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.
Hardback 

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under