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The Scientific Attitude - Lee McIntyre ****

Like many with a science background, I generally struggle to take philosophy of science seriously - it can too inward-looking and generally more fond of using impenetrably big words than having any true meaning. However, Lee McIntyre manages to make his take on the scientific method and the demarcation between science and either non-science or pseudoscience (we'll come back to that split) genuinely interesting.

Most of us come across the idea of the scientific method - the approach taken by scientists that gives science that 'special sauce' that makes it so good at doing what it does. Rather like the way that some physicists like to say that time doesn’t exist (until it’s dinner time), philosophers of science like to say the scientific method doesn’t exist - but then can’t help but acting as if it does. I think this is because they (and many scientists) want 'the scientific method ‘ to be a step-by-step series of rules, but Lee McIntyre makes it clear it’s something more like ‘Empirical evidence is key, and if evidence contradicts our theory then we change the theory.’ He calls this the 'scientific attitude' - but for me that's splitting hairs (I suppose that's what philosophers are for): it is a particular kind of method, based on principles rather than rules.

For the non-philosopher, McIntyre spends an inordinately long time trying to pin down whether this approach should be a necessary, sufficient or necessary and sufficient way of demarcating science from either non-science or pseudoscience. The distinction between the two of these opposing categories is whether we are merely trying to distinguish science from 'fake science' (e.g. climate change denial or intelligent design) or from legitimate disciplines which are not and never will be science, such as literature or music. Deciding demarcation is perhaps more interesting to insiders - the rest of us really just want to stop the pseudo-scientists and to get the 'soft sciences' onto a better scientific basis (give them more of a scientific attitude, McIntyre might say). 

This latter is a point the book addresses at some length, as social science areas such as psychology, anthropology, sociology and economics use the tools of science but do not yet always do so with a properly scientific attitude. McIntyre interestingly suggests that these fields could model themselves on medicine, which went from being pretty much a pseudoscience to a true science relatively recently.

There is a lot of good stuff here, but it could have been better. There is too much angels-on-a-pinhead worrying about demarcation, where we could have done with a lot more examples both from pseudoscience and the social sciences (I'd have liked to see some more detailed economics examples, for example). The coverage was too high level - it's the stories of specifics that engage us. Even so, as someone who generally struggles to take much philosophy of science seriously, this book interested me and helped me think a little more about what science is, how we should defend it against pseudoscience and how we should improve the near-science fields such as psychology and economics.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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