July 22, 2014

Lewontin crushes Dawkins, Sagan, and reminds us of problems with #scientism

Very, very interesting. Just over halfway through this in-depth, and somewhat crushing, review of Sagan's "Demon Haunted World," Richard Lewontin notes that something like ... well, like epigenetics was on the empirical eyeballs of biologists back in the 1930s. But, because the observations didn't fit the empirical framework, into File 13 they went!

Here's the relevant point:
In the 1930s well-established and respectable geneticists described "dauer-modifications," environmentally induced changes in organisms that were passed on to offspring and only slowly disappeared in succeeding generations. As the science of genetics hardened, with its definitive rejection of any possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, observations of dauer-modifications were sent to the scrapheap where they still lie, jumbled together with other decommissioned facts.
And, here's the important preceding background:
 Second, it is repeatedly said that science is intolerant of theories without data and assertions without adequate evidence. But no serious student of epistemology any longer takes the naive view of science as a process of Baconian induction from theoretically unorganized observations. There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory. Before sense experiences become "observations" we need a theoretical question, and what counts as a relevant observation depends upon a theoretical frame into which it is to be placed. Repeatable observations that do not fit into an existing frame have a way of disappearing from view, and the experiments that produced them are not revisited.
A reminder that #scientism can work by the via negativa as well as the via positiva, if nothing else. The via positiva is the highly expansive claim of what all falls in the purview of science. The via negativa is just what theorizing is allowed within that expansive purview.

Sure, it's easy to say science covers everything, if you cut everything to a scientism-Procrustean bed.

Beyond that, though, the epigenetics angle shows that, even short of a full-grade scientism, the methodology of science, in actual practice, will always remain no more than human.


mrhambre said...

"There can be no observations without an immense apparatus of preexisting theory."

I agree. Proponents of scientism love to portray science as a disinterested search for Truth completely divorced from all economic, political, or philosophical context. That is, when they're not equating science with reality itself, or treating it like the adorable, hypercapable Science Boyfriend who tells them things, proves things, and finds things out.

Snyder, I'm Del from Amazon, whom you chided for writing a nasty review of Chris Stedman's memoirs. I wanted to apologize. In the year since I posted that review, I've had a change of heart.

I'm still an atheist, I still think Chris Stedman is a narcissistic clown, and I still think America is a hotbed of sanctimony. However, I realize that what Stedman calls 'toxic atheism' has a big part in keeping nonbelief from being normalized in the USA. Atheism is typified these days by the nasty, philosophically shallow keyboard warrior who idealizes Science and spouts dogma just as unthinkingly as any fundie Christian.

I think the way the conspiracy theory called Jesus Mythicism has become the millennial litmus test for atheists was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I didn't reject religion just to get caught up in another immature, irrational mindset.

My apologies for coming off as such a closed-minded jerk.

Gadfly said...

Del, I've actually updated my blog post about Stedman's "memoir" far beyond what I originally posted on Amazon, and become more critical of him personally, at least the "person" in that "memoir."

I'd still like to know why his dad is totally written out of the boo, among other things.


That said, he, and others (don't have to rely on him alone!) are right about aspects of Gnu Atheism, yes.

And, definitely right on Jesus Mythicism.


To the degree an apology is needed, or still warranted, I'll take it.

And, say that it's kind, and big, of you to do so after this much time.

mrhambre said...

Thanks for being gracious.

I really like the Lewontin review:

"the problem [for Sagan] is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth."

That's a perfect description of the Gnu Atheist, who thinks any question that's not a scientific matter is just noise.