Sep 20 2021

Science is not Just Philosophy

It is not uncommon, if you do not like any particular finding of scientific research, to attack the institutions of science or even the very notion of science itself. These kinds of attacks are now common in the anti-vaccine pushback against common sense public health measures, and often from a religious or ideological perspective. It’s not surprising that the false claim that science is just philosophy has reared its head in such writings. The attack on science also tends to have at least two components. The first is a straw man about how scientists are pretending that science is a monolithic perfect and objective entity. This is then followed by the claim that, rather, science is just opinion, another form of subjective philosophy. This position is entirely wrong on both counts.

Here is one example, embedded in a long article loaded with misinformation about vaccines and the COVID pandemic. There is way too much misdirection in this article to tackle in one response, and I only want to focus on the philosophical claims. These are now common within certain religious circles, mostly innovated, at least recently, in the fight against the teaching of evolution. They have already lost this fight, philosophically, scientifically, and (perhaps most importantly) legally, but of course that does not mean they will abandon a bad argument just because its wrong.

First the straw man:

The second consequence of “following science” is that it reinforces one of modernity’s most enduring myths: that “science” is a consistent, compact, institutionally-guaranteed body of knowledge without interest or agenda. What this myth conceals is the actual operation of the sciences—multiple, messy, contingent, and tentative as they necessarily are.

The myth is itself a myth. It exists almost nowhere except in the minds of science deniers and those with an anti-science agenda. Elsewhere the author admits:

As a lay person, unqualified to judge the technical issues, I have concluded only that there might be a legitimate question here, and one that must, necessarily, remain open until time and experience can settle it.

This is classic FUD (fear, uncertainty, denial) – a “I’m just asking questions” approach that tries to sow doubt about the science without being held accountable for having a scientifically coherent and defensible position oneself. The author is indeed unqualified to judge the technical issues, which renders the rest of his article comfortably ignorable, because it is an attempt at doing just that – substituting his own admittedly unqualified opinions for those of actual experts. I would argue he also appears unqualified in philosophy of science or the institutions of science as well.

The first quote is needed to set up the straw man, because he would be unable to argue against how science actually works. Anyone working is science and academia should immediately recognize his statement as nonsense. Science, of course, is messy and tentative. That is practically the theme of this blog and the entire skeptical movement. But it is only half the equation – while science if messy, full of missteps and blind alleys, because it incorporates a process for testing its ideas against reality, it can make objective progress toward ever more refined and accurate models of reality. At some point our models become so accurate and reliable that it is reasonable to base individual decisions and even collective policy on their conclusions.

The anti-science perspective also consistently misses the fact that we need to make decisions, even when our knowledge is incomplete and imperfect. Not doing anything is also a decision with its own consequences. A medical perspective is incredibly useful here, because we have to make decisions every day based on imperfect information, often with immediate and objective consequences. Such decisions follow a risk vs benefit and/or cost vs benefit analysis, where all options are compared based on the best existing evidence. Demanding that one option be based upon some arbitrary level of certainty, while treating other options as somehow the default, is not rational. There are legitimate principles of “first do no harm” in the calculation, but that does not mean do nothing unless you have absolute certainty.

Where the anti-science crowd goes wrong is in this latter assumption – they assume that deciding to do something must be based on certainty, and therefore if scientists are recommending a specific action they are by necessity also claiming to have certainty. They then proceed to knock down the mythical certainty which never existed in the first place. Also, because they have perpetuated this myth that “science” pretends to be monolithic, all they need to do is present the everyday messiness of actual science as evidence against the alleged certainty. They often do this by quoting scientists engaged in the normal back and forth of debate over how to interpret evidence, and where the balance of evidence lays. See – these scientists are arguing with each other, therefore we don’t have certainty, and therefore we can ignore all of the recommendations of experts and follow our lay gut instincts. (The rest of the linked article is basically a long attempt and doing just this.)

The second component of the argument is dragging down science into the realm of mere opinion or philosophy:

Modern science during the first half of its four-hundred-year career was called natural philosophy—Michael Faraday, who died in 1867, still called it that—and that is still, in many ways, its proper name. Recognizing science as philosophy allows us to see that, like any knowledge whatever, it is a creature of its tools, its techniques, and its initial assumptions. Einstein’s famous remark—that the most surprising and mysterious feature of the world is that it is “comprehensible” at all—points to the most basic assumption on which physical science rests: that the world corresponds to the concepts which we have available for grasping it.

He later also invokes Kuhn and paradigms, mangling what Kuhn said in a typical way that Kuhn himself spent years opposing. The initial semantic argument is simply ridiculous. It is also a genetic fallacy – that because science evolved out of philosophy science is therefore still merely philosophy (I write this not as a criticism or negative statement about philosophy – the “merely” is their assumption). Science is certainly based on a foundation of philosophy, but by definition if involves its own methods that are distinct from philosophy. Science is empirical, it actually tests its ideas systematically against reality in a way specifically designed to prove its claims, predictions, and models wrong. (Again, as an aside, philosophers may also at times empirically test their claims, especially when it involves human behavior, but that is not the core of what philosophers do.)

The author is trying to create this sense that science can only have internal consistency, without any connection to external reality. But that is objectively wrong. It is also a fight that happened in the 19th century, with a clear intellectual victor – science is empirical.

The last line is very revealing, in that it is very wrong – that science assumes the “world corresponds to the concepts which we have available for grasping it.” If anything the opposite is closer to the truth. Scientists recognize that what we are doing is simply building models that make predictions about how the world behaves. These models may not, in fact, correspond to how the world actually works. We can only ever say how well our models make predictions. In fact, scientists debate to what extent we would even make statements about how reality actually is rather than just how well our models work.

The famous quote attributed to Richard Feynman (although the attribution may be in question) is “shut up and calculate” – referring to those who question whether or not our theories of quantum mechanics actually describe how reality works. The quote is meant to convey the notion that this is a hopeless debate, so just run the math and see what it says.

So no – in general scientists and the institutions of science do not pretend that science is pristine or monolithic, nor that we have some magical insight into the ultimate nature of reality (another saying is that, there is no teacher’s edition to the universe so we cannot look up the answers in the back). Science is admittedly difficult, messy, always a work in progress, with conclusions that are tentative. It is also operationally a series of refined models for predicting observations or the results of experiments. But, from a practical point of view, those models can be very useful. We can put fuel in a metal tube and ignite it, and based upon our models send the payload on top of that tube across the solar system to take detailed pictures of a distant world. Our models are so precise it is as if scientists sunk a putt from across the country.

Likewise we can say with a high degree of confidence that the benefit of getting one of the COVID vaccines far outweighs the risk for most individuals. Cherry picking all the doubt and uncertainty does not change this bottom line, but it does lead to bad decisions.


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