Thursday, October 08, 2020

Scientismagoria of the Scientismists

Maarten Boudry has a really poor discussion of scientism at the APA Blog (although part of the badness is borrowed from the paper by Hietenan et al. that he is looking at in particular). It starts at the very beginning, in explaining the common meaning of the term:

The general gist is that of science overreaching, pushing beyond its proper limits, illegitimately colonizing other fields of inquiry.

No, this is wrong. For one thing 'science' is not a personal agent; it doesn't do any of these things. Scientism is done by actual people, and it is generally regarded by people not as 'science' but as people putting forward claims that on examination are not scientific while pretending that they are scientific, often based on only loose analogies or imaginative associations. People pretend that they are giving scientific conclusions while issuing what are effectively IOUs for things for which they have no scientific demonstrations in hand, in a sort of usury of scientific authority. As I've noted before, a term that would capture more clearly what most people mean by it is 'scientifictionism'. There are, as Boudry notes, attempts to appropriate the term to other, supposedly positive, uses, but these are simply different uses, and one should not muddle them together with the usual use.

In any case, most of Boudry's post is on appropriated usages, looking at the argument of Hietenan et al. The paper of Hietenan et al. is entirely an attempt in redefinition -- it's not a matter of, "Is scientism defensible?" but "Is there a definition of something that could be given the label 'scientism' that is defensible?" This is a trivial question, since of course you can do so, if you are really so committed to the word. You can pick any word you please and redefine it in any way you please for any purpose you please. Of course, what they want is to have their cake and eat it, too: to redefine the word but criticize people for what they said about the previously existing homonym. But there are a few interesting aspects to their paper. They distinguish four kinds of 'scientism' in their sense:

strong, narrow: The natural sciences are the only sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
strong, broad: The sciences are the only sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
weak, narrow: The natural sciences are the best sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.
weak, broad: The sciences are the best sources of knowledge, justification, rational beliefs, or the like.

None of these statements are very clear, and the weak versions are arguably not even well-formed (best for what end? according to what measure? -- when we look at the examples, we have cases like Mizrahi trying to argue that best is what gets most citations, which is absurd in itself and depends on controvertible assumptions about citation networks). All of them are nonstarters as they stand unless there is a relatively noncontroversial solution to the demarcation problem for what counts as a science, which, despite the efforts of Boudry and others, doesn't exist -- most philosophers are still skeptical that there is any solution at all (i.e., they take the boundary between sciences and non-sciences to be very fuzzy and messy), and even those who think they have one can hardly argue that there are no real controversies to be found with regard to it. One could, of course, narrow them -- not this foggy mass 'science' but such-and-such scientific methods, but the more you do that the more obviously stupid the strong versions are and the more obvious it is that whether the weak version is true just depends on what exactly your goals are. There is a reason why the literature focuses on the strong, narrow version: it's the only one that doesn't look like a wax nose.

Nonetheless, it gets worse. Hietenan et al. attempt to tackle the common objections to scientisms. The most obvious one is that scientisms generally seem self-defeating: actual scientific work presupposes things that are not scientific. Hietenan et al. divide these into (a) non-scientific background assumptions and (b) non-scientific sources of belief. With (a), for instance, it is commonly thought that basic assumptions about the existence and nature of the external world have to be presupposed -- indeed, this is a common view even among most physicists, as witnessed by (I think) Dirac's famous opening of a class by saying he was only going to make one philosophical assumption, that there was an external world. Hietenan et al.'s dismissal has to be quoted, because it's an obviously absurd argument:

One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means.

Hypotheses, of course, are a particular class of assumption, so this argument amounts to claiming that scientists don't have to assume that they can achieve knowledge of the external world, because all they have to do is to start by assuming it for the purposes of their inquiry. But the primary problem is that even making the hypothesis is already assuming that there is something to make a hypothesis about. Hietenan et al. gloss over this, and in fact do so in such a precise way that it's hard, hard, hard not to see it as a deliberate obfuscation: the hypothesis, they say, would merely state "there are at least some regularities to be found" -- regularities of what? found where? It can, they say, be tested just by attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. What scientific means would those be, given that we supposedly aren't assuming that anything outside the mind exists? Apparently we don't have to assume that there exists anything outside the mind, we can just hypothesize that it does and test our hypothesis with tests we merely hypothesize to exist that use means we merely hypothesize to exist. Simple! Apparently Hietenan et al. think that scientists are all the loon from the asylum, creating a warp engine very scientifically with things that don't even need to exist. It is, of course, entirely absurd. You cannot build experimental science entirely out of layers of hypotheses; you need cloud chambers and telescopes and dissections and the like, and they have to be real and distinguishable from things like hallucinations to be of any use.

It is true that scientists can simply take the external world as a postulate -- a more accurate word than 'hypothesis' for what they are describing -- and postulates don't even have to be true to be useful. But the whole point of this exercise is that we are supposed to be talking about science as a 'source of knowing'; if it's based on postulates it can't be such unless we have independent knowledge that lets us say that the postulates are reasonable for their purposes. The view that science can be a source of knowing if based entirely on hoping that you're getting it right is obviously irrational.

With respect to (b), non-scientific sources of belief, Hietenen et al. criticize the critics for not understanding scientific practice, but they seem not to understand everyday sensation by pretending that it involves no error correction. In fact, error correction is pervasive. If you think you see someone in the shadows, you look again. If you feel a pain, you look at the painful spot. To make sure you are seeing something right, you stare at it to make sure it wasn't a transient appearance. Etc., etc. This isn't 'scientific practice' unless you are just playing with words and trying to turn everything into 'science' when it suits you (something of which scientism has regularly been accused, as it happens). It's the usual sleight of hand. When scientists check their measurements, they are doing science; but they are doing it by things like 'looking at a dial to get the number' and 'comparing two columns to make sure they are equal' and 'double-checking that the color is what it appeared to be'. These are only useful for scientific work if they are examples of things that are useful much more broadly. Looking at a dial is useful for precisely the same reason that looking at the calendar is useful. Using a clock to measure something in an experiment and using a clock to determine how long you have to wait until dinner are in the same genus of activity, and are both useful because they may be accurate measures for their purposes, but you are not engaging in 'scientific practice' just because you are measuring something. And what counts as best for knowing what you want to know just depends on what you are doing: an experiment may absolutely require an atomic clock, but trying to work with that degree of precision may be useless or even harmful to planning dinner. The sleight of hand, of course, is trying to pretend that entirely common cognitive abilities and means of interacting with the world are really scientific practice when in fact they are just things that scientists can sometimes use -- if they already presuppose that they work.

They also consider a further self-defeat objection, but their argument fares no better there, either. They hold that weak scientism can reject the claim that "It is rational to accept scientism only if scientism is justified on the basis of scientific research and nothing else." But in fact, if it does so, weak scientism as they have defined it defeats itself: if scientism is not established only on the basis of scientific research and nothing else, then science is not in fact the best source of justification, etc., if you are interested in scientism. Of course, this goes back to their failure to consider the question, "Best for what?"

Boudry is interesting, because he keeps tripping over the obvious problems with this entire argument while obstinately refusing to consider them problems. For instance, he says,

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No. If that constituted a “limit” to science, the question of scientism would become completely trivial. Of course science relies on information acquired through our human senses. In fact, it could not even get off the ground without it.

Yes, Maarten, this is why most people would consider the positions above described as the different forms of scientism to be stupid, because it is obvious that scientific work has to rely on information acquired through our human senses, which doesn't originate from scientific practice. You don't have to do work in a laboratory to learn by looking and hearing; you do have to start learning by looking, hearing, etc., to do work in a laboratory. The fact that scientists continue to refine this doesn't remotely change the fact that it proves the strong forms of scientism trivially false. And as the refinements work only for what scientists are doing with them, they don't apply to what everyone else is doing with them, which for the weak forms get us back to the question, "Best for what?" What is the best source for a particular conclusion is not the same as what is the best source for starting the entire process rolling.

Boudry makes it worse by saying:

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor of human knowledge is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air.

No, no, no. First, it can be self-evident. Second, it doesn't have to be self-evident, it can just be evident (as from careful experience). Third, in epistemology 'foundation' by definition means there is no infinite regress, because you trace it back to something that is self-evident or evident. That's the whole point of foundationalism; and the standard argument that you need a foundation is an argument that if you don't have one, you get an infinite regress. Fourth, weak scientismists, by his own previous argument and by the way their position is defined, are not committed to rejecting some foundation prior to scientific inquiry. Fifth, Boudry himself just used the metaphor that without the senses science "could not even get off the ground", so he has no ground to stand on for criticizing the foundation metaphor. He continues:

A better metaphor of human knowledge is that of a large web with many interconnected strands that mutually reinforce each other. The more connections, the more reliable our knowledge.

Ah, yes, the magical spiderweb that connects to nothing but itself. But in any case, it doesn't actually solve the problem: all the arguments remain exactly as they are. If you are a strong scientismist, you have to say that the entire web is science, which is trivially false; if you are a weak scientismist, you have to say that science is the most reinforced part of the web (but for what purpose?), and we are still having the same argument. We can make up metaphors all day. Perhaps a better metaphor for human knowledge is an ecology, hyperdiverse and mutually interacting, not a bland homogenous web. Perhaps a better metaphor for human knowledge is a metropolis. Or perhaps a better metaphor is a gurgling stomach or an old shoe, who knows? Changing the metaphor doesn't change anything because people aren't arguing the metaphors but using the metaphors to express succinctly other things about which they are arguing, which don't all change just because you change how you talk about them.

But the best part is the end, when Boudry gives his definition of scientism:

In short, the definition of “scientism” that I would endorse is the following: there are no other ways of knowing apart from those used by the sciences (broadly construed, including history and the humanities).

Ah, yes, of course, there are no ways of knowing except those that are not separated from everything we think about. Scientism!