Pseudoscience and Continental Philosophy

Philosophy of science or science studies?

I am a biologist and a philosopher of science, which puts me squarely into what in modern philosophical parlance is called the “analytic” tradition, tracing back to the works of Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore & co. at the beginning of the 20th century. The other major contemporary tradition is often referred to as “Continental,” because it originated with mostly French and German writers, arching back to Nietzsche, then Heidegger, all the way to Foucault and Derrida, just to mention a few.

Even though it is now fashionable to deny the split between analytic and Continental philosophy, it is plainly there for anyone who actually bothers to read the authors in question and their intellectual heirs. Despite some crossover, broadly speaking — and at the cost of a somewhat simplified summary — analytic philosophers tend to be very careful in their use of language and arguments, but also to write about increasingly less interesting minutiae. Continentalists, in contrast, display a marked preference for important social and political issues, yet also write in a more essayistic form, not infrequently getting lost into outright obfuscatory language.

I find this divide to be a highly unfortunate feature of the modern philosophical landscape, and one that at some point needs to be overcome (and, to be fair, a number of people have been trying). Ideally, philosophy ought to get back to its roots and concern itself with commenting clearly and compellingly (following the analytics) about things that actually matter (taking a hint from the Continentalists). Then again, one needs to be careful about wishing a particular offspring to come out of a given coupling. I am reminded of a quip by George Bernard Shaw: apparently, during a dinner party a young and attractive woman suggested marriage on the grounds that their children would have her beauty and his intelligence; to which he responded that it was also possible that they would inherit his beauty and her intelligence…

At any rate, I was reminded of all this while reading a strange paper by Babette Babich, published in the International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, entitled “Calling Science Pseudoscience: Fleck’s Archaeologies of Fact and Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation’ in AIDS Denialism and Homeopathy.” It is a representative sample of Continental writing, specifically within the tradition of “science studies,” as opposed to philosophy of science (of which the author is in fact very critical).

(Full disclosure: my colleague Maarten Boudry and I are roundly criticized in Babich’s paper, so I may not be the most objective judge of its content.)

It is hard to tell what the main thesis of Babich’s paper actually is, though there is an underlying current of distrust in the authority of science and a great deal of criticism of philosophers of science who are — in the author’s mind — a bit too servile in their cheerleading attitude toward science. The interesting, and a bit maddening, thing is that Babich, like many Continentalists, does have a point: we do live in an era where science is held to be the savior of mankind, despite having brought on us as many disasters as good things (yes, we got the iPhone, but also horrible working conditions in its places of production; we can drive and fly everywhere, but we are polluting the planet at an alarming rate; we have rockets that can go to the Moon, but we can also use them to annihilate the planet; and so forth, you get the gist).

She is also right that philosophers of science have historically rarely been critical of scientific research or of the scientists that engage in it, though this has began to change in the right direction since the times of logical positivism at the beginning of the 20th century. Science needs to be supported, but also criticized when necessary, and philosophers of science are among those best positioned to do so, together with historians and sociologists of science. Indeed, science is too important, and too generously funded, for that conversation not to be an open, public and ongoing one.

The problem is that Babich’s attempt will simply give more excuses to both philosophers of science and scientists to keep ignoring the entire area of science studies and rehearsing instead the infamous “science wars” of the 1990s. She mixes up legitimate criticism of scientific practices and science’s power structure with a defense of decidedly pseudoscientific or highly debatable notions, like HIV-AIDS denialism, homeopathy, cold fusion and climate change denial.

Indeed, Babich has a big problem with the whole notion of pseudoscience, invoking Larry Laudan’s famous 1983 paper that advised philosophers to drop what he thought as the hopeless task of demarcating science from pseudoscience. But Laudan’s point was largely epistemic: he thought that one cannot arrive at a satisfactory definition of science (or pseudoscience) in terms of a small number of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, and that therefore one ought to stop using the generic label of “pseudoscience” and instead focus on the individual epistemic issues of specific claims made by homeopaths, parapsychologists and the like.

Even Laudan, however, was well aware of the fact that philosophy of science is (partly) inherently prescriptive, since that’s what distinguishes it from sociology and history of science: “Philosophers should not shirk from the formulation of a demarcation criterion merely because it has … judgmental implications associated with it.” But, he says, if we have to demarcate, we better do a good job of it.

With a number of colleagues I put together a collection of essays responding to Laudan’s concerns and attempting to move forward in the debate about science and pseudoscience. But I take Babich’s paper as an unfortunate step back. Let me give you just one example of her approach that I think is illustrative both of the problem and of the possible solution.

Babich’s approvingly cites the writings of population geneticist Richard Lewontin (one of the major influences in my early career as a biologist, and an all-around decent fellow), and in particular his discussion of tuberculosis in his delightful Biology as Ideology. Lewontin correctly points out that when we speak of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis as “the” cause of the disease we are thinking in a rather narrow fashion. Indeed the incidence of tuberculosis in the West decreased dramatically far in advance of the discovery by Robert Koch in 1876 of the bacillus that causes it. This means, says Lewontin — again, rightly — that modern medicine can claim little of the merit for the improvement, and that much of that happy outcome was the result of a series of social changes that led to more income, better nutrition and better sanitary conditions for millions of people after the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution.

But here is how Babich distorts Lewontin’s point, in the service of what she thinks is her anti-scientistic (but comes close to actually be anti-science) stand: “Like syphilis, like AIDS, albeit contracted differently, tuberculosis is likewise a ‘lifestyle’ disease … the cure, and the very German (and Swiss and Austrian) notion of a ‘Kurhaus’ reflects this efficacy for the complex environmental organism that is the human being as a whole (rather than a biological unit — either on the level of the patient or the pathogen), remains rest, clean and fresh air, lack of stress, and good food. Same as it was more than a hundred years ago. But we continue to find such notions strange to our idea of disease, we are, we remain, persuaded that disease is a result of an invasive agency, a given disease entity, which entity can be identified and opposed or blocked.”

Setting aside the rococo style (which marks most of the paper, in perfect non-analytic tradition), we have a pretty obvious sleight of hand at play here: better living conditions are not a cure for tuberculosis, but they certainly do help preventing it because the bacillus does not thrive under more sanitary conditions. The disease still is caused by an invasive agent, indeed one that modern science has identified, characterized and found a vaccine for! But that doesn’t mean that Mycobacterium tuberculosis is the only cause of the condition. One also has to have a number of other co-causes in place for it to happen — such as poor health and diet, which are in turn co-caused by poverty.

This, however, is not in the least a profound statement about the importance of holistic causality, but rather a trivial acknowledgement of what everyone ought to know. Suppose that a short in the electrical system leads to a fire in my apartment. It is perfectly sound to say that the short was “the” cause of the fire, indeed that’s likely what the police report would say. But of course the fire was actually made possible by a number of background conditions as well, for instance the existence of an electrical system to begin with, a number of combustible materials in the apartment, perhaps a fire alarm that didn’t go off, and even the fact that the fire department’s nearest station was too damn far away to intervene on time.

My point is that Lewontin is right in cutting historically inaccurate grand claims about the efficacy of modern medicine down to size, and to shift our attention to the other conditions that actually make it possible not only to fight a particular disease, but in general to improve the lives of countless individuals. Yet none of what he says ought to be interpreted as somehow questioning the scientific account of the etiology of tuberculosis, or of disease in general, and certainly is of no comfort to supporters of homeopathy, AIDS denialism and so forth.

And this really is the whole problem with a number of works coming out of science studies programs: the concern with science’s power structures, as well as with the more or less hidden agendas of governments, corporations and individual researchers is well placed and absolutely deserves close scrutiny. But such scrutiny is undermined by a facile criticism that is founded on a significant lack of understanding of the underlying science and that insists in putting in the same basket good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. The consensus in the field of philosophy of science is that Laudan was partly right: there is never going to be a way to cleanly separate the good stuff from the bad stuff. But the existence of gradations and borderline cases doesn’t mean there are no distinctions to be made, and making those distinctions is both intellectually necessary and socially useful.

Let me close with a quote from Bruno Latour, one of the Continental authors Babich cites often and favorably. In a paper published in 2004 in Critical Inquiry and entitled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour found himself in a bit of a regretful mood thinking over the aftermath of what he and other postmodernists and deconstructionists have unleashed, saying: “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?” Excellent questions, and the answers will require much further soul searching, until philosophy of science and science studies may finally join forces and become of real use to both science and society at large.