TCS Daily

Defending an Old-Fashioned Prig

By Kenneth Silber - October 13, 2003 12:00 AM

Susan Haack is a philosopher at the University of Miami with a highly tuned B.S. detector. She is a defender of common sense and clear language, and a critic of esoteric theories that are hard to understand precisely because they make no sense. She is a defender of the virtues of intellectual honesty and integrity, and a searcher for middle ground in debates dominated by competing extremes. Such views being academically unfashionable, she once wrote an essay titled "Confessions of an Old-Fashioned Prig."


Haack's new book Defending Science -- Within Reason (Prometheus Books) is an impressive philosophical exposition of what science is and does. The title contains a fitting play on words: Haack defends science "within reason," meaning not in an overblown or unqualified way; and she defends it as "within reason," as rational. This puts her at odds with what she calls the "New Cynicism," the sociological and postmodernist doctrines that denigrate science's capacity for knowledge or progress.


Yet Haack is critical also of what she calls the "Old Deferentialism," philosophy-of-science doctrines that present narrowly logical models of how science works. The book's subtitle, "Between Scientism and Cynicism," indicates a view of science as neither incapable nor all-powerful. Science, Haack explains, is not a rigidly defined "method" sharply distinct from all other forms of thought. It is, rather, part of a continuum that includes other types of inquiry (such as those conducted by detectives, journalists and historians), and it even bears a resemblance to such activity as looking for your car keys.


"Scientific inquiry," Haack writes, "is continuous with everyday empirical inquiry -- only more so." The "more so" arises from various "helps" employed by scientists to amplify their powers of inquiry; these include observational instruments, controlled experiments, theoretical models and analogies, mathematics, peer review, specialized communities of researchers, and a mixture of cooperation and competition. Haack's guiding metaphor for science is a crossword puzzle: Theories and lines of evidence become more convincing as they interlock; ideas are provisionally "penciled in," but some become so well-supported as to be virtually certain.


All this contrasts sharply with much recent sociology that purports to explain how science operates. The "strong program" in sociology of science asserts that scientific theories are accepted or rejected based on the social interests of scientists (their desire to get promoted, and so on). The "radical program" in sociology of science argues that the objects of scientific study are themselves socially constructed -- that the very existence of the natural world is questionable.


Haack notes the self-refuting quality of such theories. The strong program suggests that, while the natural sciences are hopelessly biased, sociology of science is somehow objective. The radical program claims that, though atoms and DNA are unknowable or nonexistent, social phenomena are real entities about which reliable data can be gathered. Haack proposes instead a "sensible program" in sociology of science; this would examine the social aspects of science without assuming the irrelevance of physical reality.


Haack similarly delves into the academic study of "rhetoric of science," in which science is likened to literature, communication skills are deemed key to which scientific theories are accepted, and chemistry is perceived as having no more connection to external reality than does Moby Dick. Such ideas again are self-refuting, and raise questions about why phenomena cited by humanities professors should be considered more knowable or real than the physical world. Haack sketches out a "reasonable rhetoric of science" that would study scientific communication without denying its linkage to evidence and reality.


Defending Science -- Within Reason moves toward its end to discussions of science and the law, science and religion, and the possibility of an "end of science." Regarding science and the legal system, Haack presents a view in keeping with her view of science as continuous with other forms of empirical inquiry; that is, she seeks cautious institutional reforms to reduce junk science in the courtroom, while recognizing there are no precise or invariable rules that will ensure only reliable scientific testimony.


On science and religion, Haack emphasizes their incompatibility, and regards it as a "point of honor" to take a scientific view of the world rather than seeking religious consolation. I fundamentally agree with Haack's skepticism toward claims that science has found evidence of intelligent design in biology or physics. But her dismissal of any reconciliation between science and religion seems overly rigid and premature. Even if the current lines of the crossword puzzle supposedly spelling "design" don't add up, isn't it possible that other such lines will emerge, or that the designing entity might be off the puzzle altogether?


By contrast, regarding a possible end of science, Haack is forthright in acknowledging uncertainty about what limits the scientific enterprise ultimately may encounter. She notes the possibility that societal changes could terminate scientific research, or that humanity itself might come to an end (which may or may not mean science would end). Whether the universe is structured in such a way as to bring science to a close at some point is unclear. But, as Haack cogently notes, there is little reason to think we are near any such point.

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