Sunday, October 11, 2009


The End

Due to "real life" (including such things as baseball playoffs), I've been remiss in getting to Nick Smyth's last two responses to criticisms of his article, that he characterizes as:

7. You keep using this word "Science". But you say science is indefinable! How can you keep using it? (John)

8. You're overestimating creationists. They will not accept your epistemology, and they are totally insensitive to arguments which show their views to be false. This new strategy will not work (John, Matzke, Penner).

Nick's argument is:

It is reasonable to demand that the latter kind of political use of a word [to exclude certain people and ideas from public life] be backed up by a complete definition of the word, so that we don't end up making massive practical mistakes, excluding good ideas and including bad ones. In fact, this is just what has happened: popular definitions of "science" actually include all kinds of wacky theories and exclude important research programmes which don't fit with the standard definitions.

As to "practical mistakes," I've pointed out before that the courts are not interested in whether, say, string theory, is or is not "science." The only context in which the courts will become involved in such questions is when there is reason to believe that the government is promoting some constitutionally impermissible position by dressing it up as science. No one is being excluded from "public life." IDers can go on advocating for their ideas -- and others are free to oppose them. At most, they are being precluded from acting, as part of some political majority, to deprive the minority of their rights. The advocates of ID are free to continue to try to show that their position is, in fact, "science" by the very standards scientists use to decide that issue, which does not entail a "complete definition of the word."

Scientists themselves don't need a philosophically complete definition to discern pseudoscience. As PZ Myers has pointed out, scientists do not pay much attention to philosophers ... and, in my opinion, rightly so. Philosophers of science are like reporters who come along after the fact and try to describe what scientists have done, rather than arbiters of what scientists should be doing. Furthermore, since science (unlike the law) is an open ended activity, scientists need not make final judgments. Science can tolerate entertaining "wacky theories" and excluding "important research programmes" for a time, since the correct view of these things will eventually emerge. The law has no such luxury and must make a decision now on the rights of the particular parties to the case before it. That is why I kept emphasizing that the courts use criteria intended to measure such things as ID against science as it is presently practiced. If ID can meet the criteria collectively applied by the scientific community, it will automatically be accepted by the courts.

That leaves partisan politics as the arena in which political use of the word "science" must be considered. I don't think it is necessary to document that partisan politics is not significantly affected by philosophical definitions of anything. Nick's own claim, that cranks may one day discover that there is no complete definition of science and use it to devastating effect in the political/cultural wars, in fact refutes his larger claim, since they long ago discovered it and have been arguing it to virtually no discernible effect. That is hardly surprising, since partisan political use of the word "science" does not aspire to any definition of "science" beyond "that which supports my political beliefs." Even the broad definition of science that Nick recognizes is no barrier to this sort of usage. And it is naive in the extreme to believe that any definition of "truth" Nick might, someday, come up with would be any greater deterrent to the partisan usage of either "science" or "truth."

I've already dealt with Nick's assertions about Supreme Court Justices being able to rule creationism out of public schools because it is "false" by some criteria Nick is unwilling or unable to set out, and his contention that courts are "diverted" by constitutional issues surrounding freedom of religion. I'm afraid those claims are the result of a deep ignorance on Nick's part of how the law in general, and the US constitutional system in particular, works.

Nor is Nick correct that the courts are exercising Machiavellian realpolitiks. The ends do not justify the means but the means must be suitable to the ends intended. Our constitutional ends are aimed at giving people the right to believe what they want, rational or not, including the minority. The means, therefore, must be calculated to meet those ends: the balancing of competing claims to constitutional rights. Our system is not intended to create some ideal Platonic Republic of perfect philosophic consistency -- a state, incidentally, which is of such immense tyrannical potential that a worse government can hardly be imagined. The Founders may have envisioned "rational and respectful public discourse" but history shows that those very people -- Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, et al. -- quickly abandoned any pretense to that ideal when they entered partisan politics themselves. The election politics of the Founders were, if anything, even worse than what we see today, with scurrilous personal attacks the standard of the day.

The courts, insulated from partisan politics at least to a great degree, are concerned with a rational determination of what the majority can constitutionally impose on the minority and whether the majority can avoid constitutional limitations on their power by simply calling something "science," even though it doesn't qualify under even the broadest definitions of the word. On those premises, the courts have, so far, done well in making rational distinctions.

There is also a social context, where partisans of religion attempt to convince the uncommitted populace that what they are pushing is "science" and proponents of what scientists actually do try to counter their claims. This is secondarily involved in partisan politics, in that, to the extent that either side is successful, it will affect whether or not the courts get involved at all, by affecting whether or not the majority takes actions that may violate the rights of the minority. Nick may want to recommend a more sedate and philosophical attitude on the part of those attempting to maintain freedom of conscience but it is hardly obvious that such a strategy is either rational or likely to succeed. Nor is it obvious that simply asserting that creationism is "false," based on unspecified (and unspecifiable?) criteria is any more rational or success oriented.

Again, means must be tailored to the ends intended. If the end is to convince people who are neither steeped in nor much interested in philosophical niceties, speaking forcefully in broad terms accessible to the philosophically uninitiated is more likely to achieve that result than musings over epistemology.

That's enough of this "controversy."

What are "practical mistakes"? Are they different from impractical mistakes?
Hee, good question. Perhaps he means to contrast it to philosophical mistakes.
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