because they are arguing for an alternative. They are in effect demanding that religious or other “way’s of knowing,” revelation and philosophy of religion, should be more acceptable to humanity. That it should be given the credibility that science gets, perhaps even more. The more honest theologian may admit that there is no obvious reason for accepting religious and similar “ways of knowing,” but because scientific knowledge and method is no more “self-evident” or “self-justifying” than religious knowledge,  the two methods should be treated as “equally valid”

But where science has won cognitive respect through experience, through successful performance, these theologians and philosophers of religion seem to think they can demand cognitive respect as a right. Without earning it through deeds.

Actually they, not science, are the ones demanding cognitive privilege.

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The Scamtific Method

Once again on scientific method – this time comparing it to pseudoscientific method. Used by those who wish to promote their scams relying on the deserved reputation of science – but not its methodology. Guy Chapman calls this the Scamtific method in a post at his blog Guy Chapman’s Blahg (see The Scamtific Method(s)).

As he points out:

Most people are aware of the scientific method, thought by many to be the crowning achievement of the human race. Respect for scientists is not what it was, something the world of SCAM both reinforces and abuses (“scientists don’t know everything, this might not be nonsense, therefore they have no right to criticise it” and variants thereof), but the scientific method is held in high regard even by those who distrust the white labcoat, because it so obviously works.  . . .”

” . . . We live today in the age of Endarkenment, when fraudsters, hucksters, delusional quacks and charlatans of every kind seek to undermine science and medicine – ironically capitalising on the success of the very field they attack. But they still want the trappings of the scientific method. So they use what I would term the Scamtific method.”

The scamtific method

“The scamtific method says, I have an idea, I conduct a test to confirm that idea. I can ignore results that do not confirm it. I do not have to prove the merit of my idea, anyone who wants to challenge it must prove it wrong. My idea is considered equal to scientific ideas because to do otherwise would be disrespectful. You may not demand that I prove my case. Ideas are strengthened by the credentials (bogus or otherwise) of those who support them. Any idea must be given the benefit of the doubt, even if the doubt is manufactured; it remains true until proven false to the satisfaction of the proponent.

The scamtific method is, of course, guaranteed to result in confirmation bias. Indeed, cognitive dissonance will make any other result highly improbable. It’s also perfect for policy based evidence making.”

He contrast this with the scientific method as he describes it:

“The scientific method says, I have an idea, let me think of an honest test that would disprove my idea if it were wrong. If the idea passes the honest test then the idea is strengthened. Other people can also test my idea. If even one test convincingly refutes the idea then it is wrong. Where there is ambiguity or doubt, the idea is not proven. If it is not possible to devise a test that would prove the idea wrong, then the idea is a theory not a fact. A theory is strengthened by the number of tests and other work that support it. Gravity is a theory, as is evolutionary biology. Phlogiston was a theory but was refuted. The corpuscle theory of light, believed by Newton, was also wrong albeit with some interesting side-orders of partially right. Nobody’s idea is taken on trust. Einstein said that the universe was deterministic and not probabilistic (“God does not play dice”). He was wrong.”

Guy mentions areas like homoeopathy as ones that practice scamtific methods. But it’s obviously much wider than that – I am sure you can think of your own examples.

Scientific knowledge – reliable but not certain

I find attempts to describe the scientific method in simple terms less and less convincing. And this goes for attempts by  both supporters of science, and those who oppose science. In reality science is a messy process and simple algorithmic flow diagrams can’t show that.

In the past I have mentioned Feynman’s  simple description of the scientific description of the scientific method as doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.  Recently I came across another description – much longer – but it certainly gives the picture. It’s philosopher Susan Haack‘s crossword metaphor. She describes this in her book Defending Science-Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism.

After concluding that science deserves its reputation for reliable knowledge, and describing how that knowledge is still provisional, open to change, and therefore not “certain,” she goes on to give this description of scientific method at the beginning of Chapter 4: The Long Arm of Common Sense: Instead of a Theory of Scientific Method “:

“Picture a scientist as working on part of an enormous crossword puzzle: making an informed guess about some entry, checking and doublechecking its fit with the clue and already-completed intersecting entries, of those with their clues and yet other entries, weighing the likelihood that some of them might be mistaken, trying new entries in the light of this one, and so on. Much of the crossword is blank, but many entries are already completed, some in almost-indelible ink, some in regular ink, some in pencil, some heavily, some faintly. Some are in English, some in Swahili, some in Flemish, some in Esperanto, etc. In some areas many long entries are firmly inked in, in others few or none. Some entries were completed hundreds of years ago by scientists long dead, some only last week. At some times and places, on pain of firing or worse, only words from the Newspeak dictionary may be used; at others there is pressure to fill in certain entries this way rather than that, or to get going on this completely blank part of the puzzle rather than working on easier, partially filled-in parts-or not to work on certain parts of the puzzle at all. Rival teams squabble over some entries, pencilled or even inked in and then rubbed out, perhaps in a dozen languages and a score of times. Other teams cooperate to devise a procedure to churn out all the anagrams of this chapter-long clue or a device to magnify that unreadably tiny one, or call to teams working on other parts of the puzzle to see if they already have something that could be adapted, or to ask how sure they are that it really must be an S here. Someone claims to notice a detail in this or that clue that no one else has seen; others devise tests to check whether he is an especially talented observer or is seeing things, and yet others work on instruments for looking more closely. From time to time accusations are heard of altered clues or blacked-out spaces. Sometimes there are complaints from those working on one part of the puzzle that their view of what’s going on in some other part is blocked. Now and then a long entry, intersecting with numerous others which intersect with numerous others, gets erased by a gang of young turks insisting that the whole of this area of the puzzle must be re-worked, this time, naturally, in Turkish-while others try, letter by letter, to see if most of the original Welsh couldn’t be kept …. I don’t mean to fob you off with a metaphor instead of an argument. But I do mean my word-picture to suggest, what I believe is true, that scientific inquiry is far messier, far less tidy, than the Old Deferentialists imagined; and yet far more constrained by the demands of evidence than the New Cynics dream.”

I like that metaphor. It’s certainly gives an idea of what scientific research feels like.

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The scientific method – what about the philosophical method?

I enjoy the In Our Time Podcasts with Melvyn Bragg. The subjects are very wide-ranging and always informative.

His last one was on The Scientific Method. It basically discusses the evolution of scientific methods from a philosophical viewpoint. The participants were:

  • Simon Schaffer, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge;
  • John Worrall, Professor of the Philosophy of Science at the LSE and
  • Michela Massimi, Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Science at University College London.

Personally, I would have welcomed inclusion of a practising scientist to bring some practical insight into the discussion. Still, I did find the historical survey of philosophers ideas on the scientific method interesting. But it got me thinking – these philosophers seem so concerned about the scientific method – and yet no one talks about the philosophical method!

What is the philosophical method?

What methods do philosophers use? And how have these evolved over time? And why do we never come across critiques of philosophical methods? Is this because philosophers are happier critiquing other areas and avoid their own?

For example. While I thought this discussion did treat the subject fairly the descriptions of scientific method offered by various philosophers over the years do strike me as “just so” stories. I get the feeling that the philosophers concerned are presenting their pet model. Evidence quoted is usually anecdotal, more for example rather than support. The Copernican revolution, or the evolution of Einsteinian mechanics out of Newtonian mechanics are used to illustrate a thesis, rather than testing the hypothesis by analysing the data from the history of a large number of scientific theories.

Now, I could never have got any of my research results accepted for publication with only anecdotal and illustrative evidence. Good data, statistically analysed to show significance for claims, was always expected. The standards for philosophical theories seems to be a lot lower. How many philosophers really take data collection and analysis seriously?

The other thing that strikes me about these “just so” stories are that they always seem to ignore the human factor. Scientific method is often presented as an algorithm or flow chart – scientists behave this way and they produce hypotheses which are checked experimentally, etc.

But scientists are humans. They are just as prone to emotions as any other people. And in fact current scientific understanding of decision-making indicates that emotions are very much involved in our seemingly rational considerations. Where else do scientists get the passion for the work they do? Creativity does not come from mechanical application of methods. And scientists are also prone to prejudice, fantasy,  attachment to preconceived ideas, and confirmation bias as anyone else. The possible consequences of this need to be recognised and scientific methodology must compensate for it.

That’s why I like Richard Feynman‘s description of scientific method as “doing whatever it takes to avoid being fooled by reality.” This is a better description of the human reality of scientific research than any descriptive, or prescriptive, flow diagram of “scientific method.”

Why does this matter?

Well, for two reasons:

1: How often does one read material from opponents of science using pop versions of scientific method and philosophy of science to justify their rejection of, or denial of, scientific knowledge?  Creationists and climate change deniers will often talk about Kuhnian “paradigms” or Popperian “falsification” to justify their rejection of whole fields of science. We even have the ridiculous example of a climate denier group in Australia naming itself The Galileo Movement! They are equating acceptance of the current scientific understanding as equivalent to belief in a geocentric universe! (See “Galileo Movement” Fuels Climate Change Divide in Australia).

2: Post-modernist and ideological motivated concepts of the philosophy of science do get circulated in academic circles.  In the past I have heard some of these descriptions presented by local science managers and suspect that these ideas can influence management and human resources teachings via philosophy of science and sociology of science inputs. The danger is that this influence decisions on science funding and investment.

Maybe some of the cock-ups we have seen in science management and New Zealand over the years could be traced back to ideology and misunderstanding about the nature of scientific research picked up by managers during their training. Maybe not all these mistakes were due to incompetence.

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Science and the “supernatural”

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

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Empathy for colleagues

Science follows certain procedures, but does the media get the signal? Credit: CSIRO

The Australian astrophysicist Mathew Bailes recently got international recognition for his part in the discovery of an exoplanet which could be made of diamond. As he says: “Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.” (See Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method)

It’s always nice when a scientific discovery, and the work of a scientist, receive public attention. Even though, as he says:

” in the overall scheme of things, it isn’t that important.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.

In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.

Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame.”

It could have been different

But here’s the lesson in this story:

“The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.

How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.”

And he asks you to consider a parallel scenario;

“Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.

Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.

Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.

People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.

There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were “buddies” with the journal referees.

If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.

Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.”


“Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.”

It’s worth those of us outside the climate science community reflecting on this. Scientists and non-scientists alike.

Consider the continuing harassment of Dr Michael Mann who is still be pursued by climate deniers and conservative politicians. What do they want. His emails from years back! (see Professor turns to law to protect climate-change work).

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