Monday, February 2, 2015

Pigliucci and his philosophy attack on scientists

Philospher of science Massimo Pigliucci posts a lot, and considers himself a defender of what science is about. My problem with him is his attacks on science, as much of modern philosophy has become anti-science.

As an example of how he pretends to be pro-science but actually hostile to what scientists say, he wrote in 2009:
My columns are written instead in the spirit that science and philosophy have much to gain from each other, with philosophy providing a broad view of how science works, and even criticism of specific scientific enterprises, and science returning the favor by informing philosophical debates with the best understanding of the facts of the universe that we can achieve at any particular moment.
Notice that he wants philosophers to tell scientists how science works, and limit scientists to reciting some facts.

Philosophers do not know how science works. Nearly all of them have a view of modern science that is at least a century out of date.

Pigliucci says Newtonian mechanics is wrong, rejects the scientific method, rejects scientific positivism and causality, and praises the notorious (late) Stephen Jay Gould.

He wrote a 2008 paper (pdf) complaining about scientists who do not subscribe to his philosophies. He wrote:
Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg (1992) took the rather unusual step of writing a whole essay entitled “Against Philosophy.” In it, he argued that not only is philosophy not useful to science, but that, in some instances, it can be positively harmful. The example he provided was the alleged slow acceptance of quantum mechanics, due to the philosophical school of positivism endorsed by so many scientists in the early 20th century, beginning with Einstein. Positivism is a now abandoned philosophical position — originally associated with the so-called Vienna Circle — that takes a rather narrowly naive view of what counts as science. Most famously, positivists thought that science had no business dealing with “unobservables,” i.e., with postulating the existence of entities that cannot be subjected to experimental tests. ...

Attitudes such as Weinberg’s are largely the result of ignorance of what philosophy of science is about, and I am convinced that such ignorance hurts science.
No, Pigliucci is the ignorant one here, as Weinberg never said that positivism slowed the acceptance of quantum mechanics. He said the opposite in that essay (pdf):
Positivism also played an important part in the birth of modern quantum mechanics. Heisenberg's great first paper on quantum mechanics in 1925 starts with the observation that "it is well known that the formal rules which are used in [the 1913 quantum theory of Bohr] for calculating observable quantities such as the energy of the hydrogen atom may be seriously criticized on the grounds that they contain, as basic elements, relationships between quantities that are apparently unobservable in principle, e.g., position and speed of revolution of the electron." In the spirit of positivism, Heisenberg admitted into his version of quantum mechanics only observables, such as the rates at which an atom might spontaneously make a transition from one state to another by emitting a quantum of radiation. The uncertainty principle, which is one of the foundations of the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, is based on Heisenberg's positivistic analysis of the limitations we encounter when we set out to observe a particle's position and momentum.

Despite its value to Einstein and Heisenberg, positivism has done as much harm as good. But, unlike the mechanical world-view, positivism has preserved its heroic aura, so that it survives to do damage in the future. George Gale even blames positivism for much of the current estrangement between physicists and philosophers. ...

The positivist concentration on observables like particle positions and momenta has stood in the way of a "realist" interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the wave function is the representation of physical reality. Positivism also played a part in obscuring the problem of infinities.
Quantum mechanics was an example of positivism doing good, while Weinberg gave several other examples to argue that positivism did harm, as well as examples of other philosophies doing harm.

There were a few anti-positivists like Einstein who did not want to accept quantum mechanics because they preferred to look for a realist interpretation. Because positivism stood in the way and said that such an interpretation is unnecessary, quantum mechanics was accepted rapidly.

I think that Weinberg and Gale are correct that positivism explains much of the post-WWII split between physicists and philosophers. Physicists recognize positivism as being crucial to much of modern science, including relativity and quantum mechanics. Philosophers argue that positivism is wrong, and thus imply that modern physics is wrong also. So of course physicists have no respect for modern philosophers.

Pigliucci says he sides with the majority of philosophers who subscribe to realism, and against positivism. This would seem to suggest that they side with Einstein and against Bohr and Heisenberg in the Bohr-Einstein debates. However all these philosophers seems to be a century out of date in their physics, so I cannot tell which side they are on.

Pigliucci also agrees with the majority of philosophers who strangely say that most of the sciences are concerned with causality, but not fundamental physics. I do not know how anyone can misunderstand physics so badly.

Pigliucci continues with another example of how philosophers supposedly inform science:
At the end of 2005, Judge John E Jones handed down a historical verdict against the teaching of Intelligent Design creationism in a case brought against the Dover, Pennsylvania school district. The Dover area school board had decided in October 2004 to include Intelligent Design in the science curriculum, and the case was important because it was the first time that ID, as opposed to classic creationism, was being challenged in a court of law. ...

In his deliberation, Jones said that “ID violates the centuries old rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation” (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, 400 F.Supp. 2d 707 [M.D. Pa. 2005]). Here the Judge drew upon the concept of methodological naturalism, the pragmatic assumption that every scientist has to make that only natural causes are necessary to explain natural phenomena: any activity that violates methodological naturalism (as any form of creationism does) is by philosophical definition not science, and therefore should not be taught in science classes.
This is a little misleading, because the school never taught any supernatural theories by any science teacher. All it did was to have an administrator read a short statement to the students that an intelligent design book was available with a different view from Darwin's. The science teacher disagreed, and the students were not required to read the ID book or be examined on it. You can read the details on Wikipedia.

Pigliucci brags that this was a victory for the philosophy of science, but it is not one that I would brag about. The court case hinged on the judge finding that the book's authors were influenced by their religious beliefs, but had left religion out of the book in order to comply with previous court decisions.

Even if the book did include arguments for supernatural design in the origin of life, I do not see any harm in telling students that some people believe that. My preference would be for science to be taught in a more positivist manner, but Pigliucci and his fellow philosophers oppose that also.

I also do not agree with the legal reasoning that says a book must be banned because the authors concealed how their views were influenced by their religious beliefs. The judge applied the Lemon Test, where the critical factor was the supposed religious intent, as opposed to religious content. I prefer to assess books by their content, as opposed to some possible hidden intent. The case was not appealed, and was just one trial judge's opinion.

Pigliucci complains:
Most scientists, if they are familiar with philosophy at all, have some acquaintance with philosophical studies of the nature of science. Names such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn even make it into the occasional biology textbook, and one can argue that falsificationism and paradigm shifts — the most important respective contributions of these two philosophers — are among the few concepts in modern philosophy of science that are ever mentioned in the halls of science departments.
These are the two most well-known XX century philosophers of science, and that is because philosophers regard them that way. They also both reject the positivist philosophies that most scientists have.

I guess Pigliucci thinks that scientists should read some more recent philosophers also, but they also reject the positivism of modern science, so what's the point? They are just more obscure opinions with a similar disapproval of modern science views.

Pigliucci elaborates on these views in a 2010 book, Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. The reviews are mostly positive, but one says:
I found this book to be disorganized and not at all as elucidative as the title indicates. It reads as if the Professor just shuffled a bunch of lectures. I hoped I could suggest this to students rather than slogging through the original Popper, I can't. ... His discourse on "public intellectuals" is the story of two men; Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. ...

I agree with your assessment and add that the volume appears to be a long series of ad hominem attacks in various forms on conservatives and others that do not support his obvious bias on the issues.
I have previously criticized him for idolizing Gould. Gould's most famous book is bunk, not science. He faked his results to promote his leftist politics, falsely badmouthed good science. Pigliucci brags:
Massimo has been elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “for fundamental studies of genotype by environmental interactions and for public defense of evolutionary biology from pseudoscientific attack.” ...

At last count, Massimo has published 136 technical papers in science and philosophy. He is also the author or editor of 10 technical and public outreach books, ...
I hate to pick on Pigliucci, but he is really promoting a bad idea of what science is all about. His "stilts" book attacks those who accept the science of global warming, but not the left-wing policy prescriptions. He has just the sort of attitude that alienates the public on climate science. He has aligned himself with Gould on some ideological disputes, and for censoring a silly couple of sentences in one Penn. public school.

Pigliucci edits Scientia Salon, which could be more accurately called Anti-Scientia Salon. It posts 2 or 3 essays a week on topics related to the philosophy of science. They are relentlessly anti-science, and usually feature academics speaking outside of their expertise to put down scientists. He defends them as having respectable philosophy ideas, but philosophers had largely lost it since WWII.

Last week the site had an essay by philosopher Marcus Arvan on his "Peer-to-Peer Hypothesis". This was actually one of the more respectable essays because it was extracted from papers published in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. It argued that quantum mechanics was all wrong, and its problems can be fixed by a hypothesis that we are all living in a simulation. I tried to comment there, but my comment was rejected for being too negative, so I post it here:
I don’t think Marcus was using “baffling” to simply mean that these things in quantum mechanics go against folk intuition, I think he meant that these are things in quantum mechanics that are still hotly disputed/discussed amongst professionals due to how conceptually confusing they are.
This is a philosopher misunderstanding. There is a textbook understanding of quantum mechanics that has been well-settled for decades.

Admittedly, if you ask some metaphysical questions, you can get different answers. And some complain about a supposed lack of consensus on some quantum mechanical interpretational issues. But the textbook theory is well-settled.

Here we have yet another anti-science essay arguing that scientists have it all wrong. Arvan has a published paper claiming that textbook quantum mechanics is incoherent, lacking in explanatory power, ontologically profligate, and metaphysically outrageous. [4, sect 3.1] Marcus says "this essay is on the very borderline of being labelled as crackpot pseudoscience." Yes, something that goes against decades of well-accepted textbook science is likely to be crackpot pseudoscience.

Arvan quotes Weinberg saying, "So where do the probabilistic rules of the Copenhagen interpretation come from?", as if this proves the deficiency of quantum mechanics. He leaves out Weinberg's next paragraph, saying "The Copenhagen rules clearly work, so they have to be accepted." Yes, textbook quantum mechanics and Copenhagen work just fine.

This essay is like a creationist posting some fantasy about life on Earth, and then justifying it by citing some hotly disputed evolution issues or saying that evolution is incoherent. Sure, there are some issues in quantum mechanics. But none of them are resolved by assuming that we are in a p2p simulation.
Yes, this shows the sorry state of philosophy of science that this crap gets published in journals, and the author is unable to defend his ideas in a blog post.

The majority of modern philosophy of science is based on crackpot pseudoscience. They will make fun of a Young Earth Creationist or a US Senator who says that catastrophic global warming is a hoax. But how are these philosophers any better? When they deny textbook quantum mechanics as incoherent, non-explanatory, and outrageous, they are worse. The fact is that quantum mechanics is one of the most successful scientific theories ever devised.

One of the commenters on that site defended the science-denying philosophers by saying that maybe one of them is the new Chomsky. Sometimes someone with a new idea has to say that the old ideas are wrong, he says.

This reasoning is silly on many levels. Yes, Chomsky went against conventional wisdom, but people still think he is wrong. At least Chomsky addressed his opponents with interesting arguments.

Modern philosophy of science has none of that. Today's philosophers of science refuse to learn modern science, and reject its purpose and methodology. I have posted many examples of this, such as most philosophers rejecting that physics is concerned with causality.

Saying that God created the Earth 10k years ago makes more sense than modern philosophers. That just ignores historical evidence in a non-scientific way. Arvan says the science is wrong, and his stupid simulation idea fixes it. He is more like a creationist saying that Darwinian evolution is incoherent and outrageous, but it would all make sense if we were in Hell.

You may think that I am harsh, but these are professional philosophers publishing their ideas. They are fair game for criticism. They have ample opportunity to defend their wacky ideas.

Disclosure: Pigliucci has accused me of "sheer nonsense on stilts" for comments about how philosophers have diverged from science.


  1. Roger,
    it is people who can't accept the simple fact that a probability is a calculation dependent upon prior data, and is not a priori cause, that have diverged from science.

    Unless you are hypothesizing that the universe is in fact a result of calculation (requiring something to be calculating it) then you are just mucking about with warmed over mathematical Platonism, which is just that nasty horrible philosophical stuff you keep poo-poo-ing.

    Beware the magician. He will try and convince you that deception and slight of hand is the work of miracles. If such were so, he would be running the cosmos, not performing at children's birthday parties.

  2. Roger,

    I know it's hard thing to do, but it's not worth wasting time on philosophers. Philosophy may be fine but the professionalization of philosophy (turning it into a job or career) has been a disaster for everyone including philosophy itself.

    Academic philosophers have no incentive whatsoever to be right about anything. Their careers depend on merely gaining some measure of fame/notoriety within philosophy itself, and being correct about anything is a substantial hindrance to that.

    All they do is write their unjustified (by either theory or practice) opinions which they nevertheless believe so strongly they will never change them under any circumstances. Then they write 50 papers advocating for them convincing no one with a brain, which no one outside of philosophy will read, retire, and then die. The vast majority of the time philosophers of science don't have basic competency in the areas they write about, and virtually never have done real life original scientific inference.

    Occasionally there are philosophers like Frank Ramsey who was a first rate mathematician (Senior Wrangler) and economist. They are extraordinarily rare, but if you can find there is some chance of changing their mind, or of them changing yours for the better. Outside of that it's absolutely hopeless.

    Like I said, they have no incentive of any kind to be right about anything. Not even the slight incentive that academic social scientists have. They are consistently wrong about most things from small details to large matters.

    Even when the matter at issue was purely technical and could be proved in a way instantly convincing to a real physicist or mathematician, they will still never change their mind, no matter how many people point out the details to them.

    My advice to anyone is to have a smidgen of respect for philosophy itself, but none whatsoever for professional philosophers unless they're also first rate scientists or mathematicians. They are intellectual scam artists who's primary goal in life is to cheat taxpayers out of grant money and seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to sexually harass coeds. Avoid them at all costs and take some consolation in the fact that 99.99% of physicists have as little respect for their drivel as you.

  3. Roger,
    I do agree with you about 'professional' philosophers, but translate that to mean 'academia'. Actual philosophy is more about understanding how various kinds of systems (both actual and abstract, ethical, moral, and utilitarian) apply to reality and people in various situations, then intelligently and judiciously applying them, or in some cases repealing them.
    Academia has so little to offer in this field, I don't know why they even pretend to bother. I would say however that it is extremely important for young people to understand the history of philosophy and its ideas, unless they want to be duped like a newborn when listening to someone from the government, a salesman, a lawyer, a scientist, a preacher, ...or a used car dealer.

  4. Roger,
    A great big chunk of todays 'scientific' research funds go to scam artists. There are too many people with Doctorates running around looking for funding to keep them all gainfully employed. Many in the sciences are even quite oblivious to the financial pyramid that sustains them (just ask the government for more), and are quite disdainful of recognizing financial cost and efficiency in the same sentence.