Dunning-Kruger, Philosophy, and Science Fans

Dunning-Kruger, Philosophy, and Science Fans June 28, 2018

Science fans talking about philosophy is never. Not. Funny.

According to RationalWiki, “The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. This lack of awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence robbing them of the ability to critically analyse their performance, leading to a significant overestimation of themselves.”

Being Ignorant About Knowledge

Science fans are used to referring to Dunning-Kruger when they’re debating creationists in the low-hanging fruit orchards, where they’re adept enough at philosophy to see the weakness in the fundies’ arguments. However, when the subject itself is philosophy, science fans demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger effect themselves as they show a somewhat less than comprehensive grasp of the discipline.  In discussions here at Patheos Nonreligious about “What Good is Philosophy?” or “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat,” or “Overthinking: Why Do We Make Easy Hard?,” the science fans come across as anti-intellectual and truly proud of themselves for it. Even a Philosophy 101 student would get a poor grade for howlers like these:

Yes, as I said, metaphysics is the philosophical pursuit of imaginary things — like supernatural thus-and-such.

So, whenever I see the word “metaphysics”, I always translate that to mean “not physics”.

But the metaphysics is nonsense. Rubbish. Utter batshit. (Ask me what I really think!)

For the most part, metaphysics is mental masturbation, and no amount of discussion of the subject is going to alter or improve our knowledge of nature.

Make up your mind, science fans! Are we supposed to be critical thinkers or not?

Science, Hold the Philosophy

I suspect that the people who are most dismissive of philosophy are the ones who are the least familiar with it. New Atheist nabobs are infamous for trashing philosophy: Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and even Stephen Hawking have all made immature, derisive comments about philosophy. So the science fans are just toeing the party line, defining philosophy as effete numbnuttery that pales next to the important knowledge-generating disciplines of the hard sciences. Their celebrity spokesmockers have told them that their ignorance about philosophy is something to be celebrated, and that’s good enough for them.

As Daniel Dennett (who’s no slouch when it comes to science fandom) has pointed out, however, science itself is a philosophical pursuit. Maybe science fans don’t want to admit that the foundation of their knowledge comes with a lot of problematic philosophical baggage: anyone who believes that the theory-dependent pictures science gives us map perfectly to a theory-independent reality, or that science is our sole source of valid knowledge, has no business criticizing others for their credulity.  That’s the trouble with critical thinking: you have to apply it to what you believe, not just what others believe.

Philosophers and Philistines

I would expect that, if I’m wrong that science fans are largely unfamiliar with the literature of philosophy, the discussions I linked above would contain a lot of references to actual philosophers, and the nuanced differences among different schools of thought. However, glaring in its absence is any mention of living philosophers other than Christian apologist William Lane Craig, or of philosophers that were at least alive at the turn of the millennium. Hearing science fans describe philosophy, you’d never know that there were heated debates between pragmatists like Richard Rorty and analytic philosophers like Hilary Putnam over the degree to which our minds represent reality, that Saul Kripke and Gareth Evans battled over the causal theory of reference, or that Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler differ greatly in how they define the aims and nature of feminist theory. To hear science fans tell it, philosophy is just navel-gazing that serves no purpose in our culture.

So tell me, science fans, what’s the last book of philosophy you’ve read? Are there any twenty-first century philosophers you think are worthwhile?

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  • igotbanned999

    Sounds like a courtier’s reply to me.

  • Reflect0ry

    I know just enough about Philosophy to know that I don’t know a lot about it. Definitely more than someone completely ignorant of it as I’ve read probably a hundred books that at least deal with it tangentially but nonetheless nowhere approaching expertise. So I guess I am simultaneously a “science fan” and a supporter of philosophy. Those two things are certainly not mutually exclusive. Last phil book I read? Not directly philosophy but definitely wading into its waters: Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert McCauly. 21st century philosophers that I find worthwhile? I can only speak to the ones I am familiar with, which aren’t too numerous, but they would be: John Searle, Owen Flanagan, Paul Thagard, and Walter Sinnot-Armstrong.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m assuming you are being critical of the article here? I can’t tell, since that fallacy could apply to science fans at some points.

    The point is that science fans will scoff at theists who try to pull concepts from thermodynamics or quantum physics, and who grossly misrepresent them because they haven’t really learned enough about them to do better; then those very same science fans dismiss philosophy out of hand as being pointless nonsense with just as little comprehension of that philosophy.

  • I am simultaneously a “science fan” and a supporter of philosophy. Those two things are certainly not mutually exclusive.

    Glad to hear it! From what I’ve seen in the com-boxes, I just assume that there are a lot of people online who only know enough about science, philosophy, religion and history to engage in online slapfights.

    Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve read Searle, but your other choices look interesting too. I’m particularly interested in philosophy of science.

  • Kevin K

    So, here’s the thing. The term “metaphysics” when used by the religious is defined differently from the term when used in the service of the “study of the state of being” in a non-theological state.

    99.999999999% of the time (approximately, I haven’t actually done the math), when you come across the term around these parts, it’s being used as something of a cudgel to declare that the theological masturbation with regard to the existence of fairies is somehow “greater than” the work being done to discern the nature of the universe.

    Which is what I mean when I declare that, for 99.999999% of the time (approximately), the best definition of “metaphysics” as it is being used by the user is “not physics”.

    You may continue to use it in your philosophical pursuits, as long as you take care to distinguish it from the theological masturbation definition.

    Thanks. Carry on.

  • The problem seems to be that you’re letting your religious foes redefine the term metaphysics. I personally couldn’t care less what they think it means, and I’m generally a happy guy.

    Don’t worry, there’s no theological masturbators here. Consider it a safe space.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    Philosophy. A tool used for hundreds of years by the western clerics to back up the claims made about their God. No bloody wonder there’s a backlash against futile talking. There might well be some philosophers who have added to the human experience but with characters like Derrida in France, and plenty of other wafflers around the world, they do their discipline no good.

    Marx got it right: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in many different ways. The point, however is to change it.”

  • Kevin K

    I will continue to be on guard in not-so-safe spaces for attempts to use it as a cudgel or a trump card.

    No kidding, I have had extended arguments with religious people over the term where they were trying to use it as a trump card. “Meta” being “over” physics. Like “fairies” being “over” humans. “Not physics” being better than “physics”.

    We have come a long, long way in a relatively brief time … the university I attended was founded in 1803. At that time, seniors were expected to complete a course in metaphysics that was taught by no less a personage than the college president. No metaphysics; no degree. And that metaphysics was pretty much theological apologetics. This was a public university. I don’t know when the requirement was dropped, but it certainly didn’t get replaced by an equivalent requirement for any philosophy course. Would that it was; I’d have heard of Euthyphro a decade or so earlier than I did.

    BTW and FWIW: right now I’m reading “Plato at the Googleplex” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

  • igotbanned999

    Well all the article really did was namedrop a bunch of philosophers without explaining why their arguments were important and relevant. Seems like a textbook definition to me:


    A key element of a Courtier’s Reply, which distinguishes it from an otherwise valid response that incidentally points out the critic’s lack of established authority on the topic, is that the respondent never shows how the work of these overlooked experts invalidates the arguments that were advanced by the critic.

  • I really like Goldstein! Her novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (A Work of Fiction) was a very sardonic look at the oh-so-important God debates.

  • Uh huh.

    Is there any reason people should think you’re raving speaking from a position of familiarity with the literature of philosophy? The only philosopher whose name you mentioned was Derrida; does your disdain for his work derive from any actual contact with it?

  • Kevin K

    I will have to put it in my to-read pile.

  • Andreas Müller

    I confess I know Nothing About Philosophy apart from some stuff About language philosophy. People say what I do, programming, is hard? It’s childs’ Play compared to trying to understand Philosophy. I have a counter-Question: Can you recommend me a current Philosophy book that a layman can actually read and understand? My Problem with Philosophy is not that I think it’s useless, it’s that I can’t even grasp what it is. With programming, there’s a certain way Things are and that’s how they are, and that’s how they work and end of Story. With Philosophy there seem to be a thousand ways Things may be and in the end who the hell knows (if you’ll excuse the language)?

  • Andreas Müller

    John Searle? The Searle who wrote the book About Speech Acts?

  • disasterpeace

    “Hearing science fans describe philosophy, you’d never know that there
    were heated debates between pragmatists like Richard Rorty and analytic
    philosophers like Hilary Putnam over the degree to which our minds
    represent reality, that Saul Kripke and Gareth Evans battled over the
    causal theory of reference, or that Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler
    differ greatly in how they define the aims and nature of feminist

    I am admittedly ignorant of all those debates. Who was correct in each, and what did determining that enable us to do?

    “To hear science fans tell it, philosophy is just navel-gazing that serves no purpose in our culture.”

    If philosophy is not just navel-gazing, why are questions like the above difficult for philosophy fans to answer?

  • I don’t claim that people need to study philosophy if they don’t want. What I find curious is that science fans are all about identifying logical fallacies and assessing the validity of claims when it comes to debates with fundies, but that appears to be as far as their interest in philosophy goes. It seems ironic that they criticize their fundie foes for being anti-intellectual in one breath, then they dismiss philosophical discourse as “mental masturbation” in the next.

    The fact that they can’t seem to name a living philosopher apart from William Lane Craig strongly suggests that they’re not very well-versed in the discipline of philosophy. And yet they have no qualms about making immature, dismissive, and comically broad pronouncements about philosophy’s relevance to science and society.

    If that doesn’t describe you, hey, don’t sweat it.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    “Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak
    two languages, “September 11.” We will have to return later to this
    question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing
    more. When you say “September 11” you are already citing, are you not? You
    are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a
    date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private
    lives for five weeks now. …. For the index pointing toward this date,
    the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also
    marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and
    no meaning available to us to name in any other way this “thing” that has
    just happened, this supposed “event.” An act of “international terrorism,”
    for example, and we will return to this, is anything but a rigorous
    concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we will be trying
    to discuss. “Something” took place, we have the feeling of not having seen
    it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the “thing.”
    But this very thing, the place and meaning of this “event,” remains
    ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no
    generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a
    language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing
    mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual
    incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain
    that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know
    what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre,
    September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems
    not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this
    metonymy-a name, a number-points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that
    we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to
    qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.”

    Perhaps our author knows what Derrida is getting at, but he lost me after about two sentences.


  • disasterpeace

    I didn’t say you made that claim, nor did I try to refute that claim in my post. My claim is that if philosophy is not navel-gazing, there should be a clear correct answer to each of these debates. Is there?

    My second claim is that if philosophy is not navel-gazing, then learning the correct answer to these debates should allow us to accomplish something new. Does it? I can’t remember a time when a philosophical result has affected my life.

    I reiterate my questions, because I honestly don’t know. Is there a correct answer to each of these debates? What did learning the answer enable us to do?

    If there is, fantastic. I would love to learn that that is the case, and that would foster my own interest in philosophy. If there is not, how does one have a debate with no clear answer and no practical implications without it being mental masturbation? That sounds like the definition of mental masturbation.

  • Well, you seem to be holding philosophy to a much higher standard than other disciplines.

    Is there a clear and correct answer to the various disputes in economics, political science, or even evolutionary biology? Should we consider all these fields useless navel gazing merely because there appear to be fundamental disagreements among the acknowledged leading lights of those disciplines? Our knowledge is always constructed out of the chaotic discourse among experts in their fields.

  • Gosh. So you cherry-picked a big paragraph from Derrida, declare you can’t be arsed to figure out what he’s saying, and I assume we’re all expected to judge the entirety of his output and contemporary philosophy in general on those grounds.

    You’re doing fine work here.

  • Dave Maier

    It’s not funny, it’s pathetic. Although this one (“But the metaphysics is nonsense. Rubbish. Utter batshit.”) could be okay, depending on what he’s talking about in the context. Note the word “the,” which makes a big difference.

  • My Problem with Philosophy is not that I think it’s useless, it’s that I can’t even grasp what it is.

    In that case I would actually recommend two works of fiction:

    Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder [Link]
    Anathem by Neal Stephenson [Link]

    The short, short version is that philosophy is thinking carefully about thinking; a set of iterative processes to interrogate what and how we can know and communicate things, and what types of relationships can exist between our perceptual models and theories of reality and reality itself. In approaching the goal of thinking clearly, we can start to apply these methods to improve the schematic ideas of other disciplines, and this is the primary practical contribution of philosophy to the world. Those two stories communicate this idea better than any dry explanation I’ve ever read.

  • disasterpeace

    Quite frankly, yes we should. It’s all nonsense until we can build technology with it. The entire field of economics is bunk because it’s built on an easily disproven assumption, the rational self-interested actor. Political science has yielded actual verifiable fact, which we can use to build better systems. e.g. Duverger’s law.

  • The entire field of economics is bunk because it’s built on an easily disproven assumption, the rational self-interested actor.

    This is precisely what Shem is talking about. Economics hasn’t been based on the assumption of the Rational Actor Model for a good while. Bot Hayek and Keynes openly doubted the model as sufficient, and behavioral economics has been the ascendant structural assumption for at least thirty years and does not presuppose humans as rational economic actors.

  • tophilacticus

    What does one expect? In a world where copying and pasting a link, usually to iflscience or other blog/news source, is perceived as “Science.”

    At best this is often the entire literature review. At worst, the link itself represents their entire argument, with no additional perspective. It is as if people got the part in grade school to provide a source, but forgot about critical thought.

    I wish I had taken more (Indian philosophies was the sole class I took). If I ever went into academia and mentored graduate students in science, I would make a few philosophy courses mandatory, especially steer them towards what appears completely unrelated to science, like thinking around identity and gender from the likes of Judith Butler and others.

  • Thomas H Cullen

    If you want philosophy, read no further than these questions:

    Can racism protect gravity from the Ku Klux Klan?

    Can daylight grow its own bollocks?

    Can science visit culture?

    Can the sounds of the Second World War become jealous of jazz music?

    Is the United States the way that planets speak to gravity?

    Can a haunted house go to war with sexiness?

    Can America demons be inspired to meet British demons?

    Are humans the emotions of weather?

    Are nations how God remembers how to travel through the universe?

    Can taking the piss visit the United States?

    Is a person’s depression an act of loyalty by planets to galaxies?

    Can a press conference become a scientist?

  • PD

    Hi Shem. I left a comment which got marked as spam. Would you please approve it? I’m not sure why it got flagged. I included a link, but in the past that has not been a problem.

  • Andreas Müller

    Thank you, that’s a very good Explanation which I actually think I understood. So Philosophy is, among other Things, a tool to improve scientific processes, Right?

  • Sorry about that. Thanks for contributing. Nice to see you again!

  • As I keep saying, if people don’t have an interest in philosophy, that’s entirely up to them. But folks who use philosophical terminology and concepts in debating their online foes shouldn’t be dismissing the entire discipline as airy-fairy nonsense. Science fans shouldn’t be handwaving away all the philosophical issues with the history and methodology of science. And if they’re going to trash philosophy, they shouldn’t make it so obvious that they know very little about the breadth, the aims, the literature and the current practitioners of the discipline.

    Science fans seem to realize there’s expertise involved in scientific inquiry, and they’re right. But they also seem to think everyone’s an expert witness when it comes to philosophy. And they’re wrong.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    Where and when did I dismiss philosophy ? I didn’t and indeed I pointed out that some philosophical contributions have been useful to humanity. I notice that all of you attacking my view, have managed to avoid the prime points I was making. That western philosophy was long used as a tool to defend Christianity. That there has been a reaction to this. That whilst an interesting study, philosophy itself, has provided little of useful practical benefit to humanity.

    I also note that not one of you could justify the obfuscations made by Derrida. Not that any of you should. The author accused me of not reading any Derrida. I showed him to be mistaken.

  • PD

    >>> What positive contributions that are useful to humanity did you mention? All you say– and rather vaguely in passing– is that ‘ There *might* [my emph] well be some philosophers who have added to the human experience’ before completing the sentence with the bit about “wafflers like Derrida and others.” None of this is very illuminating or specific.The emphasis is clearly on the justified “backlash against futile talking”– a phrase you use to characterize most if not quite *all* philosophy, since there *might* be some unspecified exceptions.

    >>>> I addressed your point about Christianity. Sure, during the middle ages there was a lot of Christian philosophy which included the justification of Church dogma. But philosophy, as I said, emerged long before all of that in Greece outside of a religious context. The overlap of religion and philosophy is not essential but historically contingent. Further, we don’t see very much of it today.

    >>> Actually, I read the Derrida/Habermas interviews about 9/11 et al., and as I said, you seem to know little about it as you rely on a philosopher’s opinion rather than your own knowledge in order to dismiss him as a “waffler.”

  • The author accused me of not reading any Derrida. I showed him to be mistaken.

    How was I mistaken. You haven’t read Derrida. All you did was Google derrida bullshit, which brought you to a website where someone posted a small portion of the transcript of an interview with Derrida under the title “Derrida and Bullshit.”
    Like I keep saying, people who know jack about philosophy are the loudest in declaring that it’s incomprehensible and of no use to humanity. You’re proving my point very effectively.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    So whatever I have or haven’t read, Derrida is not a waffler ? Go on stick up for this beacon of modern philosophy ! Actually, I hate to admit it, but I did waste some time reading some Derrida well before you posted this article. Oh BTW, have you read Capital ? Heavy going but well worth it.

  • Tony D’Arcy

    Considering that the quote I posted was about a real event, 9 / 11, I would have thought that Derrida might have been a bit more succinct. It’s not as if he was discussing the meaning of ‘meaning’ or somesuch abstract concept. If you feel he had something useful to say about 9 / 11 then I would have to disagree with you.

  • The point is that no one writer can represent modern philosophy as a whole. Personally, I found Derrida rough going too; I prefer Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam. Martha Nussbaum is a very straightforward writer. In terms of newer writers, I liked what I’ve read by “new realist” Markus Gabriel, but a lot of what I’ve read about speculative realism has been extremely abstruse. Haven’t read Piketty yet.

  • Anthrotheist

    How about this:
    “My claim is that if philosophy is not navel-gazing, there should be a clear correct answer to each of these debates.”
    “My second claim is that if philosophy is not navel-gazing, then learning the correct answer to these debates should allow us to accomplish something new.”

    Defend and support your claims without using any philosophical language or concepts.

    If you can’t do so, then you have illustrated the purpose and value of philosophy. Not it’s ability to generate absolute answers, but its necessity as a method for beginning the search for any answer.