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How Do We Reverse the Tide of an Anti-Science America?

We live in extraordinary times for the understanding of science. In May, 2010, the prestigious journal Science published a letter signed by 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences. It began “We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything.”

But how many laypeople understand what this means and recognize it as a strength rather than a weakness of scientific reasoning? And of course there are always those who are willing to exploit any uncertainty for their own political purposes. “We don’t know what’s causing climate change, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” said Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2011.

In the following election cycle, in an interview in which he questioned whether there was really any good evidence for global warming, US Senator Ted Cruz said, “Any good scientist questions all science. If you show me a scientist that stops questioning science, I’ll show you someone who isn’t a scientist.” Scarcely a year later, newly-elected President Donald Trump said that he wanted to eliminate all climate change research done by NASA, in an effort to crack down on “politicized science.” This would mean an irreparable loss for climate monitoring, not only for the United States but for all researchers the world over who depend on NASA’s legendary satellite-driven data collection about temperature, ice, clouds, and other phenomena. As one scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research put it “[this] could put us back in the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era.”

The attack on science has now gotten so bad that on April 22, 2017, there was a “March for Science” in 600 cities around the world. At the one in Boston, Massachusetts, I saw signs that said “Keep Calm and Think Critically,” “Extremely Mad Scientist,” “No Science, No Twitter,” “I Love Reality,” “It’s So Severe, The Nerds Are Here,” and “I Could Be in the Lab Right Now.” It takes a lot to get scientists out of their labs and onto the streets, but what else were they supposed to do? The issue of what’s special about science is no longer purely academic. If we cannot do a better job of defending science—of saying how it works and why its findings have a privileged claim to believability—we will be at the mercy of those who would thoughtlessly reject it.

What we need is a better understanding of what is distinctive about science. Of course, some might say that we don’t need this because it has already been done; that the problem is in communicating what is special about science, not understanding it. Don’t we already know what’s special about science by looking at the work of scientists? And, if not, isn’t there plenty of work done by other philosophers of science that can answer this question? I wish this were true, but the fact is that many scientists tend to be “naive realists” who accept their findings as revealing something true (or close to true) about nature and spend little time considering the philosophical or methodological issues behind science as a whole. Those rare scientists who do venture into philosophy usually stumble over something that philosophers have already discovered or end up blasting the whole enterprise as irrelevant because the point—they argue—is not to reflect upon science but to do it.

What we need is a better understanding of what is distinctive about science.

Yet that’s just the problem. For all the success of those who have done science, why do so many still feel at a loss to respond with anything other than inarticulate name-calling to those who say that science is “just another ideology” or that we “need more evidence” on climate change? There has to be a better way. Better both to justify the science that has already been done, but also to lay the groundwork for good science to grow elsewhere in the future. But first we must understand what is so special about science as a way of knowing. And for this, many have turned to the philosophy of science.

The foundation of the philosophy of science since its inception has been the idea that we can make a unique contribution by providing a “rational reconstruction” of the process of science, in answer to the question of why science works as well as it does (and why its claims are justified). There is a good deal of debate, however, over the best means for doing this and whether it is even a worthy aim. The idea that we can transplant science into other fields by understanding what is most distinctive about it has gotten something of a bad reputation over the years. This notoriety has come from those who have claimed that there is a “scientific method”—or some other firm criterion of demarcation between science and non-science—such that if we could just apply the standard rigorously enough, good science would bloom as a result. Such claims are made worse by those who embrace the spirit of proselytizing and engage in what has been called “scientism,” whereby they now have a hammer and every other field in the universe of inquiry looks like a nail.

But there is a problem. Because almost everyone in the philosophy of science these days admits that there is no such thing as scientific method, that trying to come up with a criterion of demarcation is old-fashioned, and that scientism is dangerous. Along the way, most have also largely given up on the idea that prescription lies at the heart of the philosophy of science.

Throughout the 20th century, philosophers of science like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn battled over the question of whether there was some reliable method for demarcating science from non-science. Popper championed the idea that science uses “falsifiable” theories—ones that are capable at least in principle of being proven wrong by some evidence—as the logical dividing line. An alternative account of science was offered by Thomas Kuhn, in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, who felt that although evidence was important, it was not nearly enough to decide the question of when it is rational to jump from one theory to another. Logic wasn’t sufficient. After that, still further models sprang up—either to try to take sides in this debate or at least to smooth out their rough edges—in accounts by Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, Larry Laudan, and the “social constructivists,” each of whom drained a little more water from the pool which allows us to say that science is “special” and that other fields of inquiry would do well to follow its example.

So what to do? If all of the best accounts fail to show what (if anything) is most distinctive about science, perhaps there is a more general weakness in this whole approach? But if so, what to do about the science deniers and pseudoscientists who are now knocking more loudly than ever on the door of rationality, saying “if you can’t prove that your methods are better than mine, why am I not justified in disbelieving your theory or just embracing my own?”

It is easy to feel the pull here to dismiss such ignorance, and indeed both scientists and philosophers of science have occasionally done precisely that. But what are we missing by not seeking more direct engagement? What to say about those fields that make a claim to be scientific, but just do not measure up (such as “intelligent design”) or denialism (about climate change)? Can we learn anything from them? I maintain that if we are truly interested in what is special about science, there is much to learn from those who have forsaken it. What is the proponent of “intelligent design theory” not doing that genuine scientists should do (and in fact generally succeed in doing)? Why are climate change and other deniers unjustified in their high standards of “skepticism?” And why is it forbidden for scientists to rig their data, cherry pick their sample sets, and otherwise try to fit the data to their theory, if they want to succeed in scientific explanation? It may seem obvious to those who defend and care about science that all of the above have committed a mortal sin against scientific principles, but shouldn’t this help us in articulating the nature of those principles?

I propose to take a very different approach from my predecessors, by embracing not only the idea that there is something distinctive about science, but that the proper way to understand it is to eschew the exclusive focus on the alleged logic or methods of science, looking only at its successes, and spending so much time and attention on the natural sciences. I believe, in short, that we can learn much about science by paying some attention to fields that are not scientific. Why bother? Because I think that to truly understand both the power and the fragility of science one must look not just at those fields that are already scientific, but also at those that are trying (and perhaps failing) to live up to the standard of science. This will prepare us to answer the challenge of those who want to know—if science is so credible—why it does not always provide the right answer (even in the natural sciences) and sometimes fails. If we can do this, we will not only understand what is distinctive about science, we will have the tools necessary to emulate its approach and, just as important these days, to defend it too.

We cannot pretend anymore that the conclusions of science are going to be accepted just because they are rational and justified. Climate change “skeptics” insist that we need more evidence to prove global warming. Vaccine resisters maintain that there is a conspiracy to deny the truth about autism. We may be tempted to dismiss these people as simply irrational, but we do so at our peril. If we cannot provide a good account of why scientific explanations have a superior claim to believability, why should they accept them? It’s not just that if we don’t understand science we cannot cultivate it elsewhere, we cannot even defend science where it is working.

I believe, in short, that we can learn much about science by paying some attention to fields that are not scientific.

In short, I think that many of those who have written about science have mishandled the claim that science is special because they have not said enough about the failures of natural science, the potential for the social sciences, and the drawbacks of those fields that seek the mantle of science without embracing its ethos. This has led to failure to emulate science by those fields that would like to do so, but also to the irrational rejection of scientific conclusions by those who are motivated by their ideologies to think that their own views are just as good.

So what is distinctive about science? I believe that it is the “scientific attitude” toward empirical evidence, which is as hard to define as it is crucial. In order to do science we must be willing to embrace a mindset which tells us that our prior beliefs, ideologies, and wishes do not matter in deciding what can pass the test of comparison with the evidence. This is no easy thing to mark off with a criterion of demarcation—neither does it pretend to be a proxy for “scientific method”—but I argue that it is essential to engaging in (and understanding) science. This is something that can be emulated by the social sciences and also helps to explain what is not scientific about “intelligent design” theory, the emptiness of denialism by those who wish to reject the evidence for climate change, and the folly of other conspiracy theories that purport to succeed where science is restrained by bona fide skepticism. At its heart, what is distinctive about science is that it cares about evidence and is willing to change its theories on the basis of evidence. It is not the subject or method of inquiry but the values and behavior of those who engage in it that makes science special. Yet this is a surprisingly complex thing to read out, both in the history of the past successes of science and also in a program for how to make other fields more scientific in the future.

When done right, the philosophy of science is not just descriptive or even explanatory, it is prescriptive. It helps to explain not just why science has been so successful in the past, but why evidential and experimental methods have so much potential value for other empirical fields in the future. It should also help us to communicate more clearly to those who do not—or will not—understand what is distinctive about science, why the claims of pseudoscience and denialism fall so far short of its epistemic standards, and why scientific explanations are superior. For decades, philosophers of science have sought to understand what is special about science by focusing on the past successes of the physical sciences. My approach, instead, is to turn this on its head: if you really want to understand why science is so special, you must look beyond the victories of natural science, and focus too on those fields that are not—and may never become—sciences.

The Scientific Attitude

Adapted from the introduction of Lee McIntyre’s ‘The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience’. Adapted with permission from the publisher, MIT Press. Copyright 2019 by Lee McIntyre.

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