Sunday, September 27, 2009


Dust's Up!

Nick Smyth has been continuing the discussion of my criticism of his article at 3 Quarks Daily, entitled "Science, Pseudoscience and Bollocks," in the comments here.

The gist of his claim is that "science" is impossible to define and, therefore, there is no basis for denying anyone the right to call whatever activity they want "science." Instead of defending any definition of "science," as opposed to non-science/pseudoscience:

... truth is what matters, and that all we need to say about creationism, astrology and the like is that they are extremely bad truth-tracking programmes. They are, in a word, bollocks.
My contention is that he is, at least as far as solving the problem of how to keep creationism out of public school science classes, simply pushing the problem back one step ... to distinguishing truth-producing epistemology from epistemology that does not reliably produce truth. I am not denying that such epistemology exists, just that it suffers the same problems that distinguishing "science" from "pseudoscience" suffers from.

More importantly, his criteria actually produces a demarcation between "science" and "pseudoscience." I've asked him what truth-producing epistemology that he is discussing (but has declined to define) "science" does not employ. My point is: if science employs truth-producing epistemology and pseudoscience, in whole or in part, does not, that is a basis for distinguishing "science" from "pseudoscience." His "truth programme" is, itself, I think, a way of telling one from the other. It is not necessary to completely define "science" in order to distinguish it from other truth-claims as long as we have a marker that is consistently found in one and not consistently found in the other. I need not define every characteristic of those organisms within the family Suidae or of devices for holding money to know a pig from a poke.

On another level, his attempt to use epistemological arguments, rather than a demarcation between science and pseudoscience, as a social argument against creationism is deeply impractical. Despite at least one hundred years of experience (as far as creationism goes), he insists that creationists will somehow be more amenable to accepting epistemological principles that refute their beliefs than they are in accepting that part of "science" which refutes them. But anyone who has followed the "controversy" knows that creationists regularly deny the epistemological basis of "science" as it is practiced (though they don't use the word, since they know their target audience's eyes would glaze over -- which is, I think, what would happen generally no matter which side raises it).

In, what is to me, a telling admission on Smyth's part, he accuses me of:

... skepticism about epistemology [which is] is not wise. It amounts to saying that we cannot say what "truth" is at all. This is relativism! In effect, you undermine the entire discipline of science by denying it the right to claim truth-status over other fields. If you look into it, you will find that there are clear-cut, widely accepted logical rules that are not "fuzzy" and which can help us do epistemology correctly.
Quite apart from the irony of accusing me of relativism when his original argument, that there is no such thing as "science" but that it is only a social claim to prestige, is precisely the argument made by Steve Fuller in his defense of ID, I think this assertion leads to the refutation of Smyth's point. I fully agree that we have epistemological methods that produce (within the limits of human knowledge) greater and more reliable "truth" than other methods. But I maintain that is why we can speak about the "discipline of science" and its "truth-status" in the first place. If we can't define the "discipline of science" (and, necessarily, what counts as "non-science"), then we can't talk about its truth-value, since there is no "there" there that to could be discussed and evaluated. If we can rationally talk about those things, then Smyth's contention that science cannot be defined -- at least sufficiently well to distinguish it from pseudoscience -- is refuted.

Anyway, Smyth is promising to produce a response at his own blog, which I will doubtless respond to, so, if your eyes have not already glazed over, you might want to review the discussion ... or else skip reading this blog until the dust clears.


Working on my response but:

that there is no such thing as "science" but that it is only a social claim to prestige,

Never said that! Clearly disagree with it in several comments.
Then please explain:

... there is no real boundary between “science” and “non-science”, and all of our posturing amounts to little more than power politics under the guise of reasoned discussion.

1. The claim that "there is no boundary between science and non-science" in no way implies that science has no special claims to truth or that it is just another social institution, as Fuller thinks.

I believe, as I said in the original post on 3QD, that it's perfectly fine to talk about science *loosely* without claiming that it is some especially unified activity. The "posturing" is done by those who think you can talk about it differently, as a strictly contained enterprise with a unified method. THAT posturing is simply indefensible power politics.
The claim that "there is no boundary between science and non-science" in no way implies that science has no special claims to truth ...

But, if there is no way to distinguish, say, young-Earth creationism ("creation science") from "science" and we can agree that creation science certainly has no special claim to truth, then whatever happens to be called "science" cannot be said to have a special claim to truth. You can't have it both ways. If there is no real boundary between “science” and “non-science”, then there is no way to distinguish what has truth-value and what doesn't. If there is a way to distinguish them, then you must be assuming a definition of "science" and "non-science" does exist amd the question is why, if your definition is good enough to counter Fuller, it isn't good enough to counter other criticisms of making a distinction between science and non-science? Why aren't you "posturing" in aid of indefensible power politics in denying Fuller's claims?
Reluctant as I am to point to Uncommon Descent I noticed a contributor who writes under the alias of Learned Hand, who I suspect has a legal background, has taken issue with Nick Smyth's comments about Kitzmiller.
Learned Hand, who I suspect has a legal background, has taken issue with Nick Smyth's comments about Kitzmiller.

That would be here, in comments to Clive Hayden's post in which, in a completely unexpected turn of events, the word "bollocks" somehow didn't manage to be mentioned. I guess the avoidance of cherry picking and quote mining is one of those easily defensible epistemological rules that IDers don't agree with.

"Learned Hand" (the name of a famous early 20th century judge, in case anyone didn't know) makes at least some of the points I never got around to making about Nick's original article.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

. . . . .


How to Support Science Education