About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why plumbing ain’t science

By Massimo Pigliucci

A recurrent theme of discussion on this blog is the difference between science and philosophy, or rather between science and everything else. The same subject was the topic of a highly enjoyable discussion in one of my classes (appropriately, on the philosophy of pseudoscience) at CUNY’s Graduate Center this week (even Julia joined in as a guest!), and it has popped up again in the thread to my most recent 5-minute Philosopher video. And of course the title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence.

Except, of course, that plumbing is not science, and here is why. First off, let’s stipulate two things: on the one hand, there are no sharp demarcation lines dividing science from pseudoscience and non-science — but hopefully we’ll agree that no sharp demarcation does not mean that there are no significant differences. On the other hand, I don’t actually believe that anyone takes seriously the proposition that all reason-based knowledge is “scientific.” If that were the case, then pretty much everything we do every day should count as science — from picking a movie based on a review by a critic we usually like (induction!) to deciding to cross the street when the pedestrian light is green (hypothesis testing!). If the concept of science is that expansive, than it is also pretty close to meaningless.

Why is biology a science, and plumbing is not? Let’s start with what they have in common: both activities assume certain background “theories” within which they work: let’s say the theory of evolution for biology, the physics, engineering and construction practices of hydraulics in the case of plumbing. In both cases, the “practitioners” use those general frameworks to solve specific puzzles: a biologist may be interested in the adaptive significance and genetic basis of a particular phenotype, the plumber may need to fix your toilet. Finally, the way both practitioners proceed to solve whatever puzzle they need to solve is to use empirical evidence and confront it with their expert knowledge. (Of course a major difference between the two is that plumbers are often paid more than biologists, by the hour.)

As I mentioned earlier, however, this analysis does not get us very far. If you substitute almost any other human activity — including crossing the street on your way to the grocery store — for “plumbing” above, the essence of the analogy remains intact. Which should be a warning that there is something amiss here (again, unless you are willing to bite the bullet and go for an extremely expansive definition of science — and even so, there’s more to come).

The thread linking plumbing and science is that in both cases we use reason and evidence. But reason and evidence are the ways human beings have gotten along in this world since the beginning of Homo sapiens (and probably earlier), and it seems strange to say that our ancestors in the Pleistocene were doing “science.” Moreover, there are ways of using reason that do not rely on empirical evidence, as in the cases of logic and math. And there are ways of using reason where evidence does play a role, but not the role that it plays in science, as in the case of philosophy. I will return to these latter distinctions at the end of this post.

What separates science from other human activities is, I suggest, its extremely more refined methods, its sociological structure, and its historical context. Let’s start with the point about the method. If plumbing really was a “science” in any interesting sense then it would be baffling that we force wannabe scientists to go through years of college, years of graduate school, and years of postdoc, to do something essentially analogous to fixing your bathroom. Ah, you might object, but the amount of technical knowledge necessary to become a biologist is much higher than that necessary to become a plumber. True, but if you think that all that young scientists learn, especially in graduate school and during their postdoc is more facts, you have never been in a real science lab.

I think of science labs as akin to Renaissance workshops, where the novices learn from the masters. Much of that knowledge is about the methods by which things get done, not just about a pile of facts to memorize. Graduate students learn the art (yes, I’m using the term on purpose — did you know that the word “scientist” was coined in 1834 by William Whewell, a philosopher, in analogy to “artist”?) of setting up controlled experiments, analyzing massive amounts of data using sophisticated statistical techniques, and writing cogent papers to present their results to the world. None of this is done by plumbers, and for good reasons.

Second, science is a particular type of social activity, certainly as conceived and practiced today. It has a complex — and necessary — structure of peer review, edited journals, funding agencies, academic positions, laboratories, and so on. Of course science has not always been practiced this way (see my next point about history), but a good argument can be made that it has evolved into a mature discipline precisely when these sort of social structures came to be implemented. Indeed, philosopher Helen Longino has made a very good case that modern science is a quintessential example of social knowledge. If you were stranded on a deserted island, you could discover things by means of conjectures and refutations — to use Popper’s famous phrase — but you wouldn’t be doing “science” because, among other things, there would be no peer group to check on your potentially crazy ideas about the nature of the universe (remember that neurobiological research shows the human brain being incredibly good at rationalizing, more than at rational thinking).

Third, here as elsewhere, there is much we can learn from history. The history of science is a fascinating illustration of how a practice that initially truly was barely distinguishable from plumbing eventually became a major branch of philosophy (natural philosophy), and then flourished spectacularly as an independent type of inquiry beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries (Galileo and Newton), culminating in the 19th and 20th centuries (modern physics, biology after Darwin) and beyond. The fact that it was a long process marked by many steps is congruent with one of the points I stipulated at the onset: there is no sharp line demarcating science from other activities. But the fact that we think of modern science as product of that historical process, and as distinct from its progenitors and allied fields, means that it is indeed its own thing, and this thing called science ought to be respected for what it is, neither less (as so many Americans have a tendency to do — see creationism, vaccine denialism, and the skepticism about global warming) nor more (as some of my colleagues wish to do by claiming an all-encompassing sphere of influence for their discipline).

I would like to conclude this sketch with two more notes: one about why this matters (Julia always asks me this question, so it has now been drilled into my brain), and the other with a proposal for an alternative way to look at the relationship between science and other disciplines that deal with reason and evidence.

Why does it matter? Well, as a philosopher and scientist, I have an intrinsic interest in the nature of knowledge, and I really don’t think I need any other reason to justify this sort of project. Nonetheless, there are other, more practical, reasons to pursue it. Science is a multi-billion dollar industry, which means that it matters very much who can claim to be doing “science.” Witness the fact that most supporters of pseudoscience, from creationism to parapsychology, wish to convince us that they are doing science. Moreover, science has a large impact on society, which implies a huge responsibility for scientists to claim no more or less than what they can reasonably claim. The credibility of the entire enterprise is at stake whenever a scientist says things on behalf of science that are not in fact backed up by scientific (in the narrow sense) knowledge.

Finally, there is of course a sense in which science and philosophy, and indeed math and logic, are connected. This sense, ironically, goes back to that very same William Whewell who coined the term scientist. He got it from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge in the broadest sense. As my diagram below indicates, I think it is reasonable to see the totality of third-person knowledge (as opposed to first-person, phenomenological knowledge) along a rough continuum from completely or almost completely abstract (logic and math — by saying “almost completely” I am allowing for so-called experimental mathematics) at one end, to necessarily coupled to empirical evidence (science), passing via an intermediate field where empirical evidence is relevant but most of the work is done via analysis and logic (philosophy).

This is the sense in which I think scientia, but not science sensu stricto, can reject the supernatural (Coyne’s and Dawkins’ project), or arrive at non arbitrary moral judgments (Harris’ project). It is also why my personal opinion is that academic philosophy departments (where logic is taught, incidentally) should be housed together with the sciences and math, as they have much more in common with them than with, say, history or literature. Regardless, it is in this sense — the continuity and yet individuality of these disciplines within the broader category of scientia — that I argue that plumbing ain’t science, as honorable and necessary as that trade is to our everyday lives.


  1. Great post! Whewell may have coined the term "scientist", but seeing as he died in 1866, I doubt he coined it in 1884. :)

  2. Yes, you are right! It was 1834, I'm going to correct the post, thanks for noticing.

  3. I don't think there are too many purely theoretical plumbers and as for them getting paid more than biologists simply compare the two. How often do you need a knowledge of biology as compared to how often you need plumbing?

    Conversely though I ran into an actual experimental physicist a few months ago while I was hiking and I asked him what he actually did at that job and he said he spent most of his time trying to fix or adjust their particle accelerator so perhaps the plumbers are closer to scientists in what they do all day than one might think.

    Anecdotal evidence. There's really nothing like it.

  4. Would you rather see a plumber when you're ill, or see a doctor who has had the benefit of the biological study of living organisms?
    Although plumbers do tend to have better anecdotes.

  5. What would you say to someone who is prepared to admit that crossing the street can be considered a science, too? I am prepared to go that far, so long as what you mean by crossing the street is an effort to understand some hypothesis by testing it empirically, and not merely the act of crossing thoughtlessly. I think that you are trying to use crossing the street as an absurd example, but that's only because most people who cross streets aren't attempting to gain knowledge of the world in doing so, which is why it seems absurd.

    I think what makes science important is the fact that it is a method to give us knowledge about the world. As such, any act that uses hypothesis testing and empirical evidence to arrive at knowledge about the world can be regarded as "science" in this most important sense. True, there is a social realm to what is traditionally considered "science," but arguably that is only because biology still has much more unanswered difficult questions, whereas the questions in plumbing are mostly answered or aren't that difficult to resolve. If plumbing were more difficult and encompassed as much information as biology, you can rest assured that it would have a similar social structure to biology. But I don't think the fact that plumbing does not address as large and difficult questions as biology means it is not a science.

    As for the distinction of "more refined methods," that is also a feature of the difficulty of the questions in traditional "science." If crossing the street were more difficult and demanding a question, it would necessitate more difficult and demanding methods for resolving the question, but as such it isn't necessary...not because crossing the street doesn't involve empirical testing, but because it is not as difficult. If it were an activity that required the understanding of statistics and double-blind studies, I'm sure those would be done.

    In essence, then, I think that your argument implicitly assumes that what can be called "science" can only address more expansive and more difficult questions. I don't think that's a distinction that is at all important when we get down to the essence of what makes the scientific method so great: which is its ability to make sense of the world.

    Perhaps another distinction is that the questions in "science" as you characterize it are typically seen as more important, but that's debatable (is it more important to know how to cross a street or to know the phylum of a particular fungus?). In the end, though, this debate is really about what features of science we consider most important to emphasize as its essential characteristics, and I simply disagree that the features you note are important emphases. I think Julia is correct to think this doesn't matter much.

    I think it matters in regards to creationism and parapsychology, on the other hand, because they are often explicitly doing non-empirically-based research, which cannot be regarded as science in any sense comparable to what scientists do, or else they are doing "science" in the sense that their theories are scientific but thoroughly falsified or else contradicted by accepted scientific theories. In that case, the question isn't whether what they are doing is science, but whether they are doing science properly.

  6. Good post. Would this be a fair precis? Biology is science, plumbing is the application of science (technology).

  7. Brian, plumbing design and construction is engineering. Plumbing as fixing the bathroom is handiwork.

    Dustin, well I explained why I do think calling crossing the street science is absurd. I wonder why so many people feel compelled to expand the definition of science that far.

  8. There are causes, there are effects, there are the rules which govern the causes and effects and there are models of those rules.

    It would seem to me that plumbers are focused on effects. They are focused on getting the water to flow. It doesn't really matter if their model for getting that effect is wrong if the actions they take get the result they want. They are also rather unlikely to subject their model to any double-blind peer reviewed process to refine it. Revising their model of how things work would only be required if what they did didn't work.

    Experimental scientists on the other hand want to know about both the causes and the rules which is why they make models and test them against reality to see if their view of those rules is correct.

    Observational scientists (like astronomers) generally just get to gather data from the universe and see if it conforms to their models and if not they tweak the models, after all it is difficult to conduct experiments on stars light years away.

    Presumably the data from those model revisions will also get recorded there in the ivory tower so that that knowledge might be built upon by future experiments and hopefully contribute to progress.

    I don't know if plumbers are regular contributors to a knowledge database or not. They might well be since this is the information age.

    So scientists are model makers and plumbers are results getters (otherwise they wouldn't be in business long).

  9. Professor Pigliucci,

    OK, so this is only somewhat related to this particular post. But I met you in DC a few weeks back and you signed your book for me. It was a pleasure hearing you speak. I must confess that I've not yet read your book as I am swamped with research for my own book (and preparing to retire from my current job in a couple of months!).

    I have a feeling I will be making some tweaks to my book based upon your talk and reading your book as it dawned on me that in some of the points I was trying to make I was being too restrictive in using "science" where "scientia" would actually be far more appropriate!

    On a side note, I posted an article last night on the "fine tuning" apologetic argument for God (for the record I REFUTE the argument not support it!). I have a feeling I might revisit my article after reading this post.

    Tony Davis

  10. This all seems more like an argument to use the term science in a more restricted way for certain practical reasons than an argument demonstrating that plumbers and scientists deal with significantly different kinds of knowledge - which would be a possible answer to the question the original discussion really was about.

    Yes, you can give splendid reasons why we would perhaps like to have the term science apply only the social activity of peer-reviewed, explicitly hypothesis driven expansion of our knowledge, and yes, the aims of a fluid flow physicist and of a plumber are different in that one is about the generation of generally applicable knowledge and the other wants one practical solution for one case at a time. Understood. But the point is that science s.str. and plumbing are both at the right end of that graph you have drawn, and they both deal with empirical data about objects and processes in the world around us. In that sense, Coyne's sentence and PZ Myers' sentiment here make a lot of sense to me.

    Of course this all ties back not into the question whether a scientist is arrogantly overstepping the limits of their epistemology if they proclaim this toilet here to be clogged, but if they do so when they proclaim that ghosts or gods do not seem to exist. The question is then, looking at your diagram, where on that axis from left to right is that issue? Is "does Amun-Ra exist?" comparable to "can circles be squared?" or (as I would argue) "does luminiferous ether exist?" You would certainly not ask a philosopher, logician or mathematician to answer the last question. By extension, they are also not the best qualified to answer the first, no matter if you want to call those who are engineers, natural historians or scientists.

    (Of course, you can have an elegant shortcut for any question of empirical existence if, but only if!, you can show that the item under scrutiny is logically impossible, and your argument in the last few iterations seems to have become that anything that is not logically impossible does not merit being called god. Okay then, but animists and polytheists would probably disagree there.)

  11. So the universe is in tune but not in the sense of ever needing tuning? Plumbed without need of plumbing?

  12. No, it's a demonstration of known principles of science.

  13. The universe is demonstrative?

  14. Alex, why am I not surprised that you don't buy my arguments? Oh well, that was my best shot so far.

    Baron, are you asking random questions?

  15. Baron, I logged onto, and posted on, this blog for my first time today. At that time I mentioned my article on the fine tuning argument. So I wonder if your question above was intended for me. If so, was it rhetorical?


  16. Tony, considering the random order that the moderation system here provides, the questions had no expectations either way. But the use of tuning metaphors implies there's music there in the spheres that begs to be appreciated.

  17. Baron,

    Funny you mentioned tuning. The fine tuning argument actually has nothing at all to do with music, and not a lot more to do with rational thought. But I did use a music mixing board as the article intro photograph.


  18. I am not saying that your argument is incorrect, I just do not think that it actually demonstrates that we are dealing with different types of knowledge.

    In parallel, we could say that book keeping for your store - in effect, simple adding and subtracting - has a similar relationship to math as practiced by cutting edge professors of mathematics today as plumbing has to science: application to specific problems vs. discovery of general knowledge in a highly specialized academic context.

    But we will probably not see a post "why adding is not mathematics" here. Not because the relationship is different, but because you do not fear proponents of mathematicism doubting the usefulness of philosophy. Maybe your fight against what you perceive as scientism is justified; thinking back to your recent post about higher education, it does however seem as if it aren't the Dawkinses, Morans, Stengers and Coynes of this world who try to close faculties of philosophy, but market ideologues and pencil pushers.

  19. Tony,
    The argument has often had to do with whether or not the universe was, could, or would be in tune at all, or if it was, could remain so without a tuner, even, or unless, it has found a way to tune or re-tune itself. If none of this is part of your argument, then my questions don't apply.

    But then how do you fine tune a rational argument in an entirely non-musical sense?

    And you did intend to put a toot in for your argument, did you not?

  20. Massimo,

    This was a great article. The concept map that you ended with is probably a useful tool for thinking about these things.

    This discussion reminds me of an earlier (and also fantastic) post of yours on the difference between science and philosophy:


    However in that post you seemed to have a much more strict view on the distinction between philosophy and science:

    Quoting Massimo: "Now, it seems to me obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated that: a) philosophy and science are two distinct activities (at least nowadays, since science did start as a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy); b) they work by different methods (empirically-based hypothesis testing vs. reason-based logical analysis); and c) they inform each other in an inter-dependent fashion (science depends on philosophical assumptions that are outside the scope of empirical validation, but philosophical investigations should be informed by the best science available in a range of situations, from metaphysics to ethics and philosophy of mind)."

    c) is clearly true, and I agree entirely.

    It is not clear to me that a) and b) are true. You mention, correctly, that 'science' started as a branch of philosophy called 'natural philosophy'. If you would have asked Kant or Hume for example, if they were scientists or philosophers, they could not have answered you, since there was no meaningful distinction between the two. However, even 'nowadays', to say that philosophy and science are distinct without qualification, is strictly incorrect in my view.

    Firstly, disciplines do not exist, they are constructed. The boundaries between what we call 'science' and 'philosophy' are permeable, and there are many 'philosophers' today for example, who are working along side 'scientists' and making real contributions. What they do could be called 'thoughtful science'. Our categorization of this or that activity into 'science' or 'philosophy' is extremely arbitrary in many cases. (clearly moral philosophy is somewhat different, hence why there was traditionally another school along side 'natural philosophy', namely, 'moral philosophy' - and that distinction still seems appropriate - even though the two may still inform one another in some cases)

    Furthermore, the things that scientists and philosophers deal with, are, in many cases, exactly the same - namely, concepts. I asked my colleague one day (an evolutionary biologist), for his thoughts on the collaboration of philosophers and scientists, and he replied by saying something along the lines of 'scientists are interested in facts', and that philosophers contributions are therefore, as in Steve Weinbergs view 'ocassionally beneficial, but not really'. That scientists are primarily interested in facts is positively nonsense. A pile of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house. Science is interested in theories (conceptual, theoretical constructs) that can make sense out of facts about the world. Hence science deals with concepts, just as philosophy does. Think of all of the things that biologists talk about - species, finesses, genes, etc. Those are technical concepts that are furthermore only of interest with respect the the explanatory (conceptual) framework within which they have been introduced (and they also have an interesting history of having been modified throughout the history of biology, and not always in the light of empirical evidence. In many cases in purely a priori fashion).

  21. ....With regard to the methodological differences between the two, Einstein comes to mind, who, while working out general relativity, was confronted many times by people who had experimental results which seemed to very clearly disagree with his ideas, and he would apparently say "oh those will go away", simply because the mathematical (conceptual) conclusions were so convincing. Or think back to Galileo, the so called 'father of science'. There's no reason to believe that he dropped balls from the tower of pisa, or that he did other such 'empirical hypothesis testing' type of experiments (granted, some of them he probably did do) -but if you look at his arguments regarding what would happen, they are purely conceptual (and convincing). It didn't matter whether it was observed or not, or 'empirically tested' (in fact it wasn't), but the arguments were convincing because of their logic. That is, they were conceptual thought experiments, evaluated through "reason-based logical analysis" (which you grant is the 'domain' of 'philosophy'), but the interests were of course about principles of Nature, and finding out how the world works (the'domain' of 'science'). So, should we call that kind of an activity science or philosophy? (my answer is that the choice is arbitrary, since no 'distinct' boundary exists - but I would love to hear your view on that)

    Also, in light of the similarity of philosophy and science, I think the effort to join so-called scientists and philosophers together is and especially good idea. The fact that many scientists are often consumed by their own technical problems and don't often think about what it is that they are up to is somewhat concerning. Within the scientific literature there is a lot of expressed contempt for 'what philosophers have to say about the issue' - for example, regarding neurophysiology/neurolobiology type research on 'consciousness', there are often remarks of what some current philosophers have said, followed by a rejection of that idea and an embrace of rigid methodological principles, but with no engagement into the arguments. This kind of hostile separation, I can't help but think, is at least in some sense the result of the belief in the impenetrability of these disciplines. Much could be learned I think, if this belief was dispelled, and people worked together. We could then get rid of the titles of 'science' and 'philosophy', and just call it 'rational inquiry'.

  22. Baron,

    First I have to admit that I am not entirely sure what it is that you are trying to say. We are not talking about two different things are we? My article is about the "Fine Tuning Argument" employed by some Christian apologists to claim that the physical constants in the universe (force of gravity, strong force, electromagnetism, etc.) were intentionally set, by an intelligent designer, at precisely the correct values to allow for us to be here. There is more to it of course but that is the gist.

    What this has to do with music I don't know. But again, you might be talking about something else altogether.

    As for a toot for my argument, yes and no. I would like for more people to read my article I all of them actually) certainly. But I was not arguing for it's validity here. It hopefully stands on its own merits. Of course, there are some smart folks on here and if anyone finds errors in any of my articles that would be greatly appreciated.


  23. Massimo, in your diagram, between science and math you put philosophy. I hope that doesn't mean the spot is exclusively occupied by philosophers. What about theoretical physicists, computational neuroscientists, mathematical ecologists, bioinformaticists, formal linguists ...etc.? In every branch of science there are theorists. Are you calling them philosophers as well?

    If the word philosophy is used here in the restricted sense: academic philosophers, I think you are playing a slight of hand here. On the left hand side, you have logic. On the right hand side, you have experimental sciences. Since philosophers are trained in logic, aha! a perfect fit for the spot in the middle. But your left hand size has math as well. Philosophers are not very well trained in math (calculus, differential equations, algebra...etc.), but computer scientists and mathematicians are. Since these folks are good at both math and logic, you'd think they sit more comfortably in the middle. As a matter of fact, they do.

  24. I appreciate Massimo's point about the social aspect of science. However, you can use the same logic to argue that mathematics is also a type of social activity, and it is not all that different from science. Massimo said you can't do science without a community because there will be nobody to check and verify the results, given how good we are at rationalization. But you can say the same thing about math too. Mathematicians can easily be deluded about their proofs (there are lots of examples of those) and it takes a whole community of check and verify proofs. If mathematical proofs's correctness is self evident, there should be no peer review for mathematical papers. But that is not true at all. Have you tried to published a math paper? It involves lots of going back and forth between the authors and the editors too.

    Furthermore, you certainly can do science in isolation. A friend of mine wanted to know if a particular kind of bee could see color when he was a professional photographer. He simply did experiments in his own backyard. He came up with something that was very similar to what Karl von Frisch did. He did it simply because he wanted to know. Was it science? I say yes because he is still doing similar things, except that he is now a professor working in a university and the results are published in scientific journals. But the modus operandi hasn't changed at all.

  25. Alex, book keeping is not math for analogous reasons, and I think that most people would laugh if one were to refer to bookkeepers as mathematicians. That's the point of my analysis: of course the activities have something in common (manipulation of numbers), but that is a *far* cry from making them essentially the same thing.

    optical, yes, the same logic about social systems applies to math. That simply reinforces my point. No, your friend was doing something science-like, but not science, precisely because there was no peer review system, no way for him to tell whether his theories were correct or not (agreement with experiment is not sufficient, because we can rationalize about it).

    As for sleight of handing philosophers in the middle, once again, please be careful before accusing others of logical fallacies (I do it too, but I consider it very carefully). You are taking a simple diagram much too literally here. The kind of logical analysis that philosophers do is very different from the type of activity engaged in by theoretical physics. Just pick any paper from, say, Philosophy of Science and compare it to any one from, say, Physics Letters, and you will see the difference immediately.

  26. Massimo, I did not accuse you of logical fallacies. I am only noting that you seem to have forgotten a big chunk of science - theoretical/mathematical sciences. I am interested in your opinion about the roles of theorists in science. They don't do experiments so they are certainly not on the right hand side of your diagram. But they are clearly very different from philosophy. If I were to draw this diagram I'll probably draw a triangle putting experimental sciences in one vertex, philosophy in the second, math and other theoretical science in the third. Your thought?

  27. optical, thanks for the clarification. I like the idea of the triangle, but I actually see theoretical science as inextricably connected to experimental science, and therefore as distinct from both philosophy and math/logic (of course, again, with the proviso that these are all continuums).

    In my view, theoretical science's purpose is to guide and interpret empirical research, and vice versa.

  28. Interesting, article, thanks - it did clear up part of my confusion as so your view on why you disagree with Harris (e.g.). I have to admit, though, that if I hadn't watched the Science/Morality discussion and heard Singer's comment that the German "Wissenschaft" does not equate to "science" I probably still wouldn't fully understand your post.

    You probably have a lot of non-English readers, so you might want to put that in a note. Btw, what about Italian? Is scienza = science or = scientia? (And another btw, as far as I remember from my Wissenschaftstheorie, math and philosophy were lumped together, which made a lot of sense to me at the time and still does...)

  29. This specific issue came up during my talk on science and religion this past weekend at SkeptiCamp NYC. Essentially what I said is that the plumber is taking some cues from scientific thinking, but is not doing science. Pretty much everyone was fine with that.

  30. Crossing the street is as relevant as any activity when looking for contrasts between X and science. Scientists have no doubt studied street-crossing behavior (civil engineers might consult them when deciding where to put a crosswalk). That doesn't make street-crossing a science, though the word "scientific" has crept into English, so I can see where someone might say, "I'm not just crossing randomly, I'm being scientific about it..." Maybe the linguistic angle seems to give wiggle-room (for better or worse). I wonder if creationists, for example, might try to counter that they are scientific, even if they aren't doing science.

    In his explanation of why philosophy doesn't progress, yet science does, N Rescher notes that science has very specific criteria for success (which he thinks philosophy lacks), among them things the social-knowledge aspect that you mention. That would help weaken the case for plumbing being a science. Even though there are criteria for success, a bad plumbing job is still plumbing, whereas bad science is, well, non-science. Maybe creation science would fall into that same category.

    Interesting discussion.


  31. Dr. Pigliucci,

    Would history fit somewhere on your concept map of Scientia? If so, where, and if not, how might it be classified as a type of knowledge?

  32. Michael,

    excellent point. History would fall somewhere between science and philosophy, I would think. Here are some interesting RS entries on this issue:


  33. Tony wrote,
    'My article is about the "Fine Tuning Argument" employed by some Christian apologists to claim that the physical constants in the universe (force of gravity, strong force, electromagnetism, etc.) were intentionally set, by an intelligent designer, at precisely the correct values to allow for us to be here.'

    Except that it seemed you did not address the question of whether the putative designer created those forces for these purposes or merely tuned those forces already extant. And if it appears to some to be the latter case, why have the apologists not considered that whatever did "create" the forces could have built into them a self-tuning stratagem, and that the forces were not constants to begin with.
    Not that there's any reason that your article would have to address what apologists hadn't thought of. Since it's been clear to many that they hadn't made their case to begin with.

  34. I think that the main difference between science and plumbing is that in science we aim to generate new knowledge. True, plumbers may learn new things for themselves but only on the rarest occasion they will discover something that was not known. Even then, this will be accidental and not the purpose of their work and they will still need science to validate the discovery more systematically in control studies.

  35. Yes, we are completely agreed: they are not the same thing. But they both deal with the same kind of knowledge, they are both at the right edge of your graph. And cutting edge research in math and simple adding of numbers both deal with abstracts, and are at the left edge of your graph.

    Now what does that tell us? That a physicist is unqualified to find out where the water conduit is leaking, or that the plumber cannot run an experiment on how often conduits get clogged for what diameter? Hopefully not.

    Clearly it is useful to have a word specifically for the highly sophisticated, formalized academic profession. But the point that was made is what you immediately agreed to: there is no magical ingredient that suddenly makes science discontinuous with procedures like learning how to speak your mother tongue: it is all inductive reasoning based on evidence - the one and only approach that we have at our disposal to actually understand the specific objects, patterns and processes occurring in our particular universe - as opposed to that which has to be true in every possible universe, which is the domain of math and at least a good portion of philosophy, certainly logic.

  36. Massimo,

    You seem to be saying that in order for something to be called "science", there needs to be some ("high") degree of complexity, in background training, in some kind of interactive social network, etc. What's your take then on elementary school, middle school/junior high , high school science projects? If the kids are keeping a tightly controlled experiment, have a null hypothesis, tracking all the pertinent data, etc, are they not practicing science in some sense? And yet the complexity isn't there in peer review (usually just one teacher and sometimes a "judge" for contests and the background knowledge isn't very extensive.

    From what I can gather, science appears to be a type of approach that can be applied to certain types of things. For instance, in a hypothetical world, say there was only one plumber that actually was effective at the trade and no one else knew how to be as successful. We might use science to investigate the phenomena of successful plumbing. Somewhere in that scientific investigation(s), we might see scientists doing precisely what a plumber does, and yet they would be doing science.

    I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything in particular. I'm interested in your thoughts on this.


  37. Baron P,

    I don't know if you read my article or not but you are correct that I did not address the purpose the creator had in mind when fine tuning - because unless I was accidentally less than clear, I don't believe there is a creator. My whole point (perhaps not well made) is that the aplogists fail to put forth a convincing argument for a designer.


  38. Professor Pigliucci,

    I was sitting in a coffee shop today reading this article and something came to me. Probably a blinding flash of the obvious to everyone else here, and I suppose I've thought of it before many times but your use of the plumber here really made it hit me harder than normal. What I am talking about is the reference in paragraph three to how "...the way both practitioners proceed to solve whatever puzzle they need to solve is to use empirical evidence and confront it with their expert knowledge." I am amazed at the number of people engaged in irrational pursuits, be it religion, conspiracy theories, astrology, etc., who are so fast to belittle scientific knowledge but when you consider how they live their lives EVERY DAY empiricism rules. If their toilet floods they don't ask God why, or pray for him to fix it, they call a plumber.


  39. Tony Davis,

    This would perhaps be what inspired Jerry Coyne to his infamous sentence of science being philosophically inconsistent with faith.

    I have spoken with several fellow atheist scientists in my life who all agree that this is precisely the weird thing about it: There is one way of finding out things about the world that works - empiricism -, and scientists are specialists in using that approach. They, of all people, should know that it is the only way that works, and they would never tolerate a colleague saying that they believe in, say, the expanding earth hypothesis without very convincing evidence, just because they know it in their heart.

    And then the very same people who would not tolerate blind faith in their own area of research turn around and blithely believe things on faith or anecdotal stories that directly contradict the scientific results of their colleagues in neurobiology (souls), astrophysics (creator god) or medicine (homeopathy).

    When I just think about trying to hold our current scientific model of the universe and the idea of, e.g., a creator god in my head at the same time, I feel like my brain wants to leak out of my ears. Sometimes I wonder how it would feel to be able to manage the careful compartmentalization of the mind exhibited by religious scientists. It is widespread enough that it seems nearly like a deficiency not to be able to do it, and maybe in a way it is, but at least I know from the aforementioned conversations that I am not alone in being incapable of it.

  40. Tony, I don't believe in a divine creator either, but that wasn't the point. It's that the apologists do, and yet in looking at your article, I saw no new analysis of why any intelligent apologist would. You would want to show the full extent of their reasoning, including more than a few of their assumptions, before attempting to show the reader why the arguments are not convincing.
    And perhaps in our other articles you did - that's why I was asking.

  41. Phil, elementary school children do science projects, not science. Yes, they use some of the same methods, in a simplified fashion. But I think it is strange to argue that they are doing actual science.

    Tyro, see Ritchie's response above.

  42. Alex - in the book I am writing I talk extensively about the cognitive dissonance that I suffered from as a Christian (in the process of becoming an atheist) when confronted with just these issues. Science proves so much to us empirically that religious dogma says is not true. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying it, God is either illusory or capricious - I don't see a third option.

    Baron - OK, got it. Trust me, I wanted to write a LOT more about the concepts in every one of the articles I've posted so far and in the book I am writing I am using these articles sort of like introductions. The problem with the place I am writing my articles (for now at least) is that they want the articles to be VERY short (500 words is a goal) and so far I am going at least two or three times that long and even then I feel I am not really developing the ideas nearly well enough.

    For this reason, and the fact that I am arguing against apologetics, not for it, I am forced to give a very rudimentary explanation of what the argument is (not how it works or how to employ it) and then refute it in the space I have left.

    hope this all makes sense and thanks very much for the feedback!!


  43. Massimo,

    It would be strange to say that they are doing any important research by the standards of today's science. But this seems similar to me to saying that elementary school kids don't do math because they aren't doing quadratic equations. Same methodology, varying levels of complexity. If a child does a science project and it is done with the high standards of control and intricacy, however mundane or simple the project, can we not rely on the results of that project with great confidence; more so than some clinical studies that are open to greater levels of interpretation due to the subjective nature of studies like some of those found in psychology for example?

  44. Phil your example captures something important here. Yes, the kids are "doing math" in the sense of learning about math and using its techniques. They are not doing math in the sense of discovering anything new. However, I submit that the gap between plumbing and science is wider than that...

  45. Massimo,

    Plumbing is generally about applying knowledge rather than discovering new things and that alone would say to me it isn't science.

    However, there is some body of plumbing knowledge - how to handle large buildings, how to vent toxic gasses or noxious odours, etc. To use the horrid expression, science is a "way of knowing", so how else did we build the body of knowledge plumbing requires if not through science?

    We can also look at how plumbers deal with problems. Some might use reasoning, testing hypotheses and building theories; others might use a dowsing rod or crystals. That doesn't mean they're doing science, but might it mean some are at least scientific?

  46. Tyro, this entire essay and discussion should have made clear that I think it is ridiculous to claim that plumbing, or crossing the street, or pretty much anything we do that has empirical content, is "science" in any meaningful, non trivial sense of the term. Obviously, I haven't convinced you, which is fine. The danger here is that the term science becomes essentially meaningless. And I also keep wondering why some people are so insistent in expanding it at all costs. What gives, really?

  47. Massimo,

    I said I agreed with that so I'm not sure what you're responding to.

    I don't think we should expand science but neither do I think it should be restricted based on social structure and form ("white lab coats ONLY") lest we create a science cargo cult. What seems to be key to science is the method, the recognition of human biases and attempts to remove/account for them and to value empiricism over authority or revelation.

    opticradiation asked if the Mythbusters were doing science and I'd wonder the same thing. In many cases they do follow the spirit and method of science without the Ivory Tower form.

    Again, I'm not saying that plumbers are doing science. As far as I can tell, Jerry Coyne never said that either except in a passing comment he said that he expected plumbers to rely on evidence rather than faith.

  48. "Tyro, see Ritchie's response above."

    Massimo, which response are you referring to?

  49. Ritchie, crap, can't find it! Did I imagine it, or was it on a different thread?

    Tyro, well, I too would expect plumbers to abide by empirical evidence. But I do think that "science" in the proper sense is not just a set of methods, but also a cumulative set of findings, and yes, a particular social structure. It doesn't have to be done in universities, but it ain't done in elementary schools either. And I thought I did respond to the Mythbusters thing: I think of those shows as demonstrations of scientific reasoning and practice. Again, I don't think even they would claim that they are doing science. But who knows.

  50. Massimo: I have posted several times in the previous thread, but I am not sure which exact post you would be referring to.

  51. For the record, I'm not one of the people attempting to expand "science" to include plumbing. I'm inquiring to see how far Massimo's version of science goes.

    For example, one of the the defining things that seems to be getting clearer is some attempt to expand on current scientific knowledge. This would take care of some 3rd grader being able to "do science." What about a grad/doctoral student who is trying to duplicate some complex scientific study that is generally considered to be well established? If all (s)he is doing is duplication, Massimo, would you this to no longer fall under the term "science"?

  52. Phil, the problem here is that several people keep trying to find a silver bullet, a clear-cut demarcation that sets aside science from everything else. As I point out in the essay, that's a waste of time. But the lack of clear demarcation doesn't mean that there are no significant differences. So, for instance, a graduate student who is simply repeating someone else's research should not be allowed to graduate. He tried, but failed, to do novel science. But he was certainly *trying* to do science, much more than the 3rd grader. I hope this helps.

  53. several people keep trying to find a silver bullet, a clear-cut demarcation that sets aside science from everything else

    Really? Interesting. And here was me thinking some people were trying to find a clear-cut demarcation that science is not allowed to step over, with certain questions about the universe situated beyond that border.

  54. Alex SL:

    - as opposed to that which has to be true in every possible universe, which is the domain of math and at least a good portion of philosophy, certainly logic.

    While I'm with you about 92% percent of the way, not sure that you can say the domain of mathematics covers all possible universes. Suppose an operator fails (to make sense) in one particular universe? I know perhaps the theory needs to be expanded, tweaked etc to account for findings in the problematic universe, but to me math is about symbols, and symbol failure implies a separate kind of mathematics is required.

    In other words, it seems possible that two kinds of set theories exist.

  55. Josh, I agree with a lot of what you've written above. In particular, I agree that Massimo appears to have changed his view (or been inconsistent). He has in the past taken a much narrower view of science when arguing that science cannot address supernatural claims. But, in today's OP, he has rightly taken a much fuzzier and broader view (though probably not as fuzzy and broad as mine).

    I think the reason why "science" is such a fuzzy concept is because there are so many different factors involved in our decision to label something "science". It has to with the subject matter, the type of evidence, the precision of the hypotheses, the testability of the hypotheses, the degree to which the discourse is public, whether results are peer-reviewed, the solidity of the inferences, etc. Most of these are matters of degree, not binary alternatives, so involve a subjective judgement of where to draw the line. And with so many factors to take into account, we have to make subjective judgements about their relative significance. So competent, well-informed speakers can reasonably disagree over when the label "science" is appropriate.

    Some people respond to this fuzziness by giving up altogether on making any distinction between science and other areas of rational empirical enquiry, taking "science" to mean "rational empirical enquiry" (and perhaps even dropping the "empirical" so as to include mathematics). I suppose you could adopt that as a technical definition, but it's not what the word normally means. People do not normally call history (or plumbing) a science. The alternative is simply to acknowledge the fact that science is a very fuzzy concept, that there's a big overlap between science and philosophy, and stop worrying so much about categorising questions as "science" or "philosophy".

    Nevertheless, Josh, I think your plan to eliminate the words "science" and "philosophy" altogether is unworkable. The subjects that philosophers study do require a certain set of skills and knowledge which are different from other areas of rational enquiry, even if there is a considerable overlap. So you'd still need a label for what are today called philosophers, and you may as well keep the label "philosophers" and call their field of enquiry "philosophy".

    There's nothing wrong with retaining the word "philosophy" as long as we don't fetishize it. This is where Julia's point comes in, about why we're making the distinction in the first place. If the purpose is to have labels for referring to fuzzily defined (but somewhat distinctive) groups of skills and questions, and to the people who specialize in them, then it's a useful distinction. It's useful to have departments of philosophy, journals of philosophy, degrees in philosophy, etc. What isn't useful is to make such a fuss over whether to label a question "science" or "philosophy". Worse, this leads to artificial and unjustified rules like "science can't say anything about supernatural claims". This leads in turn to bad arguments against Intelligent Design ("ID can't be science because it's supernatural") which play into the hands of ID advocates.

    I suppose you could just eliminate the word "science", so philosophy, physics, chemistry, history, etc, would all simply be considered branches of "rational empirical enqiry", without physics and chemistry being grouped together under a narrower heading like "science". But I can't see such a scheme being adopted, because I think there are some ways in which the formal sciences are more closely connected to each other than they are to philosophy.

  56. Richard, Alex,

    I haven't changed my position at all, I think you guys took me more literally in the past than I intended, hence this post to further clarify my thoughts. And I still think the supernatural cannot be investigated by science because it's too darn vague and incoherent. Even there, however, I never maintained a sharp demarcation. For instance, if you think of astrology or parapsychology as investigating natural but unknown phenomena then science is the way to do it. But if they present supernatural characteristics (like the tendency of paranormal phenomena not to manifest themselves when there are skeptics around), they slide toward the supernatural and therefore the vague enough that science can't do much about them. And of course, as I said repeatedly, I don't see this as a weakness of science, but as a result of the incoherence and extreme malleability and arbitrary character of supernatural claims.

  57. Very interesting post, Massimo.

    I think the Greek practice of splitting what we would lump together under "knowledge" into "techne" and "episteme" is helpful. Plumbing would give us technical knowledge, and to the extent that it is a scientific practice at all it is so only in that it applies established principles to present problems. Practices that aim at techne have a theory behind them, but they aren't concerned with theory.

    Science as Massimo describes it is seeking episteme-- not just the solution to problems (although there is that), but also a theoretical structure for finding things out.

  58. Massimo,

    Yes, the disagreements are much smaller than the vitriol that sometimes comes up may indicate. What remains to be addressed at some point is whether defining supernatural as "arbitrarily allowed to make ad-hoc evasions" is helpful for anything or an accurate description of how the vast majority of people actually define it. As I wrote in a comment over at Apple Eaters:

    In reality, believers expect their gods to be reliable, otherwise, what is the point? And in reality, they believe that they have evidence of a kind for their position, although usually fraught with selection bias and circular reasoning if you look closer. If you look closer, they will of course suddenly claim capriciousness, but hey, so does a crystal ball gazer if pressed. Does not mean that they do not make claims of reliability to their customers once you have your back turned to them!

    And of course I could just as well have used the example of a snake oil salesman or conspiracy theorist instead of the crystal ball gazer.

    Perhaps it would behoove us at some time in the future to collect empirical evidence, like a survey of religious people about how reliable they believe their gods, prayers and magic to be, what evidence they cite for their position, and so on.


    I am not sure if that is possible, because as far as I understand math and logic really do not deal only with things that actually observably happen in our universe - just think of forty-dimensional spaces - but with all things that must necessarily follow from certain assumptions or axioms. But well, I am not a mathematician, so an actual mathematician's input would be more useful here than mine.

  59. Massimo, While the general tone of your post in some ways reflects my own thoughts, some criticisms and clarifications would seem to be in order. I will try to be brief and address key points individually.

    1. Science (previously "natural philosophy") is, without question, a sub-set of Philosophy.
    2. Its defining feature is the assumption that the information provided to us by our senses (and extensions thereof) are valid, meaningful and properly represent an external world.
    There are, of course, illusions, but these can be picked up in the light of more extensive observations).
    3. The sensory data (at whatever level of sophistication - mass spectrometry, for instance) are of no use without some means of processing, analysis and integration. For this, of course, we use the tools of language. These include natural languages, logic and mathematics. The last being appropriate for handling concepts at the very simplest level.
    4. There is a view held by some that mathematics itself a science. This is quite wrong.
    Although it can be argued to have an early basis in sensory information, it is simply a language, which, in the same way as natural language, is capable of generating fictions.
    The wheat being sorted from the chaff by further observation, ideally in a controlled situation.
    5. You point out, quite properly, that there are no sharp demarcation lines between science and non-science. Unfortunately, you completely miss out an enormously important area which lies at the centre of that spectrum. And that is engineering! And this is the part of the spectrum occupied by the plumber and the surgeon, as well as many flavours of engineer.
    6. The growth of modern science has been almost entirely dependent upon the evolution of technology.
    The telescope, the microscope, UV source for spectroscopy, the thermionic valve and CRT, even the test tube are all products of technology, of the art of the engineer. (Incidentally, you may have noticed that they are also dependent on glass, one of the "just right" materials that enable, and it can be argued, made inevitable, the evolution of technology - a particular interest of mine and the theme of my recent work "The Goldilocks Effect and, largely, my previous "Unusual Perspectives")
    7. Modern science and engineering are, of course, interdependent, one feeding the other and there is considerable overlap. However, it should be noted that technology has historically been the precursor. The chemical arts of food processing and the extraction of metals from their ores, for example, were in place long before the the establishment of the science of chemistry around the 18th century.
    8. Science as such has actually very little impact on society. Society, in general, has not the slightest understanding of science. It is technology which impacts upon society and it does this mostly as a result of the artifacts that it generates. Pseudoscience does not feed through to the generation of useful artifacts. It is not stymied by the words of any philosopher but rather by its own inadequacy to relate to the real world. An exception is the field of alternative medicine where there is a good living to be made from all sorts of bizarre practices - all of which appear sometimes to "work". Why? Because folk recover naturally from various ailments all the time. If such a recovery occurs during a "treatment" the practitioner gets the credit. In the absense of contolled analyses, chance alone feeds the flames.
    9.. It is true that, in a very trivial way, we are all scientists. More importantly, at a practical level, the sciences and their technological symbiotes are almost universally trusted. The worlds religious leaders show greater trust in aerodynamics than in the power of prayer for transcontinental excursions. Even they, at heart, are scientists. It's part of the human condition.

  60. I grew up indoctrinated as a believer in Christianity. To move to unbelief requires a significant transformation away from the forms of assurance present in a fundamentalistic faith in a god who saves. There is a feeling of walking along a precipice between madness and hopelessness.

    One of the most fearful aspects for someone coming from fundamentalism to reason, is the inability of reason to explain everything. I think everyone who reasons has to face the fact that certain why questions are beyond our ability to answer completely with the current methods of reason.

    Instead of the word god we use phrases like common sense, self evident, or agreed assumptions. These and other phrases are holding places for things we haven't exactly worked out.

    I think there is this idea that eventually science, using a vast enough data base of knowledge, will be able to predict every choice and event from some type of cause and effect relationship. I call this a mechanistic view of the universe.

    I think religion is often a rebellion against this idea. I think we would rather feel like we really do have a choice and there is truly some type of subjective reality that doesn't have to follow a cause and effect that has predetermined everything that will happen.

    I certainly hope that life does have meaning and there is a way to determine value independent of reason. That something like love has value simply because we are convicted to value it.

    I have to honestly say that I don't know. I don't find it likely at all that there is a god, like the one described in the Bible, running the whole show. But, living without much of a clue about why we are here, if there is even a why, does present a challenge.

  61. We're Here Because We're Here


  62. the thread to my most recent 5-minute Philosopher video. And of course the title of this entry is a reference to Jerry Coyne’s occasional remark that there is no substantial difference between plumbing and science because plumbers test hypotheses based on empirical evidence. plumber in chino hills


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.