Hypocrisy happens

Cogitating some more on “The Politics of Demarcation” by Paul Newall and Michael Pearl, I understand their dismay when scientists don’t stick to the values they promote. I get it. Paul and Michael want to right some wrongs, and they do so by highlighting scientists’ shortcomings. Shoddy analysis and cherry-picked data are bad and should be attacked. It’s especially hypocritical coming from the alleged paragons of reason. When we see those awful things happen and say nothing, we’re almost as guilty as if we did it ourselves. Irrationality and sloppy logic anywhere is a threat to rationality and sound logic everywhere. Again, I get it. I too have made similar arguments.

Paul sums up the attitude here (emphasis added):

Ultimately what this discussion suggests is that if the adoption and use of poor arguments is to be lamented when undertaken by those advocating intelligent design, surely those opposing it must hold themselves to a higher standard?

And Michael:

However, is the Creationism/ID issue the sort of circumstance that warrants the abandonment of the principle of philosophical rigor?

Noting that the setting is a legal/political one does not itself justify the abandonment by philosophers of the devotion to argumentative rigor to which they are presumed to be devoted. The Creationism/ID matter is anything but a harrowing circumstance; so, as exactly what are philosophers operating when they so willingly sacrifice the philosophical for the sake of the political? Are they anything more than window dressing?

Although I’ve done so myself, I’m starting to think this is a bad approach. Why exactly should scientists hold themselves to a higher standard? If the standard in question requires them to always make rigorous arguments, it’s clear that scientists never subscribed to it. In this context their highest standard is preventing ID from being taught in science classrooms.

The window dressing comment similarly misses the point. It’s not that scientists don’t value rigor. It’s that sometimes other things are more important. Like everyone else, scientists have context-sensitive desires and goals. At times these desires and goals conflict. Philosophical rigor is not the only, or even highest, principle.

We keep expecting scientists to be different than anyone else. For our public invocations of precision, evidence, and logic to be applied to everything we do, all the time. But why should this be so? When have scientists ever been uniformly consistent in this regard? Does anyone actually maintain an existence of strict, perpetual rationality? Perhaps the biggest change in my thinking over the past couple years has been my often grudging acceptance that I cannot do this. I don’t think anyone can.

I know we all want more intelligent, rational public discourse. Discourse that abides by some basic rules of logic and evidence. Unfortunately, this situation does not exist, and never has existed. In our frustration at those who violate these precious rules, who thwart our attempts to improve public debate, we take on a familiar role. We attack their arguments, emphasize their flaws, accuse them of duplicity. We keep fighting this fight even though we know there will always be too many fallacies, distortions and misconceptions to respond to. Those of us who care for public rationality know we’re in a losing battle.

Perhaps the futility of this battle is a sign it shouldn’t be fought in these terms to begin with. (I’m thinking as I write here, so bear with me.) Careless, bad arguments are an indelible feature of democracy. They will always be there. So perhaps the better way improve public discourse is not only to criticize these bad arguments. We should also acknowledge that there will be times when we all have to argue for something we deeply care about. And in those instances, it’s likely that our arguments will not be completely rational or logical. We are human after all. The exigencies of fighting for our values will ultimately trump academic concerns for reason.

This painful process of accepting our own irrationality should, I hope, temper the outrage when we recognize it in others. Yes, we still should criticize bad arguments, and especially from those who should know better. And yes, we still should note when scientists don’t live up to their standards. When we make such accusations, however, we should do it with the knowledge that at times we too exhibit such hypocrisy. It happens to all of us.


  1. I think the main problem is that there is an assumption that humans have ever been/can ever be “rational” actors. I think the ancient Greeks planted that in society’s ideals but there is now a mountain of evidence that suggest humans act like humans and not robots. Big surprise! This behavior which includes having emotions and sometimes letting them be more dominant than evidence isn’t wrong. It just is how we are. It’s hard to have that as a standard when it is so against our very nature. I can understand the need for it because it is a level playing field where supposedly, everyone can engage with the debate. However, it’s probably easier to find a way to accommodate people’s actual behaviors rather than set an impossible standard. The question now is, how do we have intelligent public discourse that also takes into account stakeholders’ very real emotions?

  2. By pretending that every experiment we carry out, every design we propose, every conclusion we come to is without any mistakes or jumps in logic or assumptions or hand-waving, we also miss an opportunity to perhaps “do science better” (I realize this term is vague…). If we were instead able to “own up” to the parts of our science where we made educated guesses or just plain aren’t sure, we would perhaps make it easier for others to recreate our work as well as allow for a more honest dialogue about what is and is not known, and what is and is not important to control/consider/account for in a given discipline.

  3. The window dressing comment similarly misses the point. It’s not that scientists don’t value rigor. It’s that sometimes other things are more important. Like everyone else, scientists have context-sensitive desires and goals. At times these desires and goals conflict. Philosophical rigor is not the only, or even highest, principle.

    Praj, the essay is about philosophers and whether philosophers have abandoned philosophical rigor — at least with regards to the Creationism/ID/evolution issue. The essay was not about scientists. Of course, when scientists argue in that same way, they, too, evidence a severe lack in intellectual rigor. It just so happens that this lack of rigor would not be evidence of a lack of scientific rigor.

    Furthermore, that essay also very clearly notes that there are most certainly occasions in which devotion to some philosophical principle or other is simply insufficient for effecting situational wisdom. That is why the story Feyerabend told was included. However, there is next to no reason to imagine that the Creationism/ID/evolution matter qualifies as that sort of occasion. Evolution is simply not so essential – even to most biological understanding and research – that any entertainment of currently eccentric notions such as Creationism/ID puts (the teaching of) biological sciences at risk. Indeed, it is rather apparent that this whole evolution issue is less a matter of science than it is a political and cultural matter (see here for further discussion).

    In your other related blog posting, you say:

    Scientists are … pretty successful in applying demarcation to intelligent design, however erroneously they do so. They do, after all, win the important [legal] cases.

    But, that is not quite right. The issues which I address (and which Paul does as well) pertain to the role of philosophers in such cases, and the philosophers who testified for the side(s) that won the case(s) admit, in effect, that they had to argue with less philosophical rigor because of the context and in order to serve the legal and political interests that were actually at issue. To the extent that scientists’ presumed interests coincide with the side(s) that won the legal battle(s), it might be said that scientists won. But, what did they win? Some battles certainly, some legal battles specifically, but they have not yet won the war — a war which is most properly appreciated for its cultural aspect. Indeed, as recently as 2007, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly noted:

    Creationism, born of the denial of the evolution of species through natural selection, was for a long time an almost exclusively American phenomenon. Today creationist ideas are tending to find their way into Europe and their spread is affecting quite a few Council of Europe member states.

    The point is that it is far too early to say that “[s]cientists are … win[ning]” the war, because the Creationist/ID side which has lost the legal battles continues to fight, and, based on the referenced Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly statement, it would seem that the Creationist/ID side is today anything except less vigorous in its fight. Nick Matzke wonders why “creationism is still here”. Matzke wonders why it is still here “despite having been falsified”. Of course, falsification is not sufficient to put the end even to a scientific theory, and the reason why the Creationist/ID side is no less vigorous despite having lost the court cases is because the actual fight is a culture war – even if that fight is not explicitly cast in that way or commonly seen in that way.

    Even the “science” side of the fight is a cultural matter. Since there are no clearly objective demarcation criteria, the science-side advocating for the scientific community is fighting to preserve for that community the privilege of deciding – the privilege to judge – what is to be accepted as scientific, which is to say what is acceptable to the scientific community in general. The Creationist/ID side, on the other hand, is fighting against scientistic tendencies (and associated eliminativist sequelae) as well as against attempts at eliminating religious perspectives from public discourse.

    One interesting test of both sides in this fight would occur if some school board, for instance, were to call for Creationism/ID to be brought up in class while insisting that Creationism/ID be described as notions that are not scientifically accepted.

    We keep expecting scientists to be different than anyone else.

    I have no idea who the “we” is supposed to be. I see no reason to regard scientists in general as significantly different in their manners of thinking than is the case for the population in general. Nonetheless, as to the matter of “expecting scientists to be different than anyone else”, that expectation comes, largely, from how both scientistic types (if not scientists themselves) and those who invoke deference to expertise as a practical substitute for argument insist on the superiority of the sort of thinking which is alleged to be constituent of science to a greater extent than is to be found in any other cognitive domain. As that Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly link says, “Science provides irreplaceable training in intellectual rigour.” That rigor is simply not to be found in demarcation claims which have been asserted in the American court cases, and those who have relied on sacrificed philosophical rigor for the sake of legal victories have failed to set a proper course for addressing – much less winning – the culture war.

    In any event, what a maintained philosophical rigor would point out is that science is inescapably a matter of judgment even more than it is a matter of any clear and singular method(s). Similarly, Creationism and ID are not science not because of any clear demarcation criteria but, rather, because, according to the judgment of the biology scientists community, Creationism and ID are yet to constructively contribute to a furthered understanding of biology.

  4. Just to add to what Michael wrote, I’m not sure why you would imagine that we don’t realise “hypocrisy happens”. Scientists don’t need to hold themselves to a higher standard but, as I argued at length, if they are going to lament the misuse of philosophy in debate then they may need to avoid doing so themselves; if not, we can expect that their opponents will quickly learn (and of course have learned) the lesson that the end justifies the means. It’s plain enough that rhetoric works but less clear what the longer-term consequences will be in cases like ID.

    1. Thanks for the comments Paul and Michael. Some quick thoughts while at work:
      1. I agree you two were discussing philosophers and their role. I pivoted off of your points to discuss how scientists respond to the issue, the lack of philosophical rigor they demonstrate, and why I have a degree of sympathy for their stance even though I disagree with it. I should have been more clear. Sorry about that. It was unnecessarily careless and sloppy.

      2. For what it’s worth, I agree philosophers (and scientists!) should try to live up to their professed standards in all contexts.

      3. I agree that evolution/ID isn’t as important as often portrayed, and so everyone should be wary of using bad arguments to achieve their political goals. But, it’s also important to note that many scientists passionately disagree. I personally know many of them! For them, it is not merely a political and cultural matter, and they view evolution as quite essential even if you don’t need it for most biological understanding and research.

      4. Paul: The long-term consequences may be unclear, but some scientists don’t think they can concern themselves with that. For them, the here and now of preventing ID is what matters most. They have to make public arguments, and those arguments aren’t always rigorous. This tension is something I have been wrestling with on my blog. Can you actually accomplish your political aims with properly rigorous arguments? And if not, why is it better to sacrifice your aims rather than sacrificing rigor? Which one is the higher good?

      5. Michael: I really like your description on the use of judgement here and in your comment . I bet with enough time and interaction, you could convince many scientists of that. But how can that be used to prevent ID from entering science classrooms? I think we have to have that question in mind because that is the ultimate goal for some people.

      Will try to expand more later.

  5. 3. I agree that evolution/ID isn’t as important as often portrayed … But, it’s also important to note that many scientists passionately disagree … they view evolution as quite essential even if you don’t need it for most biological understanding and research.

    Your above remark portrays an unfortunately all too often encountered example of passion without rigorous reasoning. I know that you know that to say “Evolution is … not so essential … to most biological understanding and research” is NOT to say that there is no worthwhileness to theories of evolution, or that these theories are no more a matter of science than are Creationism/ID, or that evolutionary theories are unimportant and therefore undeserving of mention in high school science classes. Would that those “passionately disagree[ing]” scientists to whom you refer would appreciate that realizing this point need in no way diminish their passionate interest in evolution.

    I bet with enough time and interaction, you could convince many scientists …

    Well, even if it seems as if anything I write is intended to convince, the truth of the matter is that I never have any such intention! I do, however, always hope (or is fantacize a more correct term here?) that things I write might manage to stimulate someone’s thinking even if that thinking ends up in disagreement with me (in which case I would really like to hear about it, because disagreement is frequently much more interesting than agreement).

    But how can [the points made about judgment] be used to prevent ID from entering science classrooms? I think we have to have that question in mind because that is the ultimate goal for some people.

    Yes, eventually discussions about the Creationism/ID-evolution engagement will come down to – and should be pushed to – questions about “ultimate goal[s]”. In fact, that is one purpose of my suggestion that Creationism/ID “be brought up in class while insisting Creationism/ID be described as notions that are not scientifically accepted.” Such an approach would go a long way towards shaking out whether the currently operative ultimate goal is really the science status of Creationism/ID or whether the issue is actually camouflage for warring metaphysics.

    1. Hi Michael. Thanks for your comments again. I think we may be speaking past each other on the importance of evolution/ID and scientists’ response. Or perhaps we’re speaking orthogonally to each other. I’m not sure!

      Let me try clarify this narrow point. I agree with you (and disagree with most scientists) that the evolution/ID controversy is not a harrowing situation and a tempered response is more appropriate.

      Nevertheless, I can understand why scientists disagree and think that our respective positions boil down to our subjective differences on what we value. I don’t think scientists are necessarily lacking rigor for their basic belief that ID is bad. I think some of their arguments lack rigor (and I’ve said so before). But that’s different from their operating premise.

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