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The Critical Common-Sensist Manifesto
That men should rush with violence from one extreme, without going more or less into the contrary extreme, is not to be expected from the weakness of human nature. -Thomas Reid, Essays on the Intellectual Powers
Attitudes to science range all the way from uncritical admiration at one extreme, through distrust, resentment, and envy, to denigration and outright hostility at the other. We are confused about what science can and what it can't do, and about how it does what it does; about how science differs from literature or art; about whether science is really a threat to religion; about the role of science in society and the role of society in science. And we are ambivalent about the value of science. We admire its theoretical achievements, and welcome technological developments that improve our lives; but we are disappointed when hoped-for results are not speedily forthcoming, dismayed when scientific discoveries threaten cherished beliefs about ourselves and our place in the universe, distrustful of what we perceive as scientists' arrogance or elitism, disturbed by the enormous cost of scientificresearch, and disillusioned when we read of scientific fraud, misconduct, or incompetence.
Complicated as they are, the confusions can be classified into two broad kinds, the scientistic and the anti-scientific. Scientism is an exaggerated kind of deference towards science, an excessive readiness to accept as authoritative any claim made by the sciences, and to dismiss every kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as anti-scientific prejudice. Anti-science is an exaggerated kind of suspicion of science, an excessive readiness to see the interests of the powerful at work in every scientific claim, and to accept every kind of criticism of science or its practitioners as undermining its pretensions to tell us how the world is. The problem, of course, is to say when the deference, or the suspicion, is "excessive."
Disentangling the confusions is made harder by an awkward duality of usage. Sometimes the word "science" is used simply as a way of referring to certain disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth, usually also anthropology and psychology, sometimes also sociology, economics, and so on. But often-perhaps more often than not-"science" and its cognates are used honorifically: advertisers urge us get our clothes cleaner with new, scientific, Wizzo; teachers of critical thinking urge us to reason scientifically, to use the scientific method; juries are more willing to believe a witness when told that what he offers is scientific evidence; astrology, water-divining, homeopathy or chiropractic or acupuncture are dismissed as pseudo-sciences; skeptical of this or that claim, people complain that it lacks a scientific explanation, or demand scientific proof. And so on. "Scientific" has become an all-purpose term of epistemic praise, meaning "strong, reliable, good." No wonder, then, that psychologists and sociologists and economists are sometimes so zealous in insisting on their right to the title. No wonder, either, that practitioners in other areas-"Management Science," "Library Science," "Military Science," even "Mortuary Science"-are so keen to claim it.
In view of the impressive successes of the natural sciences, this honorific usage is understandable enough. But it is thoroughly unfortunate. It obscures the otherwise obvious fact that not all and not only practitioners of disciplines classified as sciences are honest, thorough, successful inquirers; when plenty of scientists are lazy, incompetent, unimaginative, unlucky, or dishonest, while plenty of historians, journalists, detectives, etc., are good inquirers. It tempts us into a fruitless preoccupation with the problem of demarcating real science from pretenders. It encourages too thoughtlessly uncritical an attitude to the disciplines classified as sciences, which in turn provokes envy of those disciplines, and encourages a kind of scientism-inappropriate mimicry, by practitioners of other disciplines, of the manner, the technical terminology, the mathematics, etc., of the natural sciences. And it provokes resentment of the disciplines so classified, which encourages anti-scientific attitudes. Sometimes you can even see the envy and the resentment working together: for example, with those self-styled ethnomethodologists who undertake "laboratory studies" of science, observing, as they would say, part of the industrial complex in the business of the production of inscriptions; or-however grudgingly, you have to admit the rhetorical brilliance of this self-description-with "creation science." And, most to the present purpose, this honorific usage stands in the way of a straightforward acknowledgment that science-science, that is, in the descriptive sense-is neither sacred nor a confidence trick.
Science is not sacred: like all human enterprises, it is thoroughly fallible, imperfect, uneven in its achievements, often fumbling, sometimes corrupt, and of course incomplete. Neither, however, is it a confidence trick: the natural sciences, at any rate, have surely been among the most successful of human enterprises. The core of what needs to be sorted out concerns the nature and conditions of scientific knowledge, evidence, and inquiry; it is epistemological. (No, I haven't forgotten Jonathan Rauch's wry observation: "If you want to empty the room at a cocktail party, say 'epistemology'"; but the word is pretty well indispensable for my purposes because, unlike "theory of knowledge," it has adjectival and adverbial forms.) What we need is an understanding of inquiry in the sciences which is, in the ordinary, non-technical sense of the word, realistic, neither overestimating nor underestimating what the sciences can do.
What we have, however, is a confusing Babel of competing, unsatisfactory accounts of the epistemology of science. How did we come to such a pass?
FROM THE OLD DEFERENTIALISM TO THE NEW CYNICISM
Once upon a time-the phrase is a warning that what follows will be cartoon history-the epistemological bona fides of good empirical science needed to be defended against the rival claims of sacred scripture or a priori metaphysics. In due course it came to be thought that science enjoys a peculiar epistemological authority because of its uniquely objective and rational method of inquiry. In the wake of the extraordinary successes of the new, modern logic, successive efforts to articulate the "logic of science" gave rise to umpteen competing versions of what I call the "Old Deferentialism": science progresses inductively, by accumulating true or probably true theories confirmed by empirical evidence, by observed facts; or deductively, by testing theories against basic statements and, as falsified conjectures are replaced by corroborated ones, improving the verisimilitude of its theories; or instrumentally, by developing theories which, though not themselves capable of truth, are efficient instruments of prediction; or, etc., etc. There were numerous obstacles: Humean skepticism about induction; the paradoxes of confirmation; the "new riddle of induction" posed by Goodman's "grue"; Russell Hanson's and others' thesis of the theory-dependence of observation; Quine's thesis of the underdetermination of theories even by all possible observational evidence. But these, though acknowledged as tough, were assumed to be superable, or avoidable.
It is tempting to describe these problems in Kuhnian terms, as anomalies facing the Old Deferentialist paradigm just as a rival was beginning to stir. Kuhn himself, it soon became apparent, hadn't intended radically to undermine the pretensions of science to be a rational enterprise. But most readers of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, missing many subtleties and many ambiguities, heard only: science progresses, or "progresses," not by the accumulation of well-confirmed truths, or even by the elimination of conjectures shown to be false, but by revolutionary upheavals in a cataclysmic process the history of which is afterwards written by the winning side; there are no neutral standards of evidence, only the incommensurable standards of different paradigms; the success of a scientific revolution, like the success of a political revolution, depends on propaganda and control of resources; a scientist's shift of allegiance to a new paradigm is less like a rational change of mind than a religious conversion-a conversion after which things look so different to him that we might almost say he lives "in a different world."
Even so, a quarter of a century ago now, when Paul Feyerabend proclaimed that there is no scientific method, that appeals to "rationality" and "evidence" are no more than rhetorical bullying, that science is not superior to, only better entrenched than, astrology or voodoo, he was widely regarded-he described himself-as the "court jester" of the philosophy of science. Post-Kuhnian Deferentialists, adding "incommensurability" and "meaning-variance" to their list of obstacles to be overcome, modified and adapted older approaches; but remained convinced not only of the rationality of the scientific enterprise, but also of the power of formal, logical methods to account for it.
But then radical sociologists, feminists, and multiculturalists, radical literary theorists, rhetoricians, and semiologists, and philosophers outside strictly philosophy-of-science circles, began to turn their attention to science. Proponents of this new almost-orthodoxy, though they disagreed among themselves on the finer points, were unanimous in insisting that the supposed ideal of honest inquiry, respect for evidence, concern for truth, is a kind of illusion, a smokescreen disguising the operations of power, politics, and rhetoric. Insofar as they were concerned at all with the problems that preoccupied mainstream philosophy of science-theory-dependence, underdetermination, incommensurability and the rest-they proclaimed them insuperable, further confirmation that the epistemological pretensions of the sciences are indefensible. Appeal to "facts" or "evidence" or "rationality," they maintained, is nothing but ideological humbug disguising the exclusion of this or that oppressed group. Science is largely or wholly a matter of interests, social negotiation, or of myth-making, the production of inscriptions or narratives; not only does it have no peculiar epistemic authority and no uniquely rational method, but it is really, like all purported "inquiry," just politics. We arrived, in short, at the New Cynicism.
Feyerabend, who seems in retrospect the paradigm Old Cynic, promised to free us of "the tyranny of ... such abstract concepts as 'truth,' 'reality,'or 'objectivity'." Now New Cynics like Harry Collins assure us that "the natural world has a small or non-existent role in the construction of scientific knowledge"; and Kenneth Gergen that the validity of theoretical propositions in the sciences "is in no way affected by factual evidence." Ruth Hubbard urges that "[f]eminist science must insist on the political nature and content of scientific work"; and Sandra Harding asks why it isn't "as illuminating and honest to refer to Newton's laws as 'Newton's rape manual' as it is to call them 'Newton's mechanics'." Ethnomethodologist of science Bruno Latour announces that "[a]ll this business about rationality and irrationality is the result of an attack by someone on associations that stand in the way"; and rhetorician of science Steve Fuller proposes "a 'shallow' conception ... that locates the authoritative character of science, not in an esoteric set of skills or a special understanding of reality, but in the appeals to its form of knowledge that others feel they must make to legitimate their own activities." Richard Rorty informs readers that "[t]he only sense in which science is exemplary is that it is a model of human solidarity," and Stanley Fish that "the distinction between baseball and science is not finally so firm." Reacting against the scientism towards which the Old Deferentialism sometimes veered uncomfortably close, rushing with violence into the opposite extreme, the New Cynics take an unmistakably anti-scientific tone.
Perhaps it is no wonder that many scientists came to regard philosophy of science as at best irrelevant-"about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds." With the exception of a few enthusiastic Popperians, working scientists seem to have been mostly unaware of or indifferent to Old Deferentialist aspirations to offer them advice on how to proceed. But in 1987-provoked by Alan Chalmers' observation, at the beginning of his popular introduction to philosophy of science, that "[w]e start off confused and end up confused on a higher level"-physicists Theocharis and Psimopoulos published an impassioned critique of "betrayers of the truth": Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, "the worst enemy of science." And as the influence of New Cynicism grew, more scientists were moved to defend the honor of their enterprise: Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in Higher Superstition; Max Perutz denouncing rhetoric of science as "a piece of humbug masquerading as an academic discipline"; Sheldon Glashow deconstructing his letter of invitation to a conference on The End of Science; Alan Sokal parodying post-modernist "cultural critique" of science; and Steven Weinberg replying to the "cultural adversaries" of science. Sometimes they made a good showing; but, not surprisingly, they didn't aspire to supply the realistic account of the epistemology of science required for an adequate defense against the extravagances of the New Cynicism.
Mainstream philosophy of science, meanwhile, had become increasingly specialized and splintered. Though many philosophers of science ignored the New Cynicism, a few tackled it head-on: John Fox criticizing self-styled "ethnomethodologists of science"; Larry Laudan in running battles with proponents of the "Strong Programme" in sociology of science; Mario Bunge protesting the influence of Romanticism and subjectivism; Noretta Koertge wrestling with the social constructivists. Sometimes they made a good showing too. And with an increased readiness to accommodate social aspects of science, a turn towards one or another form of naturalism, and, since Bas Van Fraassen's influential defense of constructive empiricism, something of a retreat from strong forms of scientific realism, there were efforts to acknowledge the elements of truth at which the New Cynicism gestures, without succumbing to its extravagances. But some mainstream philosophers of science-especially, perhaps, those most anxious not to offend the feminists-seem to have gone too far in the direction of the New Cynicism: as when Ronald Giere suggested that there might be something in the Nazi concept of "Jewish physics," as in feminist complaints of the masculinity of science; and many others, still clinging to the Old Deferentialist reliance on formal, logical methods as sufficient to articulate the epistemology of science, seem not to have gone far enough. In my opinion, anyway, the realistic understanding we need still eludes us.
Still, as I articulate my Critical Common-Sensist account-which I believe can correct the over-optimism of the Old Deferentialism without succumbing to the factitious despair of the New Cynicism-I won't forget the cautionary story of the student who is said to have observed in his Introduction to Philosophy examination that while some philosophers believe that God exists, and some philosophers believe that God does not exist, "the truth, as so often, lies somewhere in between." Though there are elements of truth in both the Old Deferentialism and the New Cynicism, a crude split-the-difference approach won't do; for the truth, as Oscar Wilde so nicely put it, "is seldom pure and never simple."
Excerpted from DEFENDING SCIENCE-within reason by SUSAN HAACK Copyright © 2007 by Susan Haack. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 19, 2012