on 6 February 2014
This is a great contribution to the perennial debate about whether pseudoscience is a helpful epistemological category; it successfully refutes the claim that the demarcation dispute is dead, and instead gives a pragmatic toolkit for identifying valid from erroneous science. The idea of using fuzzy logic is particularly appealing, and I feel it may actually be the best way forward.
on 23 April 2014
America has a large number of influential religious fundamentalists. Not as influential as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, and not as fundamental as the Taliban, but in the same league. Europe doesn’t have that problem. What does that have to do with the philosophy of science? In the US, it gives it an edge, what is science and what is religion matters: judges have ruled on it, usually to prevent some form of creationism being taught in schools. Michael Shermer’s essay in this book is an excellent summary of the rulings and issues.
What is good science and what is bad science matters in Europe as well, but the philosophers don’t make a enough fuss about it. Ben Goldacre does, in Bad Pharma. Peter Woit did, in Not Even Wrong. Andrew Gelman and others make fun of bad statistics on their blogs. The philosophers remain silent. A lot of pharmaceutical research is done in a “community” that is corrupt; most epidemiology (the source of “eating rice will extend your life / give you cancer” stories) is simply bad statistics topped by sensationalist journalism; nutrition studies (because it’s important tho know what’s good and bad to eat, right?) are weak to say the least. String theory? The computer models behind “climate science”? And of course, there’s evolution, which has been flavoured with just about every political and social ideology its proponents have held. Creationism may have an "inescapable religiosity” in the words of one US judge, but evolution from Darwin to Gould has so far been inescapably ideological: there’s a neat essay by Michael Ruse about that in this volume. As for psychiatry and its unhealthy link with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, that’s so bad that even former editors of the DSM have spoken about it.
Few of those issues are discussed in this volume. The authors of most of these papers are academics, and academics are bound to be polite about one another. More or less obliged to devise a criterion whereby everything their colleagues in the physics department do is “science”, they have to let string theory in, which means they can’t tell the difference between actual science and mathematical speculation. If they make rude remarks about the way Roche or Pfizer cherry-pick which papers to publish, an angry lady from Finance will read them the riot act. Heaven only knows what chilly receptions would await them in the staff room if they suggested that, just perhaps, archeology might be fancy guesswork supplemented by some cool technology.
What you will get in this volume is a review of the current, uh, polite thinking on the problem of demarcating science and pseudo-science. The anchor points are Karl Popper’s falsification criterion and Larry Lauden’s 1983 paper suggesting that we shouldn’t bother with a criterion at all. The targets they shoot at are all fairly close: Veilkovsky, psycho-analysis, creation science, mesmerism, phrenology, Erik von Daniken. Nobody takes on M-theory, the wilder ideas of Erik Verlinde, and or the difference between e.g. climate modelling and political activism.
Underlying a few of the papers is an assumption that there is a canon that a decent rational person believes, exemplified by Noretta Koertge’s surprise that philosophy of science students could be found in 9/11 Truth groups. In the nineteenth century this was called the 39 Articles, to which prospective students at Oxford University had to sign up until 1854. This is 2014, right? More worrying is this quote, from an essay about the “deviance” of pseudo-sceince: “When prestigious and influential social actors label people and beliefs as wrong, this has important consequences, most notably in the sphere of deviance…extra scientific beliefs…are not valorised or validated by societies major institutions… Hence, in spite of their popularity amongst the public at large, the sociologist regards pseudoscientific beliefs as deviant."
Since prestige and influence gets no more prestigious and influential to an academic than awarding large dollops of taxpayers’ money to academics, that mock-technical utterance amounts to no more than “Who pays the piper calls the tune”. Sounds like a solid epistemological strategy to me </irony>.
I read a couple of books like these every year to get an idea of what’s going on in the subject I studied many years ago. Academics with an interest in methodology and students of the philosophy of science will find it useful. The general public won’t.