The Philosophical Attitude
Lee McIntyre’s The Scientific Attitude from MIT Press is a well constructed book, and for that matter well written, yet, it reads like Philosophy 101. Though there is no arguing the logic, as a reviewer, I found the book to be rather bland, and a slog to get to the end. My introduction to McIntyre was through an essay he wrote after his attendance at a flat earth conference. As the anti-science movement in the country expands, I thought I would give The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science From denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience a read. As a person of science, I do grow weary at the criticism and ignorance expressed by anti-science cabal.
But, McIntyre began to lose my interest in the first chapter, The Scientific Method and the Problem Of Demarcation, basically Science is not the scientific method, and where does one draw the line between what is and is not science. Perhaps not all problems in science are addressed using the scientific method, but some sort of process is required to submit for peer review, of which McIntyre spends much time. In the past, I gave my students a problem, helped them with a hypothesis/abstract and then turned them loose on lab tables loaded with equipment and told them to make it work. But I also emphasized the Scientific Method in that their lab write-up was subject to review. Anybody else in the classroom should be able to read their write-up using the SM, and get identical results. If not, your write up was wrong, or the reviewers couldn’t read.
Again, as a reviewer, I find myself as very philosophical about life, but find the discipline of philosophy about as dry as attempting to whistle with a mouth full of graham crackers. McIntyre quotes Hume in regard to induction “... I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse and am merry with my friends, and when after three or four hours of amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.” I quite often felt this way about reading McIntyre’s book.
McIntyre provides fodder for the anti science folks with statements such as, “The most important thing about science is that we try and find failure.” I would submit that the most important thing about science is that we try to find truth, and along the way, in sciences self correcting nature, we expose failure. Quoting Pigliucci, “Science is an inherently social activity, dynamically circumscribed by its methods, it’s subject matters, it’s social customs (including peer review, grants etc), and its institutional role (inside and outside of the academy, government agencies, the private sector).”
McIntyre shines when addressing: scientific failure and self correction with the cold fusion and anti-vaccine fiasco, all the while refuting: climate change deniers; creationism/intelligent design; flat earth, etc. I understand he wants to establish a solid logic based platform on which to mount his attacks and defenses, he just takes too long getting there. Then he goes off on tangents about how the social sciences might become “science”, using medicine as a prime example of a pathway to be followed.
Basically, McIntyre is preaching to the choir, and during the times in which we live, the logic he cites to support his argument is wasted upon those from whom he attempts to defend science, as they are solid in their “faith” or mindset. Perhaps if science is really under attack, it’s defenders should develop more of a spine, and invite those who detract from science a trip back to the Middle Ages and the times that preceded them. If your cup of tea is the language of philosophy, with an emphasis in science, this book is probably for you. If you find the language of philosophy as per the above mentioned section of Hume’s quote, this book may provide an anguishing journey.