Schick and Vaughn Chapter 7

"Science and Its Pretenders"

Science, Technology, Dogma

Know the distinction between science and technology.

Scientism: the view that science is “an imperialistic ideology that champions a particular worldview, namely, a mechanistic, materialistic, and atomistic one.” (150)

According to scientism, science treats people like objects, and claims that people’s thoughts and feelings don’t really matter.

You can see how scientism might persuade some people, especially people who don’t know much about science (even if they are very well-educated in other respects). And there have been silly scientific views such as behaviorism, which really does say that people’s thoughts and feelings don’t matter (because according to behaviorism, people’s thought and feelings don’t really exist!). Ideologies such as Marxism and Nazism claimed to be “scientific.” Technologies have in fact not always been used wisely, e.g., pesticides. And we should worry about potential future abuses of technology in areas such as genetic engineering and public surveillance.

YET – in spite of these difficulties, scientism is not a well-supported view. Scientists take for granted that there’s a publicly understandable world, but they don’t take for granted any particular claims about that world. Science is not a body of truths; it is a method for finding out truth. Science does not say mechanism and materialism are correct absolutely for all time; it says what’s true is whatever offers the most adequate account of the world – whatever account that may be. Science is simply silent about metaphysics and ethics. And scientists accept the mechanistic model when it works well (as in the physics of medium-sized objects), but reject it when it doesn’t work well (as in psychology, biology, and quantum physics).

Scientific Method Revisited

The ordinary account of scientific method (observe an anomaly, hypothesize, deduce consequences, test) is somewhat naïve. The traditional oversimplified view says that hypotheses are confirmed if experimental evidence accords with the hypothesis, and refuted if the evidence does not accord with the hypothesis. But consider these problems:

1.      Frameworks do matter.

2.      Many scientific hypotheses require reference to objects and forces that can be observed only by extraordinary methods, or, in some cases, cannot be observed at all.

3.      Hypotheses tend to stand or fall together, in “webs” of belief.

Some people (like Peter in Who’s To Say?, the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, deconstructionists) think these problems are fatal to science. Philosophers in general do not agree.

Let’s consider the attacks seriously one more time. Here are some arguments that appear to support the claim that all hypotheses (scientific and non-scientific) are equally reasonable to believe. Each argument is followed by a counterargument defending science.

1.      Hypothesis formation requires an already-existing conceptual framework. An anomaly is an anomaly only within a framework. Furthermore, hypotheses are formed, confirmed, and refuted only within a framework, and relative to that framework. Feyerabend (one of the few conceptual-scheme relativist philosophers) would argue that all hypotheses are equally correct in their appropriate frames.

Nevertheless, scientists and most philosophers argue that some hypotheses are objectively better than others (some “work” better, for example). Recall the arguments against conceptual-scheme relativism here!

2.      Feyerabend isn’t giving up that easily, however. He points out (rightly) that there is no step-by-step procedure for constructing hypotheses. Constructing hypotheses is actually more like creative art than what we ordinarily think of as science. For example, constructing scientific hypotheses is often a matter of recognizing a new analogy (heart as pump, atom as miniature solar system, brain as computer, genes as instructions, etc.)

But none of this bothers scientists. They agree that hypothesis-formation requires creativity.

3.      The question of the legitimacy of scientific hypotheses becomes even more pressing when we consider that some hypotheses posit the existence of entities that can’t be directly observed, and sometimes can’t be observed at all. So why not say that the thunder is really God shouting? God is as invisible as electromagnetism, after all. Both God and electromagnetism are “theoretical entities” in that neither can be observed. So why prefer one account of thunder to another?

Here scientists refer us back to the criteria of testability, fruitfulness, and conservatism (below). Electromagnetism wins on all these counts.

4.      And some sciences (e.g., narratives of the evolutionary past) don’t lend themselves to the experimental method in the first place.

Here SV suggest that we make a slight modification to our notion of scientific method. SV argue that it’s time we realize that “scientific method” is not equivalent to the “experimental method.” We should remember that science is a method for assessing the credibility of claims, and not a set of claims. Not all scientific claims are experimentally-based, especially those that pertain to the past. Biology and genetics are more like history than like physics. You can’t reproduce the evolutionary past any more than you can reproduce history, but there is still good and bad history. It is unreasonable to deny some claims about history, e.g., it’s unreasonable to deny that the Roman Empire existed or that the Holocaust happened. For the same reasons, there’s still good and bad biology, and it’s unreasonable to deny some claims of biology, e.g., the claim that evolution occurred and is still occurring.

Let’s remember the purpose of scientific method after all. Its purpose is to remove grounds for reasonable doubt, to assess the credibility of claims, and thus attain the best knowledge we can hope for this side of omniscience. Thus we should redefine science as “applied rationality”: “any procedure that serves systematically to remove grounds for reasonable doubt.” (154)

5.      As shown in Chapter 3, seeing is “seeing as;” perception is always more or less constructed. There is no “raw sense data.” As a matter of fact, the observations don’t force or require any particular explanatory hypothesis; rather, the raw sense data are compatible with all kinds of explanations. So you don’t get an explanatory hypothesis simply by “observing.” “Contrary to what the traditional account of the scientific method would have us believe, inductive thinking [alone] is rarely used to generate hypotheses.” (152)

But this is not a serious problem. See the discussion in Chapter 3.

6.      Scientific hypotheses are predictive. They tell what’s going to happen in the future. But this is a weakness. When science predicts, science goes beyond the information given. Thus there is no way to be certain that what seems scientific today might not be totally refuted tomorrow, because the laws of the universe might change at any time.

But this is a straw man, no?

7.      Finally, hypotheses tend to stand or fall together, in a “web of belief.” For example, the flat-earth theory goes with the zetetic law of perspective. There’s no extra-theoretical way to tell if your whole web might be profoundly wrong. Predictions don’t follow from individual hypotheses taken in isolation from other parts of the framework. Thus, scientists can always patch up the current theory by changing the background assumptions, or by introducing ad hoc hypotheses. There is often no clear way to draw the line between competing hypotheses when science is in the midst of a paradigm shift.

But we should not be too concerned here either. Science is more than ideology. There’s still a world. You can’t just see anything as anything. And you can introduce any old ad hoc hypotheses to save your theory; the added stuff must work.

What’s wrong with ad hoc hypotheses

When the theoretical framework is under stress – when a theory is on the way out – scientists may resort to ad hoc hypotheses.

Ad hoc (“for this case only”) hypotheses often arise in last-ditch efforts to salvage a bad theory (a “degenerating research program”). Ad hoc hypotheses are the first step in a slippery slope that ends up in a theory compatible with all states of affairs. The theory dies “the death of a thousand qualifications.” It is no longer adequate because it is no longer testable.

Science as applied critical thinking

Since science is a method (not a set of claims) whose purpose is simply to assess the credibility of claims and remove grounds for reasonable doubt, we should ask what might constitute grounds for reasonable doubt in general. Here we can apply the general rules of critical thinking we have been learning about all semester. Science embodies just those rules. In general, a claim is more worthy of belief if the perceptual evidence that supports it is untainted by hypnogogic and hypnopompic imagery, pareidolia, cryptoamnesia, selective attention, subjective validation, the Forer effect, misjudging probabilities, etc. We should remember to doubt claims that conflict with other well-supported beliefs, with background information, and with genuine expert opinion. We should remember that coherence with our other well-supported beliefs is not usually enough. We should guard against intellectual inertia, confirmation bias, and the availability error. We should remember to check claims for unnecessary restrictions.

Thus, a scientific claim is stronger is it is testable, not circular, clear (not excessively vague), reliable (leading to accurate predictions), fecund, elegant, (free from unnecessary assumptions or ad hoc hypotheses), and consistent with well-established theory.

Criteria of adequacy for hypotheses (models, theories)

1.      Testability: a hypothesis (model, theory) is scientific only if it is testable, that is, only if it predicts something other than what it was introduced to explain.

2.      Fruitfulness (Fecundity): Other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the one that is the most fruitful, that is, makes the greatest number of unexpected correct predictions.

3.      Scope: Other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the one that has the greatest scope, that is, explains and predicts the most diverse phenomena.

4.      Simplicity: Other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the simplest one, that is, the one that makes the fewest assumptions.

5.      Conservatism: Other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the one that is the most conservative, that is, the one that fits best with other well-established beliefs.

These criteria should come as no surprise. They are obvious applications of critical thinking principles.