What is science and why should we care? — Part II

Chamomile flower and homeopathic medication on blue surfaceby Alan Sokal

Let me now pass to a second set of adversaries of the scientific worldview, namely the advocates of pseudoscience. This is of course an enormous area, so let me focus on one socially important aspect of it, namely so-called “complementary and alternative therapies” in health and medicine. And within this, I’d like to look in a bit of detail at one of the most widely used “alternative” therapies, namely homeopathy — which is an interesting case because its advocates sometimes claim that there is evidence from meta-analyses of clinical trials that homeopathy works.

Now, one basic principle in all of science is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. This principle is particularly important in statistical meta-analysis: because if you have a bunch of methodologically poor studies, each with small sample size, and then subject them to meta-analysis, what can happen is that the systematic biases in each study — if they mostly point in the same direction — can reach statistical significance when the studies are pooled. And this possibility is particularly relevant here, because meta-analyses of homeopathy invariably find an inverse correlation between the methodological quality of the study and the observed effectiveness of homeopathy: that is, the sloppiest studies find the strongest evidence in favor of homeopathy. [12] When one restricts attention only to methodologically sound studies — those that include adequate randomization and double-blinding, predefined outcome measures, and clear accounting for drop-outs — the meta-analyses find no statistically significant effect (whether positive or negative) of homeopathy compared to placebo.

But the lack of convincing statistical evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy is not, in fact, the main reason why I and other scientists are skeptical (to put it mildly) about homeopathy; and it’s worth taking a few moments to explain this main reason, because it provides some important insights into the nature of science.

Most people — perhaps even most users of homeopathic remedies — do not clearly understand what homeopathy is. They probably think of it as a species of herbal medicine. Of course plants contain a wide variety of substances, some of which can be biologically active (with either beneficial or harmful consequences, as Socrates learned). But homeopathic remedies, by contrast, are pure water and starch: the alleged “active ingredient” is so highly diluted that in most cases not a single molecule remains in the final product.

And so, the fundamental reason for rejecting homeopathy is that there is no plausible mechanism by which homeopathy could possibly work, unless one rejects everything that we have learned over the last 200 years about physics and chemistry: namely, that matter is made of atoms, and that the properties of matter — including its chemical and biological effects — depend on its atomic structure. There is simply no way that an absent “ingredient” could have a therapeutic effect. High-quality clinical trials find no difference between homeopathy and placebo because homeopathic remedies are placebos.

Now, advocates of homeopathy sometimes respond to this argument by asserting that the curative effect of homeopathic remedies arises from a “memory” of the vanished active ingredient that is somehow retained by the water in which it was dissolved (and then by the starch when the water is evaporated!). But the difficulty, once again, is not simply the lack of any reliable experimental evidence for such a “memory of water.” Rather, the problem is that the existence of such a phenomenon would contradict well-tested science, in this case the statistical mechanics of fluids. The molecules of any liquid are constantly being bumped by other molecules — what physicists call thermal fluctuations — so that they quickly lose any “memory” of their past configuration. (Here when I say “quickly,” I’m talking picoseconds, not months.)

In short, all the millions of experiments confirming modern physics and chemistry also constitute powerful evidence against homeopathy. For this reason, the flaw in the justification of homeopathy is not merely the lack of statistical evidence showing the efficacy of homeopathic remedies over placebo at the 95% or 99% confidence level. Even a clinical trial at the 99.99% confidence level would not begin to compete with all the evidence in favor of modern physics and chemistry. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. (And in the unlikely event that such convincing evidence is ever forthcoming, the person who provides it will assuredly win a triple Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry and biology — beating out Marie Curie, who won only two.)

Despite the utter scientific implausibility of homeopathy, homeopathic products can be marketed in the United States without having to meet the safety and efficacy requirements that are demanded of all other drugs (because they got a special dispensation in the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938). Indeed, U.S. government regulations require each homeopathic remedy that is marketed over-the-counter (OTC) to state, on the label, at least one medical condition that the product is intended to treat — but without requiring any evidence that the product is actually efficacious in treating that condition! [13] The laws in other Western countries are equally scandalous, if not more so.

Fortunately, it seems that this particular pseudoscience has thus far made only modest inroads in the United States — by contrast with its wide penetration in France and Germany, where homeopathic products are packaged like real medicines and sold side-by-side with them in virtually every pharmacy. But other and more dangerous pseudosciences are endemic in the United States: prominent among these is the denial of biological evolution.

It is essential to begin our analysis by distinguishing clearly between three very different issues: namely, the fact of the evolution of biological species; the general mechanisms of that evolution; and the precise details of those mechanisms. Of course, one of the favorite tactics of deniers of evolution is to confuse these three aspects.

Among biologists, and indeed among the general educated public, the fact that biological species have evolved is established beyond any reasonable doubt. Most species that existed at various times in the past no longer exist; and conversely, most species that exist today did not exist for most of the Earth’s past. In particular, modern Homo sapiens did not exist 1,000,000 years ago; and conversely, other species of hominids, such as Homo erectus, existed then and are now extinct. The fossil record is unequivocal on this point, and this has been well understood since at least the late 19th century.

A more subtle issue concerns the mechanisms of biological evolution; and here our modern scientific understanding took a longer time to develop. Though the basic idea — descent with modification, combined with natural selection — was set forth with eminent clarity by Darwin already in his 1859 book, the precise mechanisms underlying Darwinian evolution did not become fully elucidated until the development of genetics and molecular biology in the first half of the twentieth century. Nowadays we have a good understanding of the overall process: errors in copying DNA during reproduction cause mutations; some of these mutations either increase or decrease the organism’s success at survival and reproduction; natural selection acts to increase the frequency in the gene pool of those mutations that increase the organism’s reproductive success; as a result, over time, species develop adaptations to ecological niches; old species die out and new species arise. This general picture is nowadays established beyond any reasonable doubt, not only by paleontology but also by laboratory experiments.

Of course, when it comes to the precise details of evolutionary theory, there is still lively debate among specialists (just as there is in any active scientific field): for instance, concerning the quantitative importance of group selection or of genetic drift. But these debates in no way cast doubt on either the fact of evolution or on its general mechanisms. Indeed, as the celebrated geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky pointed out in a 1973 essay, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. [14]

Everything that I have just said is of course common knowledge to anyone who has taken a half-decent course in high-school biology. The trouble is, fewer and fewer people — at least in the United States — nowadays have the good fortune to be exposed to a half-decent course in high-school biology. And the cause of that scientific illiteracy is (need I say it?) politics: more precisely, politics combined with religion. Some people reject evolution because they find it incompatible with their religious beliefs. And in countries where such people are numerous or politically powerful or both, politicians kowtow to them and suppress the teaching of evolution in the public schools — with the result that the younger generation is denied the opportunity to evaluate the scientific evidence for themselves, and the scientific ignorance of the populace is faithfully reproduced in future generations.

The results of a fascinating cross-cultural survey, carried out in 2005 in 32 European countries along with the United States and Japan is particularly enlightening in this respect. [15] Respondents were read the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” and were asked whether they considered it to be true, false, or were not sure. Of all 34 countries, the United States holds 33rd place for belief in evolution (with roughly equal numbers responding “true” and “false”). Only Turkey — where the secular heritage is under increasing assault from the elected Islamist government and its supporters — shows less belief in evolution than the United States. (Please note that this question concerns merely the fact of evolution, not its mechanisms.)

Of course, not all religious people reject evolution. Fundamentalist Christians do reject evolution, as do many Muslims and orthodox Jews; but Catholics and liberal Protestants have come (over time and perhaps grudgingly) to accept evolution, as have some Muslims and most Jews. Therefore, from a purely tactical point of view, non-fundamentalist religious people are the allies of scientists in their struggle to defend the honest teaching of science.

And so, if I were tactically minded, I would stress — as most scientists do — that science and religion need not come into conflict. I might even go on to argue, following Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion should be understood as “nonoverlapping magisteria”: science dealing with questions of fact, religion dealing with questions of ethics and meaning. But I can’t in good conscience proceed in this way, for the simple reason that I don’t think the arguments stand up to careful logical examination. Why do I say that? For the details, I have to refer you to a 75-page chapter in my book [16]; but let me at least try to sketch now the main reasons why I think that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible ways of looking at the world.

When analyzing religion, a few distinctions are perhaps in order. For starters, religious doctrines typically have two components: a factual part, consisting of a set of claims about the universe and its history; and an ethical part, consisting of a set of prescriptions about how to live. In addition, all religions make, at least implicitly, epistemological claims concerning the methods by which humans can obtain reasonably reliable knowledge of factual or ethical matters. These three aspects of each religion obviously need to be evaluated separately. Furthermore, when discussing any set of ideas, it is important to distinguish between the intrinsic merit of those ideas, the objective role they play in the world, and the subjective reasons for which various people defend or attack them.

Alas, much discussion of religion fails to make these elementary distinctions: for instance, confusing the intrinsic merit of an idea with the good or bad effects that it may have in the world. Here I want to address only the most fundamental issue, namely, the intrinsic merit of the various religions’ factual doctrines. And within that, I want to focus on the epistemological question — or to put it in less fancy language, the relationship between belief and evidence. After all, those who believe in their religion’s factual doctrines presumably do so for what they consider to be good reasons. So it’s sensible to ask: What are these alleged good reasons?

Each religion makes scores of purportedly factual assertions about everything from the creation of the universe to the afterlife. But on what grounds can believers presume to know that these assertions are true? The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so. But how, then, do we know that our holy scriptures are factually accurate? Because the scriptures themselves say so. Theologians specialize in weaving elaborate webs of verbiage to avoid saying anything quite so bluntly, but this gem of circular reasoning really is the epistemological bottom line on which all “faith” is grounded. In the words of Pope John Paul II: “By the authority of his absolute transcendence, God who makes himself known is also the source of the credibility of what he reveals.” [17] It goes without saying that this begs the question of whether the texts at issue really were authored or inspired by God, and on what grounds one knows this. “Faith” is not in fact a rejection of reason, but simply a lazy acceptance of bad reasons. “Faith” is the pseudo-justification that some people trot out when they want to make claims without the necessary evidence.

But of course we never apply these lax standards of evidence to the claims made in the other fellow’s holy scriptures: when it comes to religions other than one’s own, religious people are as rational as everyone else. Only our own religion, whatever it may be, seems to merit some special dispensation from the general standards of evidence.

And here, it seems to me, is the crux of the conflict between religion and science. Not the religious rejection of specific scientific theories (be it heliocentrism in the 17th century or evolutionary biology today); over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science. Rather, the scientific worldview and the religious worldview come into conflict over a far more fundamental question: namely, what constitutes evidence.

Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations. Religious people acknowledge the validity of that method, but then claim to be in the possession of additional methods for obtaining reliable knowledge of factual matters — methods that go beyond the mere assessment of empirical evidence — such as intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts. But the trouble is this: What good reason do we have to believe that such methods work, in the sense of steering us systematically (even if not invariably) towards true beliefs rather than towards false ones? At least in the domains where we have been able to test these methods — astronomy, geology and history, for instance — they have not proven terribly reliable. Why should we expect them to work any better when we apply them to problems that are even more difficult, such as the fundamental nature of the universe?

Last but not least, these non-empirical methods suffer from an insuperable logical problem: What should we do when different people’s intuitions or revelations conflict? How can we know which of the many purportedly sacred texts — whose assertions frequently contradict one another — are in fact sacred?


Alan Sokal is a Professor of Physics at New York University and Professor of Mathematics at University College London. His most recent book is Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture (Oxford University Press).

[12] Shang, Aijing, Karin Huwiler-Muntener, Peter Juni, Stephan Dorig, Jonathan A.C. Sterne, Daniel Pewsner and Matthias Egger. 2005. Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. The Lancet 366:726–732.

[13] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2010. Compliance Policy Guide Section 400.400: Con- ditions Under Which Homeopathic Drugs May be Marketed.

[14] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. American Biology Teacher 35:125–129.

[15] Miller, Jon D., Eugenie C. Scott and Shinji Okamoto. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313:765–766 (11 August).

[16] Sokal, Alan. 2008. Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford University Press.

[17] John Paul II. 1998. Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason, September 14, 1998. United States Catholic Conference.

43 thoughts on “What is science and why should we care? — Part II

  1. My immediate reaction is that there is a very odd left turn about the middle of the article where Prof Sokal segues from talking about pseudo science to talking about religion.

    Intelligent Design is, as far as I know, the only pseudo science that is driven by religion.

    So while the points about religion may be valid in their own right, there is an illogical “guilt by association” made between religion and pseudo science.

    The take up of homeopathy, for example, does not appear to be correlated to religion, it is taking off in many of the countries where religion is in decline.

    I have looked quite closely at a number of pseudo sciences, such as PEAR and the like, and telepathy and precognition claims. There is no religious impetus behind these at all and, as far as I can tell, no correlation with religiosity.

    Also, the comparison between religion and science does not align like with like. Religions are sets of practices which pertain to certain metaphysical beliefs and are not a “way of thinking” per se, even if some religious traditions may encourage certain ways of thinking. The concept of religion itself does not cover the way the particular belief was gained in the first place.

    Also I would question that there is one “way of thinking” that pertains to science. Science is a set of methodologies and tools which have been proven to work, however I think they can be employed by people who have different ways of thinking.

    For example I think I could make a very good case that Bohr, Schrodinger and Planck had quite different ways of thinking which bore fruit in different ways.

    However I will await part 3 before making more points.


  2. Sokal says “Science relies on publicly reproducible sense experience (that is, experiments and observations) combined with rational reflection on those empirical observations.”
    This “rational reflection” may still seem mysterious to many people who suffer from “scientific illiteracy”, predominant if the wider public of modern Western societies like the US and Europe.
    I wish that Sokal had devoted a few lines to explain what “rational reflection” is, what is its mechanism, and why it is a universal intellectual method that is more general than the specialized “scientific methods” used as specific tools by practitioners in every field of research or study.
    This could have been a summary of 5, maximum 10 lines, to put the idea into full light. What are “reason”, “rational reflection”, or “rational method”? Which is a question that has been the object of explanations by most rationalists ever since the Ancient Greeks started thinking about it. It was the focus of modern empiricists such as John Locke, David Hume, and many modern British and Scottish thinkers including the self-professed “rationalists” of the 20th c. such as John Mackinnon Robertson. Daniel Kahneman includes this examination in his famous book “Thinking Fast and Slow”.
    This explanation would not have been a digression in Sokal’s essay, but an integral part of his presentation, especially aimed at readers who have but a confused notion of what “reason” and “rational” mean.
    Perhaps Sokal is more explicit in his latest book.


  3. “And so, the fundamental reason for rejecting homeopathy is that there is no plausible mechanism by which homeopathy could possibly work”

    That’s not quite correct – homeopathy could work by the placebo effect! It has been shown quite convincingly that placebos work, as I’m sure you are aware.


  4. I am a Zen Buddhist with strong scientific background. I do not recognize what I believe and what I do in Professor Sokal’s description of religion. Buddha is recorded as telling his followers not to believe because he said so, but to check it out for themselves. i am still checking it out 🙂


  5. @Roo Bookaroo — As you summarize very well, this is a subject that has occupied many thinkers over a very long time, and many are still working on it. I don’t know that 5 or 10 lines would have been enough to give an adequate picture of the whole matter of rationality, but I’m sure that Prof. Sokal would agree with you that anyone interested in the general subject of his essay should pursue what these thinkers have come up with as far as possible.


  6. The word “religion” is a very ambiguous one, of course. It covers a very wide range. “Buddhism” also covers a wide range. If you put the two ranges into a Venn diagram, there would be an overlapping region. Your version of Zen, and probably mine too, would be in the region of Buddhism outside this overlapping region. Prof. Sokal is probably using the word “religion” to mean those aspects of what are ordinarily called “religion” that are unscientific; he might agree that at least some things in the non-religion Buddhism region of this Venn diagram might be considered (more or less) scientific, but I don’t know what his view of Buddhism is. Perhaps he has said something about this somewhere in his writings.


  7. Zenner41:

    “I don’t know that 5 or 10 lines would have been enough to give an adequate picture of the whole matter of rationality,”

    What you’re saying would apply as well to the subject of Sokal’s article. It has preoccupied the minds of thousands of authors ever since the ancient Greeks started this ball rolling. Still Sokal has made a good try at summarizing his thoughts in a rather short article.

    Nobody is suggesting the expectation of giving an “adequate” picture of the “whole matter” of rationality. Only of explaining to the wide public what is meant by being “rational” in one’s discourse or presentation of facts and conclusions.
    The key is to dispel the illusion that “rational thinking” is a mysterious procedure reserved to highly educated or competent experts, and to make ordinary people understand, not “the whole matter”, but only the principles at play in rational thinking.

    My point is that “reason” as such does not exist as a separate brain capacity, it is a linguistic myth constructed in Antiquity, “faute de mieux”, and revered as an abstraction by the advocates of the Enlightenment.
    The naive French revolutionists invented a “Cult of Reason”, with rituals and services, constructed as a new secular religion. While the population was prey to a multitude of superstitions, believing in apparitions of the Virgin Mary at every corner of woods or fountains, cultivating the art of astrology (still going strong in the France of the 21st c.), and, forgetting about Pasteur, adopting with enthusiasm homeopathy.
    The same French invented the cult of “post-modernism” that was palmed off to American academics avid for novelty and fresh material for their publications, and well debunked by Sokal.

    What exists, is observable, and an object of analysis, is not “reason” but “reasoning”, “rational thinking”, or “rational reflecting”.
    It is not a compartment of the brain’s toolkit, but a general mental activity sparked by instinctual goals, amplified by curiosity, leading to collecting interesting facts based on sensations, perceptions, and instinctive reactions to the environment, making comparisons based on the assemblage of the memories of such sensations and perceptions, making possible generalizing and building categories which become the material for constructing ideas, making comparisons between facts and ideas based on evaluations and explicit goals, revealing contradictions, assumptions and implicit biases, identifying the role of instincts, feelings, and emotions in the choice of ideas, assigning credibility and probabilities, and giving the explicit grounds for final conclusions that are connected to the body of already existing knowledge.

    The description of such simple rules of sound reasoning can be summarized coherently in 5 to 10 lines to give a sketch of what is implied in “rational reflection”. Sokal is smart enough to be able to deliver, I have no doubt about that.


  8. Homeopathic medicine: Whilst riding on a bus I began to cough and sneeze. A passenger near by asked if I had a cold? I responded yes, for a few days. Another passenger near me said science has yet to cure the common cold although they will prescribe antibiotics in many cases. Yes I said, been there and done that and now my digestion is messed up and I still have a cold. Another passenger suggested I take some time off and get some rest, that made sense to me. Then the first passenger who asked if I had a cold suggested I drink some hot lemon tea and vitamin C. Just then the bus driver turned to add: chicken noodle soup is the cure for me. Before I left I thanked them all for their homeopathic advice and went home and tried them all.

    Now I must admit their homeopathic remedies failed as did the doctors prescription to cure my cold, but the tea and the rest made me feel just that little bit better. Thanks, =


  9. The author seems to claim that “non-empirical methods” are wrong or at least inherently flawed, however isn’t this entire article based exclusively on non-empirical arguments? Isn’t that a little bit self-refuting?

    Entire realms of knowledge are “non-empirical”, at least in part, in the sense that’s broadly used here. Even science (in the strictest definition) would be impossible without some postulates

    How is this any different from any that old paradox that says “only scientifically provable affirmations can be true, and since I can’t scientifically prove this affirmation it must be false”? It just seems to be a small variation of the very same argument that has been done countless times.


  10. I would agree with most of this (although I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame it all on the French :-)). But I wouldn’t say that rational thinking is a “mysterious procedure reserved to highly educated or competent experts.” Of course, everyone (or nearly everyone) can and does think rationally every day. What does take some education and expertise is giving a reasonable philosophical account of what rational thinking is, and that takes more than 5-10 lines to cover in enough detail to satisfy all the questions and doubts that a thinking person might raise. If you aren’t thinking about going into that much detail, then go ahead with your few lines. But sooner or later, someone who has their thinking cap on straight is going to want a deeper account of the subject. Dismissing a subject like this in a few lines isn’t fair to people who really want a fuller story, and even (some) creationists and IDers would like that.

    Even summarizing the “simple rules of sound reasoning” within the territory of deductive logic takes more than 5-10 lines, and rational thinking uses more than deduction. I know; I used to teach logic back in the day, and it took a course several weeks long at least.


  11. The thing about pseudo science is that you are always on a winner.

    If I invent some daft theory about physics and the physics community ignore me as I deserve then I can say: “nobody can answer my arguments”.

    If they point out where my arguments are wrong I can say “I am being taken seriously by the scientific community”.

    If they call me an idiot as I would also deserve then I can say “See? Lacking arguments they must resort to insults”.

    When someone points out that the scientific community reject my theory then I can say “Yes, like Galileo”

    Best of all, 99 out of 100 people will not be able to tell my gobble-de-gook from real science.

    And, if I am clever at self promoting, I could easily sell many books and videos on the subject than most real scientists could.

    So, you see, pseudo science is a much more rational exercise than real science.


  12. The problem is that 99.9% of discourse, at least, does not involve formal logic or the scientific method.

    So simple rules of sound reasoning would have to cover these cases. I read people say “science tells us that …” when, on inspection, they really seem to mean “someone has extrapolated from a couple of experiments that involved about 20 subjects that….” or worse, “I am almost certain that PZ Myers or Jerry Coyne said in their blog that …”.

    Or there is the “name that fallacy” method, where someone shouts out, for example, “argument from ignorance!” without being able to say exactly why it was an argument from ignorance, and probably not realising that the mere fact of something being premised on a lack of knowledge about something does not necessarily make it an invalid argument.

    So I would be very interested in seeing some simple rules of reasoning that covers the majority of cases where we are not doing formal logic nor formal science.


  13. While I expect things to get better around here, I am – after the first 3 posts – underwhelmed. The first was a gushing call for a Rube Goldberg machine for concatenating potentially humorous independent clauses. The most recent 2 could have been summarized in a 1-panel XKCD cartoon with a chat bubble coming from a stick-figure Jerry Coyne saying “Science, bitches!”


  14. @Robin Herbert on “some simple rules of reasoning that covers the majority of cases where we are not doing formal logic nor formal science”

    There are quite a few good resources on line. How about this, for example:http://www.nizkor. org/features/fallacies/


  15. This site is just one of the problems I was talking about – the “name that fallacy” approach has led to much more muddled thinking than it has ever clarified.

    The flaw in this approach is that it seems to be premised on the idea that if there are no logical fallacies in an argument then it must be a valid argument.

    But of course any passage may contain no logical fallacies at all but still not be a valid argument.

    Also, things that seem to qualify as logical fallacies under one of these definitions may not be a fallacy at all.

    In order to make a rational argument you have to concentrate on the positive question of how a particular argument has demonstrated it’s conclusion.

    For something that is neither formal logic, nor a scientific hypothesis – that is not an easy matter.


  16. Kidding Massimo? Are you trying to say: evolution theory is not a creation theory of intelligent design? Seriously, which is it? You know I ran this by the great great…grandson of Darwin’s some years ago and he had difficulty too. I’m only pointing out that science and religion are much more similar than most think. And if you can’t see it then surely ye must have faith, God particle anyone? =


  17. I do not know where to begin on Mr Postmodernist debunker, so I won’t . Talk about him, that is. Will only say in the most impersonal way that he stands on a shrinking island of objective reality, shrikage courtesy raw science, and that a few postmoderminist dictums hold also courtesy 20c science (1) The center of anything, the locus of a science, a religion, a book, a tree, does not and cannot hold. Once you define it, you are in trouble.. (2) Similiar to the take in his post addressing science, all reality is information-based and thereby social. How so? Think of the word ‘nonsense’ – break it down – what does it mean?. It means that which makes no sense to you, but not necessarily to me. Similarly cold hard facts only exist by virtue of their meaning . But if science has taught us anything at all lately, it has taught us that if a thing can only spring into existence if it is measured,then the thing (or at least the thing’s relative stability) is a product of the measurements. Measures are a social thing in that they are agreed between entities. All of the measurements used in science are decidedly human-consumable ones. That alone is an ‘science is social’ argument , but more impressive isthe meaning assigned to the measurements. How you interpret 5 feet 3 inches may be so different than the way I interpret it, and science says nothing that is 5’3″” actually exists on its own anyways, or to be precise, in a way that it is generally agreed that we can understand.

    There, Massimmo thought we were going to get less “rationality good pseudoscience bad” stuff here. That’s OK – fanning the flames – that the ticket


  18. Could you give me an example of an argument with no fallacies that is invalid? If an argument is invalid, that means that it is possible that its premises are true but its conclusion is false, and that seems to me the definition of a fallacy, although what is wrong with a particular invalid argument may not be a mistake that is classified as a fallacy on a standard list like the one on the Nizkor site. (I think that one covers most of the most commonly seen ones.) Since there are an infinite number of deductive arguments that can be formulated with the logical constants, that allows for quite a few kinds of invalid arguments.

    By the way, the Stanford Encyclopedia’s article on informal logic is interesting, too: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-informal/.


  19. The reasons they give are various, but the ultimate justification for most religious people’s beliefs is a simple one: we believe what we believe because our holy scriptures say so.

    Yes, this is clearly circular reasoning and is the greatest flaw, the disqualifying flaw, in the “reasoned” arguments of religious thinkers when trying to justify their beliefs. What I don’t understand is why they even try to make a rational case for something that can’t be defended reasonably.

    As I described in the manifesto thread, I am aware of “transcendant” states from my own experience that I consider a powerful force in my life and a wonderful facet of consciousness, whatever the cause. It is very tempting to ascribe a paranormal genesis to such phenomena, but I am too educated for that, so I just enjoy it for what it is. I am content that given sufficient time and study science will find an explanation for how it works. In the meantime I have no interest in creating nonsensical explanations and I don’t really understand why others find this so necessary. The madddening thing is not just that they insist on an explanation that has no real rational basis, but that many of them insist on imposing it on others in the form of discriminatory practices and offensive policies which seem only to be based on a wish for others to share their delusions. I can only assume that a deep primal fear of death is involved. I’m sure I have the same fear, but am so glad it doesn’t manifest in the same way.


  20. Your examples seem to be “home remedies,” not “homeopathic remedies.” Reread the discussion of homeopathy in the article. As it points out, the idea of homeopathy is to dilute the “active” ingredient so much that there is essentially none of it left in the solution that one consumes. That certainly isn’t the case for lemon tea, chicken soup, etc.


  21. Are those “transcendant” states from your own experience by any chance symptoms of some form of epilepsy?
    This is one assumption that has been made about Paul’s own “transcendant” states that gave him visions of the risen Christ and allowed him communications with the risen one.


  22. Isn’t it extraordinary that apparently educated people, at least enough to be able to write and even read postings in the Scientia Salon, are not able to grasp correctly the simple meaning of concrete ideas referring to the visible, material world.
    Just imagine what happens when they tackle complex, vague, abstract ideas that are the bread and butter of intellectual polemics about such general notions as science, religion, morality, logic, transcendence, universality, the One and Only, My true love, etc.
    Imagine what happens when teachers have to deal with questions from high-schoolers and college undergraduates for 40 or 50 years while professional expected to rectify their misconceptions.
    The mind reels at the thought of the wear-and-tear affecting cortex cells after enduring such confusion and mishmash for decades on end, and the health of grey matter needed to retain the clear thinking power that produces coherence and lucidity.
    Good teachers who can, against heavy odds, maintain hope in the chances to better human understanding are vastly underestimated, and should get more public recognition, instead of the real estate tycoons and stock market manipulators who get all the glamour and the money.


  23. I think the first two parts of Sokol’s post serve to set up part III which is where the heart of the thesis is. Science doesn’t kick ass because it’s science, it kicks ass because of the scientific method, and the method should be applied to a lot more than just science.


  24. I would hope not. I associate an epileptic fit with a loss of motor control. The states I refer to are very much in control. In fact, they would probably be referred to as a state of grace in a religious context. It seems akin to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow,” a sense of deep enjoyment, creativity, and total involvement with life. Great thinkers and achievers are known to spend long periods of time in such a state and it partially explains their effectiveness and productivity. In my case it’s usually over in a flash and I’m left with the wish that it could be retained long enough for me to accomplish something of real value.

    I have had experiences with psychoactive drugs that seem like extreme cases of the transcendant phenomenom, and those strike me as closer to epilepsy and possibly something like Paul’s case. What I was referring to is not so dramatic. More of an all too momentary sense of well-being.


  25. This is all silly pop-academic culture platitudes. In fact, there is no such thing as “science.” It is a straw man construct created by journalists and philosophers, i.e., people paid by the word. What is called “science” is really just a series of studies, data and research reports. There is no uniform methodology or set of behaviors. Any reference to “science” has no referent without discussing specific studies.

    All of this is just an argument for the primacy of subjective experience, as socially normed by words, or solipsism. Consciousness and subjective experience is biologically meaningless.

    Really dum stuff, debunked by brain research long ago.


  26. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding here: I am _not_ claiming that there is any sociological correlation between religiosity and other pseudosciences such as homeopathy, astrology, etc. (I am not aware of any careful studies on this question, but would be very interested if you can find any.) Rather, I am claiming that religions _are_ pseudosciences. (_All_ religions, though of course some are far worse offenders than others.) Unfortunately in this essay I didn’t have space to define precisely what I mean by “pseudoscience”, so let me do it now:

    I use the term “pseudoscience” to designate any body of thought (along with its associated justifications and advocates) that
    (a) makes assertions about real or alleged phenomena and/or real or alleged causal
    relation that mainstream science justifiably considers to be utterly implausible, and
    (b) attempts to support these assertions through types of argumentation or evidence
    that fall far short of the logical and evidentiary standards of mainstream science.

    These issues are discussed in greater detail in Chapter 8 of my book “Beyond the Hoax”; see in particular the Appendix to that chapter, entitled “Religion as pseudoscience”. And see also Chapter 9 for further discussion of religion.


  27. No, there is a misunderstanding here. I am not claiming that _philosophical_ questions should be settled by empirical evidence (who on earth would claim that?); rather, philosophical questions should be addressed by philosophical arguments of the usual type, of which my essay is a brief and modest example. (A similar comment applies, by the way, to mathematical questions, which belong to the realm of pure logic, not empirical science.) Rather, my claim is that _empirical_ questions should be addressed by empirical evidence — and not, for example, by intuition, revelation, or the reliance on sacred texts.


  28. Robin Herbert:

    Couldn’t agree more with you on this.
    Invoking “fallacy this,” “fallacy that”, is undoubtedly the source of the growing confusion in so many young people who can no longer even try to think or even try to express themselves clearly on a given discussion, because they believe that they have dismissed an objection by “naming the fallacy”.
    Even worse, some adult writers, who should know better, but believing they show sophistication by talking the talk of their younger audience, while encountering a new argumentation, try to invent a new “fallacy name” as their objection. “Oh, yes, we should have a new name of fallacy for this absurd way of concluding.”

    It’s like imagining there’s an automated brain pilot that will permit the brain to shut off by simply putting on its screen, “ATTENTION, FALLACY Nº 12”. This is a new mania, a new rage being palmed off on young people by smart-aleck writers who like to sound hip and with it (without mentioning the overuse of obscenities, which is so damn hip and with it).
    One of the worst offenders I have come across is the blog of a young historian, Richard Carrier, who cannot comment on any text without invoking a varied and extensive number of “fallacies” that his young readers swallow uncritically. Using a catalogue of “fallacies” is the best way to put brains into sleep, and by the same token, palm off any variation of one’s own flawed thinking. Most of these fallacies are modern inventions disseminated by Internet blogs, and simply to inducing mental laziness and nodding assent to the extravagant claims of the blogger.

    The invocation of fallacies as final dismissive responses is a bit in the same league as the bromide preached by some high-school teachers: “We have to examine the case on its merits”, as if there was any other way. But pronouncing this with a grave and serious manner as a profound truth of the universe, has a way of intimidating potential dissent, by intimating that the “merits” of the case are somehow embedded in the case itself, and that any clear-sighted examination will immediately and automatically see the “merits” emerging like the dancer from a huge cake on a gala dinner table.

    Or the comical “We have to follow the evidence where it leads”. As if the “evidence” was some kind of boy-scout leader following a trail in the woods. As if the “evidence” was not already the product of complex and learned discussion where the arguments are replete with the factors of bias, assumption, preference, which are already in play even before the “evidence” has begun to “lead”.
    All those new high-school shortcuts are time-savers, mental gadgets, so popular on Internet blogs, and tend only to obscure the way a a rational discussion has to be conducted to clarify all the assumptions and expectations — implicit and explicit — used by participants. Which is far more time- and energy-consuming than what average brains are able, willing, and ready, to devote to in-depth rational argumentations.
    The fallacy of ever invoking “fallacies” from a well-known catalogue is a prime factor in the debasement of rational thinking among younger brains.


  29. Well, this is a nice active comment stream. Let’s continue to “stir the pot” – shall we?

    Statements that have no empirical referent outside of one’s own subjective experiences as soilpism and mere opinions without evidence. These can be presumed to be just personal-subjective belief statements and pretty much trivial. Only statements than can be inter-subjectively validated with data, independent of location-culture, are meaningful, by definition.


  30. Let’s leave ad hominem name calling to the philosophers, shall we?

    Again, there is no such uniform set of behaviors or ideas that can be called “science” – it is a journalistic straw man. All we have is specific studies and data on very detailed topics. Actually that continent is growing, tectonic shifts no less, e.g., no free will, etc.

    Sense to one person is labeled delusions. Or solipsism. Avoid the Deepak Chopra silliness of a thing only exists if observed.

    Sure, by definition measurement and maths must be inter-subjective, that’s the whole point but they stand independent of languge-culture-individuals. Huh? My 5’3″ from a cliff is different from someone else’s? Apply that principal next time a loved one is sick and in hospital.

    What is rationality without the ability to predict future measurable events? Why would those statements have anything other than a magical meaning? aka – “Mind over matter.” Please explain?


  31. The uniform claim of magical thinking/religious/supernatural statements is the claim of “Mind over matter.” (action at a distance.) In human history this has never occurred. Thus, these statements make no sense, by definition.


  32. Part 3 shows just how easily “a respect for evidence — especially inconvenient and unwanted evidence, evidence that challenges our preconceptions” gives way to deep, personal bias. Rather than bother you with my own personal biases, I’d like to mention an item in part 2 which may be more significant than is at first apparent.

    Sokal refers to Dobzhansky’s famous quote as if it is to be taken literally. This excellent example of hyperbole does not mean what it says any more than my comment, “You’re all wet,” would indicate that you need to dry off. Lots and lots and lots of biological things make perfectly good sense with absolutely no reference to our understanding of evolution. [Photosynthesis, the Kreb’s cycle, Mendelian genetics to name a few – as well as most of modern medicine.] From another angle, when was the last time you heard a chemist emphasize that atomic theory and the periodic table are totally meaningless apart from the history of evolution of the elements? To imply that Dobzhansky’s exaggeration is even close to the truth is to ignore most of the history of biology – and more significantly – to speak as the propagandists that Sokal rightly abhors.

    The only acceptable source of ethics that Sokal has left open for appeal is science itself, and, while it may seem odd at first, science does indeed provide room for ethical appeal. As with all belief systems, science has a set of values. The highest value in all of science is that of accuracy. The great advances in science are all dependent on scientists accurately identifying what they mean, and meaning precisely what they say. Certainly hyperbole has its place – but definitely not as the foundation of how a scientific topic is to be discussed or understood.

    The following quote from T.H. Huxley’s The Coming of Age of Evolution is well worth considering: “History warns us … that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; … it is hardly rash to anticipate that … [a] new generation … [may] be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the Origin of Species … with as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries … rejected them.” Good evidence is both necessary and sufficient to convince the honest and open-minded seeker. Claiming more than the objective evidence merits only invites contempt and rejection from those who prefer to see things their own way. Part 3 appears to be an example of such response.


  33. Experimental evidence builds on prior discoveries, many of which remain valid. Newtonian physics is still true at appropriate scales of measurement. What appears to happen is that better methods and “microscopes” are invented.


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