Massimo Pigliucci Criticizes “Scientism”

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci is the author of a new book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Just from the title, it sounds very promising, yes?

Well, this extended, exclusive passage from the book may get your atheist senses tingling.

It talks about the limits and powers of science.

Pigliucci argues that scientists can’t know everything, contrary to what he claims many scientists believe. While science is a wonderful field, indeed, it has its problems. Pigliucci adds that people like Richard Dawkins are wrong when claiming science can refute religious claims.

But are there really people out there who believe that science will eventually answer everything we want to know?

Can’t religious beliefs like a “virgin birth” be refuted by scientific knowledge?

Does the history of science make the discipline look stronger or weaker?

Check out the entire passage and let the debate begin:

Scientists are not gods, even though one may sometimes have some difficulty making the distinction, judging from the ego that some of them (the scientists, not the gods) display when talking about what they do. It is not uncommon to hear physicists and cosmologists expounding on the possibility of “theories of everything,” although what they mean is actually a mathematical solution to a specific problem concerning the conceptual unification of natural forces. Cosmologists such as Stephen Hawking freely talk about having seen “the mind of God” when they come up with a new theory about the distant future of the universe (never mind that so far we do not have a unified theory of forces or that Hawking’s initial predictions about the fate of the universe have been proven spectacularly wrong by recent empirical research). Or consider biologist Richard Dawkins, who goes so far as to (mistakenly, as it turns out) claim that science can refute what he calls “the God hypothesis.” The examples above are instances of scientism, a term that sounds descriptive but is in fact only used as an insult.

The term “scientism” encapsulates the intellectual arrogance of some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose — from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about. The fact that scientism is an insult, not a philosophical position that anybody cares officially to defend, is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associated with it: if one engages in scientism one is “being scientistic,” not being a scientist.

Not only can science never in principle reach the Truth because of the untenability of the correspondence theory of truth, but it has also demonstrably blundered in the distant and recent past, sometimes with precisely the sort of dire social consequences that constructionist critics are so worried about. The only reason scientists are by and large unmoved by such instances is because most of them don’t “waste” their time studying the history of their own discipline. If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong. What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as naïvely wrong by our descendants? Of course, the same history of science can also be read from the diametrically opposite viewpoint, since it equally well illustrates the idea that science is a self-correcting, arguably cumulative enterprise. It may blunder today, but it will likely make up for the mistake a few years or decades down the line.

Either way one looks at it, it is surely instructive to recall the words of Albert Einstein: “There is not the slightest indication that energy will ever be obtainable from the atom.” And how about Lord Kelvin, one of the greatest scientists of the nineteenth century, confidently claiming that “X-rays will prove to be a hoax”? And finally, one of my favorites: British astronomer royal Richard Woolley, who in 1956 said, “All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really.” Yuri Gagarin was the first human to orbit the earth just five years later.

The history of evolutionary biology offers another instructive story of blunder and embarrassment, this one complete with a clever hoax and a culprit who has never been found: the story of the so-called Piltdown Man. Whenever one debates creationists (admittedly a questionable, yet hard to kick habit), one is bound to run against the infamous Piltdown forgery. This is the case of an alleged missing link between humans and so-called lower primates, which was found in England (near Piltdown, in fact) and announced to the world on 18 December 1912. The announcement was made by Arthur Smith Woodward, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, and Charles Dawson, the local amateur paleontologist who had actually discovered the fossils. The problem is — as creationists never tire to point out — that the “Dawn Man of Piltdown” (scientific name Eoanthropus dawsonii, in honor of its discoverer) turned out to be a fake. Moreover, it took scientists four decades to figure this out, an alleged example of what happens when one takes science on faith, in this case the theory of evolution. But is this view accurate?

Many scientists are rather embarrassed by the Piltdown debacle, apparently feeling guilt by association, considering themselves indirectly responsible for whatever goes wrong in their chosen profession. And yet, Piltdown should instead be presented in all introductory biology textbooks as a perfect example of how science actually works, as we shall see in a moment. First off, we need to realize that before Piltdown, very little was known of the human fossil record. When Darwin wrote The Descent of Man he had to rely largely on comparative data with other living species of primates, for then only the clearly almost-human Neanderthals were known to paleontologists. A few years before Piltdown, two important discoveries were made: that of “Java man” in 1891 and that of “Heidelberg man” in 1907, but neither of these was very ancient. When a significantly older set of prehuman remains was allegedly found at Piltdown, the scientific world was simply ready for the discovery. It was what practitioners in the field had expected, something that surely the perpetrator of the hoax knew very well and magisterially exploited.

The Pitldown findings occurred on more than one occasion and at two separate sites, yielding fragments of skulls, of a lower jaw, and even of stone tools associated with the “culture” of the predawn men. While there were skeptics from the beginning, the hoax was simply too elaborate and cunningly put together to raise the suspicions of a significant number of paleontologists — at least initially. National pride probably also played a role in a professional establishment that at the time was dominated by British scientists, with the British Museum being the epicenter of all the activities surrounding the study of the Piltdown fossils. Understandably, the British scientists involved were only too happy to claim their motherland as the place of origin of all humanity. Yet, suspicions about the genuineness of Eoanthropus dawsonii grew until a group of researchers including Wilfrid Le Gros Clark, Kenneth Oakley, and Joe Weiner applied stringent chemical tests to the remains, demonstrating that the “fossils” had been planted and chemically altered to make them seem appropriately ancient: the Dawn Man was nothing but a perfectly ordinary human skull paired up with a somewhat unusually small jaw from an orangutan. What Weiner and colleagues couldn’t say for sure was who carried out the hoax, although a strong case was made by Weiner that the perpetrator was none other than Dawson himself.

Be that as it may, what does this story tell us about how science works? On the negative side, it is painfully clear that science depends on an assumption of honesty on the part of its practitioners. Peer review is designed to uncover methodological or reasoning errors, not possible frauds. But since science is, once again, a human activity, egos, financial reward, and the search for glory — however brief — are still to be reckoned with. As Piltdown and other forgeries have shown, scientists are continuously open to the possibility of someone fooling them by not playing the game by the rules.

On the other hand, science is a social activity unlike any other that human beings engage in: it is a game of discovery played against a powerful but neutral opponent — nature itself. And nature cannot be ignored, at least not for long. The reason suspicions kept mounting about the true origin of the Piltdown remains was that the more paleontologists uncovered about human evolution, the less Dawn Man seem to fit with the rest of the puzzle. In a sense, the very factor that made the acceptance of Eoanthropus dawsonii so fast in the beginning — because it seemed to be the much sought after “missing link” in human evolution — was also the reason why, four decades later, scientists kept pursuing the possibility that it was not genuine after all. While forty years of delay may seem an inordinate amount of time, they are but the blink of an eye when compared to the history of the human pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.

This is, then, why Piltdown — far from being an embarrassment to the scientific community — should be prominently featured in biology textbooks: it is an example of how the nature of science is not that of a steady, linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns, and yet ultimately inching toward a better, if tentative, understanding of the natural world. The problem is that some of those U-turns can be painful to society when the consequences of scientific blunders don’t stay neatly confined within the rarefied atmosphere of the ivory tower, but spill into the everyday social world with sometimes disastrous consequences for human welfare. The quintessential case study of this dark side of science is the eugenic movement that swept America during the first half of the twentieth century. Eugenics is often referred to as a “movement” (rather than a science) for a good reason: it was weak on science, but strong in the area of public outreach and even political intervention. It was a political ideology cloaked in the shining mantel of science, a disguise that all pseudoscience attempts to don, from the anti-HIV movement to the intelligent design movement.

Reprinted with permission from Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, by Massimo Pigliucci, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2010 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

What do you think?

  • Greg

    Initial thoughts?

    When one criticises other people for being arrogant, one is in great danger of appearing insufferably arrogant themselves.

    Incidentally, can someone direct me to where Dawkins’ argument in the God Delusion has been shown to be wrong? I must have missed that one. I’ve seen things claiming to refute Dawkins’ arguments, but none that actually succeeded: as a general rule they consisted of arbitrarily giving properties to a poorly defined ‘god’ and claiming that that god exists. (Not that I consider Dawkins argument a proof against god, per say, (given his 1-7 scale of theism/atheism, nor does he) it just shows how particularly poor a certain theistic argument is.)

    I might say more later, but I’ve a headache, and don’t want to sit at the PC for too long.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Can’t religious beliefs like a “virgin birth” be refuted by scientific knowledge?

    And how would you do this? Pointing out that the virgin birth violates what we know of human biology is pretty pointless, since the virgin birth is supposed to be miraculous, and it being a miracle presumes that virgin births are generally not supposed to happen.

  • http://lebkin.wordpress.com Nick Bell

    Science is often wrong, but that is the nature of learning. Every step, every new discovery, gets us closer to the truth. But rather than attempt to explain this in my own words, I would much rather simply link you to Asimov explaining this far better:
    http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm

  • Kaylya

    Don’t stop reading halfway through, at least skip to the last paragraph or two to see what the author is trying to say.

    “If they did [look at the history of science], they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.”

    Hyperbole much?

    Obviously science is a process that has made many mistakes. There are a lot of things that were widely accepted for a long time that are now believed to be completely and utterly wrong; and then other things that have been refined over time. But everything?

    Newtonian Physics, for example, is not “wrong”. It describes the world as we know it rather well. It was later found to not apply to stuff like things moving at near light speeds; however I don’t think that makes the core of it wrong.

    In terms of science disproving God – if one believes that there is an omnipotent (or near omnipotent) God out there who can do pretty much anything and that we don’t have to understand it’s reasons, it’s not going to work to try and disprove it by science, because that sort of God can do anything he wants for whatever reason. (“So why is there this elaborate fossil record?” “God felt like it, we don’t have to know his reasons”, etc).

    I think the only way to disprove a virgin birth would be to have some setup of time travel (which is probably impossible). Believers wouldn’t accept some written historical documents either I don’t think.

  • Brian Fields

    The point of Massimo’s stated position is that claims like the virgin birth can’t be tested by Science BECAUSE the claim itself is derived from a supernatural explanation – You can’t test the supernatural with science, which is designed to deal with just the natural. You would have to have “God” on tap to test his ability to make virgins pregnant.

    One can argue that the supernatural does not exist, but just like pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters, you can only point to the fact of “no evidence” to make that claim – It’s a negative claim, and not one that is testable (And thus, not one that science can reasonably deal with).

    Massimo’s argument is that if you are using logic and fallacies to disprove the existence of God, you are NOT performing science. You are being a philosopher.

    Science deals in the world of testable facts. You can use Science to derive theories and facts to support philosophical arguments against a god, but you can’t directly assail a supernatural claim with science.

  • Chas

    He claims that historically every scientific theory has been shown to be wrong. I suppose except for all the theories that remain operational (evolution, gravity, germ theory, etc) he’s right. Any theory proven wrong is regulated to history.

    His examples he cites aren’t theories proved wrong but conjectures or hoaxes. I don’t know the context where he pulls those quotes, but I for one would like to read more on Woolley’s “Theory of Space Travel Is Bullocks.”

  • Clint Warren

    There are two concepts of truth.. 1) the dogmatic, Platonic, absolute, (capital T) sense and, 2) the pragmatic, practical, place holder truths of everyday experience. Science cannot weigh in on any of the first sort of truths, but it can say that the God Hypothesis fails miserably to assimilate into the non-contradictory cloud of pragmatic truth. Of course science cannot provide absolute truth.. scientists who think otherwise hold an unjustified belief motivated by wish fulfillment. Scientists like E.O. Wilson are fathiests, scientists like Dawkins are pragmatic to the core.

  • brent

    finishes well. starts out poorly.

    I don’t see why it’s so fashionable to pronounce dawkins as flawed and disproven.

    I quite like his approach to the God Hypothesis. It’s a shame how that one little gibe stayed with me for the whole piece.

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    There appears to be a logical error in the following statement:

    “Not only can science never in principle reach the Truth because of the untenability of the correspondence theory of truth, but it has also demonstrably blundered in the distant and recent past,…”

    Perhaps I am misreading the statement?
    Also, no mention is made of the fact that much or most science is cumulative. That seems to me to be a rather important element to leave out when discussing the nature of science. Maybe it’s elsewhere in the book?

  • Alt+3

    From the early part of the article I don’t think this guy knows what reason is or how science works. You don’t need to prove the virgin birth wrong because it’s absurd and flies in the face of all known biology and best assumed wrong until shown otherwise.

    The latter parts of the article show that he understands THAT the scientific method work and even to a degree HOW. But his earlier statement “…every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.”

    This is largely incorrect when talking about scientific theories proposed in the last 300 years or so since the scientific method came into use. And almost every time we did get something wrong, it was because someone was being intellectually dishonest or because someone overstepped what the evidence was saying. And like it or not, it’s still the best system we have for finding out the truth.

    I’ll admit though, he coloured my perceptions early on by capitalizing “truth”. People who do that usually turn out to be kooks.

    Wrote this on my phone at six in the morning, hopefully it makes sense.

  • Hermetically Sealed

    “Scientists are not gods…” Scientists also aren’t straw men. Since when did scientists claim to be “gods”?

  • Bob

    This is ridiculous.

    Of course science doesn’t know everything; it is the process of investigating the world around us, building on the conclusions we draw from our observations. Both can be faulted as our knowledge and/or tools change.

    The only time I’ve heard this kind of tripe – that science doesn’t know everything, therefore we should be more skeptical/distrustful of science – was at a science-fiction convention in a panel on making convincing magical systems for your fantasy novel. I walked out, because it became less about writing and more about bashing science.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I basically agreed with everything he said. His jab at Dawkins may seem like a low blow, but remember that Dawkins is not always engaging in science himself. He sometimes uses rhetoric. It is probably these excursions into rhetoric that Pigliucci objects to.

    I agree that science can’t disprove a miraculous claim. The proponents of the miraculous claim could always come up with a secondary miraculous claim to account for any evidence that was scientifically uncovered to disprove the first miraculous claim. For example, the devil put fossils in the world to challenge the belief of future believers. Once you entertain the possibility of supernatural events, anything is possible and thus you have the world’s religions with all their varied beliefs. Science is partly having the discipline to not entertain supernatural explanations.

    Scientists are human and sometimes exhibit the human emotion of arrogance… Every now and then one will take shortcuts or falsify data. The real power of science is the self-correcting mechanism where previously held ideas that are no longer consistent with new data can be replaced with different ideas that are in better agreement with the available data. As Pigliucci says, it isn’t a linear progression, but there is a general tendency of getting a better a better understanding of the world.

    Can we ever get a to a perfect understanding of the world? I think not. To think otherwise, IMO, would indeed be arrogant.

  • JD

    The problem is that it’s up to those that believe in the supernatural to prove their position. Just saying that science can only talk about the natural world doesn’t mean a supernatural world exists, it only leaves room for belief or doubt, depending on your viewpoint, but not evidence of some supernatural existence. As it is, believers are resorting to arguments of fear to make it work, for example: “you better be right, if you’re wrong, then it’s an eternity of hell”. They also don’t seem to be addressing what should be the obvious question of what if *they* were worshiping the wrong deity in the first place! Believing in a deity, but the wrong deity, would be a little embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

    All scientists need to do is give natural explanations to acts previously described as supernatural, earthquakes, eclipses and lightning were all ascribed supernatural origins, but we now know how to describe those using knowledge natural forces, so Zeus doesn’t need to be angry for there be lightning and thunder, no Zeus is needed.

  • Lifer

    I tried counting the strawmen but lost track when I hit double digits.

    If this isn’t written to make the scientically ignorant feel better and confirm their bias, then who is the target audience?

    What is he proposing to replace science with as a reasonable method to determine “Truth”? The capitalization here made my stomach turn.

    How anyone in this day and age can still be a proponent of ‘science is a flawed beast that sometimes manages to fit the cylinder in the circle hole’ is just simply beyond me.

  • Bob

    @JD:

    “No Zeus is needed.”

    This reminds me of something I read, where the author noted about the tendency for people of faith to say, ‘everything happens for a reason’ – but then attribute that reason to their God, when sometimes, it’s much more human and capricious things behind it.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Or consider biologist Richard Dawkins, who goes so far as to (mistakenly, as it turns out) claim that science can refute what he calls “the God hypothesis.”

    This is a lot more carefully worded than Piggliucci’s presentation in an academic setting a couple years ago, where I heard him say that Dawkins claims in TGD to have conclusively proven the nonexistence of God. Apparently someone must have pulled him aside since and told him that he needs to increase the correlation of his words to objective reality.

  • http://godlessevangelist.com Doug Stewart

    I smell the repugnant odor of a Templeton prize in the distant future.

  • Bob

    @Lifer:

    It kind of makes me worry that science could eventually be turned into the same useless exercise as modern news media – shoehorning the most specious of claims into a report to preserve ‘fairness,’ when true objectivity nonetheless means making value judgments.

    2+2=4 does not mean 2+2=5 gets equal time, or that it’s somehow unfair to exclude that from your story.

  • http://weltbranding.com Larry

    The man is a twat…

  • Reginald Selkirk

    the clearly almost-human Neanderthals

    Wrong. Neandertals are human, they belong to genus Homo. They are just not the same _species_ of human as most of us.

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Wasn’t Pigliucci one of those people who insisted that you should always stay respectful with people you don’t agree with? Why is he insulting Hawking and Dawkins then? Or does that rule only apply to New Atheists when they talk about religion?

    Also, is it just me, or am I smelling quite a few straw men here?

    He’s using the “Science was wrong before” gambit? Really? I’m going to have to second Nick Bell’s suggestion to read Asimov’s “The relativity of wrong”.

    The only bit I can completely agree with is that we shouldn’t hide episodes like Piltdown Man, but teach about the pitfalls of human reason, and what science tries to do to avoid them.

    As for science, meaningful questions, and the God Hypothesis, I think science can definitely put probabilities on the existence of a God that has left traces of its interaction with the universe. It can’t say anything about the existence of a God with unknown properties who doesn’t interact with the universe at all. But then I’d say that the existence of such a God is not a meaningful question anymore.

    Finally, I wonder if Pigliucci in his book offers a method that performs just as well or better than science in answering the meaningful questions.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    I’ve seen many tracts like this before where a philosopher goes after scientists for their arrogance of knowing truth.

    The fact is that scientists and philosophers mean different things when they speak about truth.

    For a philosopher truth is capital T (Truth!) and is almopst a platonic ideal, something that is unassailable and perfect. Of course they can’t actually give us an example of Truth in the real world. Its an ideal.

    For a scientist truth is simply what works. When Dawkins says that evolution is a fact, thats because we’ve accumulated so much data supporting it, the odds of it all being something else are beyond comprehension. When he says the virgin birth didn’t happen because virgins don’t give birth, he is merely saying that we have no accurate, reliable evidence to say it ever happened and everything we know about human biology tells us it didn’t. I suppose that actually we can have virgins giving birth with IVF, but Mary and Joseph probably didn’t have access to that level of technology.

    Sciences works. When it stops working, we stop using it and develop better science. It may not be capital T Truth, but its lifted us out of the dark ages, raised our life expectancy, eliminated diseases, showed us the beauty of the cosmos, in fact its created our entire modern world.

    Philosophy, despite being around since the ancient greeks and producing much interesting fodder has not improved the human condition one iota. It has its place, but to accuse science of arrogance ignores the massive useful output of science and the pitiful useful output of philosophy.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    Science isn’t perfect; scientists make mistakes, but science is (by and large) self-correcting.

    Science can’t tell us everything, but it’s the best way we humans have yet figured out to discover the truth about this place we call reality.

    If you find something where science cannot (or has not yet) tell us the truth … then what other tool could you possibly use?

  • Revyloution

    I think he wrote that bit to get everyone riled up in order to keep dialog moving. He has just enough creationism language to keep the Ken Hamm’s of the world reading up to the end where he slams them.

    I have one criticism of his claim that science won’t eventually know everything. If you think about knowledge the same way we think about the cosmos, then knowing everything becomes possible, if not probable. Human knowledge has done nothing but expand since its inception. It has shown no sign of decreasing, and as long as it exists, there is no reason that it won’t expand for ever (or until there are no people to learn). Given enough time and resources, I think that knowing everything can happen, it would just take billions of years.

  • AMonkey

    It seems like most of the exert is just repeating examples of ‘Big name scientist X was wrong about factoid Y’. The author seems to ignore the fact that that is why science works. No one’s theories are above inspection.

    For example, even if Hawking’s physically esoteric theory of black hole radiation turns out to be bollocks, the fact that it arises naturally from general relativity and quantum field theory means we have some idea of where the break down in our knowledge occurs.

  • Lifer

    “Human knowledge has done nothing but expand since its inception. It has shown no sign of decreasing, and as long as it exists, there is no reason that it won’t expand for ever (or until there are no people to learn).”

    Interesting point, specifically that it has shown no signs of decreasing. I’d argue that we do have signs that it is possible for the process to fall subject to willful denial in the face of objective truths when they do not play nice with pre-conceived bias or various methods of indoctrination into rigid mindsets.

  • http://logofveritas.blogspot.com Veritas

    My thoughts were simple:

    lolwut?

  • mikero

    every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.

    Massimo Pigliucci, meet Isaac Asimov:

    “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

  • mikero

    …some scientists who think that, given enough time and especially financial resources, science will be able to answer whatever meaningful question we may wish to pose — from a cure for cancer to the elusive equation that will tell us how the laws of nature themselves came about.

    Maybe we won’t find the answers to such meaningful questions, but if we do, then you can be certain we will have found it using science. I’m not aware of any alternative way of generating reliable knowledge about reality.

    I find it highly unlikely that there are a large number of scientists who think that science has absolutely no limits to its explanatory scope or certainty.

  • Eddie

    Science is what we know right now. It doesn’t pretend to be something more or less. It welcomes criticism as well as being disproved. It’s open to debate and advancement. It is not something to worship but to be built upon. It doesn’t claim to answer all questions but it does offer the possibility.

    The truest of scientific pursuits only lays the groundwork for the future ability of saying that it was wrong.

    If I had a friend like this I would do everything in my power to be more a part of his/her life. Honesty, fallibility and the pursuit of being the best you can be is the best of human nature.

  • http://protostellarclouds.blogspot.com Mathew Wilder

    I have only ever read the first chapter of Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis. I wonder what Massimo thinks of that book. Stenger’s position seems diametrically opposed to Massimo’s. Anyone read the whole thing? (And what did you think?)

  • Siamang

    Whoooooo…. someone thinks his shit don’t stink!

  • Epistaxis

    Well, if that’s scientism, then you can call me a scientist.

  • Charlie Kilian

    Pigliucci is mixing definitions of “truth.” He’s treating the functional definition used in science — what is verified to work according to experimental and observational evidence — with the definition used in philosophy — absolute, unerring capital-T Truth. Mixing the definitions means he’s largely attacking straw men.

    Pigliucci uses these muddied definitions to claim that Dawkins is wrong to assert that science can refute the God hypothesis. I would have liked Pigliucci to explain why he values the technical truth that science can never prove anything with absolute certainty higher than the truth that science has given us a better practical understanding of our world than any other method. It all seems to be so much hand-wringing to me; he fears that the tone adopted by the so-called “New Atheists” hurts our cause.

    He’s entitled to his opinion. Personally, I find some of the “New Atheists” a little too brash for my tastes. Their approach is not for everyone, but then, our cause is only stronger for having multiple fighters with differing approaches. Pigliucci’s moderate tone will be more convincing to some people. I do wish, however, that he would spend less time on issues of tone within our community, and instead focus more on using his preferred communication style to bring outsiders into the fold.

    But either way, he needs to stop attacking straw men. It hurts his credibility.

    Also, what gribblethemunchkin said.

  • John D.

    Me thinks someone is trying to sell a book… and this book has NOTHING inside.

  • Jelena

    I don’t like people who are trying to disprove whole science on a basis of old theories that turned up to be wrong. Isaac Asimov said it right:

    “The young specialist in English Lit, … lectured me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern ‘knowledge’ is that it is wrong.

    … My answer to him was, “… when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.””
    — Isaac Asimov

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    Science is what we know right now. It doesn’t pretend to be something more or less.

    No, science is a method and a process, not just a body of knowledge.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Victor Stenger’s God: The Failed Hypothesis… Anyone read the whole thing? (And what did you think?)

    I read the whole thing. What I remember most is the frequency with which Stenger references his previous works. “Quantum woo? I addressed that in my other book, xxxx…” It left me with the feeling that I was not getting a complete, coherent argument unless I signed up for a lifetime subscription.

  • NewEnglandBob

    Nothing but straw man arguments and arrogance from Massimo Pigliucci.

    Miraculous claims, by default are a non-started. An invisible eunuch lives in Massimo Pigliucci’s left ear. Daniel Dennett is a real philosopher of science.

    To Mathew Wilder:

    Stenger’s book goes a long way disproving what Pigliucci is arguing against.

  • Daniel K.

    Massimo Pigliucci confuses me, what is he trying to say?

    “[...] they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.”
    Is he trying to say that the computer he wrote this mental samba on does not exist because the theories behind it were supposedly proven wrong? What feats does mankind have to accomplish to get him to approve of science?

    This very dazed person wrote a whole friggin’ book about science without even understanding what science essentially is about. Science is not a mere tool to find the truth (however you define it), it is a mindset. Meaning that one is ready to abandon every single idea and even his whole world view if there is reliable, testable evidence against it. Science tries to describe the world around us as good as possible. A theory is such a try, it is “true” if empirical tests are consistent and it is “wrong” if they are not, however a theory is also considered “wrong” if another theory does a better job. Indeed a self-correcting process that approaches the understanding of our world. A process which fruits can be seen even in this very digital sentence. Enumeration of failed scientists or quotes from famous scientist won’t change this fact. Science is awesome, a superior mindset in contrast to the so present alternative “Don’t question, don’t understand, just believe”.

    Massimo goes on with: “What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as naïvely wrong by our descendants?”

    Well, certainly his book (although not every bit) will be seen as naively wrong by our descendants. But really, who cares that “we” have not yet found the absolute truth, at least we try. If that’s the best we can do at the moment, OK. We know we will do it better in the future, besides we get some sweet perks in the process. Around 1900 the first cars were build, today we have planes. Not the Pope, Jesus, Muhammed, Karma, Magic or (insert) was responsible, it was us men with our own power, our own minds. How is that not totally fabulous? How can one still dispute science?

    I have serious trouble following Missimo’s rationale, maybe he is a genius. First he argues: “Not only can science never in principle reach the Truth because of the untenability of the correspondence theory of truth” Then, only one paragraph later he gives examples how Albert Einstein, Lord Kelvin and Richard Woolley were wrong with their claims. Do you get it? He claims that science can never know the truth, he then tries to substantiate his claim by saying that in the past various people’s claims turned out to be wrong. ???? Seriously ?????

  • firesnake77

    @gribble:

    To add to your thoughts – Pigliucci also presumes that “Truth” with a capital “T” exists, when there is no evidence to show that it exists in the first place, again, something a philosopher would assume but a scientist would not. It seems like he is criticizing science for being something it never claimed to be in the first place – science doesn’t offer a “final” answer to anything. As soon as evidence builds up behind a theory, we discover new evidence, invent a new way of observing, or a new tool to measure things, and begin gathering a completely new set of data that may disprove the theory. To a philosopher or a religious person, that is a failure, but to a scientist, that is success, and a symptom of preconceived notions flavoring the debate.

    Pigliucci also seems to want to dismiss science because some scientists are arrogant; that’s like dismissing the entire criminal justice system because some cops are corrupt. Scientists are human, just like everyone else (philosophers and priests included).

  • Miko

    It was like reading a one-man Gish gallop. Almost before he’s done making one claim completely unsupported by evidence, he’s already jumped to proposing a different claim that is also completely unsupported by evidence. He does say a few correct things (at about the same frequency that a stopped clock gives the correct time), but even then he rushes on to say more incorrect things so quickly that the correct statements lack any context or interpretation, making them not much better than useless.

    Usually, if I mistakenly buy a book that turns out to be garbage, I’ll sell it used or gift it to someone I think might have a different perspective. Not so for this book. If I ever mistakenly end up with a copy of this book, it’s getting recycled so that the paper it is made of can have a chance to redeem itself in a future product.

    By the way: for those who don’t recognize it, the phrase “nonsense [up]on stilts” comes from the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s attack on deontology*. It’s quite fitting, actually, as Bentham’s attack on deontology was also a pathetically poor one.

    * Deontology is the idea that certain actions can be judged to be morally right or wrong without regard to their consequences and is contrasted with utilitarianism, which does the opposite. e.g., a deontologist would say that slavery is inherently wrong, while a utilitarian would want to judge it by looking at its effects on GNP.

    @Reginald Selkirk: The term “human” is usually intended to refer to the species Homo sapiens (or sometimes even Homo sapiens sapiens), not to the genus Homo.

  • Miko

    mikero:

    I find it highly unlikely that there are a large number of scientists who think that science has absolutely no limits to its explanatory scope or certainty.

    Indeed not. One of the major goals of the philosophy of science is the identification of these limits and the determination of ways to get around them. The Aristotelian paradigm of framing the sciences into distinct, non-overlapping disciplines is a good example. It was incredibly useful from the time of Aristotle until somewhere around 1900, at which time scientists began to recognize how it was limiting further improvements*. As a result, much of the scientific achievement of the 20th century has involved at least an implicit (and often explicit) look at how we can continue doing science outside of this paradigm.

    People often stress the importance of the fact that science has a method that ensures that its theories are self-correcting and able to improve over time. This is absolutely true and of critical importance. But, better yet and less well understood, the method by which we test theories is also self-correcting and improving over time. This is naturally a bit tricky, as it involves a critical assessment of the method by which we do critical assessment, but it can be done in a mathematically rigorous way.

    * Even though we’ve moved beyond (or, at least, are moving beyond) this paradigm, we shouldn’t think that it wasn’t worthwhile during the period in which it was a universal assumption. The fact that the recognition of its limitations took such a long time is a good indication of just how well this paradigm really worked.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    e.g., a deontologist would say that slavery is inherently wrong, while a utilitarian would want to judge it by looking at its effects on GNP.

    Man, if I was giving out awards for the most ridiculous straw-man characterizations of utilitarianism, this would have to get first place.

  • http://onestdv.blogspot.com OneSTDV
  • Charon

    Asimov has a good essay on wrong ideas in science, explaining how scientific advancement goes hand-in-hand with wrong ideas.

    “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

    The Relativity of Wrong

  • Heidi

    My conclusion is that he really likes to hear himself type.

  • Neon Genesis

    You don’t need science to disprove the virgin birth. You can disprove the virgin birth myth by the proven historical inaccuracies of the myth and by simply reading the gospels. The accounts are too contradictory to be reliable proof.

  • http://libresansdieu.wordpress.com LsD

    The mentions of capital T truth, failure to understand that there is no such thing as a scientific “proof”, sudden realization that sometimes scientists are wrong, and false adequation of such mistakes with the whole scientific enterprise.

    Sounds like a guy who just had his philo of science cherry popped and is still not grasping much of it.

    This book has to be full of fails.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    firesnake77: “Pigliucci also seems to want to dismiss science because some scientists are arrogant”

    Oh, yes, that totally meshes with this:

    This is, then, why Piltdown — far from being an embarrassment to the scientific community — should be prominently featured in biology textbooks: it is an example of how the nature of science is not that of a steady, linear progression toward the Truth, but rather a tortuous road, often characterized by dead ends and U-turns, and yet ultimately inching toward a better, if tentative, understanding of the natural world. [emphasis mine]

    That message isn’t too far different from what is seen in Asimov’s “Relativity of Wrong,” except that there is far more of an acknowledgment that science is humanly messy, and so scientists are often wrong not merely in the way that Newtonian mechanics is technically wrong (while still being approximately correct), but also in the sense of just being flat out wrong.

    Sheesh! Looks to me like several of you didn’t read the excerpt but just vaguely scanned it and leapt to conclusions. Bear in mind, too, that this excerpt comes from a book that a reviewer panned because its author’s supposed “animus against the nonscientific.” Funny how this doesn’t fit with several commenters’ ideas that he’s somehow anti-science.

  • Brian Macker

    I think that by Massimo’s own standards his claims are untrue and therefore can be ignored.

  • Brian Macker

    Greg,

    “Incidentally, can someone direct me to where Dawkins’ argument in the God Delusion has been shown to be wrong? I must have missed that one.”

    Some philosophers claim that if Dawkins’ argument is taken as a formal proof then it rests on the assumption that god is complex [made of diverse simpler parts arranged in a non-random way]. God may not be complex in which case the proof fails.

    It has been a long time since I read Dawkins’ argument and I am not sure he ever claimed the god wasn’t simple. If his argument goes “Either God is simple, or …” then Dawkins is still correct. I remember other arguments in which Dawkins narrows god’s attributes to ones that theists would not be comfortable with. I think calling god “simple” would satisfy Dawkins. Especially since that would mean god should be easy to describe and understand, which contradicts theology.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    J. J. Ramsey, I did read the whole thing. Including this part:

    If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong. What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as naïvely wrong by our descendants?

    It’s somewhat better in the full context, but still pretty hard to reconcile with the Asimov quote, or the fact that Newtonian mechanics is essentially correct. I also saw tons of quotes that support firesnake’s view.

    Personally, I found this to more of a mixed bag than a lot of the other commentators – I thought some of the points were interesting and thoughtful, and some kind of stupid, and some of the quotes (e.g. the one you picked, and the one I picked) don’t mesh together too coherently.

    I’m not really impressed that you can find a critic who says that he’s too pro-science. The “I get criticisms from both sides, so I must have it right” argument is never a very good one.

  • Richard Wein

    Massimo writes well on scientific subjects. But when it comes to more philosophical subjects his writing is quite crude and ill-informed. I was astonished to discover that he’s a professor of philosophy. But then there’s an awful lot of bad philosophy around, so I suppose he’s in good company.

    I would certainly agree that “scientism” is more of an insult than a descriptive term. But Massimo goes further, saying that it’s “only” an insult. If that were the case it would be completely inappropriate of him to use it in intellectual discourse. Yet it’s one of his favourite words for describing the position of Dawkins and others.

    Massimo’s view on the relationship between science and philosophy is a crude and outdated one. He believes in simplistic demarcation criteria, like methodological naturalism, which (as I understand it) have largely been abandoned by philosophers. In reality, there’s no clear dividing line between different areas of rational enquiry, like philosophy, science, and history. They have different emphases, but they form a continuum of rational enquiry on which we impose approximate divisions by convention. We can say that by convention a certain question is more appropriately considered under the heading of philosophy than of science. But it makes little sense to say that only science (or philosophy or history) can address a particular matter of rational enqiry. When Dennett (in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) writes about evolution from a more philosophical perspective than most scientists would do, is he doing science or philosophy? Who cares?

    All reasonable scientists, including Dawkins, realise that science is fallible, so for Massimo to suggest otherwise is creating an absurd straw man. But Massimo seems to go to a wild extreme:

    If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.

    A moment’s thought should reveal the absurdity of this statemement. It can be interpreted in either of two ways:

    A. Every single scientific theory that has been shown to be wrong has been shown to be wrong.
    B. Every single scientific theory ever proposed has been shown to be wrong, including all our current theories.

    The first is mere tautology, and the latter is surely too sweeping to be what Massimo means.

    Furthermore, science isn’t only in the business of establishing general theories. It also discovers more specific facts. Does Massimo really believe most of these will turn out to be wrong. It sounds like he does:

    What makes us think that the story will not continue and that everything we hold true now will not in turn be seen as naïvely wrong by our descendants?

    So we might turn out to have been wrong about the fact the Earth rotates on its axis, for example? Of course, I don’t think Massimo really believes that. He is just driven to this sort of hyperbole by his desire to find some categorical sin that he can pin on Dawkins et al. A more reasonable position would be simply to suggest that Dawkins is being overconfident about the reliability of today’s scientific inferences. But that sort of relative conclusion is much harder to establish, and sounds much less dramatic. And is Massimo really less confident about today’s science than Dawkins? The title of his book “Nonsense on Stilts” suggests complete confidence in his rejection of the claims he criticises. No wonder the word “scientism” has been aimed at Massimo with as much alacrity as with which he himself aims it at others. Hoist by his own petard?

  • Alex Malecki

    I’m interested in the discussion of the term “virgin” and its place in science. It seems to me that the term is more of a cultural term than a scientific term. Is a woman a virgin only when the hymen isn’t broken? Well, technically there is no way to scientifically use the hymen to determine if a person is a virgin, also the hymen can be broken without the person ever having sex, so is a person who has never had sex but gets pregnant through in-vitro-fertilization still a virgin?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    @Richard Wein: In response to Massimo’s claim, “If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong,” you write above, “The first is mere tautology, and the latter is surely too sweeping to be what Massimo means.”

    I’m not so sure about that. IIRC, there are problems reconciling general relativity with quantum mechanics, so one–and probably both–aren’t quite right, even if, like Newtonian mechanics, they are useful. The theory of evolution is an arguable falsification of what Massimo is saying, but even there, while the broader strokes of it are correct, there are still issues like the relative importance of neutral genetic drift as opposed to natural selection. The scientific theory that Darwin himself proposed is arguably wrong, though obviously there have been improvements to his ideas over the decades. I’d think we’d be hard-pressed to find a scientific theory that isn’t at best like Newtonian mechanics, that is, a useful but not entirely accurate approximation.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I’d think we’d be hard-pressed to find a scientific theory that isn’t at best like Newtonian mechanics, that is, a useful but not entirely accurate approximation.

    Yeah, but Massimo didn’t say “useful but not entirely accurate approximation” – he said “wrong.”

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Autumnal Harvest:

    Yeah, but Massimo didn’t say “useful but not entirely accurate approximation” – he said “wrong.”

    That’s hardly a helpful point, since the sort of thing I was describing as a “useful but not entirely accurate approximation” is, technically speaking, wrong.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I disagree that it’s appropriate to call Newtonian mechanics “wrong.” It’s correct, within its realm of validity. With your qualification of “technically speaking,” this becomes a semantic issue, but again, Massimo didn’t say “technically speaking” – you did. It probably makes more sense for you to try to defend what Massimo actually said, rather than what you wish he had said. He said:

    If they did, they would realize with dismay that every single scientific theory proposed in the past has been shown to be wrong.

    This is a very poor characterization of science.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Autumnal Harvest:

    I disagree that it’s appropriate to call Newtonian mechanics “wrong.” It’s correct, within its realm of validity.

    But that limited realm of validity was discovered after the fact, after the failures of classical mechanics were becoming evident. It’s not as if Newton knew going in that he was making an approximation that only held at low speeds.

  • Greg

    Brian Macker – well, yeah, I have come across the proposal that god is simple, but when the same people who propose it also claim that it is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, part of the Christian Trinity, and all the rest, it’s quite easy to discard as garbage! ;) It’s a bit like me saying someone is dumb, but is a fantastic orator, phenomenal singer, and projects their voice wonderfully.

    It’s been a while since I read the God Delusion, too, but if I remember correctly, the god Dawkins talks about is a designer god, which he argues implies intelligence, which implies complexity. The whole idea of the teleological argument is that complex things can’t come about from simple things, so… :)

  • Molotov Molly

    I skipped through the last part part but from what I understood, there are people out there who are of the opinion that: In 1912, a couple of scientists created the hoax of Piltdown Man. Therefore, all things “proven” by science before or since may be disregarded as possible hoaxs also. Did I get that right??

    Also, I was ASHAMED and HUMILIATED by the following information:
    “The fact that scientism is an insult … is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associated with it”

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Molotov Molly:

    I skipped through the last part part but from what I understood, there are people out there who are of the opinion that: In 1912, a couple of scientists created the hoax of Piltdown Man. Therefore, all things “proven” by science before or since may be disregarded as possible hoaxs also. Did I get that right??

    Depends. If you think that Pigliucci is one of those people that you mentioned, then you are dead wrong, since he actually said:

    Moreover, it is important to note that it was scientists who uncovered the [Piltdown] hoax, not creationists, which is both an immense credit to the self-correcting nature of science and yet another indication that creationism is only a religious doctrine with no power of discovery.

  • Twewi

    This reminds me of a video of a talk to a humanist/atheist/whatever crowd by PZ Meyers (I think – I can’t find it) where he says essentially that while we may not all be scientists by profession, we choose to interpret the world with reason and the best data available to us rather than with superstition, and so in that sense we are all scientists.

    Essentially the point he’s made is that sometimes scientists are wrong. (He claims always, but that is obviously absurd, unless someone has disproven gravity recently without telling me.) I don’t think anyone here is going to argue with that, or claim to have never been wrong. Our advantage is twofold. One, that we continuously strive to get less wrong, whereas superstitious wrongness strives only to stagnate. Two, we can be right for the right reasons, whereas superstitious rightness is accidental.

  • Wayne Dunlap

    >Pigliucci adds that people like Richard Dawkins are wrong when claiming science can refute religious claims.>

    Kenneth E. Miller, who wrote Finding Darwin’s God, did a great job validating evolution and shooting down creationist arguments. However, he also stated that Dawkins cannot claim that science can refute religious claims simply because science is designed to prove material things, not religious or supernatural things. Miller goes onto explain that there are 4 constants that have to be in a very narrow range for life, as we know it cannot exist. For example, if the gravitational constant was too strong, soon after the big bang, everything would have collapsed back. If it was too weak, planets could not have been formed. If we had a strong nuclear force that was too strong, compounds could not form and if too weak, atoms would disintegrate at room temperature. Miller then suggests that since the odds of these 4 constants all being within the required range is extremely unlikely, that he believes a creator or god would have to be responsible. To that I submit that, since the mass involved in the big bang is supposed to have come from nothing, it could not have come about without a cause. Therefore, it seems logical that a supernatural force may likely be the answer for this required cause since you cannot have a cause when there is nothing to start with.

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  • GoldEagle

    Every scientific theory has been proven wrong? If it wasn’t for science, we would still “believe” the earth is the center of the Universe, that the sun and moon and stars circle around the Earth; that the earth is flat; that viruses are the work of the Devil or punishments from God, and therefore incurable. Science does not ask us to “believe” in anything until it is a proven fact. The option to “believe” in something is available because the proposed object or subject cannot be proven as existing or fact. When people ask do you believe in God? They do because “God” does not exist, but it is a belief that people have, making his/her/it existence a matter of opinion, but not a proven fact. One does not need to “believe” in the sun, or that the earth is round. One however, does need to believe, not believe, or suspend judgment regarding the existence of dragons, or UFO’s. Science is slowly eroding the amount of perceived power “God” has thanks to its slow but sure progress. The Catholic Church agrees even with the Big Bang theory, which strips God pretty much of his entire sudden, inexplicable creative outburst. Interesting Pigliucci’s criticism, having he himself made statements regarding the evolution of the eye, such as that “the only possible conclusion we can come from this evidence is that God did not design the eye, or he did and he is pretty sloppy and not worthy of our unconditional admiration, or God likes squids a lot better than humans”, due to the more advanced evolutionary result of the eyes of squid compared to those of humans. Kudos if Pigliucci is against arrogance; thumbs down if he does not have faith in the scientific method.

  • Wayne Dunlap

    GoldEagle,
    I agree with pretty much everything you said, but I submit to you that you cannot disprove a creator. In order to have the big bang, you have to have matter appear from nothing. If there is nothing, there is no available cause, therefore, since there is no cause, a creator would be required as this cause. Just because evolution is evident, does not exclude a creator. A creator could simply have set things up that way so that he wouldn’t have to constantly get involved. Let’s go one further. According to the Anthropic Principle, certain very narrow parameters must be met in order for life to exist. If nuclear force were too strong, compounds could not form, if too weak, atoms would soon break apart. If gravity constant is too strong, things would have spread out too rapidly after the big bang for any planets to form, if too weak, everything would have collapsed shortly after the big bang. There are a couple more of these constants that require a very narrow range or life could not exist. So, you see, it appears that the universe was specifically developed for the existence of life. That would most likely require a creator since the odds of these narrow constants being met by chance or extremely unlikely.


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