Science Book Club: The War on Science Ch 7-8

Photograph of newspapers with pen and eyeglasses on top

Can we fund science journalism with crosswords and Sudoku somehow? (Photo by stevepb)

Thanks to everyone who attended the video chat last week. It went so well, we’ll be doing it again next week (7/13 9pm EDT). Feel free to join even if you couldn’t come last week. And I’d particularly love to hear from philosophers and other humanities scholars who can comment on the postmodernism discussion.

Welcome to week 4 of discussing The War on Science. If you’re just joining, feel free to dive in or catch up with the previous chapters (Ch 1-2, Ch 3-4, Ch 5-6). Chapter 7 is ostensibly the conclusion of the historical summary, doubling back to follow a parallel thread of journalism history. Chapter 8 covers the first of three “fronts” in the titular conflict, namely the academy and its embrace of postmodernism.

Journalism and the Value of Experience

After a fairly chronological history through chapters 3-6, Otto takes up a brief recent history of journalism. His perspective on the Fairness Doctrine was interesting; I’m used to the polarization of news and media outlets being attributed to the need to fill dedicated channels and the opportunity to target niche markets. Otto’s account doesn’t refute those contributions, but simply contextualizes them. His analysis of market forces made sense to me; I’ve discussed previously why I think free markets aren’t a universal optimization solution. In this case, free markets don’t necessarily optimize for depth of coverage or truth. Although I can see how eliminating the Fairness Doctrine created some opportunities, I’m not sure reinstituting it or something similar can reverse the trend. Perhaps he did too good of a job making a case for the power of the Internet and the way that ad-supported content and linkability erode the value of paid journalism. Otto mentioned yellow journalism; some history of how journalism changed to move away from that approach originally might have been useful for understanding how to affect change now.

I appreciated the exploration of personal experience and how that has become elevated in journalism and public discourse. Not without a sense of irony do I note that I’ve witnessed this phenomenon frequently myself, a preference for personal and direct experience over all else. And while Otto made some acknowledgement of it, I felt he underestimated the role his cherished anti-authoritarianism has to play in these matters. Not to mention the role of a profound sense of individualism and self-determination inherent in the American Revolution and Cartesian philosophy, both of which Otto portrayed as correlated with the success of science. When someone says they think they Earth is flat because they’ve never seen where it curves, or they think the climate isn’t warming because they don’t notice changes in their local weather, yes they are privileging their experience and possibly also reacting according to any number of cognitive biases. But they are also doing exactly what they understand science to demand: rejecting any statement they are told to accept by faith on the basis of authority, and only trusting what they can empirically verify for themselves.

cake photo

A patriotic cake for you to either have or eat; someone has already opted for ‘eat.’ (Photo by gunnsteinlye )

Now of course the spherical nature of Earth and the warming of the climate are empirical questions, so there is a useful and reasonable instinct at play that we don’t want to undermine. The trick is making the right observations. And while I am all for more folks doing science for themselves, there are pragmatic considerations. I’ve already mentioned the impractically of everyone buying a mass spectrometer. But beyond that, even if money and expertise with equipment were no object, there are still time limitations. No one, not even the most brilliant and prolific scientist, can verify every scientific proposition observationally for themselves. Even reviewing the relevant primary literature on every topic is impractical. There is still an element of trusting fellow scientists, which in turn introduces an element of authority. That may be contrary to Otto’s sense of pure science as removed from the realities of how humans behave, but I’m not sure operationally how to make use of such a Platonic concept of science.

The Postmodern Front

I’ve mentioned before a sense of tension in what Otto is trying to accomplish, but in this chapter I really felt like he was trying to eat his cake and have it too. There were small details, like the way Otto calls out Sokal’s use of quotation marks around terms to imply inferior status and yet employs the exact same tactic when referring to other “ways of knowing” or “scientism.” And then there are bigger picture elements, like Otto’s claim that science doesn’t prove anything and yet he regularly references certain statements as unequivocal truths derived from scientific investigation. Most troublesome among these for me is his insistence that the Earth objectively revolves around the sun. It is popular to harp on this point because of its historical relevance to Galileo’s treatment by the Catholic Church. Yet if science does not prove anything, on what basis do we assert that the Earth revolves around the sun? More specifically, what do we mean by objective in the context of a relativistic account of motion and spacetime? Granted, Einstein did not exactly retroactively vindicate Ptolemy or the Catholic Church, and yes, there are any number of reasons to prefer a heliocentric model, but those reasons have nothing to do with a metaphysical sense of objectivity. Or at the very least, if we’re going to insist on raising the level of science education and engagement, there should at least be some mention of barycenters.

While Otto seems skeptical that scientism even exists, I am concerned he is actually demonstrating it. Possibly because he misunderstands it as a condescending attitude towards skeptics of science, rather than the usual definition of an application of the scientific method beyond what is observable. For example, he refers to Popper and his framing of science in terms of falsification. How do we arrive at this definition of science? Is it an objective truth we can observe? Perhaps in the sense that we can observe what scientists do and generalize a description of their process. But if we are going to assert that falsification actually leads to truth, don’t we need an explicitly metaphysical or epistemological grounding outside of science? Or to come from another angle, if there is only one way of knowing and if science does not prove anything, what do we make of logical and mathematical proofs? Doesn’t deductive reasoning then represent a separate way of knowing apart from the inductive mode of science, at least as Otto has defined science?

Otto also seems unclear on just how significant postmodernism is. On the one hand, he asserts that the academic front isn’t as “powerful” — a mixing of metaphors from the geographical concept of a front to the forces amassed there — as the religious and industrial ones. Yet if postmodernism has undermined the metaphysical underpinning of scientific objectivity, that seems pretty significant. And academics have far more influence on what scientific research does or does not get performed than any religious group. I’m not convinced this is an objective analysis and not influenced by an affinity for the academy and/or the progressive politics of the left which are often associated with the academy — an association which itself influences science in ways Otto does not explore. Relatedly, I’m not sure how to interpret the aside about humanities departments being the last medieval institution, which comes across as a bit condescending. Yes, the European university system arose in a medieval context, which only undermines the assertion that was a Dark Age, but that medieval context and those medieval universities also laid the foundation for science.


  • Otto’s description of the academy did not match my experience, although admittedly my experience was at institutions founded on the model of German scientific research centers rather than medieval universities. Was his account accurate to your experience?
  • Otto sees science as a great equalizer. Do you share his optimism that science can achieve equality for all genders, races, orientations, etc.?
  • I’m comfortable with an objective reality to history. But is there still not linguistic challenges to describing that reality? For example, when we talk about science in the past, do we need to account for the differences in what was meant by science?
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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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    T. Wiensz commented on July 7, 2017 Reply

    “if we’re going to insist on raising the level of science education and engagement, there should at least be some mention of barycenters” – well said.
    With respect to your third question, I think it would be interesting to read Otto’s book alongside Shapin’s “The Scientific Revolution”, which is very aware of the historically-contingent character of science and the ways in which its distinct practices (e.g. scientific writing, the role of experiment, witnessing of experiment, peer-review) have emerged from the various discussions and political circumstances of the time. Limitations in narrative, etc.
    I think you’re right in asking whether he recognizes the significance of postmodernism, and implicitly wants to return to a pre-postmodern state; but given that this is now a live option, there seems no (easy) going back. In Chapter 8 Otto is seemingly unaware that he’s verifying the postmodernists’ critique as he writes. He likes postmodernists insofar as they support and develop certain things with which he has an affinity, yet dislikes them insofar as they’re ‘antiscience’.
    Rather than claiming broadly that they ‘don’t understand science’ (surely that’s the case where the social/cultural aspect of science is accounted as *mere* social/cultural construction); isn’t it possible to acknowledge historical, contingent realities of our conditions of knowledge and still affirm their validity? Many historians and philosophers of science have taken-on the postmodernist challenge (of taking note of the subject in their accounts) without the kind of caricatured picture Otto paints: wouldn’t it be a better model of rationality to engage not with the easiest arguments/targets, but with the strongest?

      Andy Walsh commented on July 9, 2017 Reply

      The Scientific Revolution does sound like it would be a helpful complement. Otto has already demonstrated an affinity for Popper’s philosophy of science, which is solidified in this week’s reading. He seems to have settled on that as the definition of science and perhaps wants to apply it retroactively. I suppose to a certain extent that is valid, in the sense that Popper was describing historical scientific practice, but I don’t believe it has been the universal contemporary understanding of science since the Enlightenment. And philosophers since Popper have developed our understanding of science further.
      The preference for Popper seems of a piece with a desire to return to modernity. I agree with you that a more helpful approach would be engaging with contemporary scholars who have already recognized the postmodern challenge and building on their efforts. As an example, I find critical realism to be a helpful perspective; I was introduced to it via Polkinghorne’s books although I’m not sure of its full heritage.
      The ‘antiscience’ concept of the book seems increasingly unhelpful. Otto is a bit too focused on looking for any and every evidence of saying ‘no’ to science, but there are appropriate places for other disciplines to push back. It makes the conversation too much of a team-choosing exercise. Granted the title already sends us in that direction. But if Otto is looking for allies, he is really narrowing the list of potential candidates by applying ‘antiscience’ so broadly and with minimal nuance.

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