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.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Besides postmodernism, there's a second theory about knowledge--held by many in our culture--that (again like postmodernism) cannot withstand even a cursory scrutiny. I'm talking about scientism, the view that the only things we can really know are those things that have been shown to be true through scientific testing.

I come across this view frequently, especially in newspaper articles about science. (There seems to be a whole subculture within journalists of those who--while not scientists themselves--are sophisticated enough to agree wholeheartedly with everything scientists tell us.) The following articulation of scientism comes from an article in the L.A. Times, in which journalist Lori Kozlowski interviews Chris Mooney, coauthor of "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future." The context and implication of the entire article is that whenever the public disbelieves or is skeptical of what scientists say, the public is wrong...
Q: What about the vaccine skeptic movement?

A: It bubbled up originally for legitimate reasons. The mercury preservative thimerosal probably shouldn't have been in vaccines. [Blogger's note: Ya think?] It was taken out for precautionary reasons. Since then, science has come in and we can't detect the correlation between a rise in autism diagnoses and use of childhood vaccines...

So, at some point you have to let go. But that hasn't happened. Instead, there's a conspiracy theory and people have appointed themselves as experts on this.

The people who try to avoid vaccination, who believe this, are not stupid. They're not disadvantaged... So the distrust of science--this is not something a better high school education would have saved them from. (ellipses in original article]
In other words, science tells us that there is no link between autism and childhood vaccinations, and that's the end of the story. People--that is parents--who don't believe science on this one are wrong (though not necessarily stupid). Even those parents who have personal, firsthand experience of their normal child suddenly displaying the behaviors of autism following their being vaccinated are wrong. Because, you see, on the view of scientism, no amount of eyewitness testimony can be brought to bear against science.

Mooney's view here is, of course, absurd, and I'll just give two reasons for now.

The first is that it is self-refuting. The claim "we can only know that which has been tested scientifically" is itself a knowledge claim, and one for which there is no scientific test. It's not a scientific claim at all, but a philosophical claim, and it falsifies itself. It is self-referentially absurd, and necessarily false. No amount of further discovery will make the claim of scientism true. (The people who make this claim--like Chris Mooney--are not stupid; they just don't think very clearly in certain areas. A better high school education--one that taught introductory logic, for example--might have saved them from this basic mistake.)

The second reason for rejecting scientism involves basic common sense. Just think about it--you know many, many things the evidence and reasons for which are not at all scientific. This includes a host of things for which you have firsthand (or even unique) knowledge; you were there and saw it happen. It includes many other things for which your justification for believing it (knowledge is "justified true belief") is sound. Do you know that George Washington was the first president of the United States, that we fought a war in VietNam, that the Romanian revolution took place in 1989? There's nothing scientific about any of that; so history involves a great deal of knowledge that refutes scientism. But so does geography, mathematics, your knowldege of current events. Indeed, unless you happen to be a scientist, most of the things you know how to do at work and at play you learned without scientific testing. Indeed, though there is increasingly DNA testing or other forensic science involved in criminal cases, most trials are decided primarily on eyewitness testimony and other non-scientific evidence and reasoning. I could go on and on, but have probably already belabored the point.

So Mooney's epistemology is demonstrably flawed, and it is this illogical epistemology that is at the heart of his conclusions about vaccination and autism. In other words, those parents who are skeptical of science's claim that there is no link are not involved in making conspiracy theories. Instead they are thinking more clearly about the issue--and with more at stake, since it's their kids' health on the line--than the scientists who have gotten involved. Though these parents may not consciously recognize the self-refutation involved in the scientist's claim, they are right to recognize that negative results from scientific testing do not serve to negate the abundant counter evidence from firsthand experience.

It is our right and duty as parents to carefully scrutinize the claims of science. This is especially true when the scientists involved betray their own failures in thinking clearly, as whenever they articulate the view described in this post as scientism.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Beginning next Monday, I'll be teaching a class at Kilns College on Critical Thinking.

I intend to spend some time in the first class on epistemology--truth and knowledge. In particular, I will discuss--and demonstrate the absurdity of--two very flawed epistemological views that are rampant in our culture. That is, most of your neighbors, relatives, and friends subscribe to one or the other--or more illogically still, both--of these ideas. I mean, of course, scientism and postmodernism.

I want to blog on scientism in the next post. And I have blogged on postmodernism in the past, and will again in the future. For now, I just want to point out one of the many absurdities of it.

Postmodernism, which is taught in the humanities departments of our colleges and universities, holds that truth--if it exists at all--is unknowable. But if this is true, er, I mean, well, let's just say if this is so, it makes the ideas of learning and education nonsensical. What person in their right mind would pay good money (and at most universities nowadays, heaps of it) to listen to the mere opinions of stuffy old--or flashy young--professors?

The reason we go to institutions of higher learning, and encourage our children to do the same, is that--no matter what we say--we all know that truth exists, that one can grow in knowledge and conform their ideas more and more to truth, especially by sitting under learned men and women, those who have the greatest knowledge about their respective fields. If parents really believed the postmodern epistemology, be certain that they wouldn't be helping their children to take four years out of their life just to party and play games.

Come to think of it, since the epistemology of postmodernism so clearly undercuts the ideas of knowledge and learning upon which the university system is based, why do college presidents and deans allow their humanities departments to teach it?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Walton Game 2

(7th post in a series)

In the last post, we began a game of "What he said/What he should have said" as a way of identifiying misconceptions about science reflected in the new book by Old Testament professor John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One. Today, we have a few more to deal with, so here we go...

What he said:
Biological evolution is an empirically derived model...
What he should have said:
Modern biological evolution is a paradigm that runs counter to all of the relevant empirical evidence. It survives nonetheless because it offered a speculation that allowed science to break free from the theism that provided the assumptions that make science worthwhile. Darwin's empirical predictions failed, and whereas there was plenty of evidence against his theory then, matters have only gotten worse. As such, biological evolution is not an empirically derived model so much as a metaphysical claim with no basis in fact.
What he said:
If public education is committed to the idea that science courses should reflect only empirical science...
What he should have said:
Public education is not committed to the idea that science courses should reflect only empirical science. Hence biological evolution is allowed to be taught as fact despite its utter lack of empirical support (see "what he should have said" responses both above and below).
What he said:
Evolution represents the current scientific consensus to explain the many observations that have been made in paleontology, genetics, zoology, biochemistry, ecology, and so on.
What he should have said:
Evolutionary theory depends upon ignoring or trying to explain away the observations from virtually every field of science. These include the following fields:

Paleontology, in which the fossil record argues against Darwin's theory. This was true in his day, but he thought further digging would change that. Instead, we now know that every life form in the fossil record appears suddenly and fully formed, and does not change throughout its tenure on Earth. We also know that the "inconceivably great" number of transitional forms postulated by Darwin remain missing after 150 years of searching for them.

Genetics, which has singularly failed to explain what Darwin meant to explain--the difference between living things. Given this failure, scientists committed to evolution have sought to use genetic similarity as evidence for their theory. This is either disingenuous or ignorant on their part, since the similarities among groups of living things have been known and understood since long before Darwin (and are just as easily explained by a monotheistic understanding of the world).

Zoology, in which (as Philip Skell points out), "Evolution is not an observable characteristic of living organisms. What modern experimental biologists study are the mechanisms by which living organisms maintain their stability, without evolving."

Biochemistry, a discipline undreamed of in Darwin's day. At that time, the cell was considered a simple blob of jelly, and thus the gap between non-living chemistry and the first cell was thought to be a simple thing to bridge. We now know that every single living cell is an inconceivably complex entity and that the simplest free-living cell contains a minimum of 1000 different proteins or gene products. It is extremely unlikely that Darwin would have advanced his theory had he had any inkling of the complexity revealed by modern biochemical evidence.

Astronomy, which has demonstrated that--contrary to Darwin's understanding of an eternal, static universe--the universe began a mere 13.7 billion years ago. Mathematicians recognize this finding as fatal to Darwin's theory (or any other naturalistic theory for life's diversity).

Physics, which has demonstrated a level of design (for life) in the universe that makes all naturalistic explanations--for life support, let alone the origin and diversity of life--ludicrous.

Here's the problem... Thirty (maybe even just twenty) years from now, no one but a few professors emeritus will still believe in any kind of Darwinian evolution. There is far too much evidence against it, and people--even biologists--are starting to realize it. The manner of its defense betrays evolution as a paradigm in its death throes. Its defenders spend their time seeking to silence opposing views rather than appealing to evidence or engaging the theory's detractors in honest, open discussion.

Given all that, neither the church nor the culture at large needs well-meaning Bible scholars making uninformed apologetic overtures on behalf of a scientific view that lacks any real merit. I believe that there is some validity in Walton's thesis that we should better understand the functional way in which Genesis 1's original readers might have viewed the world. But rather than write page after page of absurdity about science and science education, he would have done well to make a much stronger case (if it could be done, which I doubt) for his radical idea that there is no material component to the Genesis 1 account.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Science Misconceptions

(6th post in a series about John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One)

An important outcome of--but not motivation for--Walton's radical new thesis that there is no account of material creation in Genesis 1 is that this first chapter of the Bible is made impervious to scientific critique. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the account in this chapter, if read in the traditional fashion, is somehow at odds with modern science. Nothing could be further from the truth,* and the Judeo-Christian claim of creation out of nothing has more evidence in its favor than ever. Indeed, adopting Walton's view involves the abandoning of a wealth of science apologetic material that is being used today to help many scientists and educated lay people recognize the Bible as the uniquely accurate understanding of the universe in which we live.

At any rate, believing that his new interpretation is scientifically neutral, Walton proceeds to write at length about intelligent design, evolution, science, and science education. His misunderstandings about these issues are deep and wide, and it amazes me that he had the audacity to write about subjects on which he is so naive and illiterate. So many are his faux-pas here that it is difficult to decide how to address them. The method I have settled on for this post is a little game of "What he said/What he should have said." This will allow me to critique misstatements briefly and in isolation. Let's give it a whirl... What he said:
Science, by current definition... concerns itself with only that which is physical and material.
What he should have said:
Though many modern scientists--especially among biologists--have chosen to adopt a materialist approach to science, there is no historical, logical, or even pragmatic justification for such an approach. Indeed, artificially limiting science in such a way constrains science from discovering truth about the universe.
What he said:
Mainstream science contends that dysteleology [no design, purposeless]must be retained in its self-definition.
What he should have said:
Scientists are not themselves adequately trained or qualified to define science. The experts in what science is are (primarily) philosophers and historians of science and (secondarily) sociologists and psychologists of science. To the extent that some mainstream scientists see dysteleology as a necessary aspect of science, they are dead wrong, as any philosopher of science could tell them.
What he said (In a critique of intelligent design theory):
If scientists simply threw up their hands and admitted that a metaphysical... explanation was necessary, they would be departing from that which is scientific.
What he should have said:
It is impossible to remain metaphysically neutral. The opposite of a theistic view of the universe is not a physical view, much less a scientific view, but an atheistic one. All scientific explanations (including intelligent design and evolution alike) involve fundamental metaphysical assumptions. It is ludicrous and self-serving to seek to disqualify one scientific idea as metaphysical in order to buffer your own theory (which has equally basic metaphysical assumptions) from critique.
What he said:
[Intelligent Design theory offers] an understanding of the world that is ultimately teleological--purposeful--in which sense it departs from the realm of scientific investigation and theorization.
What he should have said:
Teleology is at the heart of science. Modern science was uniquely birthed within a Christian worldview, by men who understood that, as the creation of the rational mind of God, the universe could be expected to display order and law-like processes. Those modern scientists who deny design nonetheless depend (for doing science) upon that order, though they are unable to explain where it comes from or why it should be a feature of the universe.

Again, teleological understanding led the founders of modern science to the conclusion that our senses and reasoning are reliable for discovering the order in the universe (since we are made in the image of God). Those (like most evolutionists) who deny design cannot logically justify the reliability of human reasoning and senses. In short, defense of most of the basic assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor depend upon a teleological understanding and become absurd within a dysteleological view.
What he said:
...evolutionary theory requires long periods of time.
What he should have said:
All naturalistic evolutionary theories--including neo-Darwinism--require nearly infinite time. This is why mathematicians recognize the 20th-century discovery of a beginning to the universe only 14 billion years ago as fatal to evolutionary theory. Darwin's theory was proposed within the framework of an eternal, static universe; we now know that this basic and necessary assumption of Darwinian theory is wrong. (Sir Arthur Eddington, one such mathematician, spent his life seeking an explanation that could replace big bang cosmology; he frankly admitted that his motivation was to "allow evolution an infinite time to get started.") Modern evolutionists are either ignorant of or disingenuous with regard to this straightforward problem; they generally invest time with magical properties or ignore it altogether when there's clearly too little of it to allow for their theories.
This has been so much fun (at least for me) that I think I'll save a few of Walton's misunderstandings for another post, and another round of "What he said/What he should have said." Thanks for playing!

* To be sure, some interpretations of Genesis 1 are quite at odds with virtually all of the findings of science. Among these are the very popular 'young-earth' interpretation. But this is just one of many ways of understanding Genesis 1, and not (as its proponents claim) a doctrine of historical Christianity.