Jun 5, 2017

Do you science?

Alan Sokal in a 2008 lecture titled What is science and why should we care states:

[...] I want to argue that clear thinking, combined with a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions — are of the utmost importance to the survival of the human race in the twenty-first century.

Of course, you might think that calling for clear thinking and a respect for evidence is a bit like advocating Motherhood and Apple Pie (if you’ll pardon this Americanism) — and in a sense you’d be right. Hardly anyone will openly defend muddled thinking or disrespect for evidence. Rather, what people do is to surround these practices with a fog of verbiage designed to conceal from their listeners — and in most cases, I would imagine, from themselves as well — the true implications of their reasoning. George Orwell got it right when he observed that the main advantage of speaking and writing clearly is that “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself”.1 So I hope that I will be as clear tonight as Orwell would have wished. [...] I aim to show that the implications of taking seriously an evidence-based worldview are rather more radical than many people realize.


The word science, as commonly used, has at least four distinct meanings: it denotes an intellectual endeavor aimed at a rational understanding of the natural and social world; it denotes a corpus of currently accepted substantive knowledge; it denotes the community of scientists, with its mores and its social and economic structure; and, finally, it denotes applied science and technology. […] Thus, by science I mean, first of all, a worldview giving primacy to reason and observation and a methodology aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of the natural and social world. This methodology is characterized, above all else, by the critical spirit: namely, the commitment to the incessant testing of assertions through observations and/or experiments — the more stringent the tests, the better — and to revising or discarding those theories that fail the test.2 One corollary of the critical spirit is fallibilism: namely, the understanding that all our empirical knowledge is tentative, incomplete and open to revision in the light of new evidence or cogent new arguments (though, of course, the most well-established aspects of scientific knowledge are unlikely to be discarded entirely).


I stress that my use of the term “science” is not limited to the natural sciences, but includes investigations aimed at acquiring accurate knowledge of factual matters relating to any aspect of the world by using rational empirical methods analogous to those employed in the natural sciences. (Please note the limitation to questions of fact. I intentionally exclude from my purview questions of ethics, aesthetics, ultimate purpose, and so forth.) Thus, “science” (as I use the term) is routinely practiced not only by physicists, chemists and biologists, but also by historians, detectives, plumbers and indeed all human beings in (some aspects of) our daily lives.4 (Of course, the fact that we all practice science from time to time does not mean that we all practice it equally well, or that we practice it equally well in all areas of our lives.)

The extraordinary successes of the natural sciences over the last 400 years in learning about the world, from quarks to quasars and everything in-between, are well known to every modern citizen: science is a fallible yet enormously successful method for obtaining objective (albeit approximate and incomplete) knowledge of the natural (and to a lesser extent, the social) world.


We have now traveled a long way from “science”, understood narrowly as physics, chemistry, biology and the like. But the whole point is that any such narrow definition of science is misguided. We live in a single real world; the administrative divisions used for convenience in our universities do not in fact correspond to any natural philosophical boundaries. You can’t use one set of standards of evidence in physics, chemistry and biology, and then suddenly relax your standards when it comes to medicine, religion or politics. (Or rather, you can do so — as all too many people do — but you have no justification for doing so.) Lest this sound to you like a scientist’s imperialism, I want to stress that it is exactly the contrary. As the philosopher Susan Haack lucidly observes,

Our standards of what constitutes good, honest, thorough inquiry and what constitutes good, strong, supportive evidence are not internal to science. In judging where science has succeeded and where it has failed, in what areas and at what times it has done better and in what worse, we are appealing to the standards by which we judge the solidity of empirical beliefs, or the rigor and thoroughness of empirical inquiry, generally.49

The bottom line is that science is not merely a bag of clever tricks that turn out to be useful in investigating some arcane questions about the inanimate and biological worlds. Rather, the natural sciences are nothing more or less than one particular application — albeit an unusually successful one — of a more general rationalist worldview, centered on the modest insistence that empirical claims must be substantiated by empirical evidence.

Conversely, the philosophical lessons learned from four centuries of work in the natural sciences can be of real value — if properly understood — in other domains of human life. Of course, I am not suggesting that historians or policy-makers should use exactly the same methods as physicists — that would be absurd. But neither do biologists use precisely the same methods as physicists; nor, for that matter, do biochemists use the same methods as ecologists, or solid-state physicists as elementary-particle physicists. The detailed methods of inquiry must of course be adapted to the subject matter at hand. What remains unchanged in all areas of life, however, is the underlying philosophy: namely, to constrain our theories as strongly as possible by empirical evidence, and to modify or reject those theories that fail to conform to the evidence. That is what I mean by the scientific worldview.

[...] The affirmative side of science, consisting of its well-verified claims about the physical and biological world, may be what first springs to mind when people think about “science”; but it is the critical and skeptical side of science that is the most profound, and the most intellectually subversive. The scientific worldview inevitably comes into conflict with all non-scientific modes of thought that make purportedly factual claims about the world. And how could it be otherwise? After all, scientists are constantly subjecting their colleagues’ theories to severe conceptual and empirical scrutiny.

This description of science by Sokal is not much different from evidence-based medicine as originally conceived by Gordon Guyatt and others.

note: boldface are my emphasis.

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan