Fallacies of Science

To the scientists in my circle: I’m more with you than you think. I don’t doubt for a minute the value of science. I find it absurd, e.g., that some people think religious texts can compete with science as a source of information about how the physical world works. But I like to amuse myself by playing watchdog for my scientific friends.

Even in my watchdog role, I can raise no objections to the scientific method, or to the analytical power that science has to unpack the facts and processes of the physical world. But as self-appointed guardian at the gates, I propose the following fallacies often committed by the scientifically-minded – all, again, fallacies of application or of scope, not intended to impeach the core value of the scientific method but to snap at the heels of scientists — and even our most admirable scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking — when they make claims that go beyond the scope of their expertise.

The fallacy of metaphysical (external) scope

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this fine blog, science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and anything else is nonsense, thus implying that science is the one and only path to truth.

I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane may, and probably does, have an “object” called Wayne xxx. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc. A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne xxx but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction. But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons. It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

The fallacy of substantive (internal) scope

Let’s look more narrowly at the role science plays within the scope of the objective world it studies. It mines and generates much knowledge about the physical world, and for that we are grateful. But how much of its substantive area does it really grasp? Even at its present power, it only nibbles the tip of the iceberg. Take the human body. Medical science knows much more about the body’s processes than it knew 350 years ago, when the Age of Science really started coming on line. We look back at the 17th century as a kind of dark ages of leeches and blood-letters. Isn’t it obvious that science will expand its knowledge base just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, in the centuries to come? Won’t they look back at us with the same amusement, as a people nobly gathering knowledge but remarkably primitive in what we had gathered?

This telescopic view from the future should give us pause before we leap. Just a few decades ago, “science” was telling us that it could produce a baby formula more nutritious than mother’s milk. For every “well-tested” drug on the market, there’s a class action lawsuit addressing unintended consequences of that drug. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe that there is a vast (evolved) intelligence at work in the human body and in nature, and that science has only mapped a few percentage points of what is really going on in these systems. Don’t get me wrong – a few percentage points is better than no percentage points, and I’m all for science expanding its knowledge base. But when it comes to applying that knowledge, I take a humbler approach than some more eager proponents of science. The pro-implementation argument I most hear is that the things to be deployed have been tested exhaustively in study after study. Although this may be true, it is limited by context. If scientific understanding of its subject area (in this case the human body and the natural world) has leaped from 1% to 5% in the past few hundred years, it has still mapped just the tip of the iceberg, and still leaves enormous territory unexplored. So when you test exhaustively for results and side-effects, you are only really testing within the zone you understand. There are so many collateral aspects of human and natural ecological systems that are undiscovered that it is sheer arrogance to say that we’ve tested by 2015 standards and thus pronounce such-and-such safer and more effective than Mother Nature.

How does this translate to policy? If you have a serious illness, by all means draw upon that scientific knowledge base and try a scientific cure. If you have a less serious illness, you may be better off trusting to the body’s natural healing mechanisms, insofar science has only scratched the surface on how these mechanisms work, and tampering with biochemical processes may do more harm than good. I and everyone will have to judge this case by case, but by no means am I willing to conclude that science understands every aspect of how the body works and has therefore tested and measured every collateral effect for a particular drug or procedure.

On a tricky subject such as GMO foods, I am not as rabidly anti- as some of my hippie-ish brethren, but not as naively optimistic as some of my scientist friends. I like the idea of scientists building a knowledge base on this topic. But when it comes to implementation, I tend to keep one foot on the brakes, especially since radical changes can now be implemented globally and with much greater speed than in centuries past. I’m not at all convinced that science in its current state understands all the collateral processes of nature well enough to make the “exhaustively tested” claim. Or, to go back to our telescope of time, isn’t it possible that scientists 200 years from now will look back and shake their heads in amusement at our “exhaustively tested” claims?

And I haven’t even gotten to the corruptive influence of money and big corporations when it comes to what substantive areas of scientific inquiry will be funded and how results will be implemented. There may be something like a “fallacy of scientific purity” embedded here.

The fallacy of epistemological scope

Here, I use epistemology broadly as the quest for knowledge – almost, one could say, the quest for self-actualization that drives human reality, if not every aspect of reality. British Romantic poets will be my outside reference point here. The Romantics saw the development of self-knowledge, or self-actualization, in three stages. In Blake, these correspond to an Age of Innocence, Age of Experience, and an Age of Redeemed Imagination. In the Age of Innocence, we access knowledge through the fantastic mechanism of imagination, which keeps us in a state of wonder but leaves us naïve about the world and easily exploited. In the Age of Experience, we begin to access knowledge through reason and science, gaining factual knowledge that makes us less naïve and more worldly, but with that worldliness comes a cynicism, a sense of world-weariness, a sense of loss, of fallenness. Indeed, the Romantic world view at times seems to equate the world of Experience, the world of objective facts, with the world in its deadened aspect. The trick in Blake is to find the turn into a third stage, wherein the power of imagination re-engages at a mature level, re-animates the dry world of abstract facts, and saves us from the cynicism of Experience. In a word, we can put the scientific-type knowledge of Experience into perspective. We can still see its value but without being constrained by it in our quest for self-actualization. In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” this plays out as the innocence of “boyish days” (73), experience “‘mid the din / Of towns and cities” (25-26), and the “tranquil restoration” of the mature poet (30). In the third stage, the sensory raptures of youth and the worldly knowledge of experience have both lost their traction. Specifically, the poet has lost the pleasure of immediacy but has gained the power of inward reflection. The “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96) is reserved for the third stage, and indeed is specifically used as a counterpoint to the sensory appreciation and worldly knowledge of earlier phases.

These 3 stages can easily be projected beyond the individual onto the cultural or even the cosmic screen. Blake, with his Jungian vision of the archetypal sources of consciousness, readily applies it to the cosmic level. I’ll apply it to the level of cultural history by saying that the Age of Science fits the second stage very well. Science emerged as the dominant epistemology around the late 17th century, putting to bed some childish theories and introducing us to a more worldly-wise engagement with the physical world. Who knows when this Age of Science will end, but when it does, perhaps then we will enter the Age of Aquarius I’ve promoted only half tongue-in-cheek. And perhaps then we will look back at the Age of Science as Blake or Wordsworth look back at their middle stage – as an epistemological period that starts out liberating but eventually binds our imaginations, makes us a little cynical about the possibilities of self-actualization, chains us to what Plato calls “the prison-house” of materialism. So the fallacy of epistemological scope is the fallacy of myopically seeing only that force of knowledge that is present in the middle period, whereas true wisdom may be broader than that. It may be that the innocent child and the mature poet can grasp things about reality that are inaccessible to the purely scientific mind.

The watchdog sleeps

So those are my fallacy sketches for my scientific friends. Now pause and ponder.

rachael art - bad day

 And if in your pondering, you find yourself viewing me with the gaze of the character above (provided by the talented Rachael Gautier), remember: When my watchdog shift ends, I’m more on your side than you think. At least you can take comfort that in the next U.S. election I will be voting for the party that takes science seriously and not the party that seems perpetually at war with science. Meanwhile, I’m happy to revise, especially if a particular Ukrainian physicist I know will home-brew another batch of Russian Imperial Stout to facilitate the review process.

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12 thoughts on “Fallacies of Science

  1. Interesting post and a very measured look at some extremely complex questions! I think you’re right to focus on the different aspects of scope – it’s only rational to keep in mind our relative ignorance even as we make what we perceive as enormous advances. I think the best scientists keep in mind the caveats you’ve outlined above. Humility is key to progress in this regard I think! Thanks for making me think!

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    • Hi Kate. Yes, many scientists do keep in mind such caveats and have an appropriate humility about their enterprise. But some highly visible scientists, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom I admire in many respects, have said some ignorant and arrogant things about philosophy that stem from my so-called fallacies of scope.

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  2. It is useful to distinguish between areas of science. In medicine, as you point out, we are perhaps only at a 5% understanding of how the human body works. In physics, there are vast areas that are well studied and understood (and clearly identified areas where they are not – quantum gravity, dark matter, etc).

    I do not hear real scientists making claims other than these, although they may make projections and predictions without taking sufficient care to preface every statement with a caveat (for understandable reasons in our age of sound-bite media.)

    I think that some of the great scientists have said things that are not a million miles from your position.
    “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman
    “If you thought that science was certain – well, that is just an error on your part.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman
    “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman
    “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
    ― Carl Sagan

    It is also vital to distinguish between scientific understanding and the application of science, i.e. technology.

    When critiquing science, it is important to understand what it is, and not what some people claim it to be. The Age of Science will end when it is no longer useful. At present, it proves itself to be a very productive and useful process.

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  3. Surprise, Steve! I agree with you completely. I am sure many scientists are quite aware of scope limitations and are happy to collaborate with Arts and Humanities ilk like me in the quest for knowledge and self-fulfillment. I guess I wrote this thinking of a few of my scientist friends, who like a friendly debate around the ale pot despite much collaboration and agreement, and of comments by high-profile scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson dismissive of philosophy and indeed of any other quest for knowledge that doesn’t toe the line of science. Thanks for your comments, quotes, and distinctions, which help clarify and push the dialectic forward.

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  4. Wonderful post and comments. Pondering gives us pause against rank certainty.

    “All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.”

    – Ambrose Bierce

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    • Regarding how education relates to this post, I’d like to see college freshmen required to take a Greek philosophy course — not in lieu of science but in addition. What better for 18-year-olds leaving home than a study of great thinkers devoted to questions like “What does it mean to live a good life?”, “How does the acquisition of material wealth affect happiness?”, not to mention the basics of ethics, logic, and metaphysics, including such additional questions as “What role does science play in the overall scheme of human happiness?” and “What assumptions and conditions led to science and continue to frame its development?”

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      • Hubris = Ate = Nemesis…I too was a bit of a Greek scholar in my college days 🙂 I agree science, ethics, logic, should be incorporated into the freshman curriculum. A bit of Plato, Socrates, and Themistocles can only stimulate the mind. Science and ethics should go hand in hand.

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        • Yes, science, ethics, and philosophy in general. The odd new tendency for scientists to bash philosophy mystifies and bothers me. If DeGrasse Tyson and Hawking had taken my suggested course in Greek philosophy, they could still love science but they’d be less smug about dissing everyone else 🙂

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          • I don’t know a single scientist who was not, at the same time, a philosopher, but the tendency “to bash philosophy” that you mention is probably a tendency to bash a not-very-scientific philosophy, generally known as Platonic idealism. So I don’t believe that the maturing generation of philosophy-bashers-to-be would necessarily be instilled with respect for Plato or the like in their curriculum. On the other hand, some of these young “DeGrasse Tyson”s might learn to understand some more of classic philosophy and hence be less rash and more eloquent in criticizing it.

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            • Thanks. I hope you are right. The comments I hear from Tyson and Hawking (both of whom I respect and have learned from) do not seem to discriminate but simply cut against philosophy. I would prefer to distinguish between rigorous and non-rigorous philosophy (rather than not-very-scientific, since scientists rejecting philosophy for not being scientific is, after all, the whole problem). Much pop philosophy in bookstores is not rigorous. Plato’s philosophy is very rigorous. It may not be “scientific” in the sense of being based on empirical laws, but it is based on the laws of logic, which become very complex. He digs far beneath a dispute until he can find shared premises and then through many steps leads back to a conclusion. This is a rigorous approach, and it seems more applicable to a study of things like love, beauty, justice, friendship than a more purely empirical approach. (Indeed, one could argue that philosophy deals with the more important aspects of lived human experience — the subjective ones — while science is limited to objective phenomena. But now I’m veering off-point. Yes, I hope you are correct that scientists and philosophers nowadays see each other as teammates for the most part 🙂

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