Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on Scientism

I received a couple of questions regarding my last post on scientism. The first was what my definition of science is. The second was what my particular complaint about Chris Mooney's article is, whether I see him as claiming that science is the only source of knowledge, or whether I perceive him as arriving at a wrong conclusion in the particular case of the autism-vaccination link.

The answer to the second question is 'both.' My primary problem with Mooney is that he seems to believe (indeed, the whole context of the article is) that science is the only source of knowledge. This is scientism; indeed, this is what's known as 'strong' scientism, as opposed to a weaker, slightly more reasonable (but still flawed) epistemology. And in the particular case of whether vaccination can trigger autism, this demonstrably illogical view leads him to an unfounded (and wrong) conclusion. In both his epistemology--scientism--and the wrong conclusions to which it leads, Mooney's basic problem is a lack of understanding of science itself.

Now, to be sure, if the question were, 'what percentage of autism diagnoses appear to be associated with (triggered by) vaccination?', that would require some sort of 'scientific' testing, whether that were a questionnaire or actually some sort of experimentation. But Mooney's claim is that since 'science' stepped in and hasn't discovered a link, we can dismiss as goofy the claims of those parents who believe (on the basis of mere eyewitness evidence) that vaccination triggered autism in their child.

All of this underscores a basic problem with the degree of authority with which we invest scientists. (And this gets back to the first question, 'what is the definition of science?') It turns out that scientists like Mooney are not the experts on what constitutes science, and he betrays his naivete by talking as though scientism is true. Further, the mistake he makes with regard to the specific case of vaccination-induced autism is rather a freshman error. That is, he seems unaware of a basic understanding in the philosophy of science. Let me explain. Jordan wrote,
In the case of the Autism-Vaccine link, do you think science can say conclusively one way or the other? I would think that given the right experiment(s) science should be able to detect a correlation if it exists.
The correct answer, according to philosophers of science (and scientists with some basic understanding of same) is that science should be able to say conclusively one way, but not the other. In other words, if there is a link, science might (or perhaps should) be able to discover it. But if science fails to discover such a link, it is illegitimate to claim (as Mooney does) that no such link exists.

Put simply, it's impossible to prove a universal negative. To prove the claim that there is no extraterrestrial life anywhere in the universe would require searching every inch of it. Likewise, science can prove a link between vaccination and autism but cannot prove that no such link exists. And what we have here is a scientist (Mooney) who lacks philosophical understanding basic to his science claiming that science has proved a universal negative. What's worse, he makes this absurd claim in spite of a good deal of counterevidence, evidence he dismisses because of his mistaken belief in scientism.

So what is science? Well, that's a profound question that really requires years of study (in philosophy and history, not in any science discipline per se). Let me just say this for now... While we often know science when we see it, there is no line of demarcation--no set of necessary and sufficient criteria--that separates science from non-science. And whereas it has thus far proved impossible to adequately define science, it is quite simple to demonstrate that the view known as scientism--the idea that so-called science is the only true source of knowledge--is logically absurd.

(A common mistake is to equate any knowledge gained through our senses with scientific knowledge. Such a definition of science is recognized as much too broad to have any value. People have always used, and continue to use, their senses at every moment of their lives, yet we do not think of ourselves as continually engaged in science.)


Anonymous said...


I have often used a definition of science as an approach that falsifies the claims of previous scientists. Copernicua, Kepler, Galileo and Newton falsified the geocentric theory. Then the space program added further evidence to falsify the geocentric theory. Most science teachers I meet talk about the currently prevailing thery.

The Supreme Court is currently operating under a definition of science that is quite closed. They are interpreting legal claims based on a definition that supports natural materialism.

I urge you to be clearer about your definition of science. Using the Courts principle for identifying pornography as the mechanism for identifying science is much too fuzzy. To say that we know it when we see it suggests that we all collectively have a community standard for science. Is there such a communal understanding?

I am in favor of a broader interpretation of science. Science investigates evidence and seeks after the best current answer.

David Dore

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi David:

My whole point is that there is no definition of science that passes muster. Your definition--"Science investigates evidence and seeks after the best answer"--is inadequate simply because there are a whole lot of other disciplines that we don't think of as science that do the same thing.

The school teacher who examines the trail of spitballs in an effort to determine who is the culprit in her 6th period class is investigating evidence and seeking after the best answer, but we don't usually say that she is acting as a scientist.

So, the chemist is doing science, and the watercolor artist is not. But what about intelligent design theory? Is it scientific? The courts have thus far said no, but their position is without any rational support. In fact, philosophers of science unanimously recognize that ID is a scientific theory, and that primarily because of its subject matter (living things, physical things).

So I'm okay with not being able to define science (but recognizing it when I see it) because the very best philosophers of science likewise cannot define it.

Thanks for reading!