Thursday, December 6, 2018

Bad science vs scientism

Here are a pair of papers (here,here) that discuss scientism. Scientism is hard to define exactly for it relies on being able to distinguish what is scientific from what is not and those that think that some piece of work is scientistic also generally think that demarcating science from non-science is a mug’s game. The longer paper is by Susan Haack. The shorter is a comment by Andrew Gelman who adds a codicil to her 6 distinguishing features. Here is Haack’s list:

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.
2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.
3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.
4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumed to explain how the sciences have been so successful.
5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.
6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

Gelman adds a distinction between active vs passive scientism. Here’s how he elaborates this distinction:

A familiar examples of passive scientism is “pizzagate”: the work, publication, and promotion, of the studies conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Other examples include papers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on himmicanes, air rage, and ages ending in 9.
In all these cases, topics were being studied that clearly can be studied by science. So the “scientism” here is not coming into the decision to pursue this research. Rather, the scientism arises from blind trust in various processes associated with science, such as randomized treatment assignment, statistical significance, and peer review.
In this particular manifestation of scientism—claims that bounce around between scientific journals, textbooks, and general media outlets such as NPR and Ted talks—there is no preoccupation with identifying the scientific method or preoccupation with demarcation, but rather the near-opposite, an all-too-calm acceptance of wacky claims that happen to be in the proximity to various tokens of science.

I am not sure that what Gelman notes constitutes a natural kind with what Haack is worried about. Moreover, I think that the distinction is worth preserving if for no other reason that we need to allow for badscience, which is what Gelman is really pointing at. Bad science is science badly done and one can do things badly in a variety of ways, including in a way that rightly irks Gelman: “blind trust in various processes associated with science.”But this is still different from what Haack is trying to dissect which is more along the lines of a category mistake: the extension of scientific methods and modes of discussion into domains where they don’t really apply so as to join the slip stream of prestige that scientific inquiry enjoys.  The difference between scientism and bad science is sorta like the difference between bullshit and lies. Both are bad but they are not quite the same thing.

But once we are cataloguing, let me add one of my own pet peeves: the refusal to actually criticize what is being asserted. FoL has canvassed many “debates” wherein critics have attacked a position that nobody defended. Dan Everett on universals is a classic example of a “debate” based on a pun. But there are many others as well. A kissing cousin of this is the “refutations” of PoS arguments for one or another conclusion where the critic often has no idea what the PoS argument consists in. I would think that a useful rule of scientific method is to make sure that you read and understand that which you are objecting to. But the ubiquity of “critiques” and “refutations” that ignore this simple principle suggests that I would be wrong to think so.

I have been privy to a more recent version of this kind of criticism. For the last several years I have been arguing that Minimalism has been a tremendous success when evaluated in its own terms.  The papers and presentations that try to make this case lay out what I take the Minimalist project to be and how various proposals have succeeded in illuminating the questions it poses for itself. In particular, the project is to explain why we have the FL/UG we do and this project only makes sense given certain presuppositions and judgments (e.g. the project is decidedly mentalistic, it presupposes that many of the laws of grammar that GB style theories have discovered are roughly accurate, etc.). Most of my presentations spend a large amount of time spelling out these presuppostions and judgments and explaining how giventhese, Minimalism has offered plausible and defensible answers to the questions identified. I even make the point that ifone rejects these presuppositions or has made different empirical judgments regarding the presupposed facts that the Minimalist project as outlined will not appear particularly appealing. And I often add that there is no disputing taste (here I am being concessive, for I think that this is false) but that this is not relevant to the evaluation of the project’s achievements. And what does this get me? Mostly very little. Here is what I mean.

More often than not this does not satisfy everyone who reads the paper or attends the lecture. I cannot imagine why for as indicated I am always perfectly persuasive, gregarious, open-minded and mentally flexible. Still, I often fail. Why? Because so far as I can tell many just don’t like the very idea of the Minimalist project and think that working on such a project is illegitimate. Of course one cannot just assert “I just don’t like Minimalism!” and declare “Nor should anybody else!” because saying these sorts of things will make one sound like a crank. So, to avoid sounding like a petulant whack-job an MP hater will typically reach for generic criticisms (e.g. it’s not methodologically scientific, its ideologically driven, look at all the problems, etc.) that do not in any obvious way tie up to the premises defended or the arguments proffered. And this is, IMO, unkosher science. It’s fine not to like something. It’s fine to follow your gut. It’s fine to openly sneer at the taste of others (ok, that is notfine, but at least it can he done honestly). But it is not fine to pretend to offer criticism that seems based on reasons but is actually based on either ignorance, petulance, or mental indigestion. This is simple bad faith. And, sad to say, IMO, there is a lot of this in the sciences in general, and even in parts of contemporary linguistics. 

So what would I add to the Haack-Gelman discussion. I would add that there is a lot of junk science out there and much of it is driven by bad faith. This bad faith is illustrated by a refusal to address the actual arguments being made. And this is not a great thing.


  1. Gelman refers obliquely to the saga of Wansink at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, who has had at least sixteen papers retracted. Apparently he was considered a star researcher, and his stellar publication record only started to unravel when he bragged about his p-hacking methods on a blog, seemingly oblivious to the negative implications. The original blog post and ensuing discussion make for fascinating reading: (The original discussion starts after the two addenda at the top.) There's a story on it in Vox:

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