No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

"Is" does not imply "Ought" - Why Scientism is Wrong - Penguins

Recently, I've been assaulted from several different directions by variations on the same stupid arguments. For the most part, I've been keeping out of things, but now I'm here to set shit straight. The current turmoil has centered on the confluence of a few major threads: evo psych, morality, nature, law, and rather centrally... science.

From time to time, I have been accused of being (or assumed to be) a scientismist.

Now, I defer to no one in the enormity of my appreciation for science. But I deny being a scientismist. Scientism (as I understand it) is just plain wrong, and is practically a strawman, if it weren't for the fact that there are some stupid shits who hold that position (and a larger fraction of people whose philosophical foot occasionally steps on a metaphorical bananaskin, slipping into scientism). This represents one extreme.

At the other extreme are the antiscientists. Again, science is so fucking awesome that this position is practically a strawman, except that there are some stupid shits who hold anti-science positions (and a larger fraction of people whose philosophical foot occasionally steps on a metaphorical bananaskin, slipping into antiscience).

Science is a marvellous tool, but it is not the infinite Swiss Army Knife. It does not apply to every conceivable question. If science is a hammer, then....

Scientismists see everything as a nail and go banging around on hexnuts and lightbulbs like idiots.
Antiscientists either hang their pictures with glue, or they let someone else hang it using a hammer, and watch the tool-user with intense mistrust and suspicion the whole while.

In brief, science is a tool that tells us how things are (in the natural world), not how they ought to be.

Now there are lots of other things that the science tool doesn't do. You can't use science to determine if a building is ugly, or if person X is your one true love. But the scientismists and antiscientists don't tend to make those mistakes. The common mistake is confusing "is" and "ought". Or to cast it in a different light, it is mistaking what is natural for what is good, desirable, or preferable.

Science is very good at figuring out the "is" part, but it is helpless (on its own) for figuring out the "ought" part. For the oughts, we rely on tools like philosophy, morality, ethics, aesthetics, personal taste, etc.

And in most cases, the scientismists are using other tools to make these 'ought' distinctions. They just don't realize it, or admit it. In what follows, mainly I'll bash the scientismists, but Newton knows I have no love for the antiscientists either.

Let me go through some examples to explain what I mean. I'll start with something pretty silly, so hopefully I trust that everyone will see that the two extremes are making errors.

Scientific Fact: Near the surface of the earth, gravity exerts a downward force on all matter.
Scientismist Response: Therefore, we ought to drop as many things as possible, and push over unstable objects like computer towers and standing people.
Antiscientist Response: Stop repressing the rights of birds to fly! I will not rest until every penguin is free from the shackles of gravity!

The scientismist is confusing the fact that things do fall down with the idea that things ought to fall down. Or that since falling is natural, it is therefore desirable. This is dumb.

The antiscientist is confusing the idea that things ought to be somehow else (clearly, penguins ought to fly, if only to gratify my desire to laugh at something so ridiculous), with the idea that things actually are somehow else (and therefore science is wrong, untrustworthy, wicked, etc.). In effect, the antiscientist wants to deny known facts. This is dumb.

Let's move on. The controversy will get louder and more acrimonious the further we go toward the soft sciences, which are justly ridiculed by real scientists.

Scientific Fact: Biological Evolution.
Scientismist: The unemployed/Jews/left-handers/genetically unfit should be exterminated.
Antiscientist: Hitler, therefore evolution is false.

That the 'weak' die does not necessarily mean that the weak ought to die. One can make a case for eugenics, but this does not rely on science alone. For example, one might do an experiment and discover...

In countries that euthanize Down Syndrome babies, the rate of Down Syndrome is 0.1%.
In countries that allow Down Syndrome babies to survive and procreate, the rate of Down Syndrome is 0.5%.

And the scientismist folds his arms smugly and says, "Well, there you are. We should euthanize Down Syndrome babies."

But there is an unstated assumption here that "We ought to reduce the incidence of Down Syndrome (by any means necessary)." One may choose to agree or disagree with this statement, but whichever side you choose, its truth or falsity is not a scientific result. There is no ought-ometer that scientists can use to determine which case has more ought-itude. If this issue were being debated, I imagine that people would be bringing up issues like quality of life, sanctity of life, the right to life, parental rights, morality, God's will, financial responsibility, government responsibility, our posterity, etc. No one is going to reach for a biology textbook. Science doesn't tell us what we ought to do. At best, science can tell us what would happen if we choose between the different alternatives. This can be a very useful input in the decision-making process, but science does not provide a method for making that decision.

The antiscientist argument is really an antiscientismist argument, which is fine, since scientism is wrong. But then it throws out the baby with the bathwater. For my next trick, I'll focus more on the antiscientist side.

Scientific Fact: On average, men are taller than women.
Scientismist Response: Therefore, women ought to be paid less than men, forbidden from engaging in combat during wartime, and should make me a damn sandwich.
Antiscientist Response: Rulers are sexist tools of the patriarchy. Besides, my sister is taller than my brother. Stop trying to destroy gender equality.

Okay, the scientismist response is just dumb. It assumes some sort of magical connection between height and worth. [Of course, it is a fact that taller people make more money, but again... this does not establish that taller people ought to make more money.]

The antiscientist position starts from the idea that all people are created equal and therefore they ought to be treated equally. This is a fabulous idea enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But neither of those documents is a scientific result. So these great statements about how we ought to treat each other has no power to trump the scientific result that men are taller than women on average. That's how it is.

Scientific Fact: On average, Asians score higher than whites who score higher than Hispanics who score higher than blacks on Wechsler IQ tests.
Scientismist Response: some ignorant shit
Antiscientist Response: some ignorant shit(*)

Really, this is pretty close to the previous example. Last I checked, one's ability to vote or live or be worthwhile or to be treated equally does not depend on waving one's IQ score in front of the authorities. High-IQ scoring people are not treated 'more equal' than others. Conversely, suggesting that blacks ought to be treated as second class citizens is just assholery.

This is not to say that IQ is irrelevant to success in life. Probably it contributes a lot. So does being tall contribute to success in basketball. Nevertheless, some groups of people are taller than others. And some groups of people get higher IQ scores than others. That's the way it is. You don't have to care. You don't have to like it. You don't have to draw any particular conclusion from it. But you're not allowed to deny the brute fact.

It's valid to ask whether IQ tests measure 'intelligence'.
It's valid to ask whether IQ tests are racially/culturally/gender biased.
It's valid to suggest reasons why these differentials in IQ exist.
But it's not valid to say that blacks score as high as Asians on IQ tests, because they just don't.

Scientific 'fact': gay penguins are the best parents in the whole zoo.
Scientismist Response: Homosexuality is natural, and should therefore be legal and have full marriage and adoption rights.
Antiscientist Response: Gay Penguins!?! LALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!

Being natural doesn't make something desirable. Arsenic is natural. Infanticide is natural.

On the other hand, one can definitely use this scientific fact to demolish the false (but all too common) claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

Scientific fact: Step-parents are roughly 70-100 times more likely to murder their non-biological children than biological parents are to murder their children.
Scientismist: Step-filicide is natural, and should therefore be legal.
Antiscientist: WTF, dude!

I bring up this case mainly because an evolutionary explanation for this fact is almost certainly correct (see link for more detail). No 'sociological' explanation is likely to produce an effect size of two orders of magnitude. But having a scientific explanation for why something is the way it is, is not a reason suggesting that it ought to be the way it is.

Scientific fact: Observations of non-human animals exhibiting behavior X.
Scientismist: Humans should be like that.
Anti-Scientismist: What are you smoking?

The scientismist not only anthropomorphises the behavior of the animals, but then maps that behavior onto human beings as a prescriptive rule. Shit, that's tantamount to demanding that Queen Elizabeth II pump out hundreds of eggs a day. Stop being stupid.

Scientific fact: Observations of humans exhibiting behavior X.
Scientismist: Humans ought to behave like that.
edgyspice: Fuck you.

For the last fucking time, IS does not imply OUGHT!
Tags: blog, is/ought, science

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