Do we all do science?

Massimo Pigluici has a cartoon response up on Rationally Speaking in reply to Sam Harris’ Edge response.  Harris thinks that science is defined too narrowly, is suspicious of talk of the limits of science, and sees the distinction between science, philosophy, and history as illusory.

Massimo sees this as too broad.  I may be missing some subtleties, but his conception of science is basically what professional scientists do.  It’s about people who follow rigorous scientific methodologies, publish in scientific journals, etc.  According to Massimo, you’re not being scientific if you test which route too work is fastest, even if you’re being systematic about it.

I think both of these guys are wrong.  Massimo’s conception of science strikes me as too narrow.  I can be an amateur painter, making paintings of very poor quality that couldn’t be sold anywhere, but I would still be a painter.  I could be a musician in the same regard.  Why then am I not a scientist, albeit an amateur one, when I’m systematically testing which route to work takes less time?

I think defining science as only something that professional scientists engage in clouds people’s understanding of what science basically is.  If you’re making systematic observations, making theories based on those observations, theories which get stronger or weaker with additional observations, then you’re doing science.

The professionals may do it with far more rigor and expensive equipment, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re engaging in the same type of activity.  I think when people understand this simple concept, their conception of science is more accurate than when they assume that it’s some kind of necromancy that only those fully initiated into the arts can even approach.

On the flip side, Harris’ view of science goes too far in the other direction.  He doesn’t want to admit that there are any valid forms of knowledge outside of the domain of science.  (And of course, in his Edge response, typically takes the opportunity to blame religion for what he describes as the confusion on this topic for why we all don’t agree with him.)

I’ve already written long posts about the differences between science and philosophy, and another post detailing why science can’t determine morality (or why philosophy can’t either).

I’ll just summarize here by saying that if you’re conducting logical assessments far beyond the realm of empirical investigation, or reasoning about matters where everyone agrees what the evidence is but still disagree about what ought to happen, then you’re not doing science, but philosophy.  It’s the classic is / ought problem, and Harris may like to think he has banished it, but he only has for people who don’t really understand it.

9 thoughts on “Do we all do science?

  1. If science was limited to professional scientists, there would be the danger that it becomes a matter of power. An in-group of scientists could do very poor science, but they are the ones who decide who is getting the posts in the academic world, enters the in-group and publishes in the journals and is getting the research money. Science must be open to criticism and in order to prevent the formation of such self-stabilizing power groups, the criticism must be allowed to come from the outside. The in-group must not have the power to decide who is a scientist. Science must be a public process in which outsiders can engage as well. These power structures do exist and there are cases of what Thomas Kuhn called pathological science.
    By the way, you can work systematically without using the methods normally defined as scientific. For example, historians have their own standards of systematic work. The criterion is not falsifiability, that cannot be achived if you are dealing with unique single events, but there are methods of criticism of sources etc. Interestingly, in German (my native language) there is no exact translation of “Science”. We have “Wissenschaft” which is much broader (and seems to have no exact translation in English). It includes science. There is Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences), Sozialwissenschaften (social sciences), Geschichtswissenschaft (History), Literaturwissenschaft (literary studies), Sprachwissenschaft (Linguistics), Kulturwissenschaft (cultural studies) and so on. You get some kind of flexibility with this concept. In comparision, I think the concept of science is somehow restricted. In my view, Wissenschaft just requires that you are working methodologically and that you reflect upon your methods (which opens up the possibility of changing the methodology if need be). Reflection of the methods used is something missing from “normal science” in the Kuhnian sense and I think many scientist are just taking the “scientific method” for granted although it is the result of a historical process (the term “scientist” was coined only in the 1830s). If you start with the assumption instead that any methodology is limited and itself subject to historical change, you remain open for change. I am not proposing to do this with levity, but it must be possible to criticise the scientific method where necessary, without being outlawed as “unscientific”. Science must not turn into an idiology.


  2. I’ve just recently written a post titled “Meaning is exclusion”

    It seems to be relevant here. Definitions are useful and meaningful only when they exclude ideas. A good definition draws a clear boundary what is “A” and what is “not A”. Washing out this boundary makes the definition worse, not better and adds to confusion. Harris seems to suggest retiring “science” as an idea by erasing the limits defining it. A definition that includes everything (“A or not A” — a tautology) is as meaningless as a definition that excludes everything (“A and not A” — a contradiction).

    To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A religious fanatic thinks that every question has to do with religion. A science fanatic thinks that every question can be answered by science. It’s funny how both sides consider the other side “delusional”. The Bible, at least, has an englightening passage about “the plank in your own eye” — “those who have ears, let them hear”.

    “Doing science” is different from “being a scientist”. Am I a scientist? It’s a simple question. Do I spend 8 hours a day in the lab, doing research, publishing results, and get paid for it? No. Then, I am not a professional scientist. I can be an amateur scientist. But the question “what are you?” usually implies “what do you do for a living?”, not as a hobby.


  3. Just passing through. One little comment on the blog title – a selfaware pattern is just a pattern that contains an image of itself.


  4. After reading Puglicci’s formal paper on “New Atheism” and his other post criticizing Harris & Co
    I tend to agree with him completely.

    His cartoon is meant to be a caricature of Harris’ attempts to expand definition of science to everything dealing with facts or the “adhering to the strict [yet undefined] standards of reason and evidence”, rather than his own position. He writes in his article:

    What I do object to is the tendency, found among many New Atheists, to
    expand the definition of science to pretty much encompassing anything that deals
    with “facts,” loosely conceived. So broadened, the concept of science loses meaning
    and it becomes indistinguishable from just about any other human activity. One
    might as well define “philosophy” as the discipline that deals with thinking and
    then claim that everything we do, including of course science itself, properly
    belongs to philosophy. It would be a puerile and useless exercise, and yet it is not
    far from the attitude prevalent among the New Atheists.

    This is, pretty much, the same point as I made in my comment which I made before reading Puglicci’s article.


    1. Thanks for the links. I saw Pigluicci’s paper earlier today and mostly agreed with it. I think he’s right that many of the New Atheists oversell what can be determined by science. Also, don’t know if you noticed it, but I left a comment on the undergraduate atheist entry, mostly agreeing with him.

      But I’ve also heard his views on science a few times on the Rationally Speaking podcasts, and he tends to take the view I briefly summarized in my post, which I see as too narrow.


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