Dawkins vs. Gould Part 3: The Aims and Limits of Science

Dawkins vs. Gould Part 3: The Aims and Limits of Science July 10, 2018

Finally, where do Dawkins and Gould differ in the matter of science itself?

In the first two installments of my review of Kim Sterelny’s Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest, I talked about how Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould differed in the way they conceptualized natural selection and in the way they described the history of the development of life on Earth. Now we look at the way these two scientists approach the history and methodology of empirical inquiry, and its strengths and limitations as a source of knowledge.

The Science Worshipper

Sterelny describes the way Dawkins defines science, with all its Pollyanna idealism and candle-in-the-dark rhetoric:

Dawkins is an old-fashioned science worshipper (Here I line up with him, not Gould). Like all scientists, he accepts the fundamental Popperian point that scientific theory is always provisional, always open to revision in the light of new evidence and new ideas. And he accepts, of course, that in the short run human error and human prejudice can block our recognition of important evidence and good ideas. But Dawkins is wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life. For him, science is not just one knowledge system among many. It is not a socially-constructed reflection of the dominant ideology of our times. To the contrary: though occasionally fallible, the natural sciences are our one great engine for producing objective knowledge about the world. In many cases, we can be confident that received scientific opinion is right, or very nearly right. And that knowledge is liberating. In short, for Dawkins science is not just a light in the dark. It is by far our best, and perhaps our only, light.

Anyone who has been involved in discussions here at Driven to Abstraction knows I think this sloganeering is a whitewash that has little to do with the reality of how science operates in our society. Nevertheless, it perfectly describes Dawkins’s dogma.

The fact that Dawkins is “wholly untouched by the postmodern climate of current intellectual life” is nothing for him to be proud of. This simply means that he has held to a nostalgic positivism that went out with the passenger pigeon, and kept his fingers in his ears when philosophers were analyzing the close relationship between knowledge and power. As the term “science worshipper” implies, Dawkins makes no effort to be objective about science’s limits or its downside.

Science As a Social Practice

Gould’s attitude toward the nature and limitations of empirical inquiry is a lot more nuanced. His essays about scientific matters are investigations of the cultural context of how knowledge is created, and he treats inquiry as a form of storytelling that reveals a lot about the aims and biases of its practitioners. Though a prominent scientist, Gould cautions that science can’t answer all meaningful questions about our world; he is suspicious of attempts to apply scientific methodology to social and cultural issues.

To Gould, the idea that a prestigious and profitable institution like science, with its vast social influence, is free of bias or vested interests borders on magical thinking. His approach to the social practice of science is similar to that of Thomas Kuhn, who rejected the idea that scientists are always ruthlessly subjecting their ideas to testing and criticism. Instead, Kuhn described scientists as working within a particular paradigm, and spending most of their time validating rather than testing the theories they support.

Science That Oppresses

Gould also spends a lot of time and effort talking about how science—particularly as it relates to human evolution—has been used in ways that have oppressed and marginalized. His book The Mismeasure of Man is about science as a legitimating institution, and how white Westerners have tried to apply science to validate their dominance and superiority over the “lesser races.” Its reissue contained an addendum on the shoddy research contained in The Bell Curve, which supposedly demonstrated that there are race-based disparities in IQ. Recently Charles Murray, one of the authors of The Bell Curve, was featured on Sam Harris’s podcast; Harris treated him like a respectable researcher whose work had been unfairly maligned by regressive leftists.

In one of his essays in Dinosaur in a Haystack, Gould makes clear his idea of science as a problematic human endeavor; in our dialogue with nature, we often hear what we want to hear:

I shall not, in this forum or anywhere, resolve the age-old riddle of epistemology: How can we “know” the “realities” of nature? I will, rather, end by simply restating a point well recognized by philosophers and self-critical scientists, but all too often disregarded at our peril. Science does progress toward more adequate understanding of the empirical world, but no pristine, objective reality lies “out there” to capture as our technologies improve and our concepts mature. The human mind is both an amazing instrument and a fierce impediment—and the mind must be interposed between observation and understanding. Thus we will always “see” with the aid (or detriment) of conventions. All observation is a partnership between mind and nature, and all good partnerships require compromise. The mind, we trust, will always be constrained by a genuine external reality; this reality, in turn, must be conveyed to the brain by our equally imperfect senses, all jury-rigged and cobbled together by that maddeningly complex process known as evolution.


The difference between how Dawkins and Gould each define science, and the nature of inquiry itself, couldn’t be more striking.

Whose ideas make more sense to you? Can science be separated from the activity of those who practice it? Are there cultural aspects to inquiry that we need to acknowledge?

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  • First, from the 60% or so which I have read of Gould’s last book he appeared to be willing to give the humanities including religion a lower bar of acceptance of “hard science*” than vice-versa.

    It is not the English faculty of Oxford that would keep scientific advancement from having an equal say–it is PRECISELY the religious/theological part of the field of humanities that has, does and will continue to obfuscate, obstruct and deny that equal say.

    I don’t and won’t give a rat’s ass is cosmologistw who believe in Giant Turtles or Transfalmordians hold their beliefs. I do and will, always, give a rat’s ass and more that their belief in non-scientfic balderdash should be allowed to be used as if it were testable, empirical and fact-base.

    Secondly. The surgeon let me put on my own briefs a couple of hours ago and says that I may leave if I’ve eaten and tolerated two meals of solid food, today. There may yet be continued wailing and beating of gums in trollzville.

    * No such thing, afaiac

  • I realize Dawkins and Gould had differing views on religion, but nothing could be less interesting to me than opening up that can of dead worms.

    It just fascinates me that two accomplished scientists and authors could have such widely divergent opinions on things that form the basis of the way we study natural history. The difference between the candle-in-the-dark attitude toward science and a realistic acknowledgment of the culture’s influence on the production of facts is like night and day.

  • I’m not a fan of either, I just saw Gould’s book as a bit apologetic/accomodating.

  • As I said in the essay, I’m an unapologetic admirer of Gould’s nuanced, philosophically-informed approach to scientific inquiry. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge science’s social aspect and its problematic history is denying reality. I think Dawkins and his fanboys do a great disservice to science by turning it into a factoid engine for their nitwit slapfights with fundies.

    Science deserves as much skepticism as we apply to any other institution in our culture.

  • Antoon Pardon

    I don’t think Dawkins is describing a dogma, but an ideal. So when you point out that this has little to do with the reality of how science operates in our society then that only shows how people fail to live up to the ideal.

  • I meant that the “candle in the dark” rhetoric is dogma.

    But I don’t agree that the problem is that “in the short run human error and human prejudice can block our recognition of important evidence and good ideas,” and that over the long haul—because science is self-correcting and bias eliminating—we approach the Truth. That’s a silly bit of secular folklore. Science is a social practice that generates useful information, and often it encodes and perpetuates the biases of its practitioners.

  • Antoon Pardon

    Can you explain how this information is useful if it doesn’t approach the truth? Can you also explain how we found out about these biases that were encoded en perpetuated? Did we find that out by intuition or was that the result of scientific research?

  • Can you explain how this information is useful if it doesn’t approach the truth?

    Um, we only consider them true according to how useful they are. For millennia people formed accurate predictions of solar and lunar motion while laboring under the mistaken assumption that the Sun orbited the Earth. I fully understand that scientific inquiry is a dialectic process between reality and our methods of defining and investigating it; however, the extent to which we discover the truth and the extent to which we invent it is still an open question.

    As far as science being self-correcting, that’s a matter of perspective too; do we emphasize the fact that the correction takes place, or do we acknowledge the reasons for the mistaken belief and the duration of its acceptance as fact? The British paleontologists who fell for the Piltdown hoax did so not because they were stupid, but because the “evidence” was telling them what they wanted to hear about human origins. Meanwhile, scientists in Africa like Raymond Dart were digging up skull after skull of our forebears but were ignored for decades by the archeological establishment in Europe. Only someone with a Pollyanna view of science would say that this demonstrates the magically self-correcting nature of science and not acknowledge the way it shows how science also perpetuates bias.

  • Antoon Pardon

    Results that are corroborated through research don’t need to have a practical application to be considered true. So I disagree with your assertion that we only consider things true according to how useful they are.

    Who is talking about “magically” self correction? I doubt that those who point out the self corrective nature, deny how hard it often enough is. But Raymond Dart and others were scientists. So the correction to those biases of British paleontologists was also science. As far as I know all biases that were at some moment perpetuated by science, were eventually also found out by science.

  • I didn’t say scientific research has to have a “practical application” to be useful. Just that they serve as a basis for scientists’ shared understanding of phenomena, and as a template for future research. It’s useful if it clarifies the way phenomena seem to work.

    And I also never denied that scientific research showed Piltdown to be a hoax. Once again, you’re demolishing claims that no one here ever made. What I said is that we characterize science as self-correcting because the hoax was eventually exposed, and de-emphasize that the mistaken “evidence” was considered scientific fact for decades. That’s why I said it’s a matter of perspective.

  • Um, we only consider them true according to how useful they are.

    We were pretty sure of the truth of electrons (Thompson, 1897) long before we knew how useful they could be. Unless you mean instrumental usefulness for science itself (e.g. electrons are useful for explaining phenomena and forming hypotheses)?

  • Unless you mean instrumental usefulness for science itself (e.g. electrons are useful for explaining phenomena and forming hypotheses)?

    That’s exactly what I meant. It’s a useful way to explain the consistency of experimental results. Scientists consider it a provisionally acceptable way to understand and discuss phenomena.

  • Antoon Pardon

    So what do you mean with the word “useful”? If useful doesn’t mean “practical application” and it doesn’t mean “approximation of the truth” what does it mean?

    And what is your problem with Dawkins? That he put his emphasis differently than you? I also think that when someone describe something as an ideal, they tend to de-emphasize how messy it can get in practice. It’s like when someone asks you to explain a game, so you explain the rules to them and then later they complain to you because you didn’t mention that some people cheat. But that is the difference between the game and how people play it. I think there is a similar distinction between science as an ideal and how people practice it.

  • So what do you mean with the word “useful”? If useful doesn’t mean “practical application” and it doesn’t mean “approximation of the truth” what does it mean?

    I explained what it meant.

    How do you go about measuring how closely scientific findings “approximate the truth” except to gauge how useful the results are in helping scientists to conceptualize phenomena and conduct further research? Do you have some sort of unmediated access to “truth” that the rest of us don’t?

    And what is your problem with Dawkins?

    I explained this too. I don’t buy that the ideal of science is to be completely objective, I think science is conducted by researchers who are already invested in a theory or paradigm and are basically trying to validate the theory. Even the process of observation is theory-laden. The notion of the objective scientist isn’t an ideal, it’s a fiction.

  • Antoon Pardon

    How is that explanation different from being a better approximation of the truth?

    And your explanation doesn’t contradict that the ideal of science is to be completely objective. That people never succeed in this ideal, doesn’t contradict it is an ideal. Just as all practical circles fail the ideal of the circle definition. And of course the notion of the objective scientist is fiction. But that doesn’t contradict it is an ideal. Most ideals are fiction. Something to strive for but not attainable.

    Or do you disagree that scientists should try to be as objective as possible even when you suspect that in practice a lot of them are trying to validate the idea they are invested in?

  • How is that explanation different from being a better approximation of the truth?

    You tell me. You’re the one who insisted that “useful” was no substitute for “true.” Scientifically speaking, I don’t see much difference.

    And your explanation doesn’t contradict that the ideal of science is to be completely objective.

    It just demonstrates that we have two mutually exclusive views of scientific inquiry. You seem to believe that researchers are consciously trying to be completely objective, whereas I think they’re so invested in a theory or paradigm that they’re just trying to validate the theory. I’m not saying they’re trying to falsify data or anything, just that the overarching theory colors everything they do.

  • I still cannot buy into and even struggle to fathom this so-called postmodernist wariness of science. I lean far more toward Dawkins on this and find some of Gould’s views such as his “non overlapping magisterial” as unsubstantiated as the Trinity. Certainly, even honorable scientists have biases, egos and tendencies toward defensiveness that can skew their results, and some have been known to “cook their books.” But I’d like to think that broad integrity in the sciences is leading us steadily forward and adding to concrete, useful knowledge. This idea that we are all trapped in a sociological, psychological and traditional vortex of distortion and thus cannot trust our senses and intellect strikes me as an invented “problem.” Mankind didn’t put a man on the moon through self-delusion. My view is, trust good-faith, properly conducted science, even glorify its capacity for boosting progress, but verify its methodology and results.

  • Thanks for contributing once again, Rick! I highly recommend Sterelny’s book for a good overview of a series of legitimate disputes having to do with scientific knowledge and methodology.

    People here at Patheos only seem interested in a scientific dispute when it’s a sure thing, a one-sided debate between valid science and religious numbnuttery like creationism or crackpot nonsense like anti-vaxx. The Dawkins-Gould rivalry describes two rigorously scientific perspectives that broadly converge on the outline of natural history but differ in many of its most important details.

    This idea that we are all trapped in a sociological, psychological and traditional vortex of distortion and thus cannot trust our senses and intellect strikes me as an invented “problem.”

    I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of the postmodern approach to scientific inquiry. If anyone is telling us we can’t trust our senses, it’s the science fans who tell us that the way we experience phenomena as individuals is illusory. We should really be pushing back against the idea that the only truth is the “God’s-eye-view” that science provides, the objective view that excludes all individual input.

  • I’m certainly no expert on postmodernist views but a lot of what I’ve read often makes me shake my head. It’s a vantage that doesn’t resonate with my very materialistic view of reality. I’ll read Sterylny’s book and try to broaden my horizons. Enjoy your posts. Always thoughtful, carefully written and rich in ideas. Thanks.

  • Antoon Pardon

    But you found the idea of “science approaching the truth”, to be secular folklore and came with “useful information” as an alternative. That IMO strongly suggest that you think the two are different in important ways. Now you write you don’t see much difference. Can you clarify?

    And no I don’t believe that researchers are consciously trying to be completely objective. I make a difference between science as an ideal and science as practiced by researchers. I think that researchers generally agree that science should be practiced as objectively as possible. I also think that researchers being human, will in practice all too often loose sight of that objective and become too invested in their hypothesis.

  • I’ve explained my positions repeatedly. At this point, if you still don’t understand what I’m saying, I don’t think the problem lies with me.

    If you’re okay with science producing useful information rather than approximating the truth, and if you don’t believe that researchers are striving for objectivity, then I have no idea why you’re still hectoring me here.

  • I don’t think there was anything kooky or conspiratorial in what Gould said above. It’s just that we have a tendency to idealize science and make it into a quasi-religious source of certainty and authority. We should really acknowledge that all our forms of inquiry are dialogues with reality as well as with each other; science itself is just as much about argumentation as experimentation.

    I didn’t mean to troll on your Bart Ehrman discussion, but I couldn’t help but crack wise when I saw the way your commenters turned it into a science cheerleading session. I wish people could be as skeptical about science, and acknowledge its downside, as they are about any other institution in our society.

    Thanks for the props!

  • Antoon Pardon

    IMO your explanations contradict one another. On the one hand you call “science approaching the truth” secular folklore and you use yourself “produces useful information” as an alternative. But when asked how those two differ, you eventually write you don’t see much difference. So am I to believe that “science producing useful information” is secular folklore too?

    I don’t understand why you dismiss one concept for another, when later on you write you don’t see much difference between the two.

  • What I meant is that when we say science is “approaching the truth,” what we mean is that it’s providing information that’s more useful to us in conceptualizing and investigating phenomena. Truth isn’t a meaningful concept when it comes to science, utility is.

    I’ve explained this several times now, and it’s getting really tiresome.

  • No prob, Shem. Always happy to know what you think. I agree that even with science we need to maintain skepticism and objectivity, and to constantly work to keep our biases and delusions under wraps. As if, eh?

  • Antoon Pardon

    I am sorry but you seem to be mixing up some things. You wrote about science approaching the truth that it is a secular myth. I have a hard time understanding how in such a context “approaches the truth” means providing (more) useful information (in conceptualizing and investigating phenomena).

  • Maybe even more skepticism, because of the weight we give it (we build skyscrapers with it!). Perhaps when someone makes a scientific argument they should be held to a higher standard of proof and evidence than simple logos. And I mean rhetorically, in the public sphere, not among scientists – peer review processes, testability and all of that is pretty rigorous for all it’s faults. But I mean say, you and I arguing science on a forum, perhaps we should be required to do more than simply cite.

    Like cops and judges are (at least in rhetoric, if unfortunately not in practice) – we expect more of their behavior because of their power.

  • I think it’s naive to believe that science exists apart from human culture and human activity, and the biases they bring.

    Nothing is unbiased. Non-bias is a myth, and I’m frankly shocked that it’s being entertained in 2018 in the west, where pretty much nobody has any excuse for not knowing better. Epistemology is a frustrating thing I guess, but nothing is observed in a true vacuum.

    Many of the foibles in scientific inquiry are a result of bias. So much so that I’d proffer that the history of science is a cascade of biased conclusions subject to revision and sometimes revolution.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not useful, or can’t get us to truth. It just means at the end of the day, humans are still human, even scientists, so we must be careful where we place our faith.

  • Nothing is unbiased. Non-bias is a myth, and I’m frankly shocked that it’s being entertained in 2018 in the west, where pretty much nobody has any excuse for not knowing better. Epistemology is a frustrating thing I guess, but nothing is observed in a true vacuum.

    It’s either hilariously naïve or exasperatingly cynical. There’s an attitude among science fans that acknowledging bias and admitting that scientific inquiry is no less sodden with cultural influence than any other human endeavor is unnecessary. That’s because, their logic goes, science is magically self-correcting and bias-eliminating.

    Why be shocked? People crave an unquestionable source of authority and certainty. It’s just a matter of whether you like your dogma with religious verses or science words.

  • More I’m shocked at the inconsistency because it’s obvious.

    But that might be a byproduct of my own biases – when i lifted the veil it more than blew my hair back. it blew my mind. (and i have the diagnosis to “prove” it LOL) this was but a small part of the bigger picture. (It might be at least as true to say my brain blew a gasket, which led to this, rather than the other way around, but i think it ultimately doesn’t matter here). Adding to that the fact that a lot of the non-obvious became obvious is I don’t know how I even functioned prior to revelation.

    I’m not here to sell anything, despite the Sham-Wowness of my relatively recent breakthrough, but it’s hard to look at the world prior to it. I don’t know how I did it with any efficacy. I don’t know how others do.

    And the shock I think is kind of a reflection of that.

  • I didn’t want to douche up the thread over on Matthew’s blog with cross-talk about Gary, but I wanted to say you’re right about him. He’s an insufferable pest who floods various discussions with overbearing responses to each & every post, just as he did on the Agnostic/Atheist thread. When replying he uses commenters’ initals instead of using the blockquote function, so his responses are completely unreadable as well as annoying. I had to ban him temporarily here because he kept hectoring me about my pseudonym, then he whined that I was infringing his free speech.

    He’s a total nuisance and I’m done with him.

  • I hear you. I blocked him too. Too much noise in the signal.

  • > all our forms of inquiry are dialogues with reality as well as with each other; science itself is just as much about argumentation as experimentation.

    this is wonderfully put.

  • Postmodernism gets a bad rap that I think is undeserved.

    It was never intended to be an excuse to dismiss findings and more traditional methods of inquiry, only to apply critique to them.

    And a critique isn’t necessarily a dismissal of an idea. It’s as often a deconstruction and analysis of an idea. Postmodernism just offers another philosophical method of inquiry and analysis that eschews grand narratives, which generally leads to what appears to be the “wariness” you speak of.

    But it’s not just the idea that everything is up in the air, that nothing has meaning, that there is no truth. That would be more like a form of nihilism.

  • Well, postmodernist ideas often strike me as more nihilistic than not. It’s like arbitrarily creating an unnecessarily realm of argumentation.

  • As Katherine Hepburn’s character said in “The African Queen,” human nature — i.e., bias — is what we are put on this earth to rise above. I think if we are acutely aware that we have biases, and work to understand them, we can rise above them in making material decisions. Otherwise, why try?

  • Wouldn’t acknowledging that bias is ubiquitous be the prerequisite for trying to transcend it?

    Or is science specifically exempt?

  • A lot of people get stopped up there.

    It’s a problem when approaching post-structural philosophy as well (sometimes confused for postmodernism, but distinct)

    Without giving a huge expansive post on the philosophical machinations involved, allow me to attempt to summarize the issue:

    Postmodernism is not afraid of nihilism. At the same time it’s not nihilism.

    Postmodernism if anything, could be a considered an attempt at transcendence of nihilism.

    It accepts that we have no real anchors we can ultimately rely on. But where it departs from nihilism is that for nihilism this is the essential conclusion, where postmodernism keeps going, pushing past into attempting to navigate without anchors in the abyss, rather than giving into the abyss. At the same it acknowledges that this act itself is ultimately doomed, and yet presupposes there’s value in exploring it anyway.

    And as far as exploring a doomed concept we do that all the time. Not just the postmodernists. All utopianism or ideals are doomed. But they still chart a path, even the destination is impossible. Because the journey is worthwhile.

    Postmodern thought is really no different in that regard.

  • Sure, if you don’t see it, it’ll trip you up for sure.

  • I don’t buy the idea that we have “no real anchors.” Yes, there may be some perceptive distortions but, if understood, we should be able to understand pretty clearly the underlying material reality, the “anchor” of the thing, so to speak. At least that’s how I look at it.

  • we always understand the material reality quite clearly until someone comes along and unseats it.

    science is a series of increments punctuated by revolutions.

    Those revolutions are why you can’t count on what you know to “pretty clearly reflect the underlying reality”

    at best all you can do is ask if it is pretty clearly “useful.”

  • we don’t usually see it until after we run face first into it.

    Lots of scientific conclusions looked pretty good until some miscreant came along and threw a wrench in what we thought we knew before.

    And you can’t reliably account for that. We have no idea how much we don’t know. Or even what we think we know that is actually “wrong”

    All we can truly do is ascertain whether our current understanding is “useful”

    Not whether it reflects actual existence.

    Those rabbit holes in science probably never end.

  • @honeyCrisis:disqus and @richardsnedeker:disqus , I want to thank you for the civil and thought-provoking discussion here. By all means, carry on.