August 2, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Scientists Can Be Inept Philosophers

An undergrad philosopher could make mince meat out of some scientists’ claims.

They used to be called natural philosophers. Now, oftentimes, “scientists” (a label concocted by William Whewell) learn little about philosophy in their training. Science is supposed to restrict itself to observable, testable phenomena in nature. Like everyone else, though, individual scientists develop strong opinions about things, leading some of them to go far afield of observation. Scientists need to be careful with their pronouncements, because they speak with the presumptive authority of science. Here are some recent news items that illustrate the problem.

Will the Great Attractor destroy us? (Live Science). Listed under “Expert Voices,” this article lets astrophysicist Paul Sutter speculate about the fate of the Earth in the far distant future. After discussing observations of the Great Attractor (a massive structure made of clusters of galaxies), he says this:

The Great Attractor won’t stay that Great for long. In fact, we’ll never reach it. Before we do, dark energy will rip the Norma Cluster away from us. Clusters will stay like they are, but superclusters will never live up to their names. So take comfort in that: we have nothing to fear from the Great Attractor.

Philosophers could point out that Sutter and all his listeners will be long dead before his prophecy could be tested or falsified. That being so, a Socratic gadfly could ask whether his “expert” or “scientific” opinion has any more merit than a given religious apocalypse narrative.

Is Earthly Life Premature from a Cosmic Perspective? (Astrobiology Magazine). NASA reprinted this story from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, unquestionably an institution of respectable eggheads (usually). A moment of reflection, however, reveals that no one could possibly know the answer to such a question. Harvard guru Avi Loeb let his assumptions launch him far afield of his observational platform:

“If you ask, ‘When is life most likely to emerge?’ you might naively say, ‘Now,'” says lead author Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But we find that the chance of life grows much higher in the distant future.

Once again, Dr. Loeb and his readers will be long gone before his opinion could be tested. So who “naively” stated a claim? See also, which quotes him saying that “alien life will be more common in the far future” (long after he is dead).

Belief in a deity helps humans cooperate and live in large groups, studies say (PhysOrg). Philosophers have no patience with self-refuting propositions. Joseph Henrich, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, seems oblivious to the fact that he fell into that trap. With his Yoda Complex in full operation, Henrich speculated that natural selection produced cooperation.

We have evolved some basic cognitive abilities that allow us to represent and understand these supernatural beings,” Henrich said. “Cultural evolution can then shape the details of what those gods care about and how powerful they are.”

But unless Henrich excludes himself from evolutionary forces by some unnatural (supernatural) ability, his proposition implodes. He himself becomes a product of the blind, aimless forces of evolution. A gadfly could joke that to become the fittest, he should believe in a powerful deity himself—not in evolution.

Uncalculating cooperation is used to signal trustworthiness (PNAS). Falling into the same trap, psychologists from Harvard and Yale try to account for the “evolutionary puzzle” of human prosociality (altruism) using evolutionary game theory. But if trustworthiness is a product of blind, amoral forces of selection, on what basis do they assert that their own paper is trustworthy? Unless they can argue how they should be exempted from the inexorable forces of natural evolution, maybe their selfish genes are just playing games with the readers’ credulity.

Humans artificially drive evolution of new species (Science Daily). It may be demonstrably true that human beings are causing genetic variations among their fellow creatures. But artificial “anything” involves intelligent design. Unless the evolutionists from the University of Copenhagen can make a distinction between artificial and natural causes of variation, they have no basis for calling the effects “unnatural” — as they do. To be consistent, they would have to state that people are just responding to forces of natural selection that produced humans. Consequently, they lose any foundation of moral urgency on which to urge their fellow man to conserve the alleged “natural” species:

Although tempting to conclude that human activities thus benefit as well as deplete global biodiversity, the authors stress that extinct wild species cannot simply be replaced with newly evolved ones, and that nature conservation remains just as urgent.

If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them? (The Conversation). Maybe James Carney, a psychologist at Lancaster University, should wait till he has some subject matter before speculating about such things. Whales are not aliens; they are earthlings. Carney cannot assume they evolved intelligence that seems “alien” to humans without assuming the thing he needs to prove: evolution.

Can we expect to learn such an alien language? The first hurdle would be its medium. Humans communicate in a 85-255Hz frequency range of sound and in the 430-770 THz frequency range of light. This is unlikely to be true of aliens, who will have evolved differently. Nevertheless, the problem is largely a technical one. Speeded up whale songs that are otherwise inaudible to humans, for instance, show that it is relatively easy to map “alien” stimuli into forms that humans can perceive.

What does your poop say about your evolution? (PhysOrg). Pardon the disgusting subject matter, but this article seriously contends that your dietary downloads are storytellers about your distant past. The subject matter is observable and repeatable, surely, but the larger claim is not. Perhaps poop to an evolutionist is like a liver to an ancient Babylonian priest, providing a medium for his assumptions to employ, giving quasi-empirical cover for divination rites promising to deliver insight into the nature of unobservable realities.

Orangutan ‘copies human speech’ (BBC News). Rocky the orangutan can mimic hundreds of human syllables. This is quite a feat, but parrots have similar abilities, and yet are not considered ancestors of human language. The observation does not justify the conclusion a scientist is drawing:

It had been thought these great apes were unable to do this and, since human speech is a learned behaviour, it could not have originated from them.

Study lead Dr Adriano Lameira said this “notion” could now be thrown “into the trash can”.

Dr Lameira just changed the question. If it’s about the production of sounds with a larynx and mouth, then yes; humans and orangutans share some traits. But now he is asserting that human speech, including convictions of the mind, originated from ape speech. If he really believes his own mental communications came from orangutans, then we can logically throw his belief into the trash can, too. Why? Darwin himself had a “horrid doubt” about whether his own convictions which, if derived from a monkey’s mind, “are of any value or at all trustworthy” (letter to William Graham, 1881).

A new design for psychotherapy trials (Medical Xpress). Our last example reveals that psychotherapy, for decades an “official” treatment for mental illness, has lacked evidence for its efficacy. A team of psychologists confessed “it is surprising how little we know about both their naturalistic course and their long-term outcome after psychotherapy.” The situation is almost criminal:

One of the main reasons for this gap may be that examining long-term effects in a controlled way is difficult, expensive and bears ethical and methodological risks. For example, treatment responders are often overrepresented in follow-ups while non-responders are lost to attrition or not followed up systematically. This may result in an overestimation of treatment effects. Related to this is the problem of differential retention, which occurs when high-risk patients are systematically excluded from one treatment condition, hereby subverting the effects of initial randomization of patients to treatment arms and again leading to distorted results. Adequate intent-to-treat analyses can partly solve these problems; however, non-responders are still lost.

Indeed, “Focusing on these issues is crucial for patients and clinicians to know whether treatments recommended by official guidelines can be expected to have long-lasting effects and what evidence-based options exist in case a treatment fails.” But as psychologists themselves, are they foxes guarding the henhouse? Would they be likely to recommend so-called “faith-based” solutions (such as Biblical counseling by a pastor) instead of psychological treatments? Why wouldn’t randomized trials include those, if there is evidence for their efficacy? And how do the measurements of results take into account the null hypothesis that a certain number of patients might get better on their own?

We all need to learn to ask the right questions. Think of these entries as training exercises in how to question scientific claims. Many scientists do not realize that their work is a form of logic. Invested with public trust, wearing their PhDs like miter caps of a priesthood, they make pronouncements that go far beyond what they know. Anyone can make observations and jot them down in a lab book. Interpreting what they mean is a logical endeavor. Unfortunately, science education either fails to recognize or underplays the logical aspects of scientific work. Logic is not a domain of science. It’s a domain of philosophy.

Philosophy is unavoidable. Scientific conclusions do not pop out of a test tube or telescope. It takes a mind thinking clearly to understand what’s going on, and what it means. Recognition of logical fallacies can avoid some common pitfalls, but the worldview foundations of good scientific thinking are frequently overlooked. As we try to show, logic cannot be derived from the evolutionary worldview. Only the Biblical worldview of a Creator making man in the image of God can sustain the reasoning necessary to do good science. That’s why many a Christian founder of science followed Kepler’s lead of “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” That worldview can lead to trustworthy, but not exhaustive, science.

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  • rockyway says:

    “It had been thought these great apes were unable to do this and, since human speech is a learned behaviour, it could not have originated from them. Study lead Dr Adriano Lameira said this “notion” could now be thrown “into the trash can”.

    – This claim is so absurd I think we should consider throwing Dr. Lameira into the trash can… carefully and gently of course. (As far as I know, apes in the wild don’t emit any human syllables at all.) What he conveniently ignores is that human speech isn’t simply sounds…. but language. i.e. it employs not merely sounds, but primarily employs words.

    – What people like Lameira either don’t realize, or won’t admit, is that human language changes everything… and defeats the claim the difference is one of degree only, and not one of kind. e.g. it’s not the case that dogs and horses only have limited language skills, but rather that they don’t have any language at all. (i.e. language in the semiotic sense)

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