The Problem with Science Popularization

Massimo Pigliucci on the philosophy of science

Posted Jun 11, 2019

This is the third in a new series of posts abut Science and Philosophy, featuring interviews with influential scientists and philosophers of science. 

 Used with permission
Massimo Pigliucci
Source: Used with permission

Massimo Pigliucci is the perfect candidate for the science and philosophy interview series. To quote his homepage: he "has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Tennessee. He currently is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. His research interests include the philosophy of science, the relationship between science and philosophy, the nature of pseudoscience, and the practical philosophy of Stoicism." Furthermore, he is one of the most active public philosophers.

Walter Veit: How would you explain to the public what it is we philosophers of science are doing?

Massimo Pigliucci: Good question! I think the philosophy of science is in a number of non-mutually exclusive businesses. The first and most fundamental, I think, is to understand science from an epistemic perspective: philosophers are interested in the sort of claims scientists make, how they verify them empirically, and how they fit into certain theoretical frameworks. In this sense, the philosophy of science is one of three disciplines that study science from the outside, the other two being history and sociology of science.

None of the three is in the business to directly help scientists in their work, which is why it’s downright silly when physicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking ask with disdain “what has philosophy done for physics, lately?” (Cue the Monty Python sketch on “What did the Romans do for us?”)

That said, a second function of philosophers of science is to engage in conversation with scientists in cases in which the issues at hand are not just (or not mostly) empirical, but rather hinge on conceptual clarification. Examples range from the multitude of species concepts in biology to the status of string theory in physics. Here philosophers are in a position to help scientists (if the latter let them), but in the very specific sense of contributing to clarify the outlines of the debate and the criteria for moving forward—definitely not in the sense of doing empirical or even theoretical work on behalf of the scientists, who are perfectly capable of doing them on their own.

Finally, the third role is that of watchdog, in a sense. Sometimes science goes off the rails not in the epistemic or conceptual sense, but in the ethical one. Take, for instance, the issue of the new eugenics, the often unsubstantiated claims of evolutionary psychologists, or the problems surrounding a more flexible diagnosis of mental illness. Here the philosopher’s goal is to be helpful not so much to the scientist, but to the general public that pays for scientific research and that may be affected by its (alleged) findings.

Walter Veit: Do you see a mismatch between practicing scientist and how the public perceives science? 

Massimo Pigliucci: Yes, very much so. The general public has a high opinion of science and scientists, accompanied by a somewhat idealized view of how science works (encouraged, I must say, but many science popularizers). Then again, the same public is adamantly opposed to specific scientific claims, from the theory of evolution (for religious reasons) to vaccines (for reasons of mistrust of authority) to climate change (for largely ideological and economic reasons).

I do blame scientists and science popularizers, in part, for this state of affairs. We tend to talk of science has an established body of facts, and of scientists as almost superhuman geniuses who figure out the most marvelous things. The reality is that, with the occasional exception, most science is grinding work that leads nowhere, and most scientists are rather narrowly focused and all too human beings, subject to mistakes, seeking shortcuts, and the like.

We really ought to teach that science is a marvelous but fallible human activity, and that people should treat it accordingly, with a sensible combination of respect and mild skepticism.

Stay tuned for part 2!

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