Archive for March 21st, 2012
Today I attended a lecture by Massimo Pigliucci at Washington University in St. Louis. The title of the talk was “A Fresh Look at the Demarcation Problem and Why it Matters.” Pigliucci’s aim was to help us distinguish between real science and pseudoscience.
He offered some a few examples up front to set the stage. It is fairly well accepted these days that Freudian psychoanalysis is pseudoscience whereas Einstein’s theory of relativity is a prototypical example of legitimate science. Most science falls in between these endpoints. One example of a suspect science is string theory, which Pigliucci characterized as a favorite modern day “whipping boy.”
Karl Popper had the same objective back in the 1930s, offering his falsifiability approach: a theory should be considered scientific if, and only if, it is falsifiable. Not only did Popper believe that he had provided a method for determining what is truly scientific; he also believed that he had solved David Hume’s “problem of induction.” Induction is the process of generalizing from a smaller set to a larger as-yet-unobserved set; the induction problem, according to Hume, was that we cannot rationally justify induction, because this conclusion depends upon the assumption that nature will continue to be uniform. Pigliucci argued that Popper’s falsification approach is not sufficient for it distinguishing between pseudoscience and science, because it is “vulnerable to the Duhem-Quine theses.” The problem, according to Pigliucci, is that one can often save a falsifiable hypothesis by tweaking it (as nineteenth century astronomers did when they worked to save Newtonian physics in light of the perturbations of Mercury by positing that there was an as-yet-unseen planet closer to the sun, a planet they named “Vulcan.” It would also seem that there is another problem with falsifiability; some nascent fields don’t yet have a thick collection of observations with which to work. Imagine that Aristotle announced the theory of general relativity, far before Einstein. It might have been impossible for him to offer a way to falsify his theory back then, but not because there was any problem with the theory itself; it would thus be declared to be not-science. Pigliucci addresses this situation (see below).
Throughout his lecture, Pigliucci referred to Larry Laudan’s approach to the demarcation problem. Laudan has argued that the demarcation problem is “uninteresting and intractable,” urging that we should completely stop using terms like “pseudoscience” and “unscientific.” Laudan argues that philosophers have failed to point out necessary and sufficient criteria for distinguishing between pseudoscience and science. He therefore considers the demarcation project doomed. Pigliucci disagrees, pointing out that it is not necessary to find necessary and sufficient criteria for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. Pigluicci draws upon Wittgenstein’s work on family resemblances. Wittgenstein had challenged people to define the word “game” in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. It seems like an easy task, but it is not. Pigliucci refers to this exercise as “humbling.” Just because we can’t set out the necessary and sufficient conditions doesn’t mean we don’t know what a “game” is. With regard to many concepts, including “species,” and, yes, “science,” no boundaries have been drawn, yet we have workable ideas for what these concepts are. Wittgenstein’s observations have been recognized and expanded by modern linguists, including George Lakoff, who has labeled such concepts as “radial categories,” indicating that prototypes serve as the most typical instances of such categories.
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Amy Goodman presents an interview with Thomas Drake, in order to shed light on the U.S. war on whistle-blowers.
We speak with Thomas Drake, who was targeted after challenging waste, mismanagement and possible constitutional violations at the National Security Agency, but the case against him later collapsed. Drake was one of several sources for a Baltimore Sun article about a $1.2 billion NSA experimental program called “Trailblazer” to sift through electronic communications for national security threats. “My first day on the job was 9/11. And it was shortly after 9/11 that I was exposed to the Pandora’s box of illegality and government wrongdoing on a very significant scale,” Drake says. . . .
In a major embarrassment for the Department of Justice, his case ended last year in a misdemeanor plea deal. Now the former top spokesman for the Justice Department, Matthew Miller, seems to be reversing his stance on the prosecution of Drake, saying the case may have been an “ill-considered choice for prosecution.”
All of this comes amidst the Obama administration’s unprecedented attack on whisteblowers. “It’s a way to create terrible precedent to go after journalists and a backdoor way to create an Official Secrets Act, which we have managed to live without in this country for more than 200 years. And I think it’s being done on the backs of whistleblowers,” says Drake’s attorney, Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics adviser to the Justice Department.
Drake’s accusations are extraordinary:
THOMAS DRAKE: The critical thing that I discovered was not just the massive fraud, waste and abuse, but also the fact that NSA had chosen to ignore a 23-year legal regime . . . It was the prime directive of NSA. It was the—the—First Amendment at NSA, which is, you do not spy on Americans—
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?
THOMAS DRAKE: —without a warrant. I found, much to my horror, that they had tossed out that legal regime, that it was the excuse of 9/11, which I was told was: exigent conditions now prevailed, we essentially can do anything. We opened up Pandora’s box. We’re going to turn the United States of America into the equivalent of a foreign nation for the purpose of a—of dragnet, blanket electronic surveillance.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, in other words, now warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens by the NSA and other intelligence agencies is legal?
THOMAS DRAKE: . . . [Y]es, during that whole period, we’re talking a very, very super secret program, which is actually referenced—that program is referenced in James Bamford’s blockbuster article in—is the lead article in Wired Magazine for the month of April. That particular program was—in fact violated, on a vast scale, the Fourth Amendment rights of U.S. citizens . . . It didn’t matter. It was just used as an excuse, that the fair game that NSA had, the legitimate ability of NSA to collect foreign intelligence from overseas, well, now that capability is being used to collect against U.S. citizens and everybody else in the United States of America.
Drake’s attorney, JESSELYN RADACK, commented on the Obama war on whistle-blowers:
The significance is that he was the fourth person in U.S. history to be charged under the Espionage Act. The first, tellingly, was Daniel Ellsberg. And now there are six people. The most recent to be charged is John Kiriakou. And all of these people are not spies. They’re whistleblowers. And they are being—they’re the people who revealed torture and warrantless wiretapping, some of the biggest scandals that occurred in my generation. . . Really, I think it’s a way to create terrible precedent to go after journalists and a backdoor way to create an Official Secrets Act, which we have managed to live without in this country for more than 200 years. And I think it’s being done on the backs of whistleblowers. And it’s also meant to send a very chilling message to government employees not to speak out about fraud, waste, abuse and patent illegality.