Skip to main content

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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz - Four Way Interview

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is Professor of Mammalian Development and Stem Cell Biology at the University of Cambridge, and Bren Professor in Biology and Bioengineering at Caltech. She has published over 150 papers and book chapters in top scientific journals and her work on embryos won the people’s vote for scientific breakthrough of the year in Science magazine.Her new book, co-authored with Roger Highfield, is The Dance of Life: symmetry, cells and how we become human.

Why science?

I fell in love with biology when I was a child because I loved doing experiments and seeing what happened. It was fascinating and enormous fun. I also fell in love with art at the same time. Art and science are both based on experiments and uncovering new paths to understand the world and ourselves. Why do we think the way we think? Where do our feelings come from? Is the 'right' answer always right? Where do we come from? How do parts of our body communicate with each other?  What is the nature of ti…

The Dance of Life - Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and Roger Highfield ****

There is without doubt a fascination for all of us - even those who can find biology a touch tedious - with the way that a tiny cellular blob develops into the hugely complex thing that is a living organism, especially a human. In this unusual book which I can only describe as a memoir of science, Magalena Zernicka-Goetz, assisted by the Science Museum's Roger Highfield, tells the story of her own career and discoveries.

At the heart of the book, and Zernicka-Goetz's work, is symmetry breaking, a topic very familiar to readers of popular physics titles, but perhaps less so in popular biology. The first real breakthrough from her lab was the discovery of the way that a mouse egg's first division was already asymmetrical - the two new cells were not identical, not equally likely to become embryo and support structure as had always been thought.  As the book progresses, throughout the process of development we see how different symmetries are broken, with a particular focus on…

Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people…