Science IS imagination

By Phil Plait | April 6, 2009 7:30 am

"The mind that’s afraid to toy with the ridiculous will never create the brilliantly original…"
  –David Brin, Brightness Reef

People don’t understand science.

And I don’t mean that your average person doesn’t understand how relativity works, or quantum mechanics, or biochemistry. Like any advanced study, it’s hard to understand them, and it takes a lifetime of work to become familiar with them.

No, what I mean is that people don’t understand the process of science. How a scientist goes from a list of observations and perhaps a handful of equations to understanding. To knowing.

And that’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not mechanical, not wholly logical, and not plodding down a narrow path of rules and laws.

But it appears to me that this is how Douglas Todd, author of an article in the Vancouver Sun called ‘Scientism’ infects Darwinian debates: An unflinching belief that science can explain everything about evolution becomes its own ideology, thinks of science. He likens it to religion, an unflinching belief that science can explain everything. He calls this — as many have before him — scientism:

Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can, like religious literalism, become its own ideology.

[…]

Those who unknowingly fall into the trap of scientism act as if hard science is the only way of knowing reality. If something can’t be “proved” through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it’s irrelevant.

Scientism is terribly limiting of human understanding. It leaves little or no place for the insights of the arts, philosophy, psychology, literature, mythology, dreams, music, the emotions or spirituality.

Right from the gate he’s using a strawman argument. There are many things science can’t explain currently, and no real scientist brushes those fields off as "irrelevant". And he’s wrong in saying that science leaves no room for all those other studies; it’s our study of human evolution that brings fantastic insight into why we have art, dreams, and mythology in the first place. What a strange notion, that science plays no role in those fields or our understanding of them!

But it’s in his understanding of science where Todd goes completely off course. What he says about science is exactly backwards, and it seems to me that he doesn’t understand the process of science, of how it’s done by real scientists in real life.

First off, there is no such thing as scientism. What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes. And he seems to think science has no imagination.

That’s insane. Without imagination, all we can do is categorize the world. Assigning names and numbers, statistics and categories. And while that sort of thing is important in the scientific process, it’s not science itself. Without imagination, science is a dictionary.

And in fact the opposite of what Todd is saying is true. It takes no imagination at all to insert a supernatural explanation in some spot where you don’t understand the process. It’s all too easy to say "the bacterium flagellum could not have evolved," or "The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain why the Universe is homogeneous everywhere," and therefore "God did it." But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.

You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.

Or to run for the Texas State Board of Education. But that’s certainly not science.

It took a vast leap of imagination for Max Planck to think of gas molecules in the Sun behaving like little springs, oscillating away, able to eject only specific colors of light. It took a leap of imagination for Alan Guth to think that the Big Bang theory wasn’t wrong, but incomplete, and to add inflation to explain why the Universe looks so smooth. It took Darwin’s breadth of imagination to correlate the vast amount of data he collected, and see that it was the unthinking mind of nature that forced species to adapt or die.

It’s all too easy to poopoo science, and to say that scientists are black and white automatons who go through the motions of the scientific method, rejecting anything with sparkle or color or surprise. But that conclusion itself lacks imagination. Science is full of wonder, of surprise, of leaps of imagination. If it were anything else, we wouldn’t have probes orbiting other worlds, we wouldn’t have vaccinations capable of wiping out scourges like smallpox, we wouldn’t have digital cameras, the Internet, ever-faster computers, cars, planes, televisions. We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, support our population, or look ahead to see where our decisions are taking us… and to see if these decisions are the right ones, and what to do to make them better.

Without imagination, even after all these centuries, we’d have learned nothing.

Science is imagination.

Tip o’ the lab coat to Bill Rehm.

Comments (220)

  1. Thank you Phil. Thank you for your good-natured refutation of the anti-science straw man. I am a non-scientist with a profound respect and interest in all things scientific. In fact, I’m an interior designer. That’s a profession that’s supposed to put me at odds with all things rational but that’s another widely believed straw man. People look at me like I have three heads when I makes statements about Physics and Music being a response to the same impulse. Fine Art and Math exist on the same page and for the life of me I will never understand the idea that art and science are different. So different in fact that they oppose one another. Where does that come from? (That’s rhetorical but not really.) This manufactured opposition is the root of anti-science and anti-reason, regardless of its source. Your post today chips away at that whole line of thinking and I applaud you for it.

  2. scotth

    A couple Feynman quotes that fit the topic….

    “As usual, nature’s imagination far surpasses our own, as we have seen from the other theories which are subtle and deep.”

    “What we need is imagination, but imagination in a terrible strait-jacket.” (In that what is imagine must conform to what is known)

    “It is only through refined measurements and careful experimentation that we can have a wider vision. And then we see unexpected things: we see things that are far from what we would guess – far from what we could have imagined. Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” (chilling, no?)

  3. «bønez_brigade»

    Scientific methodology is also self-correcting in such a way as to weed out personal biases that may be affecting research (or the interpretation of results).
    Great post, Phil.

  4. Gonzo

    I don’t even need to read Todd’s article. Phil, did I ever tell you how much you rule?

  5. Jason Dick

    Let me just say I agree 100% with everything you wrote here. I’ve said many of these same things myself a number of times, in fact.

    Tangentially-related, we need to teach children science in schools. Not the facts and figures, but the process. I know in my education that the process of science was never sufficiently made clear to me until I started studying at a university. Not even the community college I went to did a decent job of showing what science is within science classes.

  6. Winter Solstice Man

    I bet part of this ignorant attitude stems from Albert Einstein’s famous quote about imagination being more important than knowledge.

    People are afraid that cold, hard science will rip away mystery and their belief system. So many want to remain buried inside the Matrix and never take the Red Pill.

    We need to do something about this factory-style education system we have, otherwise we will continue to create a nation of beer-swilling fools while the few truly smart ones languish under their ignorance.

  7. Alan

    “If something can’t be “proved” through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it’s irrelevant.”

    It seems to me this is another common strawman: that science “proves things” in a positive sense. Isn’t this completely backwards?

  8. James

    I had one of my kids say that same type of thing in class the other day. He said “Why do we have to study all of this, why can’t we just say God did it?” I stood there for a couple of seconds, and then just have him a one word answer:

    “How?”

    After about ten seconds of silence, and some quick reflection on his part, he shrugged his shoulders, and we moved on….

  9. Outside of mathematics, there is no “proof”. Nothing is proven by science. Hypotheses are supported by evidence- or not. The hypotheses that are supported by evidence are then synthesized into predictive frameworks and labeled “theories”. So long as a theory remains supported by evidence and has explanatory power, we use it. When it’s contradicted by evidence, or we find an area where its explanations fail unexpectedly, we dig in and figure out why.

    Science.

  10. “If it were anything else, we wouldn’t have probes orbiting other worlds, we wouldn’t have vaccinations capable of wiping out scourges like smallpox, we wouldn’t have digital cameras, the Internet, ever-faster computers, cars, planes, televisions. We wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves, support our population, or look ahead to see where our decisions are taking us… and to see if these decisions are the right ones, and what to do to make them better.”

    Couldn’t agree more – good science is proving what it is already explicable – great science is looking at the inexplicable and providing the explanation. The paradigm shifts from flat-earth to round, from geocentric universes to heliocentric (to no particular centre), and from creationism to evolution – all of these required people to look at what did not fit the previous dogma and find out why.

    As long as science is able to keep on questioning – science will find the answers. Religion killed questions (and questioners) a long time ago.

  11. Jean-Denis Muys

    I agree with all you say, Phil, but it seems to me there is another side of the text you react to, that you didn’t address.

    It’s scientism.

    Wikipedia defines it as “the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life”. In my mind it’s more the political attitude whereby every decision is made by taking into account only science.

    In both cases, scientism occurs only when somebody wants to use science outside of science (and even then, excessively).

    This is why asking that only *science* be taught in *science* classes is not scientism.

    How to use science outside science is a very interesting question. It’s probably a very good idea to discuss this question in a philosophy class for example.

    Additionally, it seems to me the way Mr Todd addresses the possibility of purpose in evolution is totally off base. That also would be worth dismantling.

  12. Kimpatsu

    Great article, Phil; it echoes my sentiments exactly.
    Just one quibble: You’re explanation will be shown to be wrong…
    Shouldn’t that be “your”…?

  13. Scientism is terribly limiting of human understanding. It leaves little or no place for the insights of the arts, philosophy, psychology, literature, mythology, dreams, music, the emotions or spirituality.

    (emphasis mine) One of these things is not like the other. I’m pretty sure most psychologists would be a bit peeved if you told them they weren’t doing science.

  14. Science requires the same degree of imagination as all those other fields Tood mentions. The process of science is just there to keep the imagination from going overboard into nonsense, like what happens with religion.

    I’m guessing Todd doesn’t complain about philosophers using principles of logic to formulate their arguments and call it “logicism”.

  15. @Jason Dick – saw your post after I posted mine… again, you are absolutely correct that we need to teach science and the method to kids – i’ve spent time in science classrooms in recent years and it is simple empirical teaching in order to get the kids through the exams so that the schools gets a favourable assessment from school inspectors.

  16. @Jean-Denis Muys: Science is a method of reasoning. It’s a very good method of reasoning that works in pretty much all situations. So, how, exactly, does one use science outside of science?

    I don’t understand how this is possible.

  17. fos

    I am going to use the paragraph on magic and supernatural powers within my science class. It is a great quote.

    Can you imagine how chaotic the world would actually be if some people could actually do “magic” or if a supernatural power intervened in the affairs of men?

    Talk about uncontrollable unintended consequences!

  18. Can you imagine how chaotic the world would actually be if some people could actually do “magic” or if a supernatural power intervened in the affairs of men?

    Yeah, because I’ve read lots of comic books. I’d hate to live in a world where the forces of nature have personalities and the laws of physics can be suspended through countless means, often by accident.

  19. Andy Cooke

    Am I a cynic for reading this fella’s argument as “Science is hard. I don’t want to have to think about it. I’ve got an argument that makes ignorance the morally better stance. So it’s easier and morally better. Go me!”?

  20. As Dr. BA’s regulars know all too well, the sentiments (sediments?) expressed by Todd in that article are common amongst those who don’t understand the power of science and thus fear it, or do understand its power and thus fear it even more because of the threat it poses to their own blind superstitions.

    How many comment threads have ticked their way into the hundreds of posts when these people go on the attack with their shallow arguments? Like Todd, I suspect every one of them to a person does not really understand the subject they pretend to be knowledgeable enough in to debate and, supposedly, refute. Witness Chuck in the evolution threads. Or Anaconda in the endless plasma = unifying force of the universe thread.

    The posters above are correct, there seems to be a fundamental issue with the way the foundations of science are taught in elementary schools. We need to be emphasizing, right away, the power of science. We need to show kids that one person’s reasoning, and yes, coupled with imagination, can literally take on the universe and change the world. That’s what the first years of science education should be about: you, kid, can rock! And the process of science can be the tool that empowers you.

    Or….bore little kids to death memorizing the periodic table of elements and put them off science forever.

  21. @ Andy Cooke:

    You nailed it.

  22. MartyM

    Very nice. Thank you.

  23. As a former resident of the city of Vancouver and its environs, I would like to remind Phil and everyone else that unless things have changed substantially since I left there, the Vancouver Sun is best used to line a bird cage or as a wrapper for a fish-and-chips lunch.

    Don’t take anything you read in it too seriously.

  24. David D

    Isn’t this the same blog that used to have on its masthead “I likes my reality, and I aims to keep it that way” or some such statement?

  25. Chris

    The real problem here is that the article makes no sense. He keeps making vague references to things that can’t be scientifically proven which should be taught to children.

    What does that mean? It’s like Carl Sagan’s invisible fire-breathing dragon. Call me a scientismist(?), but if there’s no evidence beyond the fact that he thinks it sounds nice, it may as well have never happened. If he’s saying that God took a hand in guiding evolution, that’s a theory. He’s welcome to it, and it makes a statement about our world. Thus, we can test it. It won’t be easy, but it should be possible to compare evolutionary rates and trends to those predicted by random chance. If there’s no difference, maybe God did take a hand, but He did so rather pointlessly.

    That’s what’s wrong here. Not that he thinks science lacks imagination, but that he thinks science is artificially limited. Any statement about the world we observe is a statement that can be tested. He’s just too scared to admit it.

  26. Todd W.

    *sigh* How unfortunate that the guy’s last name is “Todd”.

  27. Chris Holden

    I think we’re beginning to see in the comments that scientism is real and see it for what it is, something that by and large makes the experience of learning science in formal environments not feel at all like science. Although the usual debate grounds here are the, in some sense, easy marks of anti-vaxxers or intelligent design, we miss the ways in which official dogma, speaking for science actually pushes scientism.

  28. It’s all too easy to poopoo science

    It’s easy to pooh-pooh science; poopooing means that you ate your textbook, a far greater task.

  29. T_U_T

    Can you imagine how chaotic the world would actually be if some people could actually do “magic” or if a supernatural power intervened in the affairs of men?

    I don’t think it would be much more chaotic than it is. I actually think it would hardly change at all. What difference is in effect is a betweeen fireball spell and incendiary ammunition ?

  30. T_U_T

    errata :What difference is in effect is between fireball spells and incendiary ammunition ?

  31. T_U_T
  32. Sorry, T_U_T, I accidentally cast a magic spelling error hex on you.

  33. Nomen Publicus

    When idiots like Todd sit down to write such tripe why doesn’t it occur to them that the computer they use, the car they commute in, the building heating and lighting, the glasses they may wear are all a result of tens of thousands of researchers and technologists. Science has created the world they live in. Indeed without scientists with imagination working with wheat, corn and rice, billions would have died in the past 50 years.

  34. FFFearlesss

    Without imagination, science is a dictionary.

    One of the most profound statements I’ve read in a long time.

    I too once believed that science’s “job” was to strip all of the wonder out of the universe by explaining it with boring details and breaking it down into more manageable parts. But it’s when you start looking, really looking into those “more manageable parts” that you start to TRULY appreciate just how complex, how amazing, yes, how MAGICAL this universe is.

    What’s more magical, watching Michael Jordan sink a three-pointer, which we all kind of expect him to do… or watching some kid chuck the ball over his head from the rafter, watch as it bounces off the scoreboard, the pylons, the floor, the backboard, Michael’s head before rolling around the rim a few times and dropping through. That to me is the God/Science dichotomy. Science doesn’t strip out the wonder. If anything it makes it more wonderFUL.

  35. Woo! Great post to start the week off. I’m going to share this with a bunch of friends.

  36. Siphoneuphoria

    “…Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

    Why does it always have to be one or the other?

  37. Michael Barrett — There is something of a split on the question of whether psychology is science. Most psychologists think it is, and would be offended if you suggested otherwise. A lot of other people (including what often seems like most scientists) don’t.

    Psychology is almost certainly the softest of the soft sciences, and one can certainly be forgiven for lumping it in with spirituality, since so very little of what it proposes can be observed, is routinely predictive, or even makes sense.

    For what it’s worth, philosophers would also be offended, because they imagine that philosophy is the foundation of science.

    Phil — I do wish people would take the time to understand what they’re talking about before they start arguing against it. It’s really the least they can do.

  38. Phil – Also, check your grammar and semantics.

  39. Wow. Just this morning on the subway ride to work I was thinking that no one would read any classic literature if the authors used god to explain all the events in their books instead of a rich tapestry of complex characters striving toward something or other.

    Imagine reading, say, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where, instead of the infinite improbability drive, Adams simply told us that god moved Arthur, Ford and Zaphod from location to location at his whim. Wouldn’t be an interesting right? Why is it more interesting when we’re talking about the origin of life and consciousness? Seriously, how is that possible?

  40. JediBear I respectfully disagree. While there’s a metric boatload of things we don’t understand about human consciousness or “the mind” that doesn’t mean that psychologists don’t do experiments, record their results, and base further experiments upon those results. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology#Research_methods

    That’s the heart of the scientific method.

  41. T_U_T

    When idiots like Todd sit down to write such tripe why doesn’t it occur to them that the computer they use, the car they commute in, the building heating and lighting, the glasses they may wear are all a result of tens of thousands of researchers and technologists. Science has created the world they live in. Indeed without scientists with imagination working with wheat, corn and rice, billions would have died in the past 50 years.

    One explained me that in terms of ministerial use of reason and magisterial. If you use results of science to advance your anti-scientific ideology, it is a legitimate ( in fact the only legitimate ) ministerial use, because reason does not judge the ideology and is merely used as a tool for the destruction of the reason itself.
    If you use science to evaluate ideology itself( instead of accepting it uncritically ) this is the dreaded magisterial use of reason. Because reason has placed itself above the sacred ultimate dogma.
    ( I suppose if their view would be just a little bit more warped we could use them as FTL drive cores )

  42. elaine

    Nicely done, Phil!

  43. Bad Albert

    This Todd guy has been writing a lot of nonsense in the Vancouver Sun. He recently did a column on “The 12 Theories of Evolution”.

    http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/thesearch/archive/2009/02/28/join-the-real-charles-darwin-debate-on-the-12-theories-of-evolution.aspx

    Warning. May contain nuts.

  44. Joe

    Love your blog! And this is coming from the most science illiterate person – you present science in such a way that I am able to slightly grasp the meaning of whatever youre talking about and I applaud you for that!

  45. Phil, old man, if you don’t believe that there’s such a thing as “scientism”, then I can only conclude that you haven’t been paying attention to the last hundred years or so of social history — or even to some of the sillier episodes of “Star Trek”. There are millions of people out there who quite sincerely believe in the Great Evolution God with intentions and plans and commandments. They may not use the word “god”, and they may even sincerely call themselves “atheists”, but they mean “god” all the same. For a particularly egregious example, check out the 1st-season episode of “Enterprise”, in which our heroes happily commit genocide, justifying their actions with the idea that they are only helping along the Big Evolutionary Juju’s master plan.

  46. T_U_T

    If you want to know what they really think about science and its place in the society, read this. ( warning, serious head explosion danger )

  47. firemancarl

    Well, how sciency is this? On our local ABC affilate here in Orlando (WFTV) they just said that Lisa Nowaks’ defense team wants her tested for autism! If that is not 100% epic pwned! I dunno what is!

  48. T_U_T

    in which our heroes happily commit genocide, justifying their actions with the idea that they are only helping along the Big Evolutionary Juju’s master plan.

    This is not scientism, this just is a kind of deism or somethink.

  49. T_U_T

    something….. counterspell against kuhnigget still not working properly.

  50. @ T_U_T:

    Nah, that was my Colonel Klink spell.

    @ John Kennedy:

    Care to list a single example of those “millions of people out there” who treat evolution as a god? I mean, a single example that isn’t from a fictional TV show?

  51. Utakata

    Can the author of this article then explain that as a gifted artist with a wild untamed imagination who loves fantasy, why I am also a skeptic?

  52. ND

    John W. Kennedy,

    Which episode of Enterprise are you referring to?

  53. T_U_T

    Care to list a single example of those “millions of people out there” who treat evolution as a god? I mean, a single example that isn’t from a fictional TV show?

    I don’t know whether there are millions of them, but there is a lot of social darwinists who treat natural selection as something sacrosanct that should be not interfered with by rescuing people who would die otherwise.

  54. Jeff

    Science really means the scientific method, which has been defined variously as a process of steps; observation, hypothesis, experiment verifying a specific hypothesis, drawing predictions, actually observing the prediction, to glorifying this to status of theory. That is science, a process, a tentative process, with no “absolute truth” ever at the end of the rainbow.

    The wonderment, etc. part is secondary to above process. The trouble with people today is they focus on things that are not grounded in the process so very few people really understand science. This is why shysters such as the ID people can take candy from the babies because faux science IS science in these people’s heads.

    By the way, I’ve gotten used to fake Xmas trees , when I was a kid they had the real deal. So faux science is just a accepted today as the real stuff used to be 3 -4 decades ago.

  55. Sisyphus

    What a post! I would had believed someone who told me those words were from Carl Sagan. Thank you.

  56. T_U_T

    Which episode of Enterprise are you referring to?

    There was an episode in which they deliberately refused to evacuate a civilization at pre-technological level because rescuing them would mean interfering with their society, so almost the entire civilization was wiped out by the star becoming a red giant. ( some crew members were not that cruel and against their commands they rescued one tribe anyway )

    en . wikipedia . org / wiki / Homeward_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

  57. Which episode of Enterprise are you referring to?

    “Dear Doctor”, most likely.

  58. Jean-Denis

    t3knomanser Says:
    April 6th, 2009 at 8:35 am
    @Jean-Denis Muys: Science is a method of reasoning. It’s a very good method of reasoning that works in pretty much all situations. So, how, exactly, does one use science outside of science?
    I don’t understand how this is possible.

    Well, I apologize both for my poor English and my conciseness. What I meant is the following:

    “using science outside science”: using science in a number of situation that are not the object of science. Hmmm I’m not sure that’s much clearer, so let me give you a few examples:

    – politics is not science. You can use science in politics (and abuse it). This might lead to scientism.
    – art is not science. You can use science in the context of art, or study art history, or some art structure using tools of science, but evaluating a piece of art is not an act of science.
    – friendship is not science. Groucho Marx set aside, I would not have as a friend somebody who chose me on a purely “scientific” basis.
    – religion is not science, well, almost by definition, because it requires faith.
    and so on

    So life is not 100% science.

    That’s what I meant by saying “using science outside of science”. It’s mostly a question of context if you will. In particular, science classes are in the context of science, and it makes little sense to talk about scientism in that context.

    But scientism is definitely a risk in a political context.

  59. Here’s some more, this one from the Telegraph’s Missing the Point desk: Why science doesn’t make sense.

  60. ND

    T_U_T,

    I remember that episode of ST:NG. The premise of that episode did not make sense. In the context of a primitive society faced with anhiliation, the spirit of the Prime Directive made no sense. I thought what the writers had Picard and the gang do something uncharacteristic of them. It was Worf’s human step-brother that rescued the group behind the crew’s back if I remember right.

    I’ll have to go through 1st season synopses of Enterprise later in the day.

  61. Laura

    This made me think of Sam Hughes, The Astronomer’s Loss, which I pasted below. It has never made sense to me to think that if we do have a creator, he would have given us the ability to imagine and rationalize but not want us to use it.

    The Astronomer’s Loss

    “For the future,” says the astronomer. “Humanity always needs challenges, horizons, adversity, to be constantly striving for the future. We had plans for the future. We went the Moon and we were going to found a colony there. We were going to go to Mars, and found a colony there too. We were going to colonise Europa, and Titan, and maybe others. We were going to capture and mine the asteroids, build space elevators, build ark ships and go to other star systems. We need space… so that we can study, and learn more about the universe and discover new science. We could be like you, flying faster than light– we know it’s possible now! We could gain that much power. If you only gave us the time. We could colonise the galaxy and the universe.”

    “But you haven’t.”

    The astronomer lowers his gaze from the growing ink blot in the sky and looks towards the horizon. Bright city lights. “To survive,” he says. “One world cannot protect us forever. Humanity is vulnerable, living on a single unprotected rock. We need to be insured in case of asteroid impacts, or gamma ray bursts from space. We need to diversify genetically, to adapt to new environments and live on new worlds and look at the universe through new eyes. There’s no other way to survive. You’re taking away billions of years of potential future.”

    “No, we aren’t.”

    He tries to stop shaking. “We need… something to shoot for. It’s the only reason we ever built anything. It’s the only reason we have mathematics, the only reason we have science. Because we wanted to understand the sky. We need light. We need stars to follow. We need inspiration.”

    “You don’t.”

    Bright city lights. Millions of people who never even looked at the stars.

    The voice says, “With the Moon and stars and planets we provided you with boundless opportunities. We gave you gifts. But you have shown no inclination to take advantage of them. Thus, the gifts are worthless to you, and we are giving them to somebody else.”

    The planets are all long gone. The inkblot finally closes overhead and the last star winks out. The gibbous Moon remains shining balefully down on the world for a tense and hopeful minute, but then, in an eyeblink, is swallowed up by one final event horizon, and spirited away.

    Left in utter darkness, the former astronomer tries and fails to deal rationally with his loss, and his isolation from the human race who, as the voice rightly tried to tell him, has really lost nothing.

  62. Donnie B.

    Phil wrote:

    “It takes no imagination at all to insert a supernatural explanation in some spot where you don’t understand the process.”

    I understand what you mean here, and it’s certainly true that in today’s god-soaked cultures, such an explanation can be produced with little creativity. But historically, I’d say the early humans who first came up with supernatural explanations were indeed using imagination.

    I mean, what naked ape thought up the idea of a giant invisible man in the sky tossing thunderbolts around to explain a storm? She was pretty imaginative in my book.

    Jean-Denis: how about this example? You can use a laser system to measure the statue of David down to the individual marble grain level, but that won’t tell you why it’s a great work of art, or why it has such emotional impact on us.

  63. Todd W.

    @Donnie B.

    how about this example? You can use a laser system to measure the statue of David down to the individual marble grain level, but that won’t tell you why it’s a great work of art, or why it has such emotional impact on us.

    No, but sciences studying the cognitive impulses when viewing works of art can, perhaps, offer an explanation. ;)

  64. Regarding that whole Star Trek “prime directive” thingee…

    While it might have been a good political or moral policy (might have been, and in any case it was frequently ignored, so obviously it wasn’t so prime after all. but anyhoo…)… It is surely not Darwinism, for it assumes that the actions of the interfering civilization are somehow not a part of nature. Utter bilge.

    Ditto with any non-fictional human action, activity, technology, or whathaveyou. As someone on this thread or another one quoted, everything that exists is part of the natural world.

    That’s why human beings create laws to make their lives better. If we left it to the natural world, life wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. Wouldn’t be nearly so long, either, I bet.

  65. In case you people do not know – Star Trek is fiction.

  66. ND

    The prime directive was ignored often in order to get an exciting story for an episode :)

  67. *applause!*

    That is all.

  68. Donnie B.

    Todd W:

    I agree that your example would be a proper application of science to the understanding of the fine arts. I was giving an example of an improper application, at least if the experimenter was hoping to gain some insight beyond the mere physical measurements themselves.

    Incidentally, some artworks have been (are being) measured in exactly this way for purposes of archiving and gaining understanding of the artist’s technique. I don’t recall if David was one, but it may have been.

  69. Pieter Kok

    Todd W.: “No, but sciences studying the cognitive impulses when viewing works of art can, perhaps, offer an explanation. ;)”

    I did notice the smiley, so I suspect you are playing Devil’s advocate here. However, Jean-Denis is quite right. From a philosophical point of view, art, science, and politics are reasonably well defined, and applying the widely agreed definition of scientism leads to the conclusion he arrived at. It does not matter that there are grey areas where the distinction of art and science becomes blurred. It is enough to note that there are cases where they are clearly different.

    The explanation that science will give for art experience cannot go further than hypothesizing and corroborating the cognitive mechanism. But the description of the mechanism is not the same as the experience itself! That is the crucial point.

  70. Todd W.

    @Pieter Kok

    I did notice the smiley, so I suspect you are playing Devil’s advocate here.

    Drat! You caught me! See, this is why I just can’t be a troll… I give myself away far too early.

  71. Billingham Says:
    It’s all too easy to poopoo science
    It’s easy to pooh-pooh science; poopooing means that you ate your textbook, a far greater task.

    And what comes out? Pandas and People?

    kuhnigget Says:
    Sorry, T_U_T, I accidentally cast a magic spelling error hex on you.

    Don’t you have a spell checker?

    ;)

    J/P=?

  72. I was giving an example of an improper application, at least if the experimenter was hoping to gain some insight beyond the mere physical measurements themselves.

    I agree that trying to figure out why a statue is beautiful just by taking some measurements would be pretty useless, but it seems more like a hypothetical example than anything that actually happens. I don’t see much “scientism”, as you’ve described it, outside of juvenile literature. I’ve especially not seen scientists claiming that the scientific method is the best or only way to make subjective value judgments. That’s probably why Phil didn’t delve into it: it’s a non-issue in practice.

  73. Jay

    The author stated a few times that Natural Selection says that “pure chance” is the only driving for behind evolution……

    The Stupid! It Burns!

  74. @Jay: Obviously he doesn’t understand what the word “selection” means.

  75. Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
    Every scientist has to have had some imaginative thought to even begin a project.

  76. Gary Ansorge

    Evolution has no purpose, it’s merely a rigorous description of the way things are. LIFE has two “purposes”. To survive and reproduce. That it “evolves” in order to do that is what is so cool,,,

    Non-scientists always miss the point of seeking to know. They think of scientists as emotionless machines. I wonder if they think musicians “play” music just for the money?
    In music and any other endeavor to know, it is the moment of insight, the surprise when things(musical or otherwise) come to fruition, that feeling of “Ah Hah!!!” when we finally see the culmination of our effort, that is the reward for all that thought/performance. It just feels so dang GOOD!!! Too bad they don’t understand why we spend so much time,,,seeking.
    I kinda/sorta feel sorry for them

    Non-scientist: “So, you’ve spent 40 years working on this problem and finally lucked out on the solution. Why so much effort?”

    Scientist: ” Because luck favors the prepared mind,,,”

    Gary 7
    PS: Dang, that felt good,,,

  77. Socr8s

    Horus Kol:
    “As long as science is able to keep on questioning – science will find the answers.”

    Todd W.: “No, but sciences studying the cognitive impulses when viewing works of art can, perhaps, offer an explanation.”

    I have seen this line of thinking in a few comments and I think this what the author was referring to, or at least the idea behind his argument. Both of these quotes assume science will be able to find the answer. Why? It does not logically follow that science can find all the answers to all of the questions. This does not mean we should stop trying to answer the questions. But, we should acknowledge that we may never find the right answer.

    The other part of his argument is that scientism dismisses that for which there is no evidence yet. Take this quote from Chris, “but if there’s no evidence beyond the fact that he thinks it sounds nice, it may as well have never happened.” The truth is there is evidence to support the idea that evolution is not a complete theory. Yet, Chris fails to acknowledge this evidence exists. The second problem with this line of thinking is that just because the evidence hasn’t been found yet does not mean it is not there. It would be like dismissing the possibility of planets outside our solar system 30 years ago just because we couldn’t find any evidence of them.

    These attitudes are what Mr Todd to refers to as scientism.

  78. Sam Ley

    @Pieter Kok: “The explanation that science will give for art experience cannot go further than hypothesizing and corroborating the cognitive mechanism. But the description of the mechanism is not the same as the experience itself! That is the crucial point.”

    Well said! I’m a big fan of the research being done now in cognitive neuroscience, which is taking us miles further than we’ve been in explaining the processes behind the “unexplainable” aspects of human life and mind. But knowing exactly how a stroke happens is nothing like having a stroke. ;)

    The more we learn about the processes of the mind, the more I come to appreciate the richness of experience we can have. Again, “picking it apart” with science actually improves ones enjoyment of it. Even the simple act of stargazing is enriched by a knowledge of astronomy. Human experiences aren’t at odds with a scientific understanding of them, they are complementary.

    -Sam

  79. Gary Ansorge

    Phil: Loved the David Brin reference. I’m just re-reading his Uplift novels.
    Dang, the man’s GOOD.

    Gary 7

  80. Tom Kelley

    Bravo! Phil. I just finished reading “Trioblite!: Eye Witness to Evolution” by Richard Fortey, published in 2000. I was struck by his imagination and the way he was able to bring lost worlds to life. His description of ancient seas and continents were the product of intense study, much thought and leaps of imagination. Science is a way of thinking that can free us from our superstitious past and carry us to a hopeful future.

  81. R.W. Thomas

    Beautiful.

    :_)

  82. adam

    I can’t believe anyone would deny the fact that our particular brand of science and scientists have an ideology that may or may not directly conform to the ideals of science, or what we hope it is. You can’t go around acting like “results” are objectively, independently extant and interpretations are invariant and yet that’s exactly what so many scientists do, and then in the same breath there are people like the ones here and Phil Plait saying there must be imagination in science. So which is it? Which interpretation requires imagination and is objectively, immutably correct all at once? How can you go around denying the existence of things which, it’s feasible, you can’t even begin to understand, simply because you haven’t seen the proof? It’s entirely possible we don’t have the means to even begin LOOKING for the proof, let alone find it. And still, day after day, all I hear out of scientific camps are criticisms and ridicule of anything that happens to contradict accepted notions.

    It makes me almost ashamed to BE a scientist, because I see the future of science as little more than the caricature I once saw on an episode of South Park, where scientists and science have literally become religions unto themselves, each in their own factions and each blindly denying the interpretations of others just as, for example, fundamentalists deny the findings of science today.

    That’s ASIDE from the fact that almost everyone here and Phil Plait himself seem utterly unable to open their minds to possibilities outside of that which are put forth by admittedly narrow-minded religionists or even their own colleagues. You sink to their level and below when your haughty arrogance leads you into criticizing one particular part of an argument and then denying or ignoring everything else that goes with it or on the other side interpreting something one way and letting it snowball into canon so that anyone who has a different idea becomes a pariah. So keep patting yourselves on the back and looking down at anyone who thinks differently. I’m sure it’ll serve you well.

  83. Michael Barrett — I’ve read your comment and mine several times and I can’t for the life of me figure where we disagree. I don’t recall saying *I* didn’t think psychology was a science. I definately didn’t say that psychologists didn’t do experiments, record results, or base further experiments upon those results.

    While there’s plenty of good science in psychology, there’s a vast amount of bad science, some of which is published in peer-reviewed journals and/or accepted uncritically by the masses. A lot of psychology’s worst work is among its most famous, as well as its most publicly and politically influential.

    Freud just doesn’t have the authority or utility of Newton, and psychology stands as the least science-y of the sciences. I said one could be forgiven for comparing it to spirituality, not that they would be correct.

  84. adam — unless you’re one of those freaky weirdos who doesn’t believe the universe is objectively, independently extant, you have to agree that results *are*. They’re not necessarily unambiguous. They’re not necessarily right. That’s why we re-do the experiment to confirm those results.

    No good scientist thinks of science as immutably correct. Actually, the best science we have today is probably wrong about a lot of things, just like science in the past has always been.

    Science, however, does /work/. Unlike the alternative.

  85. T_U_T

    adam, could you be just more concrete ? Just what idea of yours Phil Plait rejected unjustly ?
    Otherwise It seems you are building a mighty straw man there.

  86. Crux Australis

    Damn, but I *love* the way you right, Doc. I may even have to buy one of your books. You have written a book or two, haven’t you?

  87. Dan I.

    The way I see it, the things that are MOST relevant to science are the things that CAN’T explained.

    If it can’t be explained that’s where the effort is focused.

  88. Jake

    Wow, Phil! Beautifully said! I’m a science teacher currently teaching evolution.

    “But it takes imagination, soaring, incredible, wonderful imagination, to look beyond the limitations of what’s currently known, and see what could possibly be… and even more imagination to make sure this venturing beyond current understanding still stays within the bound of reason and known rules of science.”

    I’m going to have to use that in class.

  89. tsk05

    Phil, you’re unfamiliar with the argument that Todd is making, which is why you misrepresent it. His argument is actually mirrored by Dostoevsky (well, I suspect it is the other way around), particularly in the novel “notes from the underground.”

    Todd starts of as ” Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe. Scientism can, like religious literalism, become its own ideology.”

    There was actually such a belief that science would soon explain everything, from human behavior to the laws of the universe. in the mid to late 1800s. It is called positivism and it did become a religion. Along with forms of utilitarianism, this movement believed that what was needed to boost utility (that is, what was adventitious to men) could and soon would be fully calculated through math and science. This argument is well presented in the novel “What is to be done?” which was the communist manifesto of Russia, that is, it influenced people like Trotsky and Lenin more so than Karl Marx’s works.

    Todd continues that “those who unknowingly fall into the trap of scientism act as if hard science is the only way of knowing reality. If something can’t be “proved” through the scientific method, through observable and measurable evidence, they say it’s irrelevant.”

    This was a common criticism of positivism and this form of utilitarianism – that because some stuff did not yield itself to calculation, it was ignored.

    In short, because you’ve never heard of this, you partially misrepresent the authors argument.

  90. Tod Christianson

    Science is imagination…necessary but not sufficient. Science is the process by which humans find pattern in the Universe. All the toys and benefits are the technology that results from Science. Science is constantly being proved, Technology is its own proof. Scientism happens when people treat Science like Technology. What is required is that society be given critical thinking tools. Everyone should read a book like “Science as a Candle in the Dark” by Carl Sagan when they are in high school.

  91. Dude

    In the US we tend to do a really bad job of teaching our students that science is a process. Science is taught as a collection of known facts, and if you ask even high-schoolers who have had multiple years of science classes what science is, very few will answer that it is a process used to understand how the natural world works. I think that the general public’s dismissal of science is directly related to the misunderstand that science is just a book full of hard-unchanging facts.

  92. I have encountered this failure to understand the philosophy of science numerous times in all different fora (Latin plural for forums?).

    Mostly it comes down to verification. Defining science primarily as a method and process, as noted in some comments above, brings up contradictions when you examine historical accounts of major discoveries now accepted without debate. Many practicing scientists do not study the philosophy of what they are doing. Some people can stumble upon a major scientific discovery without even knowing what they’re doing (the engineers at Bell Labs in New Jersey who discovered the evidence for the Big Bang Theory in the 1960s had no clue what they discovered (one even admitted he did not understand the implications until he read a NYT article about it after returning from Sweden with his Nobel prize.)

    The philosopher who wrote the big book on science as a method was Karl Popper who wrote The Logic of Scientific Discovery. The counter to Popper is Against Method by Paul Feyerabend. The one who contributes useful insights and also the most popular of the three is Thomas Kuhn who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Creationists and anti-science people love to quote-mine Kuhn.

    What they all agree on is verification. The use of deductive reasoning to test theories by disproving a falsifiable hypothesis gives modern science its distinctive element that separates it from medieval thinking. Up to verification any “method” can work: inductive reasoning, fairy tales, all manner of creativity and imagination come into play. But once you have a quazi finished theory (no theory is every entirely finished, closed or complete) then it’s verification time. Make accurate predictions, free of contradictions or anomalies, phrase the explanation in a manner that could be dis-proven were it false, do everything you can to prove it false, etc.

    Many people have trouble wrapping their minds around this concept. I did for many years.

  93. T_U_T Says:
    April 6th, 2009 at 10:07 am
    If you want to know what they really think about science and its place in the society, read this. ( warning, serious head explosion danger )

    Yup. I’m still sponging my brains off the ceiling here. You warned me but I read it anyway. Yikes. Well, at least he quote mines from the best. Maybe if he actually read the books in their entirety? … or maybe he did and made no difference? Oh, nevermind.

  94. Daz

    “there is no such thing as “scientism”.
    Of course there is… It’s a view held by those with a great ‘respect’ for ‘science’ yet little understanding of it. These are the people you are attacking in this article.

    That is not the same thing as saying “science is to blame for red wine being ‘proved’ good for you one week, and ‘bad’ the next. But it is how science is often represented to the public but tabloids etc etc, possibly some scientists (I hope not many!).

    Granted Todd seems mostly focused upon scientists as scientistmists.

  95. Matthew Duhamel

    I actually disagree with most of the comments here, and I am little disappointed in how everyone is viewing Todd as some cretin and Phil as the enlightened teacher revealing the error of his ways. Phil argued that Todd has no understanding of how scientists view their science and why they continue their study, but I do believe it was the scientists that Todd had any interest in. It is that the average individual knows very little about the scientific process, and yet accepts the authority of the scientific community. He was positing the idea that if the scientific community came out with a paper or conclusion about a certain aspect of reality that was false, people would believe it based on the authority and weight with which they view scientists.

    If you won’t accept this argument from Todd, then perhaps you would consider these words from a scientist. I would suggest reading “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book” by Walker Percy. In the end of this book he lays out a great argument about the deification of scientists by the layman, which is the same idea Todd is trying to hit upon.

  96. Lovely post, Phil. I would agree agree with others about the importance of teaching kids about science as a process, rather than just “scientific facts”. In fact, let’s add the process of critical thinking, rather than blind regurgitation.

    … and I’d also like world peace, and a pony. Thank you Santa.

    :-p

  97. Geraldo Edillman

    Listen to Adam. The reality that science produces, the technological fixtures of the every day, are increasingly wrapping themselves around us. The more we become the microwave oven, the darker the distance becomes to that phenomenon of the communal campfire. Were connected more than ever, and yet we don’t seem to be talking about anything at all. As the avenues of superficial interactions continue to increase, it appearse to me that we are responding by lessening the depth of our encounters. I feel were becoming paradoxically more isolated with the communications age.

    I love science and agree that its methods CAN in fact illuminate the wonders of nature. But make no mistake, the scientist can be just as fundamentalist orientated as the evangelist. Were becoming entirley too wrapped up in materialism in the west, and this to my mind is deleteriously influencing the direction of our scientific creativity to be focused on creating more of the same. A homogenious mind is the scariest kind. Listen, and think for yourself.

    Just keep this in mind, because a great scientist is like a great prophet. The individual can be enlightend and instramental in illuminating a new path for life while the fan club can (and often do) champion just the opposite in the very same name.

    Simply put, I feel our society has gone overboard with efficiency and mechanistic technicality. We need to slow down a bit, and integrate some more organic/communal customs back into our day to day experience. And one final note- I see no real difference between the supernatural and the natural. At least in my life I have seen the primacy of both. Spirit and matter are a yin and yang to each other, they need each other, no matter how you slice the pie of existance.

  98. Peachy

    @Gary 7: Sorry to nitpick (but as a biology instructor I am compelled to nitpick). I would have to say LIFE has ONE biological purpose: to survive long enough TO reproduce. The bee drone or male spider that dies after mating has fulfilled its biological purpose.

    @Steven Dunlap: Perhaps I misunderstand your point, but science is nothing BUT a process. Observation, hypothesis, and verification ARE the process. How you get there is less important (and isn’t, technically, necessarily part of the process) as long as all the “steps” are taken. Especially if you subscribe to the notion that insight and intuition are the correlation of facts that you didn’t know you had. And just because the person with the insight and the person with the evidence aren’t always the same person doesn’t change that fact. when followed properly, the process is a collective one.

    I agree with most of what Phil is saying. (Heck, the reason I haven’t called myself a biologist since grad school even though I have a degree in biology is that I haven’t DONE formal science since grad school, where I realized that I LACKED the degree of imagination and creativity NECESSARY to be a good scientist and that the best I could aspire to in that direction was being a good technician.)

    I didn’t go read the article, so I didn’t see what were probably Todd’s misrepresentations of how scientism effects evolutionary “debate”, or how it invalidates evolutionary thought, so I can’t comment on that.

    However, I have to disagree with Phil’s denial of the existence of “scientism.” Taken out of context, at least, I can’t disagree with the three paragraphs that Phil quotes and comments on. What he describes in those quoted paragraphs doesn’t sound like science to me. I agree with Daz’ comment about it being “a great ’respect’ for ’science’” with “little understanding of it”. What Todd is describing there is an ATTITUDE. Think of scientism as an opposite extreme of religious fundamentalism. Scientism as he describes exists. There ARE people who are exactly the way he describes, who have raised science to a religion, who believe that science is the answer to (or will be able to answer) everything and can be applied to anything and everything, and that nothing else matters. I have seen “scientism.” (I have read comments here that lead me to believe that [and due to the small sample size I am willing to admit I may be wrong about this] a tiny portion of the readers here may exhibit it.) Thankfully, it seems to be a lot less prevalent in scientists than non-scientists. But “less” is not “none.” A scientist can be just as misinformed (or delusional) as anyone else.

    And I agree with Todd that this is a bad thing, although probably not for the same reasons. The scientific method CANNOT be applied to everything and answer every question. As an example, science might be able to give us the answer that I gave above to Gary for the BIOLOGICAL purpose of life but not the meaning humans give to life. Anyone who says science CAN answer that type of question misunderstands the scientific method, is just as wrong, and is just as potentially dangerous as the anti-science crap artists that Phil is trying to fight with this ‘blog, and should be corrected as frequently as those anti-science crap artists should be.

    Ignoring scientism is as bad as ignoring anti-science. Scientism IS anti-science. Scientism can be as much of a hindrance to educating the public about what science really is as anything coming out of the Dico’tute.

    Scientism can lead you to complacency. Thinking that science can AND WILL solve all of life’s problems is just as dangerous as thinking that God will solve all of your problems. It means YOU won’t solve your own problems, YOU wont change.

    All that having been said, even if scientism ran rampant among evolutionary biologists, I can’t see how that would effect evolutionary thought (and I would agree with Phil’s straw man accusation), biological evolution IS within the scope of science, so thinking science can answer THIS question ISN’T scientism.

    I’ve gotten much too long winded tonight. I’d better leave now. Good night people.

  99. Rob

    A friend sent me this article, and this is the reply I sent to him…

    Thanks 4 that ***** … an interesting read. Did u read it?

    Here is one of my many thoughts about this complex subject called “philosophy of science” in light of this paragraph from the article (quoted)…

    “You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.”

    This guy has fallen for a basic logical fallacy here called “question begging”. That is, he is presuming that which he is setting out to prove. Very naughty!!!

    Just look at what he assumes: that indeed the world is NOT made by God. And how do we know this? Because lots of gaps have been filled. And by invoking another logical fallacy called “induction”, he assumes that upon that basis ALL gaps will eventually be filled. Ergo, this guy is practicing the very scientism that he criticizes!

    This is what I have discovered about most scientists – they have little idea when it comes to philosophy, which by-the-way undergirds all of science.

  100. MadScientist

    The article looks like the usual unimaginative creationist whining about how big bad science won’t let them get away with their fuzzy ideas plus the usual creationist assertions that science kills off all beauty; ignorance is bliss and science and reality are its enemies. Boo hoo hoo.

  101. Fi

    I love this article. So insightful, so truthful and I hope it provides a much needed boost to the self esteem of creative people everywhere who feel they lack something because they are not artistic. I meet too many people who think they are not creative because they can’t draw. And yet professionally they are fabulous problem solvers. Thanks for adding to the evidence.

  102. Thomas

    Maybe a more interesting and relevant definition of scientism would be: a worldview in which the qualitative limits of science are selectively ignored. While I absolutely agree that we should never accept that science has limits in terms of explaining nature, there’s more to life than explaining nature. That’s where completely different modes of thought can, should and will complement science – i.e., appreciating and enjoying rather than explaining art. Similarly, faith and spirituality may offer some orthogonal kind of value that has nothing to do with the explanantion of nature. An individual’s appreciation of art, just like his or her faith, could interact with and hopefully be enhanced by scientific knowlege, but they’re still different domains in principle.

    Maybe the particular offending article expressed the concept badly, but the distinction between the scientific process and any particular more general worldview needs to be made.

  103. Sam K

    @kuhnigget
    “Care to list a single example of those “millions of people out there” who treat evolution as a god? I mean, a single example that isn’t from a fictional TV show?”

    IMO, anyone who talks about evolution, or any science, as “proven fact” falls squarely in that category.

    I’m very well educated, and I strongly believe that evolution is true. But I think it’s accurate to say that there are millions of people who don’t truly understand what science is, yet place more trust in science than real scientists. They consider relativity “proven fact” because they know that Einstein came up with it, and because they heard that it’s withstood test after test; yet they have no idea the difference between general and special relativity. They consider black holes “proven fact” because a consensus of the smartest people in the world, including Stephen Hawking, believes they exist and because they play a central role in the leading theories of how galaxies work. They consider many things, such as the formation of the Earth and the Sun, the lifespans of stars, and the age of the Universe to all be proven fact because they learned these things from very smart people. Their belief isn’t based on understanding; it’s based on faith in the judgment of the wise men.

    The arrogance of the non-scientists (millions of them) in support of what they believe to be science is no different from the arrogance of the non-scientists in support of ideas that don’t have the support of science. Scientific method has nothing to do with consensus, yet consensus of the wise men is all too frequently the core argument of much-too-vocal non-scientists. Their analytic approach to science is no different from their religious counterparts. They just worship a different god.

  104. Ryan

    “You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power… It took a leap of imagination for Alan Guth to think that the Big Bang theory wasn’t wrong, but incomplete, and to add inflation to explain why the Universe looks so smooth.”

  105. another mike

    Science is the process of answering “What the frak is up with that?!”

    I consider myself very fortunate that my grade school science classes taught the scientific method.

    I think we could kill off the whole creationist “debate” (debacle?) if all science classes taught only the scientific method. No facts and figures that you haven’t done an experiment for. Rediscover all the accumulated data for yourself; all the way up through high school. Then in college you get to look up the data to build on the work of others.

    But, alas, it will never happen. The program would be so overwhelmingly successful that sheeple would go extinct. We must preserve the sheeple, they keep us employed.

  106. Hans Wurst

    Yes, Science IS Imagination: a scientist imagines something, and then sets out to proof it (and ignore everything that doesn’t fit.)

    Of course that’s exactly what we all do all of the time, so it’s hard to see.

  107. José

    @adam

    You can’t go around acting like “results” are objectively, independently extant and interpretations are invariant and yet that’s exactly what so many scientists do, and then in the same breath there are people like the ones here and Phil Plait saying there must be imagination in science. So which is it? Which interpretation requires imagination and is objectively, immutably correct all at once?

    There are objective facts we can agree on. For instance there are lights in the night sky called planets that slowly move through the sky unlike most of the stars we see. But it takes imagination to think up an explanation for why these lights move. For instance, you might imagine that they’re fires attached to giant crystal spheres that slowly rotate around an earth centered universe. The idea opens up new avenues that can be tested and can lead to a better understanding of how the world works. There’s no inherent conflict between objective facts and imagination. Having an imagination does not require you to hold on to ideas that are a contradicted by objective facts.

    How can you go around denying the existence of things which, it’s feasible, you can’t even begin to understand, simply because you haven’t seen the proof?

    Are we talking about God now? I don’t think most scientists deny the existence of God, just that there’s any evidence that God exists. That’s a far cry from denying the existence of something.

    It makes me almost ashamed to BE a scientist

    If you are a scientist, I’m ashamed for you.

    because I see the future of science as little more than the caricature I once saw on an episode of South Park, where scientists and science have literally become religions unto themselves, each in their own factions and each blindly denying the interpretations of others just as, for example, fundamentalists deny the findings of science today.

    I’m so sick of “scientists” invoking South Park. It’s like South Park has become a religion to all of you close minded “scientists”. It’s almost like you’ve formed some “Cult of Cartman”.

    That’s ASIDE from the fact that almost everyone here and Phil Plait himself seem utterly unable to open their minds to possibilities outside of that which are put forth by admittedly narrow-minded religionists or even their own colleagues.

    What possibilities are we unable to open our minds to?

    You sink to their level and below when your haughty arrogance leads you into criticizing one particular part of an argument and then denying or ignoring everything else that goes with it or on the other side interpreting something one way and letting it snowball into canon so that anyone who has a different idea becomes a pariah.

    OK, one pretend scientist to another…. What scientifically supported ideas is science ignoring because it violates canon?

  108. T_U_T

    We need to slow down a bit, and integrate some more organic/communal customs back into our day to day experience.

    And there goes the ludditism. Science is right but it leads us away from the ( completely fictional ) pastoralist idyle, so it is bad. Man, did it ever occur to you that pre-industrial life was more cruel, hard, lonely and painful ? There were more wars, more callousness more cruelty, more exploitation. More of the bad, and less of the good. It was an age where people died from overworking at the age of 35. It was age of serfdom and superstition. Nothing like the the rosy dream you have in your head. until enlightenment started bearing its fruits and until we used science how to improve our life, our days were short, cruel and miserable. So, please, throw away your ludditesque fantasies and join us in using science to correct what ever flaws you think current society has.

  109. José

    @T_U_T
    I almost responded to that post, but all I could think of was “Damn new age hippies!”

  110. Greg

    Bravo. I loved that.

  111. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Ah, yes, imagination indeed.

    But it isn’t only necessary, nor even sufficient. It is powerful!

    My best argument, I think, is a real life anecdote. So imagine ;-) this: When researching the properties of the thin film production process reactive sputtering, our then group become over time deeply satisfied with the proposed explanations for it. They were multitude, mostly ad hoc and so by construction rather untestable outside their domain of applicability.

    Dared we imagine a model from first principles? During a group meeting we become frantically scribbling on a white board. “- What if we just put down coverages of ideal surface fractions for all surfaces, and count the incoming and outgoing dissociated atoms for a simplest possible model to start with? – It’s a vacuum chamber, with fast surface processes and so diffusion limited; yes, it could work! – Then this atomic species goes here, and that ends up there, and …”

    And then finally testing a computer model with realistic numbers for our experimental chamber, it graphed the typical hysteresis region (where the process abruptly switches between producing metal films to producing compound films) exactly at the pressures and flow rates we were using without any ad hoc fitting, I believe I understood the meaning of the term “intellectual orgasm”.

    So yes, just adding a little dash of imagination into the stew can entice you a long way beyond what is known towards what is knowable.

  112. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Well, I can’t imagine how “deeply unsatisfied” become “deeply satisfied”, but there it is.

    Perhaps I was remembering that ‘orgasm’ just too vividly…

  113. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What really bugs me with that article isn’t “the lack of imagination” however. It is the typical old and debunked religious arguments and vocabulary that “infects” it.

    And I can well remember how long time it took to discover that “scientism” isn’t a native philosophical but an apologetic theological argument, IIRC stemming from the same time 18-19th century period as the idea that science is ‘induction’ but should be ‘proof’. And as Phil says, there is of course no such thing.

    So why can’t the apologists abandon outdated and never verified ideas of what science is, and look to the modern science and its results?

    For the same reason they aren’t really interested in the science, but out to block it as much as possible as the anti-scientists they are. That is why evolution is, as always, characterized as “pure chance” despite the article description of several theory variants (or the description from the quoted scientist of more mechanisms). And that is why Douglas Todd can’t accept the description of its theory as inclusive. (I.e. adding phenomena and mechanisms in the same way that particle theory adds particles and fields, yet remains “the” theory if not “the standard” theory.)

    Because to accept newer ideas and results would be to yield ground to ‘the enemy’. And as we all know by now, religion, or at least its apologetics, isn’t about understanding and accepting others.

  114. Phil – excellent post. I wrote about this also: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/sgublog/?p=596

    One quibble – to be technically correct, there is something called “scientism” in philosophy. It is the belief that science can and will answer all questions without inherent limitation.

    Todd’s fallacy is in extending scientism to include things that it isn’t, specifically the exclusion of non-science. So, he argues, scientists should not exclude non-science from science because that is scientism. (Fail!)

    Ultimately it’s just another way to argue for the inclusion of failed crap in science.

  115. Phil, if you’re so willing to call out Douglas Todd for his leaps of logic, I think you need to be willing to be called out on the same. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are not even remotely similar. They are asking very different questions. Science does an amazing job of answering HOW and WHEN. Faith tries to answer the WHO and WHY. An understanding of one can illuminate some truth about the other. However, both sides (Phil as well) are very guilty of using one side to explain EVERYTHING which is as absurd as 2+2=Red.

  116. Nigel Depledge

    John W. Kennedy said:

    Phil, old man, if you don’t believe that there’s such a thing as “scientism”, then I can only conclude that you haven’t been paying attention to the last hundred years or so of social history — or even to some of the sillier episodes of “Star Trek”. There are millions of people out there who quite sincerely believe in the Great Evolution God with intentions and plans and commandments.

    And how many of these people are scientists?

    What are the intentions, the plans, the commandments?

    And why have they been hiding this information from me for the last 15 years?

    They may not use the word “god”, and they may even sincerely call themselves “atheists”, but they mean “god” all the same.

    Ah, now, no. I can see where you have gone wrong. The word “atheist” means one who believes there is no god, not one who chooses their god out of humanity’s achievements.

    Science is a way of knowing and understanding the world around us, and it has proved to be the most successful way yet discovered or conceived. However, there remain huge questions and huge challenges, and no-one really knows whether or not we can find out everything we want to in the end anyway. But the one thing we do know for sure is that if you stop trying to find out, then you will definitely never know the answer.

    For a particularly egregious example, check out the 1st-season episode of “Enterprise”, in which our heroes happily commit genocide, justifying their actions with the idea that they are only helping along the Big Evolutionary Juju’s master plan.

    Oh, man, you got me. Argument by Star Trek story. I can’t top that.

    Oh, wait – that’s fiction, not real life.

  117. Wim

    “Science is to see what everyone else has seen but think what no one else has thought.”
    Albert Szent-Györgyi

  118. T_U_T

    Oh, wait – that’s fiction, not real life.

    I suppose this idea got somehow into the story.
    In fact many people believe that sort of “anything but you and your deeds is a part of The Plan so you’d better do nothing”. Of course it is not scientism nor in any way related to scientism. It may be a part of arbitrary belief system. In fact it is rarely found in any science minded folks. It is much mode prevalent in wooers of all sort.

  119. Nigel Depledge

    T_U_T said:

    I don’t know whether there are millions of them, but there is a lot of social darwinists who treat natural selection as something sacrosanct that should be not interfered with by rescuing people who would die otherwise.

    Such as who? And when?

  120. Gary Ansorge

    Ah the old star trek reference used as an example of heartlessness only,,,it wasn’t. The non-interference doctrine was established to prevent OFFICIAL interference with another species development. You’ll note that Worfs brother incurred no sanctions by HIS interference, since he was a private individual. Just as individuals in our culture can rail against Muslim treatment of women but our government has to keep hands off,,,
    Again, “our heroes” were not COMMITTING genocide. They were merely OBSERVERS of an environmental disaster that was resulting in the extinction of a species. Perhaps that planet might eventually produce a more successful species, if left to itself,,,
    Still, I applaud Worfs brother. He practiced compassion on a personal level and that was what the story was really about, how an individual not associated with the Federation government could legally do what the government could not,,,

    T’Was an interesting story development that suggested the kind of ethical quandaries faced by a star faring civilization,ie, should we impose our superior culture or keep our noses out of other folks business.

    I loves me Star Trek,,,

    GAry 7

  121. @ Sam:

    I’m very well educated, and I strongly believe that evolution is true. But I think it’s accurate to say that there are millions of people who don’t truly understand what science is, yet place more trust in science than real scientists. They consider relativity “proven fact” because they know that Einstein came up with it.

    Ah, Einstein! The universal solvent! Dissolves away even the toughest arguments with a single quote.

  122. Nigel Depledge

    Jean-Denis said:

    - politics is not science. You can use science in politics (and abuse it). This might lead to scientism.
    – art is not science. You can use science in the context of art, or study art history, or some art structure using tools of science, but evaluating a piece of art is not an act of science.
    – friendship is not science. Groucho Marx set aside, I would not have as a friend somebody who chose me on a purely “scientific” basis.
    – religion is not science, well, almost by definition, because it requires faith.
    and so on

    So life is not 100% science.

    Well, in fact all of these areas can be understood using a scientific approach.

    Perhaps what you meant was that there are many areas (of which the above are good examples) in which people abuse information that was derived from science, or in which people assert that their agenda is supported by science when it really is not. I don’t see what scientists can do about this, because people often abuse information, or attempt to claim legitimacy that they do not possess, in order to further their own agendas, and science is in the same boat as every other potential source of information.

  123. Gary Ansorge

    PS to Peachy:

    One definition of life that I really like is “,,,a self sustaining, self replicating pattern of mass/energy,,,”.
    It leaves open for discussion the possibility of a plasma based form of “life” as well as silicon based(computer), carbon based or any other mass/energy form. I read an article some time ago about a self sustaining/self replicating plasma created in the lab. I wonder if such exist in the sun???(reference David Brins Sundiver).

    Gary 7

  124. T_U_T

    Such as who? And when?

    What do you want ? Complete list of posts, times and nicknames of all social darwinists I saw on the intertubes ?

    You mean like historical figures ? I dont’ know about the sacrosanct part, but the rest is almost the definition of social darwinism, so pretty much anyone of their ilk.

  125. @ Sam redux:

    Forgot this last part:

    I suspect people who don’t understand science: a) cannot differentiate between science and scientists, and b) don’t consider relativity “proven fact” because they haven’t the slightest idea what it is nor do they care.

  126. T_U_T

    Again, “our heroes” were not COMMITTING genocide. They were merely OBSERVERS of an environmental disaster that was resulting in the extinction of a species. Perhaps that planet might eventually produce a more successful species, if left to itself,,,

    Negligent homicide counts still as homicide. Negligent genocide is thus still genocide .

  127. Nigel Depledge

    Donnie B said:

    how about this example? You can use a laser system to measure the statue of David down to the individual marble grain level, but that won’t tell you why it’s a great work of art, or why it has such emotional impact on us.

    But the emotional impact does not occur at the surface of the statue. It occurs in our minds.

    So, the correct experiment to do would be to view Il Gigante while having one’s brain activity monitored by fMRI (or, preferably, a more precise and meaningful brain scanning technique if we can develop one). Comparison can be made between the subjects while they view various statues and / or images. At present, fMRI is rather crude, as it monitors blood flow, not electrical activity, but EEGs are cruder still. However, if we could develop a more precise and accurate brain scan, we could indeed learn much from such an experiment.

    Now, what point were you trying to make?

  128. Nigel Depledge

    Donnie B said:

    Incidentally, some artworks have been (are being) measured in exactly this way for purposes of archiving and gaining understanding of the artist’s technique. I don’t recall if David was one, but it may have been.

    Yes, David has been scanned.

    If you go to the Galleria del Academia in Florence, you will see that, near the original David (there are several full-size replicas in existence), there is a little computer display with a trackball that allows you to view the digital scan.

  129. Nigel Depledge

    Pieter Kok said:

    But the description of the mechanism is not the same as the experience itself! That is the crucial point.

    Ah. True.

    And different for everyone.

  130. Stephen

    Great post, Phil. You really nailed it.
    I have read through the comments, and I hardily agree that we science teaching needs to improve. When I was in school long, long ago I loved my science courses but I did not excel at them. And if you weren’t the lucky ones taking the advanced courses, you did not get good science teaching. If you were one of the unwashed masses, you didn’t even get the foundations of scientific thinking and method.
    I still love science; love to read about it, hear about the newest things and find out about the history of ideas. I had to do it myself, though.
    There ought to be national standards, better than what we have without the “local control” loopholes. And not only science, but philosophy as well. These two disciplines will instill critical thinking, challenge and educate the “average” student.

  131. Gary Ansorge

    T-U-T:
    Me thinks thou art confused about the meaning of genocide: Here’s one definition:
    1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Article 2, of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[1]

    Note the statement:”,,,acts committed with intent,,to destroy.”

    If there is no ACT committed there is no genocide. By standing on the side lines, Enterprise was an OBSERVER of an extinction event,,,unless you’re saying God was the One performing the ACT (which makes God the genocidal mad man) and Enterprise was culpable as a disinterested observer.

    Gary 7

  132. Ah, but Gary, doesn’t the act of observing affect the phenomena under observation? Hence, the Enterprise crew were committing quantum genocide? ;)

  133. Jeff

    I’ve worked in colleges my whole life, and part of the problem is that many scientists really are arrogant SOBs who hog up the scientific enterprise with their tenure system, which is basically just writing to each other to support each other’s careers.

    Thanks for a guy like Phil who is a breath of fresh air, and series like Universe who allow a diversity of people/opinions.

    Here’s to the breakup of the suffocating tenure system, and here’s to allowing many, many more people to have careers in science.

  134. T_U_T

    Me thinks thou art confused about the meaning of genocide: Here’s one definition:

    I think you misunderstand what I said :
    If you kill by commission, then it is plain homicide ( murder or manslaughter ). If you kill by omission, then it is negligent homicide and is also a crime.
    And by analogy.
    If you kill a whole group of people by commission, then it is plain genocide. If you kill a whole group of people by omission, then it is negligent genocide and should be as a crime as negligent homicide is.

  135. Gary Ansorge

    T_U_T:

    Ah, but as that evil man kuhnigget pointed out, it’s only a quantum genocide,,,

    Still, the legal definition is confined to active participation. Standing around with your hands in your pockets, as we(USA) have done countless times is not DEFINED as genocide. When you’re dealing with acts committed by humans, you have to draw the line somewhere and not giving a toot doesn’t count as active participation. The analogy(killing by omission) is not valid(under the legal definition).

    It still comes down to the question, where do we as a civilization draw the line? Note, that in every instance where a superior technological civilization interacts with an inferior(tech), the inferior dies. Despite our best intentions,,,Perhaps it’s better to be an observer, perhaps not. But that’s something our philosophers and legal eagles will have to struggle over.

    Gary 7

  136. T_U_T

    The analogy(killing by omission) is not valid(under the legal definition)./blockquote>

    Negligent genocide was not defined legally just because it didn’t happened yet.
    And so I am not talking about how the law is right now, I am talking about how the law ought to be. And if there is a law against letting one person die by omission, there definitely ought to be a law against letting a whole group of persons die.

    Note, that in every instance where a superior technological civilization interacts with an inferior(tech), the inferior dies.

    This is not even true( for example we didn’t wipe out Japanese even if we had a huge technological advantage when we first met with them ).
    And, also, preventing possible death of the less developed civilization by letting them all die does not make a sense at all.

  137. T_U_T

    blockquote fail. There also ought to be a preview button here.

  138. Gary Ansorge

    When I say “die” I’m referring to their culture. Japan survived (as a nation) by extracting western culture (and technology) because you can’t have the tech w/o absorbing the world view that gives rise to that tech, thus Japan is no longer culturally what they were before our gun boats arrived in their harbor, thus their CULTURE died. I know, people who have been there think the Japanese are quite different from us but in fact their world view is extremely close to ours. They still retain a bit of the old time cultural veneer, but it’s certainly not what it was 300 years ago. That’s just the nature of cultural assimilation,,,

    What you’re concerned about is what, perhaps, we SHOULD be doing. That’s another discussion,,,as in, shoulda, woulda, coulda,,,

    GAry 7

  139. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    So, negligent genocide (doing nothing while a genocide is taking place) should be a criminal offense? That would mean that every single government in the world that did nothing about the genocide in Darfur (or any other acts of genocide in the world) should be held criminally liable? What would the penalty be for such a crime? Would it only be applicable to government bodies, or would smaller organizations be held accountable, too? What about individuals?

  140. T_U_T

    Japan is no longer culturally what they were before our gun boats arrived in their harbor, thus their CULTURE died.

    I think people are more important than cultures. Cultures are cheap. They can be created, abandoned, resurrected, abandoned again, at will. people can not.

    And even if they were not. Facing only two choices, 1 culture dies, and people survive, 2 both die, there is still no sense in letting them die.

  141. T_U_T

    That would mean that every single government in the world that did nothing about the genocide in Darfur (or any other acts of genocide in the world) should be held criminally liable?

    Yes

  142. T_U_T

    Would it only be applicable to government bodies, or would smaller organizations be held accountable, too? What about individuals?

    anyone capable of stopping it.

  143. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    Okay. Next question is how do you define “capable”? Does it take into account mitigating circumstances, such as having all of one’s military forces engaged elsewhere and unable to act? Please provide more detail.

  144. T_U_T

    Does it take into account mitigating circumstances, such as having all of one’s military forces engaged elsewhere and unable to act?

    Of course it does.

  145. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    And so what is the penalty?

  146. T_U_T

    And so what is the penalty?

    dunno. Never thought about it.

  147. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    While I feel that it is unethical to allow a culture/people to be summarily wiped out and do nothing when one has the power to help, and that any such help will not be detrimental in the end, I can’t see how you could codify a “negligent genocide” law, let alone enforce it. And, if such a law could not be enforced (and by whom?), then the law becomes meaningless.

  148. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    Oh, one other thing, regarding “capable of stopping it”. Do they actually have to have the power to completely stop it? Or does the nonfeasant individual/organization/government merely need to have the capability to mitigate the genocide? If the latter, then in addition to every government in the world, you would need to charge and try every individual and organization, since any single person can make a difference.

    While I understand where you are coming from, you may want to think it through a bit more.

  149. T_U_T

    While I feel that it is unethical to allow a culture/people to be summarily wiped out and do nothing when one has the power to help, and that any such help will not be detrimental in the end, I can’t see how you could codify a “negligent genocide” law, let alone enforce it. And, if such a law could not be enforced (and by whom?), then the law becomes meaningless.

    laws against genocide are equally difficult to enforce if the perpetrator has enough military power. Should we abandon them ?

    If the latter, then in addition to every government in the world, you would need to charge and try every individual and organization, since any single person can make a difference.

    Like what ? Distracting murderers for a while by letting yourself killed first ? Hope you understand this is not a reasonable demand.

  150. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    Like what ? Distracting murderers for a while by letting yourself killed first ? Hope you understand this is not a reasonable demand.

    Of course not! It could be something as simple as donating to a charity working to alleviate the suffering and help exiles. It could be taking an exiled person into your home, or providing them with resources to survive.

    My point was that you need to be pretty careful in how you define “capable” and to whom you apply the law.

    laws against genocide are equally difficult to enforce if the perpetrator has enough military power. Should we abandon them ?

    I disagree. Enforcing the law against a single individual or government is far easier, in terms of logistics, than enforcing the law against dozens, or even hundreds, of governments, individuals and other entities, many of whom may object (forcefully) to a charge. Besides, the laws against genocide are usually enforced, if I’m not mistaken, after the person(s) responsible for the genocide have been subdued or otherwise removed from power.

    Once again, while I agree with the ethical thoughts behind what you are saying, you haven’t fully thought through what such a law would entail. Again, I recommend that before continuing to state your case for such a law, take some time to think through what the law would actually be: definitions, penalties, how it is enforced, who enforces it, and so on.

  151. The anti-science strawman is a staple of religious fundamentalists. There are things we know and more importantly things with whom we are intimately familiar and science does in fact help us fill in the gaps.

    I get a kick out of the Young Earth crowd. How they can be so blindly ignorant of a relatively small fact about Doppler shift, aka red shift is beyond me. Even at the Catholic schools I attended we studied the wave nature of light.

    Should the religious get their way, and we had nearly 8 years of “almost” on that front, I weep for the future.

  152. José

    @T_U_T
    If a drunk driver kills someone, they’ve committed negligent homicide. If you witness a drunk driver kill someone, you’re not guilty of negligent homicide, even if there’s a chance you could have warned the person a car was going to run them down.

    Also, unlike the term homicide, intent to kill is inherent in the definition of genocide. Sitting back and letting genocide happen might be wrong, but it’s not genocide.

  153. T_U_T

    It could be something as simple as donating to a charity working to alleviate the suffering and help exiles

    True but completely different from being actually capable to stop the genocide and not doing so.

    Enforcing the law against a single individual or government is far easier, in terms of logistics, than enforcing the law against dozens, or even hundreds, of governments, individuals and other entities, many of whom may object (forcefully) to a charge.

    true, but it comes down to nothing more than number of the perpetrators. If there is more passive (or even gleeful) enablers than actual murderers it is true. But the opposite is also possible. Huge number (or military power) of perpetrators, and only small amount of passive bystanders.
    I see thus no qualitative difference between law against genocide and law against negligent genocide.
    Especially because deliberate refusing to enforce the law against genocide and comitting negligent genocide is often one and the same thing.

  154. Todd W.

    @José

    Good points, and ones which T_U_T needs to incorporate into his idea of negligent genocide.

  155. T_U_T

    If a drunk driver kills someone, they’ve committed negligent homicide. If you witness a drunk driver kill someone, you’re not guilty of negligent homicide, even if there’s a chance you could have warned the person a car was going to run them down.

    negligent homicide encompasses all cases where someone dies by your neglect. It has been only extended to killing by car accidents so that they can be punished with higher penalties, but that is something completelly different.
    So, if someone can prove you could warn the victim then you are guilty ( no matter how proving that would be difficult )

  156. T_U_T

    Also, unlike the term homicide, intent to kill is inherent in the definition of genocide. Sitting back and letting genocide happen might be wrong, but it’s not genocide.

    How we call it is completely irrelevant. I tentatively named it negligent genocide but the name is not important. Only the fact that deliberately in cold blood letting entire civilization die is evil comparable to intentionally killing them, does matter.

  157. TheBlackCat

    So, if someone can prove you could warn the victim then you are guilty ( no matter how proving that would be difficult )

    Really? Do you have a specific law or court case to back this up, because I was under the impression that this is not the case.

  158. T_U_T

    Do you have a specific law or court case to back this up, because I was under the impression that this is not the case

    Do I need one ?

  159. José

    @T_U_T
    How we call it is completely irrelevant. I tentatively named it negligent genocide but the name is not important.

    It’s only important because you labeled it genocide. Genocide is a specific thing, and if there’s not intent, it doesn’t apply. It would be like someone killing a dog and calling it dog homicide.

  160. T_U_T

    you may call it qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnm if you want. Letting an entire civilization die if you are perfectly capable to rescue them is evil comparable to the evil of actual genocide. Either we agree on that, and then we are on the same page, so the exact word is not important. Or you disagree, and then I consider you being a callous monster. The exact semantics is unimportant either way.

  161. José

    @T_U_T
    negligent homicide encompasses all cases where someone dies by your neglect.

    But you need to establish a legal responsibility to protect the person who died. If you can’t, it’s not negligent homicide.

  162. José

    @T_U_T
    you may call it qwertyuiopasdfghjklzxcvbnm if you want. Letting an entire civilization die if you are perfectly capable to rescue them is evil comparable to the evil of actual genocide.

    I’m not arguing whether it’s evil or not. You started the label game by insisting it was still genocide. I don’t care what you call it.

  163. T_U_T

    so, if you got wounded, I could sit down near you, take out the popcorn, and gleefully watch you growling in agony and then bleeding to death, and I would be not punished for that ?
    I suppose this is american law, where parents have legal right to let their ill child die in horrible agony by refusing her all medical treatment and such.
    I suppose that perverted worldview yields perverted morality yield perverted law like that.
    In our country you would rot in prison for that. Pure and simple.

  164. T_U_T

    I thought it to be related to genocide by the fact that both involved wiping out entire folks. It also included the element of negligence. So i named it negligent genocide for want of better name.
    The only thing I really wanted to sayv is that I consider it to be a heinous crime. no matter what name we give to it.

  165. Mark

    “What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes”

    As far as I can see this is wrong. Science is a method, not a belief system. I’m not aware of anything in the scientific method that necessitates that all of reality can be explained through science. I mean, it might turn out that way, but it also might not.

  166. TheBlackCat

    @ T_U_T

    Do you have a specific law or court case to back this up, because I was under the impression that this is not the case

    Do I need one ?

    Yes, you do. If you are going to claim that something is the law, then you need to establish that it is, in fact, the law. I am not going to just take your word for it.

    Now if you want to claim that it should be the law, then that is an entirely different matter. But your whole argument is based on the premise that since not preventing a death is negligent homicide, then not prevent a genocide is negligent genocide. If not preventing a death is NOT negligent homicide, then your entire argument as you have presented it here falls apart.

  167. TheBlackCat

    so, if you got wounded, I could sit down near you, take out the popcorn, and gleefully watch you growling in agony and then bleeding to death, and I would be not punished for that ?

    Yes, I am under the impression this is the case, at least in some states.

  168. Todd W.

    @T_U_T

    In addition to what TheBlackCat and José have said, what we call it is, in point of fact, important. When talking about the law, precise definitions are crucial, so that the meaning of the law is not distorted wildly.

  169. T_U_T

    Yes, you do. If you are going to claim that something is the law, then you need to establish that it is, in fact, the law. I am not going to just take your word for it.

    frankly. I have no clue how to do it. Maybe spending hours trying to google some databases of precedents would suffice, but, I think it would be a waste of time.

    Yes, I am under the impression this is the case, at least in some states.

    If this is the case, then, maybe i agree that negligent genocide is not a suitable name for that sort of crime. (

    you need to establish a legal responsibility to protect the person who died

    Now if you want to claim that it should be the law, then that is an entirely different matter.

    Or, maybe it is . If I think that anybody should have legal responsibility to protect anybody’s else life, then letting someone die should be negligent homicide and, by analogy, letting a group of people die should be negligent genocide.

  170. Nigel Depledge

    Socr8s said:

    Both of these quotes assume science will be able to find the answer. Why? It does not logically follow that science can find all the answers to all of the questions. This does not mean we should stop trying to answer the questions. But, we should acknowledge that we may never find the right answer.

    While most scientists will acknowledge, if asked, that we may never find answers to some of the most fundamental questions, the endeavour of science is, to some extent, founded on the hope that we can. It is this hope that drives the search for new understanding. Without this hope, there would indeed be no point in seeking.

    I think it was Einstein who said that one of the most astonishing things about the universe is that we can understand it. And to a significant extent this is true. There is much about the universe that we do understand.

  171. Nigel Depledge

    Socr8s said:

    The other part of his argument is that scientism dismisses that for which there is no evidence yet. Take this quote from Chris, “but if there’s no evidence beyond the fact that he thinks it sounds nice, it may as well have never happened.”

    This is correct. It follows the principle of parsimony.

    However, everything in science is, in principle, provisional. Every scientist knows that to uncover evidence that overturns a long-accepted theory would make them famous. So all of the best scientists are always open to odd or unexpected results that may indicate that our present understanding of a phenomenon is inadequate or wrong in some way.

    However, this must be considered within the context that we do have some fairly fundamental theories about the universe (e.g. evolution, general relativity, quantum mechanics) that have been tested so rigorously and so often that we can state with confidence that even if they are wrong, they are at least good approximations for how the universe works. Newtonian gravitational theory, while technically wrong, is still a good approximation, for low accelerations and low gravitational field strengths.

    The truth is there is evidence to support the idea that evolution is not a complete theory.

    This depends on what you mean by “evolution”.

    The theory of evolution contains a set of mechanisms and hypotheses that explain how and why life changes over time. All of the mechanisms have been observed to occur, and several predictions made by evolutionary theory (such as common descent) have been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There may well be other mechanisms that bring about biological change over time that we have not yet discovered, and I would be interested in hearing what this evidence is that these exist.

    However, if you mean that we do not yet have a complete evolutionary history for every organism on the planet, this is correct, but trivially so. The evolutionary history of a species or a group of species is something separate from the theory that describes how species change over time.

    Yet, Chris fails to acknowledge this evidence exists.

    Well, it depends so much on what you meant and on what this evidence is.

    The second problem with this line of thinking is that just because the evidence hasn’t been found yet does not mean it is not there. It would be like dismissing the possibility of planets outside our solar system 30 years ago just because we couldn’t find any evidence of them.

    Exactly right. And completely irrelevant.

    Every biologist would love to discover new mechanisms for evolutionary change, and hence expand evolutionary theory. Eldredge and Gould are widely recognised as being superb evolutionary biologists, at least in part because of their formulation of the hypothesis of punctuated equilibrium. Others had noted before that evolutionary rates of change vary from time to time, and that the fossil record sometimes records long periods of relative stability. Eldredge and Gould tied it all together into a new component of evolutionary theory.

    These attitudes are what Mr Todd to refers to as scientism.

    Yes, and they are completely fictitious when applied to actual scientists. Perhaps he is projecting.

  172. Nigel Depledge

    adam said:

    I can’t believe anyone would deny the fact that our particular brand of science and scientists have an ideology that may or may not directly conform to the ideals of science, or what we hope it is. You can’t go around acting like “results” are objectively, independently extant

    Why not? If independent labs come up with the same result for an experiment, why should we not consider that result to be objective?

    and interpretations are invariant and yet that’s exactly what so many scientists do,

    Not where I come from they don’t. Have you never seen “literature wars”, where two (or more) opposing schools of thought criticise one another’s interpretation of results? Typically, each school of thought seeks to unearth data that supports their view, until one or other group comes up with an experiment that all parties consider a conclusive demonstration.

    and then in the same breath there are people like the ones here and Phil Plait saying there must be imagination in science. So which is it? Which interpretation requires imagination and is objectively, immutably correct all at once?

    Do not conflate the objective result with the imaginitive and subjective and human interpretation of that result.

    Then again, imagination is often required to throw off the shackles of preconception and actually see what the results are telling you. Such was the case for most of the main developments of quantum mechanics, for instance. I am sure that the development of QED (quantum electrodynamics) and QCD (quantum chromodynamics) required a great deal of imagination.

    How can you go around denying the existence of things which, it’s feasible, you can’t even begin to understand, simply because you haven’t seen the proof?

    No-one does this, it is a strawman. Unless, of course, you have evidence to the contrary?

    It’s entirely possible we don’t have the means to even begin LOOKING for the proof, let alone find it.

    Yeah, string theory is a good example of this. At present, we have no tools to probe which of the many forms of string theory may be closest to reality. Problems like thios are widely recognised, so what’s your beef?

    And still, day after day, all I hear out of scientific camps are criticisms and ridicule of anything that happens to contradict accepted notions.

    This is, if you’ll pardon me risking typifying the behaviour you denigrate, ridiculous. Scientists occasionally ridicule what contradicts known facts, but that is different from the contradiction of accepted notions. Many of the greatest advances in science contradicted accepted notions at the time (e.g. QM, evolutionary theory, plate tectonics).

    To take a modern example, creationism (including intelligent design) is ridiculed by some scientists because it contradicts known facts. It is wrong. Another example is astrology. This has been shown to have no predictive power whatever – it’s a con.

    It makes me almost ashamed to BE a scientist,

    I’d be interested to know what kind of scientist you are, because previous comments on this blog under your name have preferred to accept the woo rather than the mainstream science, and you seem to have very little understanding of how modern scientists actually behave.

    because I see the future of science as little more than the caricature I once saw on an episode of South Park, where scientists and science have literally become religions unto themselves, each in their own factions and each blindly denying the interpretations of others just as, for example, fundamentalists deny the findings of science today.

    Well, I have never witnessed such dogmatism. Perhaps I have just worked alongside better scientists than you.

    That’s ASIDE from the fact that almost everyone here and Phil Plait himself seem utterly unable to open their minds to possibilities outside of that which are put forth by admittedly narrow-minded religionists or even their own colleagues.

    Try me. Just make sure you have the evidence to back up your claims, and remember that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

    You sink to their level and below when your haughty arrogance leads you into criticizing one particular part of an argument and then denying or ignoring everything else that goes with it or on the other side interpreting something one way and letting it snowball into canon so that anyone who has a different idea becomes a pariah.

    I hope you have evidence to back this up – otherwise you are being slanderous.

    Again, I say – show me the evidence.

    I do my best to address every part of an argument that someone makes. Of course, often this is not possible because of time constraints. And sometimes it is not necessary. Sometimes people will make a comment that rests on a single, huge misconception. In such cases, only part of the “argument” needs to be shown to be faulty to refute the whole thing.

    So keep patting yourselves on the back and looking down at anyone who thinks differently. I’m sure it’ll serve you well.

    Yeah, well, maybe you ought to open your mind to the possibility that some “different” ways of thinking are better than others.

  173. Nigel Depledge

    Rob said:

    Just look at what he assumes: that indeed the world is NOT made by God.

    No, Rob, Phil does not assume this. He merely accepts that we have no evidence of any kind that it was.

    Now, while absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, the principle of parsimony suggests that we should adopt the simplest explanation unless evidence comes to light that indicates otherwise.

    And how do we know this? Because lots of gaps have been filled.

    Again, not so. Phil illustrates the fallaciousness of the “god of the gaps” as a concept. Equating ignorance to evidence for god opens up god to destruction by increased knowledge.

    And by invoking another logical fallacy called “induction”, he assumes that upon that basis ALL gaps will eventually be filled.

    Exactly where does Phil do this?

    Or are you assuming that he does it?

    Ergo, this guy is practicing the very scientism that he criticizes!

    You use the word “ergo” but you do not seem to understand what it means. You have not shown what you claim. Either go away or present a proper detailed argument.

  174. Mark

    Rob says: “And by invoking another logical fallacy called ‘induction’, he assumes that upon that basis ALL gaps will eventually be filled.”

    Nigel Depledge says: “Exactly where does Phil do this?”

    I say: Right here: “You can always insert magic or belief or some supernatural power, but in the end that is a trap. Because someone else who is more imaginative than you will see the actual steps, the process reality made, and then you are left with an ever-narrowing amount of supernatural room in which to wiggle. And once that gap starts to narrow, the squeeze is inevitable. Your explanation will be forced to fill zero volume, and you’re done. Your explanation will be shown to be wrong for everyone to see, and your only recourse will be to abandon it, far too late to save your credibility.”

    Sounds to me like he’s saying that ALL gaps will eventually be filled with scientific reasoning. Maybe, maybe not. We should not discount the possibility that other forms of reasoning may be able to fill some gaps that the scientific method cannot. We should also not discount the possibility that ALL human reasoning, scientific or otherwise, cannot fill some of the gaps, as Kant argued, I believe.

  175. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    By standing on the side lines, Enterprise was an OBSERVER of an extinction event

    To the original point, there is nothing of evolution in this – the original point rely on accepting the same failed reasoning as the social darwinism that biologists abhor.

    [And really, we affect our evolution all the time – by choosing to drink milk as adults some populations have become lactose tolerant, by growing in numbers we have accelerated selective adaptation two orders of magnitude, et cetera. Whatever choice Enterprise made, they were part of the environment (possibly by exempting themselves) and so part of the process. What biologists say, as I understand it, is that cultural actions should be decided by cultural rationality, anything else is playing up to the natural fallacy.]

    @ Gary:

    “,,,a self sustaining, self replicating pattern of mass/energy,,,”

    But that wouldn’t necessarily evolve (if no variation), and evolution both the only life process we know of and likely the most potent anyway.

    (Ever wondered why we don’t observe surviving eternal non-cellular biotic colonies left over from Earth’s abiogenesis stage? Probably because they were outdone by evolutionary cellular populations, or the environment changed from some other cause.)

    So FWIW my position is that the evolutionary process of life can be defined as “common descent” (hereditary change over time), and any population partaking in it is by an inclusive definition life. Yes, even populations of “pattern of mass/energy”.

    (Then you may want to specify “biological life”, “mass/energy pattern life”, et cetera, unless you have your hots for genetic algorithms.)

  176. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Mark:

    As far as I can see this is wrong. Science is a method, not a belief system.

    I think Phil is quite clear here, that Todd confuses the method with a belief system, and so now do you do the same. There is a clear distinction between attempting to apply the method on everything observable and seeing it being successful, and the method giving the answer “don’t know” at times.

    [It is also the confusion of tsk05 on “positivism”, which IIRC simply states that empirical knowledge, more precisely science, applies to observable, definable, things. It is quite useful for scientists even if philosophers have ‘failed’ it. For example, the statistician Cosma Shalisi, a man with IQ enough to go round for two scientists, points out that he is a working, living, successful positivist with the same frankness that Phil points out that he is an elitist.]

    And moreover it isn’t even a failure of the method, as it contains “don’t know” as the null state.

    Sounds to me like he’s saying that ALL gaps will eventually be filled with scientific reasoning. Maybe, maybe not.

    Again you confuse what we can observe with eventual hiccups.

    We are always seeing these gaps shrinking. So preferably we apply usual testable empirical uncertainty criteria and declare that enough is enough, this particular gap is likely zero “beyond reasonable doubt”. There is simply no room for gods in the gaps.

    Or if you wish to be philosophical instead you can take the limit of the process of shrinking “size” (however defined) of the gaps to find your “logical proof” of zero content.

  177. Mark

    Ok, first of all, don’t tell me what I’m confusing or not understanding, just say I agree or I disagree and say why. Arrogant people. Anyway, I’m not saying that science is a bad method, or that it is not useful, just that you have not proven that there is no possibility of other forms of reasoning being able to fill gaps that science can’t. Empirical uncertainty criteria are just that, uncertain. Ultimately, everything is uncertain, but if you think that using these criteria makes it more likely that there are going to be no gaps that science can’t fill in – well then great. It’s not necessarily a bad bet. Still, though, there is always a possibility that the “Empirical uncertainty criteria” are wrong. I might train all I want on a battle simulator, but I have to always accept the possibility that, no matter how close the simulation is to the real thing, there could be flaws. I am advocating a more open-minded approach that will allow more of a multi-disciplinary way forward.

  178. José

    @Mark
    Ok, first of all, don’t tell me what I’m confusing or not understanding, just say I agree or I disagree and say why. Arrogant people.

    Jeez. Don’t throw a hissy fit. How can someone just say they agree or disagree if they honestly feel your premise is based on a misunderstanding.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that science is a bad method, or that it is not useful, just that you have not proven that there is no possibility of other forms of reasoning being able to fill gaps that science can’t.

    What are the alternative forms of reasoning? Is saying “We don’t know, so it must be God” an alternative form of reasoning?

  179. Mark

    Jose says: “What are the alternative forms of reasoning? Is saying ‘We don’t know, so it must be God’ an alternative form of reasoning?”

    Well, it is an alternative form of reasoning, but not a very good one. I never said this, and I don’t think that the original author that Plait is criticizing said this either. I will readily acknowledge that there exists bad reasoning and good reasoning. Not all reasoning is good, but scientific reasoning is not the only good form. (unless you wish to redefine “science” to be the same as “good reasoning”) Some other forms of reasoning that are not necessarily scientific are logic, mathematics, historical, innate, (unfortunately, we all have to fall back on this, from time to time) not to mention other possibilities like clairvoyance and “beyond-reasoning” as some philosophers have speculated might exist. Certainly all of the specific arguments that come out of these areas should be vetted for internal consistency, as well as consistency with the various other forms of reasoning that are appropriately contributing to the attempt to get to an answer – but the same is true for science. I know it would be comforting to think that this one method – the “scientific method” – will bring us all of the answers to everything about reality. It very well may turn out that way, but we also have to be prepared for the possibility that it may not. All I am arguing in favor of is a more open-minded approach that at least acknowledges that there is a possibility that other forms of reasoning have something to offer in the quest for the truth.

    Also, I found this article on Paul Dirac. In the article it is said that Dirac used very little experimentation to come to the conclusions that he came to about the physical universe. Dyson said about Dirac, “He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought”:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/apr/02/paul-dirac-strangest-man-farmelo-quantum

  180. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    Sounds to me like he’s saying that ALL gaps will eventually be filled with scientific reasoning. Maybe, maybe not. We should not discount the possibility that other forms of reasoning may be able to fill some gaps that the scientific method cannot. We should also not discount the possibility that ALL human reasoning, scientific or otherwise, cannot fill some of the gaps, as Kant argued, I believe.

    Well it doesn’t to me.

    It seems like Phil is saying that the “god of the gaps” argument is fallacious because the gaps have a tendency to shrink. This is Phil’s reiteration of a well-known refutation of the “god of the gaps” or argument from ignorance. Historically, the gaps have all shrunk.

    Is there any reason to suppose that any of them will stop shrinking?

    Essentially, using the “god of the gaps” or argument from ignorance is a very poor reason for believing in god, as well as putting you in the trap that Phil describes when you try to talk about reality.

    BTW, when you say “other forms of reasoning”, to what do you refer? What is reasoning if not scientific?

    All scientists accept, in principle, that some phenomena might be beyond our comprehension. However, this idea is a hurdle to progress – no scientist can ever really accept that the specific problem on which they are working is intrinsically incomprehensible. Otherwise, why try? Scientific progress is founded on the assumption that the universe is comprehensible, and it has thus far worked exceedingly well.

  181. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    Ok, first of all, don’t tell me what I’m confusing or not understanding, just say I agree or I disagree and say why.

    What, even if it is plainly obvious that you have misunderstood something? Why should I not call a spade a spade?

    Arrogant people.

    It is only arrogance if we are wrong to point out your error or misunderstanding.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that science is a bad method, or that it is not useful, just that you have not proven that there is no possibility of other forms of reasoning being able to fill gaps that science can’t.

    First of all you must prove that other forms of reasoning exist and can be applied to the natural world in a meaningful way.

    As a means of understanding how the universe works, science is the only method that has had any genuine success, and its success is overwhelming.

    Empirical uncertainty criteria are just that, uncertain. Ultimately, everything is uncertain, but if you think that using these criteria makes it more likely that there are going to be no gaps that science can’t fill in – well then great.

    I’m not sure what you mean here.

    Everything is (in principle) uncertain, but some things are so well supported by evidence that we can be 99.99+% confident in them. If I were to tell you that the sun will rise tomorrow, would you really ask me for error bars?

    In terms of whether or not science will eventually be able to explain everything, this can be rephrased as “can humans eventually understand everything?”. The chances are we will never be able to answer this question with rigour and certainty. However, we can extrapolate from the past into the future, and we can ask a different question: “is there any reason why humans should not be able to understand everything eventually?”.

    Since the history of science is one of consistently increasing understanding, whether by leaps or by increments, there does not appear to be any fundamental barrier to us being able to understand the universe eventually. Given this absence of any information to the contrary, it is reasonable to assume that we will, eventually, be able to understand everything. This, of course, is subject to revision in the light of new evidence.

    It’s not necessarily a bad bet. Still, though, there is always a possibility that the “Empirical uncertainty criteria” are wrong. I might train all I want on a battle simulator, but I have to always accept the possibility that, no matter how close the simulation is to the real thing, there could be flaws.

    Interesting analogy.

    If you apply this to a scientific theory, we can indeed point at aspects of some of our theories (particularly general relativity, which does not mesh well with quantum mechanics) and say “something here differs from reality”. However, the very same process allows us to say that even where our theories are wrong or incomplete, they are at the very least good approximations of how the universe works.

    I am advocating a more open-minded approach that will allow more of a multi-disciplinary way forward.

    However, it seems that you are advocating keeping open options to use non-science. Since science is the application of reason to reality and the subsequent testing of one’s hypotheses against reality, what advantage does non-science have in understanding the universe? If you, in principle, do not test your ideas against the real world, how confident can you be that those ideas are even worth the electrons in this sentence? If you do test your ideas against the real world, you are doing science.

  182. Nigel Depledge

    Thomas said:

    While I absolutely agree that we should never accept that science has limits in terms of explaining nature, there’s more to life than explaining nature. That’s where completely different modes of thought can, should and will complement science – i.e., appreciating and enjoying rather than explaining art.

    I don’t think anyone has tried to deny this. Science is a tool for knowing and understanding. Science is not really a leisure activity – it is hard work. However, as a tool for knowing and understanding, science is unparalleled and it can, at least in principle, be applied to any aspect of the universe.

    I think it is a strawman to suggest that any scientist or scientismist thinks that science can replace art or music, or whatever. Science can, however, be used to discover why we enjoy those things (if not now, then one day).

    Similarly, faith and spirituality may offer some orthogonal kind of value that has nothing to do with the explanantion of nature. An individual’s appreciation of art, just like his or her faith, could interact with and hopefully be enhanced by scientific knowlege, but they’re still different domains in principle.

    Maybe the particular offending article expressed the concept badly, but the distinction between the scientific process and any particular more general worldview needs to be made.

  183. Nigel Depledge

    Oops, clicked Submit before I had finished addressing Thomas’s comment.

    I’ll try to take up where I accidentally left off.

    Thomas said:

    Similarly, faith and spirituality may offer some orthogonal kind of value that has nothing to do with the explanantion of nature.

    Perhaps this is so, but they cannot offer any insight into reality, because they either fail when tested against reality, or they refuse to submit to testing against reality.

    An individual’s appreciation of art, just like his or her faith, could interact with and hopefully be enhanced by scientific knowlege, but they’re still different domains in principle.

    Agreed.

    Maybe the particular offending article expressed the concept badly, but the distinction between the scientific process and any particular more general worldview needs to be made.

    Maybe. I think a problem arises mainly when someone tries to assert that any non-scientific (and therefore untested or untestable) viewpoint has any real meaning in terms of how the universe works and why.

  184. fastpathguru

    down in the abyss
    where the faithful dare not look
    scientists party

  185. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    Not all reasoning is good, but scientific reasoning is not the only good form. (unless you wish to redefine “science” to be the same as “good reasoning”) Some other forms of reasoning that are not necessarily scientific are logic, mathematics, historical, innate, (unfortunately, we all have to fall back on this, from time to time) not to mention other possibilities like clairvoyance and “beyond-reasoning” as some philosophers have speculated might exist.

    Logic is not a form of reasoning, it is the basis of reason.

    Methematics uses a very special kind of reasoning, and does not generally intersect with the complicatedness of the universe except through science.

    I’m not sure I understand how historical reasoning and innate reasoning are different from scientific reasoning. Would you care to elaborate?

    By what definition of “clairvoyance” or “reasoning” do you consider clairvoyance to be a form of reasoning?

    And how can “beyond-reasoning” be a type of reasoning? And what is it?

    Certainly all of the specific arguments that come out of these areas should be vetted for internal consistency, as well as consistency with the various other forms of reasoning that are appropriately contributing to the attempt to get to an answer – but the same is true for science.

    Well, yes, but science also goes one step further.

    Science compares its conclusions against reality.

    I know it would be comforting to think that this one method – the “scientific method” – will bring us all of the answers to everything about reality. It very well may turn out that way, but we also have to be prepared for the possibility that it may not.

    And what makes you think this is not the case?

    And what alternative would you have waiting in the wings for the eventuality that scientific reasoning, no matter how far advanced, fails to allow us to understand some new phenomenon?

    All I am arguing in favor of is a more open-minded approach that at least acknowledges that there is a possibility that other forms of reasoning have something to offer in the quest for the truth.

    But, pure maths aside, how do any non-science methods verify that what they have concluded is actually true?

    Also, I found this article on Paul Dirac. In the article it is said that Dirac used very little experimentation to come to the conclusions that he came to about the physical universe. Dyson said about Dirac, “He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought”:

    [url omitted]

    But were not those conclusions subsequently tested against reality and thus confirmed?

    And was not his Nobel prize only awarded after his predictions had been confirmed?

  186. Mark

    Science does not compare its conclusions against reality. Science compares its conclusions against human observation. If human observation is right all the time then science is right all the time. We do not know this to be true, and the more we learn, especially about things like quantum mechanics, the less certain we are that human observation is right. Everything that you said, Nigel Depledge, is so tied to this unwarranted assumption that the only thing that matters is human observation. Until you at least allow for the POSSIBILITY that other forms of reasoning might have something to offer this conversation will go nowhere.

  187. José

    @Mark

    Science does not compare its conclusions against reality. Science compares its conclusions against human observation. If human observation is right all the time then science is right all the time.

    Nobody says science is right all the time. Sometimes when you compare scientific conclusions against observations, they don’t match. Then it’s back to the drawing board. It’s a normal part of science.

    We do not know this to be true, and the more we learn, especially about things like quantum mechanics, the less certain we are that human observation is right.

    Nobody says observations are right all the time. Science takes this into account. I’m not really sure what you mean when you say the more we learn the less certain we are that human observation is right. I think that in general, the more we observe, the better we understand what we’re looking at, and that’s including weird things like quantum mechanics.

    Until you at least allow for the POSSIBILITY that other forms of reasoning might have something to offer this conversation will go nowhere.

    I still don’t understand what these other forms of reasoning are. The things you listed (logic, mathematics, historical, innate) are all regularly used by science.

  188. Mark

    Yes, they are used by science, but are not a part of science. Scientists do regularly use these other forms of reasoning, but then other times they reject the conclusions of these other forms on the grounds that they are “not science.” They say this at least once every week on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. Also, what I mean about being less certain about human observation is that some quantum mechanics experiments have been affected by the fact that scientists are there to perceive the experiment. Look, we could all be in the Matrix right now and we would never know it. Simply saying that scientific experiments are consistent with human observation does not necessarily prove that those scientific experiments are telling us about the nature of reality. It might make it more likely (and in some cases maybe a lot more likely) but we should all at least be open to the possibility that there are other forms of reasoning that can be used alongside the scientific method and stop dismissing certain statements and arguments on the grounds that they are “not science” before even listening to the arguments that people from other disciplines are making. That’s Scientism, and that’s all that Todd was originally complaining about.

  189. José

    @Mark

    Yes, they are used by science, but are not a part of science. Scientists do regularly use these other forms of reasoning, but then other times they reject the conclusions of these other forms on the grounds that they are “not science.”

    Reason and logic are the foundation of science. Can you give an example of science rejecting conclusion based on other forms of reasoning?

    Also, what I mean about being less certain about human observation is that some quantum mechanics experiments have been affected by the fact that scientists are there to perceive the experiment.

    Yes, but this isn’t something that science tries to hide or ignore.

    Simply saying that scientific experiments are consistent with human observation does not necessarily prove that those scientific experiments are telling us about the nature of reality.

    Observations are subject to different interpretations. Science knows this.

    It might make it more likely (and in some cases maybe a lot more likely) but we should all at least be open to the possibility that there are other forms of reasoning that can be used alongside the scientific method and stop dismissing certain statements and arguments on the grounds that they are “not science” before even listening to the arguments that people from other disciplines are making.

    But scientists do listen. Sure, you might be able to point to a few instances where scientists have rejected ideas without even hear the reason behind an idea, but science as a whole doesn’t do this. Even things like clairvoyance or Intelligent design aren’t blindly dismissed. They get a fair shake like any other idea.

  190. Na

    Here here!

    What gets me is the idea that science and the arts are inseperable though. I’m a puppet maker, and if you’ve ever made a marionette you’d get it: try making one without accounting for weight and gravity! You end up with a very limp doll, not a puppet. And what about all those sculptors who use information about how materials interact; using fire to harden clay, soldering, etc? Yeah, cause science is just something fancy people use, and have no day-to-day use at all for us artistic folk. :p

  191. Mark

    Yes, scientists do listen, but too many don’t. I think that the fact that the skeptic movement has dug it’s roots so deep into the scientific community is evidence of that. Look, let’s go back to the beginning. All I am asking for is an acknowledgement that there is a POSSIBILITY that there are other forms of reasoning that MAY under SOME circumstances trump science. I have even said that is MAY turn out to be the case that science is the be all – end all of truth. I was simply asking for you people to admit that it is a reasonable POSSIBILITY that this may not be the case. I have to say that it is pretty infuriating that I have had to argue on so many posts for something that any reasonable individual would have given me in the beginning. This will be my final post on this board.

  192. TheBlackCat

    All I am asking for is an acknowledgement that there is a POSSIBILITY that there are other forms of reasoning that MAY under SOME circumstances trump science.

    No one is saying this isn’t the case. But until one of those other forms of reasons is found, and until it is shown to trump science under at least one real-world circumstance, science is the best we have available to us. We can’t use forms of reasoning we don’t know about, and we cannot count on a form of reasoning being better than science until we know it is better than science.

    Criticizing skeptics for using science now just because just maybe at some unknown point in the future a better alternative might be found is like criticizing a carpenter for using a saw to cut some wood because just maybe at some unknown point in the future a better alternative might be found. We use what we have now. If something better is found in the future we will switch to it then. But we can’t use what we don’t have.

  193. José

    @Mark
    Sorry for the delay. I was out of town.

    Yes, scientists do listen, but too many don’t.

    And I think this is a myth perpetuated by people peddling poorly thought out ideas.

    I think that the fact that the skeptic movement has dug it’s roots so deep into the scientific community is evidence of that.

    Science and skepticism go hand in hand. There’s no skeptic movement digging it’s roots into science.

    All I am asking for is an acknowledgement that there is a POSSIBILITY that there are other forms of reasoning that MAY under SOME circumstances trump science.

    That’s fine, but right now you can’t even conceive of what those alternatives might be might be. You can’t say it’s something like mathematics, because it’s already deeply ingrained in science. When the numbers don’t add up, science jumps to attention. Even things like clairvoyance don’t fall outside the realm of science. But before anyone should use it to further our understanding of the universe, we need to first establish that it exists. Otherwise, it’s not reasoning, it’s just making stuff up.

  194. José

    @Mark
    When I said “I think this is a myth perpetuated by people peddling poorly thought out ideas.” I wasn’t directing that at you. I’m talking about people like ID proponents, psychics, and many cryptozoologists. They all lack solid evidence, but instead of addressing this glaring problem, they pout about how science and skeptics are too close minded. Unfortunately, this lie resonates with people.

  195. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    Science does not compare its conclusions against reality. Science compares its conclusions against human observation. If human observation is right all the time then science is right all the time. We do not know this to be true, and the more we learn, especially about things like quantum mechanics, the less certain we are that human observation is right. Everything that you said, Nigel Depledge, is so tied to this unwarranted assumption that the only thing that matters is human observation. Until you at least allow for the POSSIBILITY that other forms of reasoning might have something to offer this conversation will go nowhere.

    This is just so much nonsense.

    Of course science compares its conclusions with reality.

    Assuming, that is, that what we observe (see / hear / touch / smell / taste / whatever) correlates with a reality external to ourselves. However, this is a perfectly reasonable assumption to make, and it is made all the time by everyone on the planet. Without it, you can never know anything.

    Science does not rely on human observations. It relies on human interpretations of demonstrably reproducible obsevations. A good example comes from astronomy before CCDs and computers. When a photographic plate is taken of a portion of the night sky (or, indeed, a series of such plates), there is a permanent record of the light that entered the telescope at that time. This plate can then be examined by any number of astronomers – some of whom may miss the one dot that moves relative to all of the others. Eventually, someone will spot the dot that moves, and thus a new solar-system object is discovered.

    Science recognises the fallability of human observation, and scientists have devised ways of recording, measuring and observing that minimise or avoid human fallability having an impact on the result.

    All that aside, you seem to be focussed on observations in the beginning of your paragraph, but then silently segue into talking about reasoning instead.

    Reasoning is entirely separate from the observations themselves (although, of course, they can be done concurrently).

    Science allows for absolutely any kind of reasoning in the interpretation of results, provided that such reasoning is logical and provides conclusions that can be tested. In its simplest form, science is the process of testing that what we think we know is correct. And the only arbiter of truth available to us is reality itself.

  196. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    Yes, they [other types of reasoning] are used by science, but are not a part of science.

    What? This makes no sense.

    Science uses whatever reasoning helps us to understand, provided it is logical and accessible to testing. String theory, for example, is currently just a set of hypotheses and mathematical formulations, because no-one has yet worked out how to test it.

    Scientists do regularly use these other forms of reasoning, but then other times they reject the conclusions of these other forms on the grounds that they are “not science.”

    Without an example, it is not clear what point you are trying to make.

    However, if a group of scientists dismiss something as “not science”, then the chances are it is either not logical or not testable. Or that it is already contradicted by known facts.

    They say this at least once every week on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast.

    If that’s the case, it should be easy for you to provide an example, then, shouldn’t it?

    Also, what I mean about being less certain about human observation is that some quantum mechanics experiments have been affected by the fact that scientists are there to perceive the experiment.

    You seem to have misunderstood here. One interpretation of QM is that the observer (i.e. the very act of measuring, recording or observing something) causes a superposition of possible quantum states to collapse into a single state. Nevertheless, we only ever measure one state of most quantum objects, although experiments are afoot to tease out this puzzle. However, this has nothing to do with human fallibility because it appears to be an intrinsic property of quantum systems.

    Having said that, you should recognise that QM has given us predictions that have been confirmed in experiment to many significant figures. IIUC, it is the most preisely-confirmed of all theories in science.

    Look, we could all be in the Matrix right now and we would never know it.

    Quite correct. Therefore, a pointless speculation. The principle of parsimony requires that we do not assume a more complicated explanation when a simple one will suffice, unless there is evidence to indicate otherwise.

    Simply saying that scientific experiments are consistent with human observation does not necessarily prove that those scientific experiments are telling us about the nature of reality.

    What you say here is right, but irrelevant.

    How could we ever find a means of testing whether what we observe around us genuinely correlates to an external reality or is merely some kind of hallucination or delusion? This is a question for philosophers to argue about, but has almost no relevance to the day-to-day activities of learning about the world around us.

    When you are trying to cross a road, do you ever say to yourself “Well, that looks to me like an 18-wheeler truck coming towards me, but who am I to judge how real that is? It could just be a pattenr of neuronal impulses in my cerebral cortex.”? Of course not. But what you are saying is directly equivalent.

    It might make it more likely (and in some cases maybe a lot more likely) but we should all at least be open to the possibility that there are other forms of reasoning that can be used alongside the scientific method and stop dismissing certain statements and arguments on the grounds that they are “not science” before even listening to the arguments that people from other disciplines are making.

    I challenge you to show that this actually occurs.

    Science has four basic components: parsimony; logic; testability and changing when shown to be wrong. (Arguably, the first is a part of the second. Also, of course, imagination is required to come up with hypotheses and experiments to test them in the first pace) Any method of reasoning is permitted in science, as long as it fits thes bits.

    Thus, anything that defies the priniple of parsimony (such as your “we could be in the Matrix” scenario) is not science.

    Anything that is illogical (e.g. the sea is blue, therefore all blue things are the sea) is not science.

    Anything that cannot be tested (e.g. “someone designed something biological, somewhere, somehow”) is not science.

    Anything that refuses to change in the face of contrary evidence (e.g. young-earth creationism) is not science.

    So, there are many ways in which humans string ideas together that aren’t science.

    That’s Scientism, and that’s all that Todd was originally complaining about.

    No. What you object to isn’t scientism, it is merely being reasonable. If Todd was really complaining about people being reasonable, then all I have to say is “Get over yourself”.

  197. Nigel Depledge

    Mark said:

    All I am asking for is an acknowledgement that there is a POSSIBILITY that there are other forms of reasoning that MAY under SOME circumstances trump science.

    Such as what?

    Since science already uses any and every form of reasoning it can get hold of to understand and interpret the world around us, what conceivable “form of reasoning” could ever trump testing what you think you know?

    I have even said that is MAY turn out to be the case that science is the be all – end all of truth. I was simply asking for you people to admit that it is a reasonable POSSIBILITY that this may not be the case.

    But you are being persistently vague and woolly, and have ignored requests for clarification.

    What other “forms of reasoning” are there that science does not use already?

    What “form of reasoning” do you think science actually is?

    What could ever be better than simply testing what we think is so against reality (with all of the allowances we can make for the fallability of human observation)?

    I have to say that it is pretty infuriating that I have had to argue on so many posts for something that any reasonable individual would have given me in the beginning.

    I think you have had to argue so hard because you have not understood what science is. You are arguing that science should accommodate X or Y or Z when it already does. You seem not to understand the distinction between making observations and using reason to understand those observations and formulate a testable hypothesis to explain them.

    This will be my final post on this board.

    That’s a shame, because there was a real possibility that you could have learnt something that you did not previously know. Also, you have left several other commenters with unanswered questions.

  198. TheBlackCat

    Having said that, you should recognise that QM has given us predictions that have been confirmed in experiment to many significant figures. IIUC, it is the most preisely-confirmed of all theories in science.

    I take issue with this. In biology a number of phylogenetic trees have been confirmed to dozens of significant figures, 30 or more.

  199. Nigel Depledge

    @ TBC – OK, how do phylogenetic trees get confirmed to 30 sig. fig.s?

    IIUC, the confirmation of a phylogenetic tree (e.g. comparison between two trees that were constructed using different gene sequences) is a statistical analysis that indicates the significance of the correlation. How can this statistical analysis return a correlation that has 30 (or more) significant figures?

  200. TheBlackCat

    See here:
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/section1.html#independent_convergence

    Physical constants also have to be measured by statistically comparing different measurements, so they are really no better in this regard.

  201. Wow, I really messed up the link. Let’s try that again…

    Here’s some more, this one from the Telegraph’s Missing the Point desk: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandtechnology/science/sciencenews/5081751/Why-science-doesnt-make-sense.html

  202. Brian Lynchehaun

    To echo a few people above me, I believe Phil (who I otherwise have great respect for) has terribly misrepresented Todd’s article.

    Todd is very clear to define ‘scientism’ as different from ‘science’ right from the start, and he repeatedly refers to ‘scientism’ as the subject of his article all the way through.

    Furthermore, Phil actually reiterates several of Todd’s points as *counterpoints* to Todd (even though they’re both saying the same thing).

    Todd: “Science has always had a speculative component, as we see with theories about quantum physics and the Big Bang and evolution.”

    Phil: “It took a leap of imagination for Alan Guth to think that the Big Bang theory wasn’t wrong, but incomplete, and to add inflation to explain why the Universe looks so smooth.”

    Speaking of Strawmen arguments:

    Phil: you have accused Todd of attacking science in this article. Todd attacked “scientism” in this article. Your entire piece is a strawman.

  203. Hello Phil,
    This is Douglas Todd, author of the article in question.
    A reader has just directed me to your piece. Interesting. Thoughtful. Not insulting (a relief from man other comments). I may soon be responding on my blog to your piece.
    I can’t reach you directly by email. So I was wondering if you would be willing to link your piece to my blog item on this issue (instead of where you have linked it to.) That way your readers could find related pieces on this subject.
    The better link is:
    http://tinyurl.com/c7pser

    Thanks
    Doug
    Vancouver Sun spirituality and philosophy writer

  204. John

    I know everyone will flame me, but it’s not hard to find “scientific” texts from several hundred years ago that say the same thing. Each generation of science thinks it’s oh so certain. What makes you think that, suddenly, we’ve mastered the universe in 2009? We probably have as many faults in our theories as they did long ago. We just don’t know, yet. It’s not what we don’t know that gets us, it’s what we don’t know about what we already know.

    Try to be less certain. We haven’t fully connected the classical and quantum sciences, not yet. There’re a lot of holes. There’s a lot we could be wrong about! We don’t have a theory for everything. If you don’t fully grasp the big picture (this includes quantum phenomena), and how the interlocking peices work together in a harmony, then we’ll never trully be right – local facts will conflict with big picture facts. These things aren’t yet fully observable, and even then we’ll have to accomodate them. It helps to be humble. Just imagine what we’ll know in 500 years. Do you honestly think that not much will change? Do you think that 500 years from now we’ll be in the same boat, and we’ll look back to 2009 and say, “By gosh, they had everything right!” I don’t think so. We look back 500 years and we tear apart most of the then science world. We discard what didn’t work, and keep what did. Right now I see in my mind a lot of people who’re fixating on what we kept, on what worked, and not remembering the things we were wrong about. They’re not remembering how precious and rare being right was. Being right often meant being isolated and condemned, even by established scholars. Too many people think to themselves that back then the church ruled everything, but they forge that the very same people in existence today, who pursue science with devotion, are the same people who lived in the dark ages. Ultimately, it doesn’t always pay to be humble – a lot of “scientists” were wrong, and were oh so certain. They were wrong, so obviously they were not be scientific – not being humble. Maybe what they believed coincided with what they could observe in those days. Maybe it made sense to them. Perhaps the same fate awaits us. Oneday, what makes sense presently, won’t make sense anymore.

    Giving others hte impression that science is not absolutely certain, and that it could be wrong, and that indeed this has happened in the past, might help to win a few of the fence sitters who’re exceedingly irritated by absolute statements.

  205. Afrim
  206. Gilbert Albans

    Douglas Todd said “Scientism is the belief that the sciences have no boundaries and will, in the end, be able to explain everything in the universe.”

    Phil Plait say “There are many things science can’t explain *currently*, and no real scientist brushes those fields off as “irrelevant”….What he is describing is simply science, because science by its very nature is an attempt to explain all things using natural processes.”

    I read through the whole thing, and it is all interesting and nothing new to learn from it. But what I found interesting was that Phil said that Todd presented a strawman argument, and literally one sentence later he confirms exactly what Todd said. That means it was no strawman argument, but *is* evidence that Todd was right.

    Science does not describe what is good or bad, it doesn’t describe if the world has purpose or not, if good and evil actually exist, and it can’t do that. Science cannot tell us if there is an external world, let alone that our perceptions are representations of the external world that we can’t know to exist, aren’t representations of the external world, what this external world is made up of, or if other minds exist, or how come there’s laws of nature, how come there’s a uniformity of nature, and etc. It can’t tell us if materialism, idealism, dualism, or pluralism are correct. These can’t be answered by science, and are outside the realm of science. It can’t tell us if the world is mathematical or not, which means that numbers exist independent of human beings. Science can’t even tell us if it’s models are actually how the world is, or that a natural description is the way the world actually works. In order to say that the models are how the world is, the picture that it presents, you literally have to step outside of the world and compare the model with the actual world. This can’t be done. So science can’t explain everything, in principle. It’s very limited in it’s application and field, and it gets most of it’s strength from imagination. As David Hume stated, “This is the universe of the imagination, nor have we any idea but what is there produc’d.”

    I’m leaving out, but I’ll hint at, how science relies on reasoning of modus bonehead (i.e. affirming the consequent). What is great about this is that Phil admits that science is imagination, which means a great many of what it talks about in it’s models are based on human imagination. This means, based on affirming the consequent, we can’t even say that what’s in the model is actually existent in the world, since it could be a logical infinity of different things. “If Bill Gates is the richest man in the US, then Bill Gates own Ft. Knox. Bill Gates owns Ft. Knox. Therefore Bill Gates is the richest man in the US.” That’s modus bonehead reasoning, which means that’s scientific reasoning by analogy.

  207. Fantastic quote. I was lucky enough to see David Brin speak at the Maker Faire 2011 near San Francisco. The guy really has a way with words, even more so in person.

  208. R.K. REVOLTAN

    to understand the them of any natural phenomenon by imagination is pure science.

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