Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two Things

Two links that I don't want to keep waiting until my next links post:

(1) "The Atheist's Advocate" has put together a pretty good Philosophers' Carnival (number 118).

(2) Synthese has an issue devoted to intelligent design theory -- or criticism of intelligent design theory, to be somewhat more accurate. The papers are temporarily available for everyone. They are something of a mixed bag; I thought Pennock's, Smith's, and Forrest's rather poorly argued, although Smith is at least entertaining about it. Pennock's in particular seems to me to be egregiously bad, consisting in great measure of an attempted hatchet job on Larry Laudan and a lot of weakly argued dogmatic claims. Fortunately, Sahotra Sarkar's paper provides a good counterbalance. The other papers are also all pretty good. I liked Wilkins's, although I'm very skeptical of the underlying assumptions of the model of scientific concept space he uses; Fetzer's paper is a pretty good examination of David Ray Griffin's discussion of the subject, and it's good to see a paper on it. Elsberry and Shallit look at Dembski's discussions of complex specified information, while Shanks and Green look at the relation between intelligent design theory and theology. The single best paper in the bunch, I think, is Weber's paper on the history of design arguments in the modern period: you can tell it's good because (1) it recognizes the significance of Whewell's divergence from Paley; and (2) it discusses Lewis Ezra Hicks, which I liked because I'm tired of being just about the only one who discusses him in this context. The discussion of Hume is weak, but most discussions of Hume in the context of design arguments are.


  1. John Farrell7:06 AM

    Yes--I download the lot. Weber's paper I'll read first.

  2. Would you expand your comments on the Pennock article? <span></span><span> is a favorable review of the article that sounded reasonable to me.  Thanks.</span>

  3. branemrys4:16 PM

    Hmm; you might regret having asked me. Put in a nutshell: Pennock's rhetoric is overblown, his assessment of the actual state of philosophy of science is dubious, and there are times when he argues as if he has no clue what Laudan's argument actually is. The second can be easily seen by comparing it with a more mainstream perspective on the status of the demarcation problem, like Sarkar's (Sarkar is about ten times the philosopher of science Pennock is). There are many, many instances showing the first and the third; here's a short passage where he manages to do both:

    "It would be a sad commentary on our profession if philosophers could not recognize the difference between real science and a sectarian religious view masquerading as science. When squinting philosophers like Laudan, Quinn and their imitators such as Monton and George purport that there is no way to distinguish between science and pseudoscience or religion they bring to mind Hume's observation that "Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous." Unfortunately, in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation-science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous."

    This so massively misunderstands Laudan's actual argument that I would ordinarily take it as a sign of stupidity. Laudan's argument is not that there is no way to distinguish between science and what is not science; it's that there is no way to establish a demarcation between the two categories 'science' and 'pseudoscience' because the latter is badly formed. Those are two entirely different things. That's why it's called the 'demarcation' problem; even an undergraduate can see that things can be distinguished without being able to identify the precise border between. Throughout the paper Pennock assumes that the only way to criticize ID etc. is to pin them with the label 'pseudoscience'; this is precisely one of the things Laudan denies, since Laudan's position is that we should criticize positions like ID as not supported, or made improbable, by this or that evidence, not by trying find some universal smoking-gun feature that puts ID in the same basket as astrology and so forth -- Laudan argues (and he does argue, although you'd have difficulty discovering the actual arguments from Pennock) that there is no such universal feature  and that if you took all the things called pseudo-sciences, you would find that they are each in that category for very different reasons. Therefore calling them pseudosciences isn't really of any value, except for rhetorical purposes: it's much more informative, and there are many fewer pitfalls, with just throwing out the pseudoscience label and focusing on the reasons. Pennock for some reason seems to think that Laudan's idea here means that you just throw out all criticism which, again, is the sort of thing I would usually regard as a sign of stupidity; even an undergraduate can see rejecting one approach to criticism is not the same as rejecting them all. Likewise, the scare rhetoric ("in giving succor, inadvertently or not, to creation-science and now to ID, such philosophers compound the error, making the ridiculous dangerous") is absurd in the extreme; it is not the role of a philosopher to custom-tailor his or her conclusions in light of what they 'give succor to'. And it's especially absurd given that the only interpretation on which Laudan's argument 'gives succor to' creationism, ID, etc., is the provably false interpretation that Pennock shares with the extraordinarily tiny handful of ID theorists who quote Laudan on this issue. All Laudan argued is that there were better ways to criticize positions than the roundabout and philosophically [...]

  4. branemrys4:16 PM


    The basic idea of Pennock's paper -- trying to re-establish the demarcation problem as a front-and-center problem and showing that it is (contrary to what has often been argued, by Laudan and others) soluble in such a way as to provide a genuinely useful way to address actual positions -- is an interesting one. A paper even making a plausible case for this would be well worth reading. But Pennock does almost nothing of signficance towards this end, beyond huff and puff. And when you strip out all the scare rhetoric and ad hominem, the arguments left not only don't do much toward this end, they are very weak. (I laughed out loud at his comment that if the demarcation problem was a pseudo-problem then Philosophy of Science is a pseudo-philosophy journal; those of us who actually read Phil. Sci. know just how tiny a percentage of its papers -- even in the heyday of the demarcation problem -- were devoted to questions of demarcation. Even if the demarcation problem were a pseudo-problem, the bulk of Phil. Sci. and the other journals Pennock mentions are not devoted to it; and since philosophy is a field where you can legitimately consider pseudo-problems -- e.g., arguing over whether they are really pseudo-problems, or diagnosing their problems, or using them as springboards for discussions of more serious problems -- it wouldn't  necessarily be a problem if they were. But the paper is filled with ridiculous arguments like this.)

    All in all, a truly embarrassing paper.  There are a few points where he makes at least some reasonable case that Laudan and other critics of pseudoscience approaches overstepped the bounds of tbeir own arguments, but these are very scattered and not well developed. Read at its most charitably someone who already was inclined to think that the demarcation problem was a real and soluble problem, or that demarcation was absolutely essential to addressing ID and the like, could perhaps be heartened at the fact that people are still willing to publish defenses of it against Laudan and others, and that's about it -- on its own it does nothing of significance to further the issue, and there's too much mere rhetoric in practically every paragraph to leave room in a paper of this length for any sort of really sophisticated argumen. It's difficult to read Pennock, knowing what Laudan actually wrote, without thinking that the real beef Pennock has with Laudan is that Pennock doesn't think you should have any account of the nature of scientific inquiry unless it is clearly and directly useful in attacking ID as pseudoscience (hence the silly scare rhetoric of passages like those above). But (1) there are other ways to attack ID and it is entirely possible for there to be reasonable people who think that these other ways are much better, for entirely reasonable reasons, and likewise it is entirely possible for there to be reasonable people who think the pseudoscience approach is misguided, and for entirely reasonable reasons; and (2) not everything in philosophy of science needs to be governed by these sorts of considerations, anyway.

    It's also, to be fair, perhaps the case that the paper ends up being so bad just because Pennock bit off more than he should have here: much of the paper ends up being a defense of arguments he's made in the past against a fairly wide variety of critics. That also might account for the occasionally wild tone -- much of the paper is really a defense of everything Pennock has ever argued, and thus it could be that it took on a personal tinge without him realizing it. Had he taken a more manageable topic -- e.g., actually developing his arguments against Laudan's claim that ID and creationism "are testable, [...]

  5. Thank you for taking the time to expand on your earlier brief comments.

    I plan to re-read Pennock's paper more closely, with your comments in mind.  You seem to be saying that Pennock was really talking past Laudan, in an effort to discredit ID'ers, who also had misunderstood Laudan's paper.

    I agree that the review I linked was really just a summary of this misuse, so was beside the point.

    One quote of yours did stand up for me:

    "...Laudan's claim that ID and creationism "are testable, have been tested, and have failed those tests", which is really one of the key claims made by Laudan that he needs to refute,..."

    Are you saying that the claims of ID and creationism (e.g. the literal Genesis story) have not failed scientific tests?  I would certainly say that they have.

  6. branemrys11:15 PM

    No, Pennock is saying that -- while the term 'pseudoscience' can stretch a little farther to other positions, the pseudoscience approach in the strict sense, which is Pennock's, entails that ID is not falsifiable -- there is no possible way it can fail scientific tests because there is no way it can be properly tested at all. Laudan, of course, thinks that the proper approach is to focus on which scientific tests ID has failed; but Pennock thinks this is naive, because his view is that ID theorists have deliberately built their position in such a way that no matter what test you propose they have a weasely way of getting out of it. This is part of the reason why he thinks it's so important to identify ID as pseudoscientific -- he thinks it's the sort of thing that can't be refuted by scientific tests because it's designed to be too slippery to study in a properly scientific way.

    So what we really see in the Laudan-Pennock dispute, and what Pennock would have done better to focus on, is an argument over whether ID should be rejected because it has failed scientific tests (Laudan) or whether it should be rejected because it is deliberately set up so that no possible test could be designed that it could fail even if it's wrong (Pennock). (It's not the only contention between them, but it's what makes things especially serious for this particular issue.) Both approaches are attractive for different reasons, but the two criticisms are mutually exclusive, so at least one of them must be a false diagnosis; and, what is worse, picking the wrong one would guarantee serious problems down the road.


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