Monday, June 17, 2013

Stephen Bond: Why I Am No Longer A Skeptic

link (via Metafilter)

This essay is a mess in several important ways, but I also think it's onto something.

"Skeptics," in this odd sense, are...what? Something like: people who reject pseudoscience and religion. Paradigmatically, they reject things like ESP and UFOs. When I was a kid, the rejection of religion was rather less overt; now it seems like the core of the thing.

I do think that the essay gets something right. Specifically, I think that the "skeptical" movement is eaten up with scientism. They typically don't know much philosophy, so they tend to not understand the logical and epistemological problems associated with trying to justify scientific inquiry. They treat the justification of science as unproblematic. (Dawkins, pointing to technology as justification for science: "It works...bitches." So I guess that's supposed to be an inductive justification of induction...) In my experience, you do encounter many "skeptical" STEM/IT types who are ignorant of philosophy, but are sure that they are too smart for it, and that science doesn't need it, and that you're an idiot if you deny this... And that's all nonsense. So good on Bond for calling "bullshit" on this.

OTOH, the Bond piece goes way off the rails at several points. For example:
Because we perceive the world through metaphors, all observations, theories, experiments, statements and facts have a context, including a political context. Our science is necessarily and unavoidably contaminated by our political system; political ideologies propagate through science, and science on its own is incapable of purging them. This is widely understood by people who study scientists, but less often by scientists themselves, and never by skeptics.
Skeptics like to portray science as a hermetically-sealed, self-correcting enterprise, where false theories naturally yield to conflicting evidence, and the truth will always out. To support this position they always trot out the same old anecdotes. I've lost count of the number of times I've read the heartwarming tale of the old geologist who happily dismantled his life's work once the truth of plate tectonics was demonstrated to him. However, the history of science shows that such tales are the exception, and that old theories, and old scientists, have greater stubbornness. Much more common is the scenario described by Max Planck:
"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
This "new generation", not incidentally, tends to be armed with new political attitudes.

Yeah, no.

First, note how an important falsehood gets slipped in at the very beginning, as presupposition:

...we perceive the world through metaphors...

 No, we don't.

Well, it's actually not clear we get to say anything very definite about the claim, because it's not at all clear what it means. What is it to perceive x through a metaphor? God knows. Metaphors clearly play a role in our representations of the world, and in our reasoning...but not so clearly in our perceptions. At any rate, this must be a universal generalization to do what the author needs it to do here, and the universal generalization, to the extent that we can make sense of it, is false. Even if we can make sense of some perception being "through" a metaphor, it's clear that not all are. I'm perceiving a clipboard in front of me right now, and that perception is not "through" any metaphor. It might be worth noting here that, even ignoring the perception stuff, not everything can be metaphorical--metaphors eventually have to ground out in non-metaphors. Juliet might very well be the Sun--but the the Sun is a star, and there's nothing metaphorical about that. Similarly: Juliet is represented as being on the balcony, many buildings have balconies, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare is deceased, and so on. Not everything is metaphorical.

The rest of the paragraph is, similarly, disastrous. The next bit might mean that, overall, politics have some significant influence on science; or it might mean that each scientific discovery is contaminated by politics. The former seems true, the latter is simply false. Science provides us with a way of shoving irrelevant considerations to the side and letting the relevant facts/evidence have its say on our beliefs. If we want to know whether timber rattlers eat mice in the wild, then we go and observe some timber rattlers in the wild. If fifty are observed, and all eat mice, and none are observed that do not eat mice, then we have good reason in support of a conclusion. There is simply no room for politics to intrude here. Not all science is so clean and simple, but much is. Politics sometimes influences science, but it doesn't always do so. And there is no doubt about that.

One could go on...

But I'll just point out that, the thing about the Planck quote is: it's false, and actual studies in the history of science show that. It's catchy, it's a good hypothesis, but it isn't true.

The punchline:

Mindless scientism is bad, and it does infect so-called "skepticism" (note: "skepticism" in this sense is not actual skepticism, which is the view that we have no justified beliefs at all). But it would be a profound mistake to leap out of the scientistic frying pan and into the relativistic/social-constructionist/Kuhnian/postmodern fire. There is no sound inference that takes us from the denial of bone-headed scientism to any of those crackpot views.


Blogger Dark Avenger said...

When I was a kid, the rejection of religion was rather less overt; now it seems like the core of the thing.

There is no God and Dirac is his Prophet.

Wolfgang Pauli

There is a better quote by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, but, unfortunately, I'm afraid it doesn't provide much comfort to those infected with scientism:

We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.

To Wolfgang Pauli:

We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first saw this link and the comments you made, I thought I might contribute something about underdetermination, Peirce, and concept-ladeness of experience, maybe while relating it back to your earlier discussion of "social construction" of racial categories. It was gong to be very finely crafted and thoguht provoking, I assure you. Then I read the link. God, the confusions about scientism are the least of this guy's problems. Clearly, here is someone who took great pleasure in the opportunities afforded by "skepticism" to treat his fellow human beings in a shabby, superior way, and has now discovered that vaguely defined, vaguely Marxist political theory provides much better opportunities for the same. Like all recent converts, he has developed amazing psychic powers to discover the morally repugnant positions of people who used to think as he does. Poor Randall Munroe, on the basis of one comic (one that, if you follow the link, is against the kind of nerd culture sexual harassment this guy poses as sniffing out) is called out as dismissing every woman that doesn't meet an ideal completely read into the comic by this guy. Dawkins, bad enough on his own merits, gets cast as as longing for the return of the British Empire, based apparently on having some gauzy memories of Anglican Church services. Throughout the post, the author simply helps himself to the most sweeping possible accusations against "neoliberalism"* without argument, usually in subordinate clauses: "liberal democracy, which condemns the majority of the world's population to varying degrees of slavery". Entire feilds, linguistics for example, are cast as sterile, based on the accusation that they don't study phenomena that they actually study.** Overall, this post provides a great example of how ideology, for many people, is just a vehicle for the expression of character. In this case, the character is question is hopeless addict to unearned self-rightousness. As the author himself puts it, "The truth is, I became a skeptic for aesthetic reasons, and the truth is, its aesthetics now repel me." Why should anyone listen the opinion of someone who adopts positions for the pleasures involved in holding them?

* I really hate use of the term "neoliberalism" to refer to liberalism. Do "neoliberals" generally differ in their ideological or temporal position from liberals? No, but the "neo" suffix conventionally implicates that the position in question is played out, warmed over, and reactionary. Fewer things are more annoying than argument via labeling.

** I don't know what punishment is availble to people who write "(and Wittgenstein agrees with me)" (in parentheses, no less!), but there's got to be something. It should involve bees.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Speaking of the great Wolfgang Pauli, one of his immortal quips actually came to mind while I was reading the Bond piece. Specifically:

It's not even wrong.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Testify, A.

I'm with you on every point.

I think it's a general failing that many of us are guilty of to one degree or another...I know I am. Bond seems to have it bad.

It's not that there aren't hints of the stuff he mentions here and there...but he draws some awfully sketchy connections between some pretty faint dots, and what he ends up with looks kind of like a's not that I can't see something that looks a little bit like a goat there if I squint and try real hard...but...well...

1:17 PM  

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