Saturday, April 21, 2007

Charles Harper: Scientism

In Sir Harold Kroto’s presentation at Beyond Belief 2006, which I covered yesterday, he made some critical remarks of The Templeton Foundation – claiming that the foundation was involved in promoting religion. Charles Harper, Senior Vice President of the John Templeton Foundation, was at the conference and given an opportunity to present a rebuttal.

Though Harper’s presentation seemed to be a last-minute invitation, he gave a prepared speech with slides explaining the work of the Templeton Foundation. Before doing this, Harper established his credentials as a scientist, having worked at Harvard and at NASA, where he invented techniques used in the dating of features on the moon and Mars.

When confronted with a speaker like Charles Harper, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that he must be wrong – the same conclusion it was easy to jump to in discussing Richard Perle’s defense of the Iraq War a couple of days ago. In these cases, it is particularly important to listen to what the person has to say and to admit to the truths that are contained in their beliefs. People who are this smart cannot be wrong about everything

Three Facts

Harper presented three facts that I hold to be particularly important.

(1) It is notoriously difficult to communicate scientific facts to the public. I said as much yesterday, when I said that broadcasting the proceedings of a science symposium on some scientific version of C-SPAN would be like broadcasting C-SPAN itself in a language that only 10,000 on the planet could understand. Your average every-day secretary or truck driver is not going to know anything about carbon dating, other than it has something to do with carbon and it is used to determine how old something is. Those few secretaries and truck drivers who could give more than this explanation are not ‘average’.

Any policy or program that expects non-scientists to communicate scientific facts at the same level as a scientist – or even at the same level as a college student with an undergraduate degree in science – is absurd and irrational. This is not a policy or a program geared for success in the real world.

(2) I will warn in advance that, in the conference, this claim seemed to get peoples’ blood-pressure up. It was the claim that conflict sells and that the reason there were so many attack books on the market today was because of the profitability of conflict, particularly religious conflict.

Some members of the audience seemed to interpret this as saying, “The only reason that people are writing these attack books (and, by this, we may assume that we are talking about Dawkins and Harris) is to make money. They do not really care about the issues they are writing about at all. Profit is the motive behind these publications, not edification.”

Harper did not say this at all. I think it is obvious that Dawkins and Harris wrote their books because they wanted to make the world a better place and that they were attacking something they believed to do significant harm to the present and future quality of life. However, the reason that a book was written and the reason that a book becomes popular do not have to be the same. These books became popular because of their harsh and uncompromising position.

What Harper did say, and what I think is true, is that conflict sells. I have also written in several posts that if Dawkins and Harris had softened their tone – if they had written in the compromising tone that many say they should have used - only a few of us would ever have heard of these books. They would have been popular among a small circle of diplomatic atheists and unheard of everywhere else.

“Shout television,” where two (or more) attack dogs on a news show shout at each other for 5 minutes, is the staple of the cable network news shows because people are entertained by these verbal gladiatorial matches. Nobody walks away from these better informed. However, the networks walk away from them a little wealthier because they have succeeded in their quest to draw eyeballs to their sponsors’ advertisements.

Anybody who thinks that it is important to live in the real world rather than in a world of fantasy and make-believe has reason to recognize that this is a part of the real world.

(3) When scientists talk about policy matters outside of their field of expertise (e.g., except when climate scientists talk about global warming or pediatricians talk about childhood obesity), they tend to drop the standards for proof and reason that they apply to their own field. In other words, they tend to speak from sentiment and prejudice rather than from an empirical understanding of the data.

I believe that the recent debate on framing in science illustrates this well enough. The scientific disposition towards precise definitions, empirical verification of claims, and skepticism went straight out the window in most of that debate.

It is not necessarily the case that scientists discuss policy matters with the same lack of intellectual rigor as ‘the man on the street.’ It is a tendency, but a tendency that each individual scientist can choose to buck whenever he or she writes or speaks on policy issues.

Harper’s False Implication

From these three facts, and from one false but misleading assumption, Harper comes out with two absurd question-begging rhetorical questions.

Question-I: Is it a good method of representation of science to the non-scientific public to seem to suggest that the core agenda of science is to attack extra-scientific aspects of culture that are for many people the carriers of their deepest and most cherished values?

Question-II: Do ideological assaults against religion well represent science to a broadly religious public that over the past century in the United States has supported a massive expansion of scientific research totally unprecedented in human history and that has generated a situation where about 90% of the world’s top scientific research institutions are based there?

Thank you, Mr. Harper, for providing an excellent example in defense of the point that when scientists talk about matters of policy, intellectual rigor tends to go out the window.

Turning first to Question-II – this is an example of “Argumentum ad Baculum” – or an appeal to the stick. Effectively, this is blackmail. “Dear scientists – quit telling us things that we do not want to hear or we will take away your funding. We do not care about quality of evidence or reasons for belief. All we care about is getting our most cherished beliefs verified. If you can’t do that, shut up, or suffer the consequences.”

If a criminal drags you into an alley, menacingly waves a bat around, and demands your money, you might have a good reason to give it to him. This ‘appeal to the stick’ certainly gives a person ‘reasons for action’. However, this appeal to the stick is a very poor ‘reason to believe’ that a particular proposition is true or false. In fact, just as the robbery victim is fully justified in feeling anger and contempt for the thief who appeals to the stick to get him to part with his money, the scientist rightfully feels the same anger and contempt for the threat to use funding to manipulate science.

So, this leaves us with Question-I.

As an atheist who, since I was 16 years old, been most interested in the question of value (what is 'better'?), I deny that there are “aspects of culture that are for many people the carriers of their deepest and most cherished values” that are, at the same time “extra-scientific”. I deny this in the same way that I deny that there are explanations for real-world events that are super-natural.

Extra-scientific holders of value do not exist. Any argument or essay that employs these entities when discussing real-world events, including policy questions, is making a false claim. Any time somebody brings up one of these mythical extra-scientific entities as a reason for pursuing policy option A over policy option B, given that people also have a real-world stake in which option we choose, that person is sacrificing real-world interests for the sake of imaginary goods.

It’s true that people can invest a great deal of their “deepest and most cherished values” in mythical entities. However, if the entity is not real, then the realization of their “deepest and most cherished values” is not real either.

A person can take it as his mission in life – as the only thing that can possibly give his life meaning and purpose – to protect the dryads that live in each and every tree. He can be successful in saving a whole forest of trees from being harvested. Yet, in doing so, and in spite of all of his efforts, he never has and never will protect a single dryad from harm. All of his pride and satisfaction comes to nothing. As a matter of real-world fact, he has accomplished nothing.

If, through his actions, he deprives people of food, heat, and shelter, then he has caused real-world suffering for nothing. As far as the real-world effects of his actions are, he has made the world a worse place. That pride he feels for the dryads he has saved is a mistake.

Values exist in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral values exist in the form of relationships between malleable desires and other desires. Values as relationships between states of affairs and desires are as real as the relationships that exist between planets and stars, or between different atoms. The study of value is no more extra-scientific than the study of any of these other types of relationships.

Any person who proposes a ‘reason for action’ for or against a policy, where that ‘reason for action’ does not relate to a desire, is bringing up a ‘reason for action’ much like ‘for the sake of protecting the dryads’. They are inflicting real-world costs on real-world people for the sake of accomplishing something that cannot be accomplished. It can’t be accomplished because ‘reasons for action’ that do not refer to desires are not real.

At this point, I need to add something that I think is important, but is missing from much of the debate. Atheism is not a virtue, and promoting atheism is not the same as promoting virtue. Atheists deny the existence of a God, and deny the existence of any ‘reasons for action’ that come from God. However, many atheists can and do believe in 'reasons for action' that are as fictitious as those that come from religion (e.g., Ayn Rand Objectivists, Marxists). Many atheists also deny the existence of ‘reasons for action’ that are just as real as relationships between planets and stars (post modernists, common subjectivists). If the problem - the threat to society - is the belief in false values and lack of belief in real values, religion is not the only place to find fault.


The points that I have raised so far can be used to evaluate Harper’s comments (or condemnation, really) of what he calls ‘scientism’. He defines scientism as:

The ideology which projects itself into the cultural (and actual) politics as being representative of science, but which does not utilize the scientific method, and which is not constrained by the usual institutional rigor of scientific research publishing, and which is not delimited to scientific matters, and is meta-scientific/ideological in nature.


In one of his specific criticisms, Harper says,

When scientific communities go beyond their domain of intrinsic expertise, and become ideologically engaged, it is typical that what results is naïve in the sense of its being disconnected from the best relevant scholarship.

This is true. When scientists enter the realm of value they tend to do so with a layman’s understanding of value. They tend to make crude mistakes that experts in value theory easily see as flawed, such as equating altruism with morality, deriving 'ought' from 'is' premises that contain no reasons for action, or failing to see the distinction between what an agent will do given a particular brain makeup and what an agent should do.

However, this problem does not prove that Harper is right. All that we need to correct this problem is to introduce scientific facts about desires, states of affairs, and the relationships between them. When scientists start adding informed opinion about relationships between states of affairs and desires to their conclusions, then they can speak scientifically about value.


Science itself . . . almost never obtains ideological/philosophical conclusions. “God does not exist” or “Atheism is true.’ These are not scientific statements following from scientific research.

In an important way, these are scientific conclusions that follow from scientific research. “God does not exist” is simply a shorthand way of saying, “God is not a variable in any scientific equation, and plays no role in explaining and predicting real-world events.”

One can respond that the scientist does not know everything, and there may be some future formula that requires a God variable in it somewhere, or a “Divine Uncertainty Principle” where results are best explained by inserting a decision by a supernatural agent.

However, we can invent an infinite number of entities that might play a role in some future equation. It certainly does not follow from the fact that a force or entity might have a role to play in some future equation that we have reason to act as if that force is real today. It is not even possible to do this, since the set of things that might be having an influence that we do not yet know about are contradictory. A “good God” is just as likely to have a role in this future equation as an “evil God” or an “indifferent God” or a “bipolar God”, or any of an infinite list of God types, as well as an infinite list of non-God explanations.

So, if ‘existence’ means ‘having a role to play in predicting and explaining real-world phenomena,’ then it is quite telling that no God variable appears in peer-reviewed scientific journals. For the sake of real-world decision making, this is all we need to know.

On the other hand, desires do exist. Relationships between states of affairs and desires do exist. Relationships between malleable desires and other desires do exist. All of these entities are a part of explaining and predicting real-world phenomena. What is true of these relationships is objectively true and subject to scientific study. If this were not the case, then we should categorize these entities the same as we categorize God and the dryads in the forest.


Ultimately, Harper built his presentation on the assumption that there is a distinction between fact and value, that science is concerned with the realm of fact, and to study value we must turn to something outside of science – something ‘extra-scientific’.

Many of the things that Harper says about scientists when they write in the realm of value is true. Those scientists have a naïve understanding of value, and typically do as poor a job discussing values as ‘the man on the street’ does discussing their particular branch of science.

Yet, this does not imply that there is something ‘extra-scientific’ about value. Astrophysicists cannot say much about the behavior of bees, and on average can be expected to know as little about bees as ‘the man on the street’. Yet, this does not justify calling the study of bees ‘extra-scientific’. It is only ‘extra-astrophysics’.

Even if one does not share the specific views about value that I assumed in writing this post and have argued for elsewhere, these examples at least show that there is a huge gap between Harper’s premises, however true they may be, and the conclusions he sought to draw from them. Those conclusions require additional premises which are, at best, highly questionable.


Anonymous said...

Your argument that value cannot be "extra-scientific"--to use your term--is the same as that made by Ayn Rand when she insisted that moral theory could be conducted as an objective science. She argued that there can be NO division between fact and value, between *is* and *ought*; the proper methods of arriving at values from facts are possible and grounded in reality. Values are a species of facts.
For more on this, I'd refer you to Leonard Peikoff's essay entitled "Fact and Value"-- you can do a google search for it. It's a good read pertaining to your train of thought.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I agree that there is no sharp distinction between 'is' and 'ought'.

As I typically phrase it: the only distinction that exists is between 'is' and 'is not'. 'Ought' either belongs in the 'is' category, or the 'is not' category (that is to say, in the category of make-believe).

Putting 'ought' is the 'is not' category. However, doing this implies that we remove 'ought' from any discussion of real-world actions or real-world policies.

Putting 'ought' in the 'is' category means that it is something that we can study scientifically, as soon as we pin down what part of 'is' it is.

I argue that 'ought' = 'is such as to fulfill the desires in question'.

And 'moral ought' = 'is such as to fulfill maleable desires that tend to fulfill other desires'

David Hume, I argue, defended something similar.

'Moral ought' = 'Is such as to realize character traits that are pleasing and/or useful to self and/or others'.

The thing is, 'ought' has to refer to reasons for action. Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. The problem with Ayn Rand's 'ought' is that it required the existence of intrinsic values. Intrinsic values are as mythical and make-believe as God.

olvlzl said...

I'm sorry I haven't been able to give your post the attention it deserves- and people say I write long ones, so that serves me right - it says a lot I can agree with. Two things jump out:

In so far as politics impinges on science it absolutely does matter that scientists both explain themselves and their work to the public who votes. Otherwise it leaves science open to any cheap pol or faith-based huckster who wants to gain power by attacking it or its funding. There isn't anything about the politics of science that makes it different from any other area of life. Scientists can't lie about the conclusions they draw from their work, it wouldn't be science if they did, but they had better find ways to get a constiuency for it or they will suffer some kind of consequences.

Another thing is that science isn't some realm of mental activity that is really different from others. It uses methods and proceedures that, at best, try to insure that its assertions are as close to reality as possible but there isn't anything separating it from a continuum of other mental activities. Unless someone has mastered the entire range of science and math and has complete reliablity in the materials and methods at hand, they don't have complete certainty. The best that can be hoped for is great reliabilty not complete reliability. This level varies among the sciences and among scientists, not a surpirse to anyone here I'd imagine, but the habit is to pretend that all science attains the highest level of certainty when it doesn't.

I'd quibble about what you say about anything that science can say about religious matters. Anything proposed to be supernatural, non-physical or otherwise beyond observation and measurement is not something that science can say anything about. How can anyone know if there isn't any observation or measurement? How can any aspect of math or science be assumed to be relevant to questions of religion? Science is absolutely able to address any assertions religion makes about the physical universe just as history and archeology can address any of the allged history it asserts, those have a physical, observable, measureable component that absolutely can be addressed by science. But the purely supernatural claims are entirely unreachable and the recently and unfortunately re-introduction of argument by analogy and pseudo-baseian pretensions don't change that. Luckily, everyone is free to not believe or believe as they see fit.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


When scientists ask for public money somebody has to make a case that there is some public reason for the research, this is true. However, I would argue that it is not the scientist's job to explain themselves and their work to the public. Rather, any good body of scientists have reason to belong to an institution. That institution, in turn, can hire specialists, not in science but in communication, to do the job you mention.

Still, this is tangentical to the focus of my post. It is one thing for the public to say, "In order to get public funds you should show that your research performs a public service." It is quite another to say, "In your to get public funds you have to speak kindly about my religion." The latter demand is not appropriate.

It is also a bit foolish, since if the science is in the public interest, it is the public that suffers when they say, "You criticized my religion, so you can't have public money."

As far as my claim about scientists speaking to the existence of God, I say that scientists can speak to the fact that, "There is no God variable in my equations." This is something that a scientist can say, and it is objectively true when he says it. It says nothing about things that lie outside the scientific equations.

However, since those equations explain and predict real-world events, if somebody wants to add a God variable, he will have difficulty.

If that God variable does not influence the equation (if its predictions and explanations do not change), then the God variable is impotent. If it improves the equation, making it better able to explain and predict real-world phenomena, then God has been shown to exist. However, if it makes the equation worse - if it makes explaining and predicting real-world events less accurate, then those errors will likely contribute to greater human suffering. It means policies will not have the predicted or desired effect.

olvlzl said...

Alonso fyfe, in a recent exchange I was a part of concerning the E8 figure mapped by David Vogan's team, some of us talked about two things, the number of actual dimensions of the universe and the possible ways those would impinge on our known and experienced lives. Of course it was all speculation, given the complexity of the eight dimensions dealt with by Vogan it would clearly be impossible for even all of the possible implications to be known. Would that change that they were there and impinging on our lives entirely unknown to us? No.

One thing about that last sentence you will notice that I haven't used the word "fact" because there would be no facts, since a fact becomes one only through its being known. So there would be no "variable" in an equation for these, that wouldn't make them any less real.

Math is not something that exists outside of human experience, so far as we know. The handful of indications that simple numbers are perceived by a few other species doesn't change that as far as we know human beings are the only species in the universe which has math. It is a product of our experience of the physical universe and is extended through logic, which is also a product of our experience of the physical universe. Math is a part of the physical universe.

Any proposed being outside of the physical universe might or might not be conditioned in part or in full by the same limits as the physical universe, there isn't any way of knowing. Math cannot be used to say anything about anything outside of the physical universe because it can't address things removed from the physical universe. Remember, we don't even know if there are other, equally effective, means of addressing the physical universe in other species. It is entirely possible that math is the product of genetics and a different chemical basis of life could produce different methods.

On the question of funding. Since it seems to be the assumption that scientists have the right and responsibility to speak on religion and other topics outside of their specialities, who better to defend their work and secure their funding. My sister is a biologist who spends most of her time tracking down funding, her work wouldn't exist without it. The least scientists can do is come down from Olympus to talk to the people who are footing the bill. Who knows? Maybe learning how to explain themselves could improve their thinking. It really doesn't matter what you or I think about the appropriateness of the public being more interested in science that is "in the public interest" because, I promise you, that consideration does matter. And if they don't understand the science, why should they trust scientists with their hands out just on the word of the scientists? Would you fund Dr. Radin's work on his word alone? I assume he would like more funding to carry it out.

You seem to assume I'm asking scientists to address their work in terms of religion when I not only never have but think that would be entirely inappropriate. I think a lot of the blame for the mixing of religion into science, in the mind of the general public, can be laid at the feet of people from Thomas Huxley (whose work I happen to have read and have thoroughly enjoyed) to Richard Dawkins who have gone way past what was necessary in addressing religious issues. Huxley had to defend evolution on the basis of its being true, he really didn't have to go after every last word Gladstone said on the subject. I really do think that the Gaderine swine controversy, while entertaining, was rather gratuitous on his part. I assume that less egocentric scientists would like to minimize the future strife which will arise with religious people. If that is true then making common cause with liberal religious people and even such evangelicals as are open to science would be a lot more profitable than in following a line of invective that really has had rather disappointing results after a hundred fifty years of trying.n