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.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pseudo-Xology

by Massimo Pigliucci
A few days ago I walked from my apartment down to the Guggenheim museum, to see an exhibit by artist-philosopher Lee Ufan. Frankly, I wasn’t too impressed with the art (a bit too minimalist for my taste), but even less so by the “philosophy.” I wish I had written down some of the irritating quotes that accompanied the exhibit, but here is a taste of what I read: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas, it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space.” I have no idea what, if anything, this means. Charitably, one can think of it as a (very) loose metaphor, but for what? There is no such thing as “mental energy,” it doesn’t “send vibrations” into unpainted space, and most certainly whatever happens to canvas and paint has nothing to do with striking a bell.
Then I went home and resumed editing a forthcoming book on the philosophy of pseudoscience, a work that I’m putting together with Maarten Boudry and which will be published by Chicago Press next year. The idea is to revisit the (in)famous “demarcation problem,” the term used by Karl Popper for the endeavor of figuring out what the differences are between science and non-science, and particularly between science and pseudoscience. (At last count we have 24 contributors to the book, including luminaries such as James Ladyman and Michael Ruse.)
That got me thinking about the parallels (and differences) between pseudo-science and pseudo-philosophy. The paragon of pseudophilosophy, of course, is represented by some strands of postmodernism, and as Alan Sokal (he of the Sokal hoax) famously put it, “When one analyzes [postmodern] writings [on science], one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.” (If you have time on your hands and want to have some pseudophilosophical fun, make sure you check the random postmodern generator.)
Indeed, when a postmodernist insists that, for instance, science is a social construction, he can be taken as simply stating the truism that science is a social activity engaged in by human beings (and affected, to a point, by human social foibles); or he can be understood as making the much stronger claim that scientific truth is made up by the people who play the game of science, irrespective of any objective reality. If you are willing to buy into the latter meaning, I suggest you take Sokal’s challenge: “Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”
Postmodernist pseudophilosophy is embarrassing to philosophers because philosophy — at its best — “is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” as Wittgenstein (himself not exactly a shining example of a clear language user) aptly put it.
Of course, pseudoscience can be embarrassing to scientists as well. Just think of the sway that eugenics had for decades at the beginning of the 20th century; or consider the Pitldown man hoax (just as bad for science as the Sokal one was bad for philosophy); or cold fusion; or the phlogiston; or phrenology; or the Lysenko affair, to mention but a few. (A delightful, if a bit old, compendium of scientific blunders can be found here.)
Still, it seems obvious that there is a difference between pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy: it is far easier to find credentialed academics who buy into the latter than into the former. Of course, here too one needs to be careful, as there are plenty of counterexamples of scientists who believe voodoo science: biologists who buy into Intelligent Design; physicists who wax poetic about the anthropic principle and the fine tuning of the universe; PhD holders who deny global warming or that HIV causes AIDS, and even that fossil fuels are of organic origins. And of course let’s not forget that if you count psychology among the sciences, there are still plenty of Freudians walking about free and well paid. Nonetheless, on purely statistical bases it is more likely to walk the halls of the academy and encounter a pseudophilosopher than a pseudoscientist. Why?
I suspect one major reason for it is that doing philosophy is less constrained than doing science. What I mean is that philosophy is about arguing on the basis of logic and coherence, whereas in science those conditions are necessary but not sufficient: the scientist also has to deal with the world as it actually is. (Granted, good philosophy is informed by empirical evidence too — witness Sokal’s invitation above — but a lot of it deals with how else things could be.) This, I hasten to say, doesn’t make science “better” than philosophy, as any such comparison is somewhat sophomoric, considering that the two disciplines work by (partially) distinct methods and are interested in (largely) distinct things.
My point can perhaps be made more clear by looking outside of the philosophy-science pair, to disciplines that are even more and even less constrained than these two. Take logic and math, for instance. You hardly hear of pseudomathematicians, and the reason for that is that one just can’t bluff at math, one is discovered immediately. While a good rhetorician can obfuscate things in philosophy enough to be taken seriously for decades (e.g., Heidegger), and someone can fake data in science and get away with it for years (e.g., the recent Hauser debacle), I doubt that someone faking the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem could have lasted more than a few minutes in the halls of a mathematical meeting.
Near the opposite end of the constraint spectrum is art criticism. Take, for instance, literary criticism (which, interestingly, was the original house of postmodernism!). It is constrained by the necessity to make an argument of some sort (for instance, about a new interpretation of a Shakespearean play), and by some kind of “data” (say, the text of Hamlet), but those constraints are significantly weaker than in philosophy because the field works by different standards of argumentation, where formal logic, for instance, doesn’t really play a role, and the writing is more akin to an essay (again, the similarity with postmodern — but not analytic — philosophy is uncanny).
Once more, none of the above should be construed as a ranking of disciplines from worst (literary criticism) to best (math and logic). Each endeavor has its own methods and goals, and each works well when it is done well — and the only people really qualified to assess what “well” means are those (academic or not) working seriously within each field. But the nature of these four beasts (and of course the list could be made longer) is such that some fields are more prone to “pseudo-Xology” than others. It is up to said practitioners to clean up their own intellectual playing field, both for the sake of their own efforts and if they wish to be taken seriously by the outside world.

51 comments:

  1. Interesting article, Massimo! I did want to point out that I think the meaning behind the quote: "Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas, it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space" is actually pretty clear and banal. All the stuff about energy is fluff. What he's saying is, "If I paint something (which requires thought/mental energy) then it's going to provoke thoughts/mental energy in people who look at it.

    It's an obvious and not particularly interesting observation that he's gussied up in what he must think are fancier terms.

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  2. You're throwing out Heidegger as a rhetorician? I'd be interested to know why.

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  3. And honestly, philosophy and the humanities deserve to be embarrassed. Yes, the postmodernists have marched boldly into ridiculousness, but I don't see ridiculousness being eliminated from the human condition anytime soon. By attempting to avoid it completely, instead of just temper it, philosophy as a discipline has cowardly ceded relevance to inhabit a detached realm, just abstract enough from daily experience, that eternal truths are possible.

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  4. I'd be interested in seeing someone try to explain the ways in which you might distinguish philosophy from pseudo-philosophy. Is it possible to know which you might be confronted with?

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  5. Massimo: When you referred to the claim that "fossil fuels are of organic origins" as an example of "voodoo science", did you mean to say "inorganic origins"? I ask because, the last time I read up on fossil fuels, they were held by most geologists to be "formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms" *. That sounds like an "organic" origin story to me.

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  6. Massimo:

    I found your point about statements with two meanings (true/trivial and false/bold) to be very interesting. But I don't see this as peculiar to postmodernism. Seems like a generic rhetorical trick.

    I've seen this same thing used by those arguing *in favor* of global warming. For example, one can say "there is no question that global warming is happening". This has the trivial/true meaning that global temperatures are increasing (okay, they're not at present, but they were recently), but people often mean the bolder statement about anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

    Even with regard to AGW, one can say "there is no question that humans have an effect on global temperatures". Again, this has the trivial/true interpretation that everything affects temperatures to some degree, but people usually mean to imply that no one doubts they have a significant effect, which is false (some scientists in this field do doubt it).

    As far as I understand it, the actual state of affairs is that there are competing models, which make different predictions about the size of AGW, and that none of these models are backed up by experiment, so there's no scientific way to choose between them at present.

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  7. Rick:

    From the little I know of Eastern Thought, my guess is none of this guy's stuff makes sense unless you know the guy himself, and the background he's drawing on reasonably well. While this means, in an objective sense, this may be of little value, but in a subjective sense, it may be of immense value, it just might take a fairly large investment before one can judge. I personally don't feel any compulsion to make such an investment, but hey, I've got bills to pay.

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  8. mufi,

    I believe you misread Massimo. Instead, read him as saying: PhD holders who deny [global warming or that HIV causes AIDS, and even] that fossil fuels are of organic origins.

    kczat,

    Re: '[N]one of these models are backed up by experiment, so there's no scientific way to choose between them at present.'

    Two things here. First, it is not true that if there are competing scientific models which are not confirmable via control experiments, there are no scientific ways to discriminate between them.

    The best models will retrodict novel observations accurately (ice deposits, soil observations of the growth rate of organic life, tree rings, mineral deposits in caves, etc.), infer from the physical and mathematical parameters to the prediction of known weather patterns and processes (which were not incorporated into the model), if the models fit, then on to the next step.

    Second, computer simulations *are* experiments in every sense of the word, with margins of statistical error and all, and are fruitfully utilized by not only climatologists, but ecologists, physicists, economists, biologists, and so on. Just as other scientists compare the results of their simulations with known data and novel predictions / retrodictions, so too do climatologists.

    Chris,

    You may be correct, who knows, but I take Massimo's point to be this: 'Well, insofar as Lee Ufan is attempting to *do* philosophy, his lack of clarity and cogency indicates that he isn't doing it well at all, if at all.'

    Vincent,

    Re: 'Is it possible to know which you might be confronted with?'

    Yes, of course. If you can construct a purposefully bull shit essay, like Sokal did, that, upon peer review, passes as a serious contribution and get it published, like Sokal did, in the most respected journal in the discipline, then you can rest assured that you have met with pseudophilosophy.

    To my knowledge, nothing like what Sokal did to postmodernism has been done to analytic philosophy. *In fact* I would argue that it is *impossible* for *anyone* to write a purposefully bull shitted paper and have it pass peer review in the British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, e.g.

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  9. Paraconsistent:

    Well yes, it may be a translation issue, Eastern Thought is often translated to be philosophy. Or he may just be trying to do philosophy and not pulling it off. I think there is also a contested issue of what is philosophy here. Is it an abstract set of rules (analytic philosophy) or does it contain more contextual and subjective components? Quite frankly I don't care as long as I know what definition everyone is using in advance. I think Massimo is pushing philosophy is analytic philosophy. If Lee Ufan pushes a broader definition, bully for him.

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  10. kczat you're right that it's not particular to the humanities but it is by far the most common in academic criticism because "Humanities" types, unlike social scientists and especially unlike scientists/mathematicians don't like the idea of thinking systematically and logically about questions. Instead they like to use emotionally loaded metaphors that they mistake for profundities.

    Why they mistake this sort of equivocal babble for real argumentation is itself a point of inquiry. I can only offer things that may be part of the picture: they are not comparatively good at reasoning; they they are very high on the fluffy feeling that some things are just magical because they are; and after these two, the concomitant belief that logic is a threat to the fluffy magical feeling they cherish, and one that must be opposed. There is a persistent feeling that describing something is in some sense to tarnish it, and so thinking should only be a vague gesture towards understanding but we should never try to really pin down the nature of something. It might be reasonable, say, to think about poetry in terms of rhythm and figurative speech, but we should never imply that this is most or all of the picture, because poetry is just so magical and so special and oh! it makes me swoon!

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  11. I don't think that the term "pseudo-philosophy" has much potential use. It can only be useful to the extent that we have a stable and informative distinction, both in concept and in application, between what is and what is not philosophy. But the question "What is philosophy?" is itself a philosophical question and is as much subject to contention and diversity of view as any other. The business of dismissing a controversial figure in philosophy as "not really a philosopher" is a common academic game, and says at least as much about the particular commitments of the speaker as it does about the figure so labeled. To apply the term "pseudo-philosopher" to such a figure as Heidegger seems to me merely parochial, and casts further doubt on the usefulness of the term.

    Rather than saying "pseudo-philosopher" or "not really a philosopher," I think that it is more worthwhile to say that someone is a bad philosopher, and to be ready to say in precisely what respects he or she is that.

    On the other hand, there are some figures in philosophy who are so long on pretension and so short on performance that it is difficult not to denounce them as impostors. I contested Massimo's naming of Heidegger as a pseudo-philosopher, but if he had cited Derrida instead, I would have felt some inclination to agree—though even Derrida did what is incontestably some real philosophical work early in his career. But when, regardless of his previous accomplishments, a qualified philosopher produces a body of work of great pretension and no merit, he goes beyond being simply a bad philosopher. Perhaps "bullshit philosopher" is the term that is needed.

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  12. I'm curious, Massimo, would you consider Objectivism to be a pseudo-philosophy?

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  13. MKR,

    Re: 'I think that it is more worthwhile to say that someone is a bad philosopher, and to be ready to say in precisely what respects he or she is that.'

    I am confused. What is 'philosophy' such that one can be a 'bad' philosopher? And if we can identify 'bad' philosophers, can we not identify non-philosophers or pseudophilosophers?

    Presumably we know what science is what it is not and how we might identify a 'bad' scientist as one who makes facile inferences from his available data, or one who otherwise does not maintain the rigors of accepted scientific methodologies. Similarly, we can identify pseudoscientists (and by implication pseudoscience).

    Now, if a philosophy is an enterprise distinct from other enterprises, say, e.g., science, then presumably we must have some idea as to what philosophy is, such that we can identify it. And if we can identify philosophy, we of course can identify 'bad' philosophers. However, if we can identify 'bad' philosophers, we can just as well identify non-philosophers and pseudophilosophers.

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  14. Re Indeed, when a postmodernist insists that, for instance, science is a social construction, he can be taken as simply stating the truism that science is a social activity engaged in by human beings (and affected, to a point, by human social foibles); or he can be understood as making the much stronger claim that scientific truth is made up by the people who play the game of science, irrespective of any objective reality.

    A middle of the road take on scientific truth would be that it is malleable. A fixed truth would adjust to both an expansion of human understanding of the observed world, and also changes to the known world that could cause the science to break.

    But the latter point about science being created by people is quite valid. Lets start with the ill-advised stroll outside via a 21st floor window. The messy outcome is supposed to "refute thus" anyone's argument against objective reality, right? But it does not have to be an either-or game. Leaving aside quantum uncertainty, just because stuff always happens a certain way does not allow us to write the single description of objective reality, it allows us to write a description of empirical results, no more. There is nuance, there is 'anthropicity', there is the notion that a simulation may be running interference between a base reality and what we observe to be reality.

    So we know what probably will happen when we throw the ball up in the air, or try to walk on water or 21st floor air. We can write up the science describing why these things will probably happen, even if they are things that take place far from the human realm. But the experiments and the results were conceived and processed by humans, therefore there is a human component in the science.

    This is not an argument against science, not even against its primacy in describing our world. It is simply an argument about making any statements about objective reality, because minus observers, it cannot be proven to exist. Add observers, lose the objectivity.

    While I respect what postmodernists have tried to do, it seems they focus too much on people and culture. When one says that laws of physics are merely social conventions, agreed they are asking for trouble. But if one invokes the so-called supernatural and says the laws of physics are some other entities' social convention, then we have a different story. A: Not likely to be proven or disproved anytime soon, B: Quite plausible to those partial to simulation ideas. C: Also palatable to those with vanilla-flavored religious beliefs.

    The post-modernist knock on science seems to align with similar observations exposing multicultural truths always reflecting the bias of the culture in power. So it follows that the science of the ruling culture must be truer than the science of other cultures. Well yes, science can be used to subjugate and yes, science may have cultural aspects and origins, but our 21st century science has a hard enough time dealing with weakening borders without the cultural baggage. Can't see theories of everything having much of a cultural component.

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  15. Paraconsistent:

    I agree with your point that computer simulations are often used in scientific inquiry, even though it's not fair in my opinion to call them experiments (at least in a non-colloquial sense).

    What I was trying to get at, though, is that none of the various models have predictive validity. In particular, none of them (as far as I know) predicted that temperatures would plateau the way that they did, starting 12+ years ago.

    That does not say that the models are not right "in essence". Perhaps the prediction errors are due to lower order effects that cannot cancel out long term trends. That could be the case. However, how can something like that be proven based on the evidence we have available? We'll need to wait a long time (many decades) before the temperature record can provide indisputable proof of the effect size of recent changes in carbon dioxide levels.

    All this is simply to say that I don't know that it's fair to claim that scientific reasoning can, beyond reasonable skepticism, rule out models predicting small AGW effects in favor of those predicting large AGW effects.

    Back to the Massimo's point...

    I like Massimo's explanation that dual interpretation (trivial/true and bold/false) statements tend to arise in cases with weaker standards of proof. Areas where the standards are mostly hard and fast include math, logic, and physical sciences. In contrast, the social sciences, economics, and even climate science, while all still called "sciences", are areas where it seems there is a lot more wiggle room.

    Of course, I would love to find out that our knowledge of climate science is actually based on more trustworthy scientific methods than, say, our knowledge of macroeconomics. But until I see it, I'll remain skeptical that this is the case.

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  16. "Once more, none of the above should be construed as a ranking of disciplines from worst (literary criticism) to best (math and logic)."

    How about we rank them by impact instead on the daily lives of the 7 billion people who inhabit our little ball in space? How many people are impacted by math and logic? - Quite a few considering that computers work on those principles. How many are impacted by literary or art criticism? *crickets*

    The same comparison could be made with respect to science and philosophy with the possible exception of political philosophy which has certainly affect human populations in the past, but even those effects were not global as some of the changes wrought by science and technology are. To forestall any confusion I am not saying those are 'good' they are simply powerful and pervasive.

    Taken seriously by the outside world? Which outside world are we speaking of? The outside world of university academics who care about esoteric intellectual debates or the outside world full of people who care about entertainment and sports?

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  17. Chris,

    > You're throwing out Heidegger as a rhetorician? I'd be interested to know why. <

    No, I'm throwing him into the hopelessly obfuscatory group. Nobody that I ever talked to has ever been able to explain Heidegger to me in a way that makes sense, other than making him sound like a slightly more sophisticated version of Deepak Chopra. You are welcome to try, but great minds have failed before.

    Vincent,

    > I'd be interested in seeing someone try to explain the ways in which you might distinguish philosophy from pseudo-philosophy <

    The same way you distinguish science from pseudoscience: mangled arguments, disregard for logic, disregard for evidence, obfuscatory language, etc...

    kczat,

    > I've seen this same thing used by those arguing *in favor* of global warming. <

    Seriously? Anthropogenic global warming is the accepted standard within the relevant scientific community. Not much else can be said by people who are not atmospheric physicists and can claim to actually understand climate change models, on the penalty of sliding into ideologically based pseudoscience.

    E.J. Johnson,

    > I'm curious, Massimo, would you consider Objectivism to be a pseudo-philosophy? <

    No, only within bad philosophy. See: http://goo.gl/zjBaV and the three parts preceding it.

    Thameron,

    I could remind you of minor contributions of philosophy to society, like, umm, pretty much every aspect of democracy as practiced today. Or the fact that science originated from philosophy, or the many, many still current examples of how philosophy influences, directly or indirectly, our social and political lives (don't know if you ever heard of, say, feminism, or even libertarianism, or Rawls' political philosophy, etc.). But your view of the humanities seems to be too impoverished to even try.

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  18. Massimo:

    I'm pretty sure I'm not up to the task. But how about Dreyfus? As I understand it Dreyfus as been able to use Heidegger (or Dreyfegger as they say) as a usedful bridge between analytic and continental traditions).

    I must admit that when studying Heidegger I oscillated between thinking it was complete gibberish and completely profound. I settled on profound, but it's because I found his ideas to be useful for some issues I was concerned with addressing.

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  19. Thanks for the response, Massimo. I had read your previous posts on Objectivism. I must say had to stop reading Rand's Virtue of Selfishness half-way through after I found my myself neck-deep in plenty of bad arguments and rhetorical ploys and was in fear of drowning. Given your answer to Vincent on the philosophy/pseudo-philosophy distinction, however, I can see your point, i.e. enough bad logic entails bad philosophy, though judging by your previous essay Objectivism as a whole can at least claim enough regard for logic and evidence to allow it to be reasonably debated.

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  20. Massimo - I question whether there can be pseudo-X-ology in any field but science. The reason is that while failing to meet a field's standards of quality may correlate with the pseudo-status, pseudo-status seems to be connected essentially with authenticity rather than quality. Science appears to be the only X-ology in which it makes sense to ask whether an assertion is authentically scientific as opposed to only appearing to be one. As you well know science has an authentication process for its claims. There may be gray areas, but it does make sense to distinguish between claims of science and claims that only pretend to be. Other fields may have some degree of authority over claims made in the name of the field that names it, but it is questionable whether it is ever appropriate to say that something appears to be philosophy but isn't, or appears to be literary criticism but isn't. Such claims would be suggest the existence of an authentication process that does not exist and may even be against the spirit of the relevant X-ology. If philosophy stands only on logic and coherence, then there is only good and bad, an no authentic and pseudo. That said, there may be a valid sense of 'pseudo-philosophy' that relates to pretending to have philosophical expertise or affiliation that one does not in fact have, such as giving the lay reader the impression that the author has greater philosophical erudition, and affiliation with the professional philosophical community, than he or she actually has. Still what is essential to pseudo-status here is the fakery, not the quality.

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  21. Massimo:

    There was a time when the Freudian model of the mind (id, ego, superego) was the accepted standard within the relevant scientific community. You can claim that non-psychologists should have accepted it at the time, but I think that is too pessimistic.

    A non-specialist in that field can still understand what standards of proof are used to argue for the model. They can still tell the difference between experiments and anecdotes ("case studies").

    Case studies are still used in some fields today. Similarly, observational studies are often used. Neither is as trustworthy as a properly designed experiment.

    I think it's perfectly rational for a non-specialist to be skeptical about the claims made by specialists, in proportion to how far their standards of proof fall short of the gold standard of experiments.

    (That doesn't mean you can simply inject your own conclusion, mind you. But I think you can fairly claim that the answer is not known.)

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  22. Replying to Paraconsistent's reply to me (July 23, 2011 10:23 PM):

    I'm sorry that my comment was not as clear as one might wish. I will try again. My main contention is that the term "pseudo-philosophy" cannot be as effective a term of criticism as the term "pseudo-science," and my main reason for that contention is the following. The charge that some body of putatively philosphical thought is "not really philosophy," or that someone widely recognized as a philosopher is "not really a philosopher"—which is what I take to be meant by the terms "pseudo-philosophy" and "pseudo-philosopher," respectively—is so often made by professional philosophers and students of philosophy according to their personal tastes and allegiances that it is rarely taken seriously by those who do not share those particular tastes and allegiances.

    For instance, for decades, Nietzsche was widely dismissed by English-speaking professional philosophers as "not really a philosopher." There may be those reading this who share that opinion even now, but I think that most professional philosophers today would shrug it off as reflecting more on the prejudices of the opinion-holder than on the status of the object. The example of Heidegger has been in dispute here in much the same way.

    I don't deny that there are comparatively unproblematic cases in which a non-philosopher may be identified by someone as a philosopher. E.g., if someone describes Buckminster Fuller or Deepak Chopra as a "philosopher," I will assume that the speaker knows little or nothing of philosophy and simply gives that name to any writer who issues opinions of a highly general and speculative nature. In any case, I would certainly say that those writers are not philosophers.

    But I don't think that they represent the sort of case that Massimo wants to describe by the term "pseudo-philosopher." I take it (perhaps erroneously?) that what he has in mind are persons with professional credentials as philosophers, whose work is, as I said before, all pretension and no performance. It sounds like philosophy, it makes reference to philosophers, it issues from someone professinally accredited as a philosopher, it is classified as philosophy in any library, but it's all a fraud. This may be as clear in principle as the idea of pseudo-science (though it is interesting that in the case of philosophy, discussion naturally gravitates to the designation for the person rather than the product—"pseudo-philosopher" rather than "pseudo-philosophy"), but it seems to me that, in practice, the assignment of one or another philosopher to this status is unlikely to raise itself above partisan bickering.

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  23. kczat wrote:

    > Case studies are still used in some fields today. Similarly, observational studies are often used. Neither is as trustworthy as a properly designed experiment. <

    Provided that it is carefully and successfully executed, a true experiment does give stronger evidence than an observational study. But in fields such as astrophysics, experiments are just not an option. In plenty (perhaps the majority?) of scientific situations experiments are impossible or would not be ethical.

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  24. Nick:

    I completely agree. But if doing experiments is impossible, we can't simply pretend that we understand things just as well as if we could do experiments. Instead, our certainty about our current beliefs should be lowered to reflect the type of evidence we have.

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  25. Paul, I think you've given a more lucid rationale than I was able to give for essentially the same position. I would just modify your third sentence to read (corrections indicated by italics): "Science appears to be the only X-ology in which it makes sense to ask whether an assertion is authentically X-ological as opposed to only appearing to be so." I think you make a better case than I did because you concentrate on the distinctive characteristics of science, notably its possession of an "authentication process," rather than those of philosophy, as I did.

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  27. kczat,

    You (1) severely underscore the nature of the climatological evidence, (2) place too much weight on the confirmatory role of controlled experiments and too little on long term, controlled observational studies, (3) fail to understand how scientific modeling operates and the significant role models play in theory testing, and, lastly, (4) confuse being less than certain with being not rationally justified: Of course climate scientists admit that their models and predictions are less than certain, but that does not entail that their models do not warrant belief in AGW and the extent to which it is a problem.

    Climatologists, geologists, oceanologists, earth scientists, etc. have all assembled independent, well-confirmed lines of evidence which converge to confirm beyond a rational doubt that AGW is a real phenomenon.

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  28. Why is the idea of phlogiston an embarrassment to science? I understand the others: Piltdown man, a hoax; Lysenkoism, deliberate ideological distortion; phrenology and cold fusion, ideas with a tiny core of initial plausibility defended by people who refused to recognize overwhelming evidence against it.

    But phlogiston? Perhaps you know more about the history of phlogiston than I do, but I don't see the embarrassment factor. From what I understand, it was a reasonable attempt to explain combustion, but it fell apart when people took some precise measurements, and then it was discarded. Admittedly, it took several decades of growing anti-phlogiston evidence before the idea was discarded, but science moved more slowly then. Where's the embarrassment in that?

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  29. xkcd says it best :)
    http://xkcd.com/451/

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  30. Chris M.,

    > when studying Heidegger I oscillated between thinking it was complete gibberish and completely profound. I settled on profound, but it's because I found his ideas to be useful for some issues I was concerned with addressing. <

    Could you give us an example?

    Paul,

    > Science appears to be the only X-ology in which it makes sense to ask whether an assertion is authentically scientific as opposed to only appearing to be one. <

    Obviously, if one uses "authentically scientific" as the standard for every field. But why? My point is that each field has internal standards, and that the "pseudo-X-city" of claims has to be evaluated within that field, not by science. There is then the additional question of meta-evaluation, i.e. go what happens if an entire field can be considered "pseudo" (like astrology). Then obviously asking for a consensus among experts within the field (e.g., astrologers) doesn't do much. But this isn't an issue tackled in this post. (And I do have an answer for that: one ought to look at either science itself - for pseudosciences - or to the various "philosophies of X" - for other fields.)

    kczat,

    about the Freudian model of mind:

    > A non-specialist in that field can still understand what standards of proof are used to argue for the model. They can still tell the difference between experiments and anecdotes ("case studies"). <

    Perhaps, though I frankly doubt that a non-expert can wade into the Freudian literature and confidently make judgments. And other commenters have pointed out that perfectly legitimate scientific fields rely on observations rather than experiments, and nobody's complaining.

    Tamara,

    > Why is the idea of phlogiston an embarrassment to science? <

    Well, perhaps that's a borderline case. It is often presented in the history of science as an example of the transition of physics between proto-science and full fledged science, with people basically making up stuff w/out evidence and then clinging to the theory regardless of how much it fails to be supported.

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  31. Massimo:

    > Perhaps, though I frankly doubt that a non-expert can wade into the Freudian literature and confidently make judgments.

    Popper was able to do this. I'm assuming that other philosophers of science can do the same.

    > And other commenters have pointed out that perfectly legitimate scientific fields rely on observations rather than experiments, and nobody's complaining.

    Not true. See for example the recent work demonstrating that macroeconomic models do not appear to be falsifiable using observational studies (at least in the way economists do them). The fMRI study of dead fish is an example in a similar vein.

    The part I find troubling about your view of scientific consensus is that it suggests the scientific method is not important. Or rather, it's only important if the majority in that field decides it is important. If they decide that case studies are just as good, then so be it.

    Indeed, it seems like this view really has nothing to do with science at all. You can just as well apply it to questions like which art is the best.

    I agree that it's matter of a common sense that, if I know nothing about a field, then my best bet (as a good Bayesian) is to trust the consensus view of experts.

    But as a good Bayesian, I'm not simply estimating a point value. I'm also interested in, for example, error bars for these estimates.

    And here, at the error bars, I think the most rational thing is not necessarily to trust the experts because, for one thing, it's in the interest of those experts to exaggerate the extent of their knowledge.

    If I know nothing at all, then perhaps I can't do any better, but if I know something about the standards of proof in that field, then that is knowledge I can (in fact, must -- as a good Bayesian) take into account when examining the error bars.

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  32. kczat,
    Experiments in climate science research:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-change-a-controlled-experiment

    An excerpt:

    '[R]ather than waiting to see how an evolving climate slowly alters the biosphere, climate change biologists are conducting field experiments, often at large scales, to see how ecosystems will respond to more or less precipitation, rising concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and warming temperatures.'

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  33. kczat,

    > Popper was able to do this. I'm assuming that other philosophers of science can do the same. <

    Yes, but philosophers of science *are* experts, particularly experts in the demarcation issue, i.e. precisely the distinction between X and pseudo-X.

    > See for example the recent work demonstrating that macroeconomic models do not appear to be falsifiable using observational studies (at least in the way economists do them). The fMRI study of dead fish is an example in a similar vein. <

    The dead fish example's import has been greatly exaggerated. Macroeconomics is an interesting case since the entire field borderlines a pseudo-X status. But I was referring to astronomy: no experiments there, and yet...

    > your view of scientific consensus is that it suggests the scientific method is not important. <

    I have no idea where you get that from. And *which* scientific method are we talking about? The so-called method is actually a toolbox, with different tools being used in different fields to different degrees of success.

    > I think the most rational thing is not necessarily to trust the experts because, for one thing, it's in the interest of those experts to exaggerate the extent of their knowledge. <

    Nobody said anything about *necessarily* trusting experts, I'm simply making the much more modest claim that experts are those in the best position to judge whether something is pseudo-X.

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  34. Karl Popper earned a PhD. in Psychology.

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  35. I see Heidegger as central for dealing with the reality that most people don't know a lot about philosophy, and do just fine, most of the time. He allows us to undo representationalism, and thus, a lot of theoretical pursuits (which I thoroughly enjoy) become the province of breakdown cases. This provides a good deal of context on when and why philosophy will be useful, instead of agonizing about problems of other minds, which for the most part, don't bother anyone.

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  36. Chris,

    well, that's a bit generic. Whenever I have encountered Heidegger I found him maddeningly obfuscatory. I'm sure there is something there, but he surely violated Wittgenstein's dictum about bewitchment of thinking by bad language...

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  37. Well, he is working on the borders of what language can do. He is, after all taking down the substance ontology, which had been, (and still is) kicking around for some time. I'd put the substance ontology, as described by Plato, up for bewitchment of thinking by bad language. To be honest, I don't know how much use Wittgenstein's dictum has in itself. Just a general screed against sophism right?

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  38. And, on second thought, I take offense. You ask about something I'm concerned about, don't understand what is important about it, and instead of asking for more context, label it generic? You know the thinking is based on Heidegger, someone you don't understand, so why do you label?

    You've now given ungenerous interpretations to the artist subject of this post, Heidegger, and myself. Is your Skepticism only arrayed one way Massimo? What harm would be done in being generous in interpretation when one does not completely understand?

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  39. Chris,

    not sure why exactly you felt offended on second thoughts, but your first thoughts were closer to the mark. I did not criticize your work, since I'm not familiar with it. But I maintain that as a professional philosopher I am in a pretty decent position to understand Heidegger, and my understanding of him is that there is a grain of interesting thought here and there, a lot of fluff, and quite a bit of obscure language. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, but so far I haven't seen much evidence of it.

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  40. The detested psuedo-philosophy generates far too much frothing and foaming at my cud to argue the point well, let alone think on it. I've been a fan of Alan Sokal's from "way back," and am pleased you mention his work. Thank you for writing this!

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  41. Massimo,

    Maybe you meant, "Without more context, that sounds a bit generic to me?" I assume "closer to the mark" is also rooted in Massimo as knower? But is Massimo as knower just rooted in an appeal to authority? Isn't Heidegger also an appeal to authority? He wasn't a big fan of professional philosophers either. So if an idea is based on Heidegger's work, and a professional philosopher disagrees...

    Suppose all of the above is bewitchment...

    Anyway, I don't want to bust your chops too much, there's enough of that on the Internet and I do appreciate your eye for interesting articles. But you do seem to rely on the status your position conveys, instead of entering the chaotic thick of it. Wittgenstein may be a philosopher for those removed, Heidegger for those in the thick of it. The fluff was a later in life thing for Heidegger (and perhaps more reflective of life as it is lived). Being and Time, is an intensely tightly crafted volume.

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  42. Chris,

    don't worry, I'm into the business of having my chops busted by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons.

    No, I don't want to use an argument from authority, but surely you are aware that I'm not the only professional philosopher that is deeply skeptical of Heidegger. Indeed, I'm not too fond of Wittgenstein either, but at least I can actually mention a couple of good and clear ideas emerging from his writings. I'm not so sure the same can be done with Heidegger.

    Anyway, would Derrida be a better example, perhaps?

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  43. Massimo,

    I know there are others, but I need someone to advance an argument if I'm going to revise my views. But there is also a widespread bias on this side of the Atlantic for, ahem, the character of the man based on his despicable political choice. Maybe there is an argument that will convince me that it's all a bunch, but if you as a professional philosopher don't have it, it must not be easily communicated or widely known.

    Anyway, maybe only in philosophy and religion can obscure language help convince people, but personally I don't have patience for it without payoff. (Early) Heidegger has to be taken as a whole, and is a lot of brain crunching work, but I found him worth the effort.

    Not up on Derrida, and not sure that I have much interest in reading him anytime soon. Deconstruction, and structuralism, oh my!

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  44. Massimo

    Damasio has a write-up on an epileptic condition where a temporary loss of self occurs. The description of the patient's behavior sounds very much like how people would behave without the being part of Being and Time.

    I can send if you're interested.

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  45. Chris,

    I'm aware of Heidegger's bad reputation in politics, but I assure you that my skepticism of his philosophy has nothing to do with that. As for arguments one way or the other, I think it is more fair to ask Heidegger's supporters to make an argument for his worth than his critics to justify why they don't think he's done much good for philosophy.

    At any rate, yes, I'd be interested in the Damasio article you referred to.

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  46. Massimo,

    Yes, but it's hard to address arguments if you don't know what the concerns are. At any rate, I'd recommend Damasio over Heidegger any day, I don't push Heidegger on anyone beyond philosophy types simply because he is so hard to read.

    Anyway, here's here excerpt with a brief intro on why I think why it's important and why I think Heidegger is necessary to explain it. I'm interested to hear if you have an alternative explanation.

    http://polinomicsagenda.blogspot.com/2011/07/neuroscientific-case-for-heidegger.html

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  47. I saved it for later reading, thanks.

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  48. Massimo, how hard is the "demarcation problem," in your opinion? Would you say that it is possible to solve, and that its solution is within our grasp, now or in the future, near or distant? Possible in theory but computationally intractable, so to speak? Not possible in all cases, but possible for all intents and purposes, at least in those cases that really matter?

    Perhaps you feel you don't know. (I certainly don't -- but that's no surprise.) But if you had to guess, could you?

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  49. Funny you should ask, are you willing to wait a few months? I'm putting together 20+ new essays by a number of philosophers about the demarcation problem, and most of us think that there are sensible answers to it. Nobody, however, thinks that the answer lies in finding a small set of necessary and sufficient condition for something to be X (or not X).

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  50. Well, I certainly wouldn't expect anyone to be able to offer a small set of necessary and sufficient conditions. But at the same time, I'm not sure a "sensible answer" would constitute a solution.

    I suppose I'll just have to wait for the book. :)

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  51. Scott,

    the consensus emerging from the volume I'm editing is that necessary & sufficient conditions aren't gonna cut it, no matter how large the set is. My view (and that of several other contributors) is that that's because science and pseudoscience are cluster, or family resemblance (Wittgenstein-type) concepts, that do not intrinsically admit of sharp definitional boundaries. But, as Wittgenstein and later several others have argued, that doesn't mean they are not solid concepts that can do philosophical (or other) work nonetheless.

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