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

iraq_8-years1by Alan Sokal

In all the examples discussed so far I have been at pains to distinguish clearly between factual matters and ethical or aesthetic matters, because the epistemological issues they raise are so different. And I have restricted my discussion almost entirely to factual matters, simply because of the limitations of my own competence.

But if I am preoccupied by the relation between belief and evidence, it is not solely for intellectual reasons — not solely because I’m a “grumpy old fart who aspire[s] to the sullen joy of having it known that [I] don’t suffer fools gladly” [18] (to borrow the words of my friend and fellow gadfly Norm Levitt, who died suddenly four years ago at the young age of 66). Rather, my concern that public debate be grounded in the best available evidence is, above all else, ethical.

To illustrate the connection I have in mind between epistemology and ethics, let me start with a fanciful example: suppose that the leader of a militarily powerful country believes, sincerely but erroneously, on the basis of flawed “intelligence,” that a smaller country possesses threatening weapons of mass destruction; and suppose further that he launches a preemptive war on that basis, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians as “collateral damage.” Aren’t he and his supporters ethically culpable for their epistemic sloppiness?

I stress that this example is fanciful. The overwhelming preponderance of currently available evidence suggests that the Bush and Blair administrations first decided to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and then sought a publicly presentable pretext, using dubious or even forged “intelligence” to “justify” that pretext and to mislead Congress, Parliament and the public into supporting that war. [19]

Which brings me to the last, and in my opinion most dangerous, set of adversaries of the evidence-based worldview in the contemporary world: namely, propagandists, public-relations flacks and spin doctors, along with the politicians and corporations who employ them — in short, all those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent.

So the issue here is no longer mere muddled thinking or sloppy reasoning; it is fraud. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “fraud” as “the using of false representations to obtain an unjust advantage or to injure the rights or interests of another.” In the Anglo-American common law, a “false representation” can take many forms, including [20]:

i) A false statement of fact, known to be false at the time it was made;

ii) A statement of fact with no reasonable basis to make that statement;

iii) A promise of future performance made with an intent, at the time the promise was made, not to perform as promised;

iv) An expression of opinion that is false, made by one claiming or implying to have special knowledge of the subject matter of the opinion — where “special knowledge” means knowledge or information superior to that possessed by the other party, and to which the other party did not have equal access.

Anything here sound familiar? These are the standards that we would use if George Bush and Tony Blair had sold us a used car. In fact, they sold us a war that has at the moment of this writing cost the lives of 179 British soldiers, 4486 American soldiers, and somewhere between 112,000 and 600,000 Iraqis — a human toll, that is, of somewhere between 35 and 200 September 11ths; that has cost the American taxpayers a staggering $810 billion (with ultimate estimates ranging from $1–3 trillion); and that has strengthened both al-Qaeda and Iran — in short, a war that may well turn out to be the greatest foreign-policy blunder of American history. (Of course the British have a longer history, and hence a longer history of blunders to compete with.)

Now, in the common law there are in fact two distinct torts of misrepresentation: negligent misrepresentation and fraudulent misrepresentation. Fraudulent misrepresentation is of course difficult to prove because it involves the state of mind of the person making the misrepresentation, i.e. what he actually knew or believed at the time of the false statement. Which means that the question becomes (as it was in the case of an earlier American president who stood accused of far lesser crimes and misdemeanors): What did George Bush and Tony Blair know and when did they know it? Unfortunately, the documents that could elucidate this question are top secret, so we may not know the answer for 50 years, if ever. But enough documents have been leaked so far to support, I think, a verdict of fraudulent misrepresentation.

Now, all this is very likely old hat to most of the people who read Scientia Salon. We know perfectly well that our politicians (or at least some of them) lie to us; we take it for granted; we are inured to it. And that may be precisely the problem. Perhaps we have become so inured to political lies — so hard-headedly cynical — that we have lost our ability to become appropriately outraged. We have lost our ability to call a spade a spade, a lie a lie, a fraud a fraud. Instead we call it “spin”.

We have now travelled 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. It makes no sense to 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. 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.” [21]

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.

It is because of this general philosophical lesson, far more than any specific discoveries, that the natural sciences have had such a profound effect on human culture since the time of Galileo and Francis Bacon. 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. On what grounds could one reject phlogistic chemistry, the fixity of species, or Newton’s particle theory of light — not to mention thousands of other plausible but wrong scientific theories — and yet accept astrology, homeopathy or the virgin birth?

The critical thrust of science even extends beyond the factual realm, to ethics and politics. Of course, as a logical matter one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. But historically — starting in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and then spreading gradually to more or less the entire world — scientific skepticism has played the role of an intellectual acid, slowly dissolving the irrational beliefs that legitimated the established social order and its supposed authorities, be they the priesthood, the monarchy, the aristocracy, or allegedly superior races and social classes. Four hundred years later, it seems sadly evident that this revolutionary transition from a dogmatic to an evidence-based worldview is very far from being complete.


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).

[18] Levitt, Norman. 1996. Response to Freudenberg. Technoscience: Newsletter of the Society for Social Studies of Science 9, no. 2 (Spring).

[19] Rich, Frank. 2006. The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. Penguin Press.

[20] Spencer Bower, George and K.R. Handley. 2000. Actionable Misrepresentation, 4th ed. Butterworths, chapter 2-5.

[21] Haack, Susan. 1998. Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays. University of Chicago Press, p. 94.


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37 replies

  1. Let’s look at this in context of this statement from part II:

    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..

    This damning with faint praise of “over time most religions do find some way to make peace with well-established science” – working in the “war between religion and science”.

    Now can you really not know that the Catholic Church encouraged, enabled and funded scientific research throughout the middle ages?

    Figures like Roger Bacon who successfully petitioned the Pope to start to fund experimental science. Figures like Thomas Brawardine and the rest of the Oxford Calculators who worked feverishly at trying to find the mathematical expression of the laws of motions. People like Giovanni di Casale or Nicole Oresme. and of course Copernicus himself.

    Is that ‘over time finding some way to make peace with well-established science’?

    But this seems to be a pattern these days. Leonard Mlodinov and Stephen Hawking simply airbrush these medieval protoscientists out of the picture. The new version of Cosmos presents a misleading picture by attributing Nicolas of Cusa’s ideas to Giordano Bruno.

    And that is not even going into the science of the Islamic golden era, for example the House of Wisdom.

    So if you are recommending the highest standards of honesty and evidence could we have less of this “finding some way to come to peace with science” misrepresentation and at least a recognition that religions have enthusiastically supported science and that many, many religious people have been instrumental in the establishment of science?

    The trial of Galileo and the subsequent banning of his and Copernicus’ books for a century was a terrible crime of course but can people stop pretending that this is the whole story?

    The “evidence” thing cuts both ways you know.


  2. Alan Sokal wrote: “It makes no sense to 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.

    Of course this is probably write, but the evidence seems to be that scientists, whether religious, agnostic or atheists, become muddled thinkers just like the rest of us as soon as they step outside of their area of expertise.

    I have already mentioned the case of Leonard Mlodinov and Stephen Hawking and their “history” of science. They also say some pretty ignorant things about Aristotle.

    Take Lawrence Krauss and “A Universe from Nothing”. He justifies equating empty space with “nothing” by the claim that a century ago most philosophers and theologians would not have batted an eyelid at this. Of course he just assumed it was true because it fitted with his preconceived ideas about philosophy and theology and so he did not bother with anything so inconvenient as “evidence”. Anybody who knows anything about philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century will know that this is nonsense.

    Krauss also says he is “certain” that Aquinas and Plato would have thought of empty space as nothing. Ironically Krauss even had the contrary evidence because he refers to the precise place where Aquinas refers to material properties in empty space. And Plato referred to empty space as being something that existed and as a receptacle.

    I imagine any philosopher or even theologian worth his or her salt would have made the obvious inference that empty space has properties and therefore cannot be “nothing”.

    And in terms of “muddled thinking”, the last chapter of “A Universe from Nothing” is a case study.

    And yet Krauss, Mlodinov and Hawking are obviously quite brilliant physicists and can do this while being muddled thinkers in other areas.

    Because – hey – we are human, we are imperfect, we are not rational the whole time. This is no less true of scientists.

    So, yes, we can and should always try to do better but lets recognise that this applies to everyone and not just particular groups.


  3. And proving my own point about imperfection – I mean “this is probably right” Oh for an edit function.


  4. To extend Robin Herbert, the progressive, positivist view of science here is common but insufficient: everything is more complicated. Do we all need to reread Kuhn? Science, at least in the biosciences which I know best, goes from idea to talk to revision to talk to hypothesis to talk to disproving experiment (those are the best) to try another idea to talk etc. Not from observation of fact (again, whatever that is) to theory. Science is hard enough as it is – don’t make it harder.


  5. I especially like the point I think is being made here about “empirical inquiry” representing a generally useful and important attitude toward nature, not something specific to building and testing and applying theories in specific technical domains.

    Still I feel as if we should distinguish “good thinking” that supports empirical inquiry from “rationalist worldview.” Equating the two seems to me to somewhat blur some potentially important distinctions.


  6. … religions have enthusiastically supported science …

    The religions (e.g. the Catholic chuch in the medieval era) have given limited support to science, giving it licence to investigate within certain boundaries and so long as it was under the overview of the church.

    What the religions have never “enthusiastically supported” is true science, science that has free rein to go wherever the evidence leads, including directions that then conflict with religious dogma. You give the example of “of course Copernicus himself”, yet Copernicus never dared publish his major work until near death, owing largely to fear of how the Church would react (and later the Church condemned the book as heretical).

    The Churches have always wanted control over “heresy”, which is antithetical to the spirit of science.


  7. If you are looking for completeness Professor, remove the “ought” leaves just the “is”. =


  8. “Do we all need to reread Kuhn?”

    No. He didn’t get it right then, so why would we revisit it now?


  9. Yes, but I don’t think it’s limited to religious control over new ideas. There is something in the human mind as such that is fearful of too much novelty in ideas. There is a kind of natural conservatism built into the brain, I’m afraid. Obviously, it doesn’t completely determine our behavior, or we’d still be living in caves and wearing bear skins. But it’s a very strong motivator. The fear is: somebody comes up with a new idea about something, and who knows what they’ll do with it? Probably something that will be dangerous for me and my kids — or at least, that’s what I naturally fear.

    Most people want to have as much control over their lives, and the social environment in which they lead their lives, as possible, and keeping what everybody thinks within the traditional bounds is a very important part of that.

    We can see that in the terror many people feel about new technology today. It’s not just religious people who shiver in their boots about all the strange new computer stuff coming out all the time these days. And rigid opposition to immigration can be seen among atheists as much as God-fearers. Keep these strange people with their strange ways off our shores!

    I think this is conservative fear of the new and strange something more basic than religion. It’s not religion that produces it; it’s it that is responsible for a lot of phenomena in the area of religion.


  10. Well, he was right about some things, but the tendency I see in a lot of people to take him as a sacred prophet of all that is good and true about the history of science is rather amusing. No one who bites off as big a chunk of such a big subject as he did can be simply assumed to be a fount of unalloyed wisdom. He (and any other writer) has to be analyzed and picked apart, to separate the useful ideas from the mistakes. And there have been many critics of Kuhn who have done just that.


  11. Alan Sokal wrote: “It makes no sense to 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. ” But a group of theoretical physicists are asking for those standards to be relaxed in the case of theoretical physics. Sean Carroll is a specific case in point in his recent Edge essay discussed in http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/sean-carroll-edge-and-falsifiability.html.
    These scientists would therefore appear to be advocating transgressing the boundaries in the case of their own branch of physics. What is Alan Sokal’s response to this move?


  12. Now here’s a fellow who truly lives schizophrenically in the past–he uses aademic scandals of the 1990s to attack the 2003 war we are pretty much withdrawn from already. Sort of like someone attacking the Vietnam War in 1976 on the basis of the duplicity of the Lusitania sinking. You gotta have a scorecard.


  13. It’s not a bad example, Oran, and one that illustrates Sokol’s point regarding the ethical aspects and consequences of forsaking or ignoring an “evidence-based worldview” or, as he writes, “those whose goal is not to analyze honestly the evidence for and against a particular policy, but is simply to manipulate the public into reaching a predetermined conclusion by whatever technique will work, however dishonest or fraudulent.” At the same time, even if we accept Sokol’s perhaps overly dramatic, conspiratorial tone here, it begs the question whether such “manipulation” is not itself in fact derived from evidence-supported conclusions, regardless of whether the motivations are dishonest or fraudulent. So, we are back to political/ethical consequences, regardless of whether the goals use evidence-based studies or some other basis to fraudulently manipulate or honestly motivate others to form beliefs or to act on either basis.


  14. Coel wrote: “What the religions have never “enthusiastically supported” is true science, science that has free rein to go wherever the evidence leads, including directions that then conflict with religious dogma.

    I disagree. There is no evidence that the medieval church put any limit on the pursuit of science.

    In the first place they probably never considered the possibility that science would come into serious conflict with dogma.

    In the second place medieval theologians.were already going much further than scientists.

    In the 15th century Nicolas of Cusa had already stated:

    * The Earth moved
    * The Earth was not the centre of the universe
    * The Universe was infinite
    * There may be life on other planets

    He had even described a prototypical version of relativaty where each observer, no matter what star he was on, was relatively the centre of the universe and had hinted that space must have some strange geometry.

    Far from being persecuted and silenced, he was made a Cardinal and his books become part of the Canon of the church.

    At the other end, after about 1730 when Copernicus’ books were taken off the register of banned books there does not appear to have been any further theological interference with science from the mainstream churches

    Then in the 20th century US churches began to interfere with science in the matter of evolution. But this is not a pattern.


  15. I am not sure I understand the ethical argument here.

    There is nothing inherently unscientific nor irrational about fraud. Fraud does not imply any lax standard of evidence because the fraudster, by definition, does not believe the deception he or she is perpetrating.

    On the contrary science and rationality in general are invaluable tools for the successful fraudster. The fraudster himself will require a high standard of evidence.

    Science provides invaluable tools for getting at the truth but there is nothing about science that mandates that we are truthful.


  16. But was it religion as a worldview, or religion as an institution that funded those works? Was this a time when the only “well-educated” administrators who could approve such funding worked for the only institution of any scope and power existing in society? Was it a time when these men did not yet know that such experiments would eventually challenge the religious worldview that was the source of the strength of their institution? Could it be the case that it wasn’t religion that supported early science, but a group of men who most likely felt themselves a superior, intellectual class supporting their own? To be organic about it, was intellectual activity a “cell” first located in the institution of the Church, which divided? And is there now two separate cells that will never again be the same?


  17. Hi Robin,
    But your comment accepts that there was an Index of banned works, which existed from 1559 to 1966, and there were prohibitions before that (e.g. the Condemnation of 1210). This sort of banning and censorship is antithetical to the spirit of science.


  18. I suppose I haven’t made myself clear. Sokol states “Rather, my concern that public debate be grounded in the best available evidence is, above all else, ethical.” It would be rather surprising to hear someone state otherwise, would it not? What is less clear is whether or not certain moral or amoral beliefs precede and ground the belief that best available evidence will be used ethically. Take Edward Bernays and his use of the “best available evidence” to formulate his ideas on public relations/propaganda. This leads to the old argument of whether ends can be used to justify means. I’m supposing that Sokol believes that when presented with “the best available evidence” people will arrive at “the correct” course of action or that perhaps they will change erroneous beliefs when the best available evidence is set before them. I would like to believe this too, but I think it takes more than this to effect change in the real world.

    So, I would tend to agree with Robin’s last sentence above, but I would modify it to say, “Science provides invaluable tools for investigating reality, but the results of the investigations alone cannot ensure ethically or politically correct uses.” Sokol suggests as much in his last sentence, “Four hundred years later, it seems sadly evident that this revolutionary transition from a dogmatic to an evidence-based worldview is very far from being complete.” It is perhaps because an evidence-based worldview by its nature can never be complete, and there is no reason to believe that evidence will not be ignored or misapplied when it conflicts with the goals and motivations of men.


  19. I would also add to this thought that the assumption that “the evidence speaks for itself” is a rhetorical oversimplification that causes some mischief as well.

    Perhaps this is part of the framing that people intend when they speak of “the rationalist worldview.” They aren’t just speaking of something like Sellars’ “scientific image” by any means, they are also thinking, it seems, that as evidence arises it give birth, by virtue of straightforward reason, to a particular interpretation, the rational one. Any equivocation over that must be “postmodernism” or some extreme brand of relativity of meaning. As we kick the world, it kicks back evidence and turn that directly into theories. All that chatter over how it happens is irrelevant to this straightforward construction of the rational worldview. Any deviation must be propaganda or distortion of evidence.

    I think there are small but important cracks in that view when you look at science closely and see how it actually happens, and that’s what the “science studies” folks that Sokal seems to insist on lumping together with “postmodernists” seem to focus on.

    We have evidence, we have distortions of evidence, we have deliberate fabrication of evidence, we have misuse of evidence, but we also have different interpretations (as in different perfectly legitimate uses) of the same data as well.


  20. But was it religion as a worldview, or religion as an institution that funded those works?

    I question the whole notion that there even is something that could be called the religious worldview. If I look, for example, at the working definition of religion used by Atran and Norenazayan in the review article “Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2004) 27, 713-770, i.e.,

    1. Widespread counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs in supernatural agents (gods, ghosts, goblins, etc.)
    2. Hard-to-fake public expressions of costly material commitments to supernatural agents, that is, offering and sacrifice (offerings of goods, property, time, life)
    3. Mastering by supernatural agents of people’s existential anxieties (death, deception, disease, catastrophe, pain, loneliness, injustice, want, loss)
    4. Ritualized, rhythmic sensory coordination of (1), (2), and (3), that is, communion (congregation, intimate fellowship, etc.)

    there’s nothing there that really implies a single way of looking at the world that all the religious hold. For example, there’s nothing that mandates that certain things be taken on faith. One can simply believe that supernatural agents are a brute fact about the world, rather than something that one would even need to force oneself to believe. Of course, the particulars about what one believes about supernatural agents could lead to a worldview, e.g. the worldview of evangelical Christians, or the worldview(s) of Reform Jews, but that gets one to multiple religious worldviews, not to a single, overarching thing that can be described as the religious worldview.


  21. “Who do you mean by ‘we,’ Kemosabe?” Science, in the sense of scientific practice, definitely mandates that scientists are truthful. If scientists make stuff up and pretend they have discovered something they haven’t, and the scientists who review their claims make up their reviews, science as a human activity collapses.

    If you mean by “we” the general lay public, there isn’t anything that scientists can do to stop us from lying about anything. See, for example, a lot of members of the U.S. Congress on climatology and biology.


  22. @Alan Sokal:

    Excellent article. For the George Bush and Tony Blair fiasco, I agree with you 100%, and it was a fraudulent misrepresentation and a big foreign-policy blunder. But, it goes way beyond that; it has pushed America into the path of decline, might be even passed the point of no return. Yet, I do have some opinions on the two issues that you have discussed.

    One: “… But other and more dangerous pseudosciences are endemic in the United States: prominent among these is the denial of biological evolution.”

    Why is denial of biological evolution not science? Many denials are based on the belief that there is a higher truth than the evolution science, and that higher truth is much more ‘evident’ and powerful than any evolution evidence can provide. Theoretical Physicist Matt Strassler (posted an article “Did The Universe Really Begin With a Singularity?”) denied that the universe began with a singularity. I rebutted it with a ‘tiers/fractal (with similarity transformations)” explanation (http://tienzengong.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/logic-logic-are-they-logical/ ). That is, the visible universe is clearly not began with a singularity, but it does not prove that a lower tier follows the same result. As a great physicist, he posted a new article (http://profmattstrassler.com/2014/03/26/which-parts-of-the-big-bang-theory-are-reliable/ ) describing the universe with four tiers and affirmed that the top three tiers do not reduce to a singularity. On the same token, all the great evidences of the evolution do not give the answer for the “initial” condition of the beginning of lives. Furthermore, the denial of the ‘intelligent design’ by many scientists is not rational per this ‘tiers/fractal’ system. With a single example, the ‘existential introduction’ is completed. The airplane and the internet are the results of the ‘intelligent designs’. In this tiers structure, can this ‘intelligent design’ go all the way back to the ‘initial’ point? This is of course a not yet answered question in science. But, by all means, we have no right to deny it if we do not know the answer. Yet, there is another problem for ‘evolution’, as the evidences are very strong (but ignored by many scientists) that the species ‘evolve’ with a speed much more powerful than the Darwinian-evolution can describe. Darwinian-evolution is a ‘blind’ force while many species evolve with their intelligences. If species can evolve intelligently, the ‘existential generalization’ for intelligent design is completed. Of course, we are still lacking the ‘universal proof’ to extend the intelligent design to the first tier, the initial condition. With these two reasons (tiers-logic and intelligent design being introduced and generalized), the denial of Darwinian evolution is not all non-scientific.

    Two: “… example of adversaries of the scientific worldview, namely academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists. … that science as I [Alan Sokal] have defined it is an illusion, and that the purported objective knowledge provided by science is largely or entirely a social construction.”

    By all means, science is not an illusion. Anyone who holds on this view can be ignored by all of us. Again, science is of course not ‘entirely’ a social construction. In my view, human has three types of epistemological faculties.
    a. Rational
    b. Emotional
    c. Spiritual

    The spiritual has nothing to do with God or any spirits (outside of our body). The spiritual is the most powerful human faculty which gives every individual a meaning for his life, that is, the ability to ‘choose’ arbitrarily an answer for the meaning of his life, and this ‘choosing’ needs not to be rational or emotional. The God, spirits and religions are created by this faculty. In this faculty, both the question and answer are ‘absolute’ without any ‘room’ for other faculties. If anyone holds a position ‘absolutely’, he is using this ‘spiritual faculty’. If you [Alan Sokal] reject the postmodermists’ position ‘completely’, you have invoked your spiritual faculty in this matter, no longer rational. By all means, the postmodermists are not all wrong. The large part of the science is a human endeavor, that is, a social construction. I can show you many examples but will make this comment too long.


  23. As far as the Iraq War goes, I have yet to see the evidence-based justification for it. But I really wonder at the weird way Sokol attempts to historicize the War in Iraq. That war was certainly not much different from the Vietnam War (remember Tonkin?) or the Spanish-American War (remember the Maine?) or many other Wars. People get into wars for weird, almost transparently pre-textual reasons. Why? Not because they’ve abandoned the evidnece-based worldview that they held true to until liberal academics they never heard of launched an epistemological attack on science in the 1980s. If these phenomena are linked from a social science point of view, I don’t see how. I don’t see why we’re talking about these things at the same time aside from the fact that Sokol already had notes about postmodernists hanging around the office. Now going to war for ridiculous resons would seem to me to have a lot to do with prima-facia preposterous religious beliefs . . . These sorts of belief are believed BECAUSE they are preposterous, I figure, not in spite of that fact. They are all about developing group solidarity, and doing something or believing something that seems preposterous to outsiders is a pure demonstartion of belonging. So there’s arms in Iraq and they are a threat to us. We don’t need to know these things are true. We don’t care. We are to believe them. Because we say there is a we, and this is how we do it.

    That’s just off the top of my head–there are interesting things to be said and speculated about the enlightenment impulse, anti-science, and the weird reasons we go to war. Sokol doesn’t say any of them . . . he seems to think that by wrapping a bunch of essentially commonplace observations in the mantle of “science” that we’ll think this essay is really something. But that’s precisely the kind of attitude that makes a lot of smart people hate science and scientists: “because some other scientist did great work that everyone acknowledges has had a great positive effect on our lives, I, as a scientist, now get to speak as an authority on something I know little about and haven’t bothered to think about very hard.” That’s a pretty infuriating attitude, frankly.


  24. Hi Coel,

    There were, of course, lots of prohibitions on all sorts of things by the Church throughout its history.

    I was speaking specifically of prohibitions on scientific inquiry and I know of none in the middle ages.

    There was probably some self-censoring but I am not saying there was perfection.


  25. In my previous comment, I have argued that the solid scientific evidences in tier X might be absolutely total nonsense in tier Y. The Darwinian evolution does not say anything in the bottom (initial) tier and is a very bad science in the tier when many species have developed intelligence. The key issue here is really the question of “What does it constitute as evidence?” This is a huge subject and goes way beyond the scope of one comment can address. However, it is also the hard core of postmodermists’ issue. I have given my ‘opinion’ on it in my previous comment. I should at least establish the ‘existential introduction’ to support my opinion.

    There are four steps for the growth of ‘human’ physics.
    Step one, collecting data — knowing the phenomena.
    Step two, finding the pattern (with equations to best fit the data) — these equations have *variables* and *parameters*.
    Step three, finding the underlying causes (dynamics) for the equations (especially for the variables).
    Step four, finding the underlying framework for the *parameters*, deriving parameters from an axiomatic system.

    This four-step framework is of course not the only pathway for the development of human physics but is a good base for this discussion. There are three uncontroversial ‘physics’ parameters (Cabibbo angle, the Weinberg angle, the Alpha), and they are thus far not derivable by the Standard Model and its extended theories (SUSY, M-theory and multiverse, etc.). Yet, any pure number can always be reached by at least one (in fact, unlimited many) numerological formula, as it can always be reached with reverse-engineering (calculation). Yet, most of the reverse-calculation numerological formula has no ability to include the physics parameters or variables in it, that is, it does not have an underlying physics framework. Furthermore, a pure numerological formula can never reach two different physics parameters. If the above logic is rational, we can then examine the following example, the Alpha formula.

    Beta = 1/alpha = 64 ( 1 + first order mixing + sum of the higher order mixing)
    = 64 (1 + 1/Cos A(2) + .00065737 + …)
    = 137.0359 …
    A(2) is the Weinberg angle, A(2) = 28.743 degree
    The sum of the higher order mixing = 2(1/48)[(1/64) + (1/2)(1/64)^2 + …+(1/n)(1/64)^n +…]
    = .00065737 + …

    This formula has five important attributes.
    a. It matches the measured Alpha number to fourth digits (in fact, can be to any digits).
    b. The calculating accuracy can be checked by any 8th grader who knows no physics.
    c. It encompasses a very important physics parameter, the Weinberg angle.
    d. It encompasses an underlying physics framework, the Alpha-physics (based on the Weinberg angle and two numbers [64, 48]).
    e. With the Alpha-physics, both Cabibbo and Weinberg angles can be ‘derived’.

    With these five points, can this Alpha formula be an ‘evidence’ for the Alpha-physics? At least, it should be a good ‘lead’, shouldn’t it? But, there is a big problem. This Alpha-physics sits not well with the current physics paradigm, and thus it must be ignored. With the fact that it is ignored, this can be the ‘existential introduction’ for postmodermists’ position that science (at least, the physics) has a big (huge) social-construction-dimension.


  26. Re the “lack of specific prohibitions on scientific enquiry”. Science as a word and as a concept didn’t really exist for most of the middle ages, rather proto-science was mixed up with theology & astrology and such. The Catholic church most certainly had prohibitions on heresy, sometimes enforced with severe penalties.


  27. Again I disagree – in the Middle Ages science, or proto-science, was kept as a very separate category from theological or other matters. The business of science was to find the mathematical laws that governed nature and a lot of useful progress was made during that time.

    Of course the business of the Church was conducted in Latin so I can’t say that the word “science” existed in the middle ages but the expression “scientia experimentali” certainly existed in the 13th century and meant more or less what we mean by science today. The concept of finding mathematical laws for natural phenomenon certainly existed in medieval Europe from at least the 13th century.

    What on earth could you call what Thomas Brawardine and the Oxford Calculators were doing if not science?


  28. Love these Sokal posts Massimo. Always been a huge fan of those who want to maintain rational inquiry and who understand that there is an objective reality external to us that we can comprehend better and better over time (though there may very well always remain outstanding questions). Its good to see that the age of postmodernism seems to be long past us, but I might just read Fashionable Nonsense again to remind myself that crackpots always lurk behind the scenes.

    Keep this up. Great start to the new blog.


  29. Isn’t Thomas Bradwardine a good example of someone operating at a time when science and theology were intertwined?


  30. I wasn’t aware of Sean Carroll’s brief essay; many thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Basically I agree with Massimo Pigliucci’s comments: ideas such as the multiverse should definitely be pursued by cosmologists, not rejected _a priori_ on the basis of rigid philosophical views about the nature of science; but _eventually_ these theories have to make _some_ testable empirical predictions, or else they have to be called “metaphysical speculation” rather than “science”.

    So my attitude to all this cutting-edge physics is “wait and see”.


  31. @toddstark

    When you take your car in to be fixed, do you inform your mechanic of all the socioeconomic reasons why you bought that particular model, the importance that car plays in your economic well-being, the romantic interludes for which that car served as an opportune location? And after your mechanic shakes her head in bewilderment, do you inquire about her political and religious views, or what dietary restrictions she has imposed upon herself?

    The social element is important in all human endeavors, but conflating the “normative predilections” of individuals or their groups with the objective discoveries they make is like insisting your mechanic take into account the radio station you listen to when assessing why clouds of smoke are billowing out your tailpipe.

    For my money, it doesn’t matter all that much to me if my mechanic smokes menthols, lights or menthol lights.


  32. From the Editor:

    All, the discussion so far has been interesting and productive, in the spirit of Scientia Salon. However, I have noticed some posts and exchanges that were borderline acceptable in terms of civility or constructiveness. Be warned that they will not be tolerated much longer.

    The point of Scientia Salon is to offer a variety of in-depth essays to stimulate conversation among readers and, when possible, between readers and writers. (As you know, I always engage in discussions pertinent to my own essays, and I encourage – though of course cannot obligate – other authors to do the same.)

    But this isn’t meant to be your run of the mill blog infested with trolls and anonymous commenters who feel empowered by that anonymity to bring down the level of discourse. That is why commenters have to register and provide me with their email address. I fully intend to use my prerogative as editor in chief of Scientia Salon to see that the dialogue remains civil and productive.

    Thank you for your understanding, and keep your contributions coming!


  33. The problem with just saying “wait and see” to any untestable idea credentialed physicists claim is “cutting-edge physics” is that you appear to have a double-standard. While doing a great job of promoting the very important values of science (of having testable theories and admitting it when they fail) you allow some publicly quite prominent physicists to escape being held to this standard. This is very dangerous, since it feeds the perception of those hostile to science that scientists are nothing but the self-proclaimed priests of a different religion.

    I think you need to be willing to look carefully at what multiverse proponents are trying to sell, and see if it lives up to the values of science, or if some physicists may be trying to get away with clothing themselves in the highly respected attire of science, while being unwilling to face up to the demands of its values. The Sean Carroll piece that was mentioned is a good example of the dangers at play with the “multiverse” business.

    A clearer example that I’d like your reaction to is that of Max Tegmark, who has a new book out, “Our Mathematical Universe”, which promotes his extreme version of the multiverse. His “Level IV” version of the multiverse (one containing all possible physical laws, corresponding to all possible mathematical structures) is something that is clearly not science and can never be science. Tegmark claims otherwise, and is on a media campaign to promote this as a new insight into science (one that just happens to not be testable quite yet, so we need to “wait and see”). He’s got blurbs from Witten and others to back him up. What do you think of this example? Is it science or not? If it isn’t, how should the rest of the scientific community deal with the phenomenon of MIT physics faculty promoting pseudo-science with backing from the best minds of the subject? How does the community protect its reputation in the face of this kind of threat?


  34. Just found this blog and I’m YEC. Education acoming.
    All these ideas come back to what is true and how to decide what is true.
    One side says they prove God and Genesis are not true and other sides say contrary to one or both PROOFS!!
    Nothing to do with belief verses science.
    Its all about the intelligent investigation of evidence in nature to make ones case.
    These days creationism is making a freat case for Gods literal fingerprints in natures makeup and for correcting the error of evolution and a wee bit for backing up Genesis.
    Thats all it is. Its not rocket science about this clash of science.


  35. I’m assuming you’re referring to my response since yours immediately follows it? The analogy I used actually originates from economist and Nobel laureate Robert Solow in a 1970 article entitled, “Science and ideology in economics,” published in The Public Interest. It’s the same article where he quips: “Many people have seemed to have rushed from the claim that no social science can be perfectly value-free to the conclusion that therefore anything goes. It is as if we were to discover that it is impossible to render an operating-room perfectly sterile and conclude that therefore one might as well do surgery in a sewer.”

    I simply adapted Solow’s analogy (see below) in response to toddstark’s standard STS critique of Alan Sokal’s position. And yes, Solow uses the car/mechanic analogy along with the interlude allusions, although I softened that up a bit. If what I posted constitutes borderline incivility, I apologize. I’ll try to be more careful in the future.

    Here’s the analogy quoted in full from Solow:

    “When you leave your car with an auto mechanic, it doesn’t bother you that he will regard it just as an internal combustion engine on wheels. You don’t feel it necessary to remind him that it is also a status symbol, an object of taxation, and a possible place to make love. Why, then, is it bound to be wrong for economists to regard the economic system just as a mechanism for allocating resources and distributing income, despite the fact that it also plays a role in the determination of status, power, and privilege?”


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