Saturday, September 18, 2010

Scientism and on Due Criticism

As most of you may know by now, Stephen Hawking recently commented in his new book The Grand Design that the origins of the universe needn’t have had a Creator, therefore God is unnecessary in explaining the origins of the universe. Predictably this statement has rubbed some theists the wrong way. All across the blogosphere disgruntled theists have been popping up having a bone to pick with anyone who agrees with Hawking’s audacious (yet scientifically compelling) statements.

One such disgruntled person emerged over at Debunking Christianity with a clear agenda—debunk Stephen Hawking. I joined in on the discussion because I saw this person throwing around the pejorative term scientism. Anyone who was agreeing with Hawking’s expert opinion was inviting her unfounded criticism. She made her intentions clear when she attacked all those who felt science was a valid means of explaining things. Well, it is. Science works… period. It’s beyond me how some just can’t seem to get used to this fact. As such, her usage of the term scientism was strictly a pejorative slander intended to provoke. In his new book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk Massimo Pigliucci reminds us that “The fact that scientism is an insult, not a philosophical position that anybody cares officially to defend, is perhaps best shown by the fact that there is no noun associate with it: if one engages in scientism one is “being scientistic,” not being a scientist.”[1]

Pigliucci’s quote shows quite eloquently that the term scientism is a made up one. Even so, when I used some playful hyperbole and called her on her misusage of the term, she suddenly became defensive and offered an irregular definition of it, stating that “Scientism (a term reserved for those asserting some form of supernatural dualism).”

Well, I guess it could be interpreted as this, but I found it sort of confusing as to why she’d use this particular definition here. Is she implying that Stephen Hawking believes in supernatural dualism?  Or is it more likely that she was back peddling from those stunned by her lack of tact and ignorance about the term she was bandying about? Whatever she may have been about, the thing that needs to be emphasized is that scientism is, specifically, a pejorative term for the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other enquiry (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2005).  

Scientism has been a derogatory term since the physicist E. Rutherford first said, “…there is physics and there is stamp collecting.” His critique was regarding pseudo-scientists who thought in supernatural terms about science, not so much dualism as a misapplication of science, and therefore criticized them by labeling their misconstrued science as an –ism. Rutherford’s gist was that by supplying the –ism, he was criticizing those who were not practicing science—they, in fact, were practicing a form of philosophy (specifically positivism, hence the –ism).

At its best, however, the term scientism is only a crass reductionism of the actual philosophy of science. In fact, scientism, as Pigliucci observed above, is not even considered a real philosophy. Unlike the philosophy of science, which does rely on the scientific method to gain credibility, scientism does not. Moreover, scientism lacks skepticism (part of being related to positivism), and skepticism is vital to philosophical inquiry, thus scientism can’t be relied on as a proper philosophy in the proper sense.

As used by our infamous critic, however, she seemed to be unaware of the terms negative implications as she was using it to mean excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques, i.e. faith in science. But this usage is hard to gauge, since by any epistemic standard we are justified in believing in science, a) because it works, and b) because its knowledge and techniques are excessively powerful.

Regardless of how the term is used, scientism is pejorative, and moreover, it is self negating terminology. How so? Knowing that the practice of philosophy is distinctly not the same as the practice of science, to suggest one is practicing scientism is merely to suggest they are practicing something other than actual science. Okay, so then, what are they practicing per se? Philosophy? Pseudoscience? Religions? It’s best to be clear if you’re going to criticize something as idiosyncratic as science.

Why even bother dinking around with useless terminology which nobody takes seriously? As I said, scientism is a made up term, made up by Rutherford to mock opponents who abused science. I don’t think Stephen Hawking can be accused of practicing scientism, and I certainly don’t think it is fair to suggest anybody who puts their trust in the authority of a well respected and world renowned physicist should have to settle for such abuse either. My suggestion would be just don’t use the term. In today’s world it is just an outmoded piece of vocabulary, and if you think it has any sway, then you need to think again.

Due Criticism
Now normally I wouldn’t just call anybody out, but when I see someone using a stupid term, an offensive term, and bandying it about just to feel superior… then I have no problem taking them down a peg and asking them to eat crow. Part of being an advocate for reason is to sponsor reason by correcting ignorance when I find it. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who is actively attempting to use the term scientism is an ignoramus in need of some correcting. So I called her out, first by correcting her usage of scientism, and then I offered her a link to some information which would correct another misconception she had. This time about Hawking’s use of M-Theory to justify there is no reason to invoke a Creator/God for the explanation of the origin of the universe.

She stated about M-Theory that:
I’ve heard that The Grand Design relies on M-theory. Well, that’s nice, but if so then it is just a theory. One for which there is no experimental evidence as of yet… Besides, string theory (on which M-theory is based) is unfalsifiable.
She then goes on to say that “Hawking has given up on doing real science and is “hawking” metaphysical gibberish like this…”

String theory may still only be a theory, but it is a promising one in the area of particle physics, and that is obvious for anyone who has kept up with the literature and read Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind, and so on. Also, it appears that string theory may have found its first real solid evidence in the area of four-qubit entanglement and black holes. I didn’t know if she kept up on the physics papers, so I politely supplied her a link to a PDF of an academic archive called the Physical Review Letters ( and sent her to an article written by a group of physicists at Imperial College in England about how they recently discovered a way we can test string theory.

From the article “Four-qubit entanglement from string theory” the authors state:
Falsifiable predictions in the fields of high-energy physics or cosmology are hard to come by, especially for ambitious attempts, such as string/M-theory, to accommodate all the fundamental interactions. In the field of quantum information theory, however, previous work has shown that the stringy black hole/qubit correspondence can reproduce well-known results in the classification of two and three qubit entanglement. In this paper this correspondence has been taken one step further to predict new results in the less well-understood case of four-qubit entanglement that can in principle be tested in the laboratory.[2]
Granted string theory is not yet well established, what she failed to recognize is that there is nothing to suggest it’s invalid either.

In the past, the criticism of prominent physicists such as Feynman and Glashow, who criticized string theory for not providing any quantitative experimental predictions, look to be out-of-date as it now seems there is a way of providing quantitative experimental predictions using four-qubit entanglement. I suppose only time will tell, but my point is that anyone who assumes that string/M-theory is purely philosophical in nature has jumped to conclusions before all the evidence is in.

It seems with this most recent math, and new ways to test it such as the LHC at CERN, string theory may turn out to be both testable and falsifiable. So my question, and the one I posited to her, was this: once tested, if verified to be true, would you correct your mistakes with the properly updated information? I’m not saying this alone would definitively prove M-theory, but it would be strong evidence for its feasibility.

But this wasn’t good enough for her. She then went on to weasel out of having to do any research by reading the article I supplied her, by deferring responsibility to the authority of physicist Peter Woit, saying, “The Complaint by critics such as Woit is that M-theory is not even mathematically coherent. Peter Woit is a mathematical physicist so what he says does carry some weight.”

Right after she accused others of failing to supply a valid case for relying on Stephen Hawking’s authority as a leading physicist, she turns around and does the same? This hypocritical tactic didn’t go unnoticed by me, so again, I referred her to the Physical Review Letters hoping she would chance to read the article. Whether or not Peter Woit can understand the intricate math of M-theory I cannot rightly say, but I know Ed Witten fully supports string/M-theory—and if he does then I feel that settles it.

Of course, seeing as how she refused to read any of the actual research in the field of physics, let alone particle physics, and refused to look up any of the physics papers in the academic archive I kindly supplied her with, I felt compelled to ask her why she felt like continuing to talk about physics when it was apparent that she just didn’t know what she was talking about. I wasn’t trying to belittle her intelligence, but by this point my patience was up. She had several chances to read the paper and continue an educated discussion on the topic, but instead she chose to launch into a series of ad hominem attacks. First she harangued me for criticizing her criticism in a verbal blitzkrieg of ridicule (an odd thing to be ridiculed for when you think about it—a criticism of a criticism). Surely, you’d think that if one could dish it out then they could take it? I guess not.
Does your ESL certificate entitle you to authoritatively discuss quantum theory? No? Me neither. What I can do however is I can evaluate arguments for validity and coherence. Reading around in the popular lit I find that there are critics out there who have strong opinion that current trends in research are giving too much credence to a theory they feel has few merits. It seems to me they have a good argument.
Seriously? Bringing up the fact that I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor—as if this would embarrass me into silence—is how she answers the challenge to read a few physics papers in the area she’s criticizing—which she continually refuses to do? Does that even seem rational to any of you?

In my defense, anyone who doesn’t understand the value of multiculturalism and the importance of sharing our cultural knowledge and experiences with one another is, in my book, a complete ignoramus. That said, I am not ashamed to be a “cultural ambassador” who helps the Japanese learn something about other cultures, let alone my own. But enough about me, I brushed of the ad hominems as a refusal to engaged in a well informed discussion and also as a sign of bald faced insecurity—since who but an insecure person would attack someone else’s credentials when they don’t even know that person from Adam? Or for that matter, lobby untrue things against someone you know nothing about? For all she knows Ed Witten might be my uncle (of course he’s not—I’m just pointing out her fallacy of hasty generalizations). Not that it matters, but I don’t have an ESL certificate. I don’t need one. My degrees are in Advanced English Theory and Criticism and the other is in Japanese Women’s History with a focus on cultural feminism—just to set the record straight.

Next she went on to say:
Does the Google not work for you? I mean, it would be pretty easy to take your vast knowledge of quantum and string theory directly to Peter on his blog. It isn’t hard to find. There you could show him just how smarter you are. But you’re not going to do that are you? I think we both know why too. ESL certificate holder vs. post doc in advanced theoretical physics equal massive fail for you doesn’t it.
Fail? Actually, not really—since I am not an ESL certificate holder but an advanced theoretical language/literary theorist—or something along those lines. But just to be clear on the matter, I reminder her I wasn’t contending with anything the professional physicists were saying, I was contending what SHE was saying.

Google works just fine for me, in fact that’s how I found the Physical Review Letters, which I now check regularly for new and fascinating physics articles. If only she’d join me in reading it, then I am sure our discussion would vastly improve.

Even as I find her just like every other theist with a bone to pick with everyone who rejects their tenuous beliefs, she was obviously overcompensating to be part of the intellectual elite, perhaps it was to show that theists can be smart too, or perhaps it was part of an ulterior motive to knock all those internet atheists down a peg or two and deflate some egos, I do agree with her on a couple of points. First off, I fully agree that the popular lit is meant to allow us to get acquainted with difficult or complex scientific theories, thus informing the general public, and keeping us in the loop. If we’re well enough informed then, yes, we would gain the ability to critique and evaluated these scientific theories and advances. I also agree with her that there is a division between physicists who either support string/M-theory or find it convoluted, but what I must adamantly disagree with her on is the fact that she has made premature assumptions that the critics are undeniably correct.

Regardless of whether or not string/M-theory proves itself a valid scientific theory, I am not qualified to say, but I personally would wait until there is solid disconfirmation to write off a theory as interesting as string/M-theory. Maybe that is my personal bias, but I would say it is also prudent, since science isn’t about rejecting a theory on the basis of whether or not is sounds good. It’s about testing the theory and finding out whether or not it passes muster as a scientific theory. Until recently string/M-theory was just a theoretical theory, but now it looks as if physicists have found a way to test it—and so I remain optimistic and leave it in their capable hands.

Have a Serving of Humble Pie—Why Not?
Needless to say, scientists like Stephen Hawking write popular books on science so that the layman (like me) can assimilate the difficult information which only scientists are fluent in. I totally am with Larry King on this one, we dummies need someone smarter to take us by the hand and explain it to us. By reading physicists’ and cosmologists’ popular works, as well as their academic papers, one can become reasonably well informed and perhaps even join in on a discussion about the concepts and the philosophical implication or ramifications of these cutting edge theories.

What I can’t put up with is letting someone who obviously has no clue as to what they are on about belittle people for trusting in science, then allow this same person to toss around groundless insults, then hypocritically turn around and use science to justify her agenda. Normally I’d let bygones be bygones, but when someone turns around and attacks me for calling them on their bullshit, then as an advocate for reason I’m going to turn up the beacon of reason a notch or two—and maybe they’ll see the light. The point is, however, at the end of the day even a layman can be well enough informed to have a valid standing opinion about areas outside of their expertise. But when someone is blatantly ignorant of the areas they are criticizing, then perhaps they are the one who deserve the criticism?

[1] Massimo Pigliucci, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, The University of Chicago Press, 2010, loc. 3334-37 Kindle.
[2] L. Borsten, et al. “Four-Qubit Entanglement Classification from String Theory.” Phys. Rev. Lett. 105, 100507, September 2, 2010

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