New Atheism is Bad Science

Bad Science book coverScientism is pseudoscience.

If that seems obvious, I can only say that there are many who still need to be told. It continues to strike me as incredible that so many people, who claim to be committed to a tough-minded scientific approach, can become so enamored with the idea that this unsupported (and blatantly incoherent) philosophy is the true spirit of scientific thought.

But what is particularly shocking is how often this kind of pseudoscience is promoted by scientists themselves. Richard Dawkins is, of course, the most obvious example, but there are others.

Still, as professor of the public understanding of the sciences, it was (specifically) Dawkins job to clear up muddles like this–rather than exacerbate the problem. The fact that he spent his career arguing for ‘scientific thought’ that was completely unsupported by any kind of scientific evidence did not help.

If Dawkins had understood this, perhaps scientism wouldn’t be running quite so rampant in modern culture. It rears its (vacuous) head every time someone demands physical evidence for a logical principle–or insists that materialism is true on the grounds of (completely arbitrarily) declaring that magic is the only other option.

One of the more popular incarnations is the appeal to the history of science. “We’ve never found any evidence for the non-natural” or so the phrase goes. I suppose there are dozens of responses to that, but the pertinent one is that absence of evidence is only significant if someone has actually looked for evidence at some point.

And there simply has never been a scientific experiment that tested for transcendence. To claim otherwise, or to claim that science shows things without testing for them is at least pseudoscience, if not downright superstition.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thinking being promoted by people who loudly claim to be the true champions of science. An actual understanding of science would be more careful about logical distinctions, slower to extrapolate philosophical conclusions from small amounts of data, and in general have a better grasp of what questions science is relevant to answer.

We see none of this in the New Atheists, and I find it astonishing that they haven’t been asked for evidence for their claims far more often.

20 responses to “New Atheism is Bad Science

  • chicagoja

    It’s called ideology run amok; but there’s a method to the madness.

  • boxingpythagoras

    If, by “scientism,” you mean the belief that scientific consensus represents absolute, unassailable facts about reality, I completely agree that this philosophy is pseudoscientific.

    However, I’ve sometimes heard the word “scientism” applied to the claim that the Scientific Method is the best method yet discovered for discerning and disseminating an understanding of the way in which reality operates. I would wholeheartedly disagree with classifying this claim as “pseudoscience.”

    Is this the only path to knowledge? Certainly not. However, I would argue that no other path to knowledge can be as easily demonstrated to other people in order to verify that knowledge. Take, for example, personal revelation. I will absolutely grant that personal revelation could be a method by which one comes to knowledge. However, how can this person then demonstrate that the knowledge so gained is actually true? I cannot share in someone else’s personal experience, and if his claims run counter to my own personal experience, how can we discern whose knowledge better represents reality?

    I completely agree that Richard Dawkins, at times, has said some completely unscientific things. Despite my also being an atheist, I’ll be the first to jump on him every time he repeats that “if you were born in India, you’d be a Hindu” non-sequitur, for example. However, when he (and others) say that theists quite often appeal to the supernatural without providing any evidence (or even a clear definition) for it, he is not making an improper complaint. If you want to demonstrate that the supernatural is the best explanation for something, you must first demonstrate that the supernatural exists. If we can’t even agree on whether or not the supernatural exists, we certainly can’t convince one another of anything based on that premise.

    • Debilis

      Yes, I was referring to Scientism as the idea that science is the only legitimate source of information.

      I don’t know what I think if the idea that science is the best source, however. I suppose that would depend on the question being asked. But I definitely agree with the notion that simply stating personal experience at one another gets us nowhere.

      With regard to the supernatural, I’m not sure that there is much agreement on how that is defined. Its amazing how infrequently this is addressed, actually.

      In any case, I very much appreciated the thoughts. Best to you out there.

    • Frank Morris

      bp, I agree with much of what you say here, but not all. I would add that scientism is also associated with the exclusionary ideology that holds that ONLY that which has been empirically demonstrated is true. This claim is so false that it is actually self-refuting, because the claim itself is non-empirical.

      In other words it is the unsupported denialism that is pseudoscientific. As weak as it is to make a claim that is not empirical, it is far more clearly wrong to DENY that which does have empirical support.

      You lose me in your last paragraph, and I even tend to agree with Dawkins that being from India makes one likely to be a Hindu, although I would call that a local cultural version of theism, no less valid than any other.

      Theists may often fail to provide evidence for their beliefs, but atheists are far worse in this regard and some theists provide plenty of evidence.

      bp: “If you want to demonstrate that the supernatural is the best explanation for something, you must first demonstrate that the supernatural exists.”

      Your logic is bad (and it is a classic example of the fallacy of scientism). If A is the best explanation for B, then showing that B exists does constitute evidence for A.

      For example if we find a planet high in methane content, and it is deemed that the best explanation for this is the existence of life there at one time, then we have evidence of life there. We don’t first need to demonstrate by some other means that we KNOW life was there independently of this evidence. You can complain about the degree of certainty, but you’d be wrong to say you MUST have completely separate evidence as well or it CAN’T be true.

      Sometimes we have strong evidence that something we can’t measure exists because of its effects on that which we CAN measure. Sometimes that evidence is so strong that it becomes more foolish to deny it than to accept it.

      Positivism is pseudoscientific denialism.

  • john zande

    “One of the more popular incarnations is the appeal to the history of science. “We’ve never found any evidence for the non-natural” or so the phrase goes. I suppose there are dozens of responses to that, but the pertinent one is that absence of evidence is only significant if someone has actually looked for evidence at some point.
    And there simply has never been a scientific experiment that tested for transcendence. To claim otherwise, or to claim that science shows things without testing for them is at least pseudoscience, if not downright superstition.”

    -Fide, we’ve been through this many times. Please see the Templeton Foundation and their (to-date) $1 billion-plus spent trying to uncover proof of “spiritual realities.” Are you also ignoring the likes of Duncan McDougal who conducted rigorous experimentation? God only knows [sic] the lengths people have gone to so as to establish some foundation for some supernal reality. Is not the spiritualist movement and their faith healing, channeling, automatic writing, séances, out-of-body astral projection work all “experimentation”?

    But you like making these colossally unfounded claims, so I’ll ask you to actually put some meat behind it. Explain to me, clearly and coherently, how *you* would test for transcendence? First, please describe, as clearly as possible, what this even means, then detail the methods you would suggest to test for it.

    • Debilis

      I’m aware that “we’ve been through this many times”. You keep mentioning the Templeton Foundation as if this somehow completely settled the issue.

      I keep pointing out that what you need to do is name the actual experiment. Don’t mention money; mention evidence. What experiment actually tested for the existence of the non-natural? What were the results?

      Is McDougal’s work supposedly the answer to that? Are you claiming “the body loses no mass at death, therefore there is no immaterial part of human beings”? I don’t remotely see how that makes sense.

      The same goes for what you call the spiritualist movement. What experiment was done that tested the existence of the non-natural? All I’ve seen are tests on the natural, based on ideas that blatantly contradict Classical Theism.

      Essentially, you seem to be presenting the case: “Here’s this idea that isn’t remotely like what you believe, and it hasn’t found any good support, so your beliefs are false”.

      Do you see why I’m not convinced by that?

      But I’m excited by your last question. The first thing I’d say about testing for transcendence is that we shouldn’t be using a method which requires that we ignore transcendence from the outset. That would include modern science.

      Rather, the proper method for inquiring into transcendence is metaphysics. This is why I’ve spent so much time on metaphysical demonstrations, and so little on methods that simply ignore the question of transcendence. It is also why I keep trying to get off of claims about what science (which ignores the question) has or hasn’t shown, and back onto metaphysics (which is the correct topic).

      The method used there is, essentially, rational analysis of existing information. From another angle, one would say that it uses deduction rather than induction. Demands that induction don’t help my case (whether true or not) are simply beside the point.

      • john zande

        I mention the Templeton Foundations because you continually try to make outlandish claims that no one is researching spiritualism. This is a patent falsehood. There are many people, including extremely well-founded organisations, doing the very work you keep claiming isn’t being done. A 1 second search finds the University of Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, University of Virginia School of Medicines Parapsychology unit, as well as units in Hope University in England, and UCLA in California. Granted, parapsychology might not be what you were specifically talking about, but it is research into unknown realities, and “unknown realities” is what you are most definitely hollering about.

        I don’t think you’re stupid Debilis, so don’t try and act like you are. Read the title of the TF’s £1,100,000, annual prize: “TEMPLETON PRIZE FOR PROGRESS TOWARD RESEARCH OR DISCOVERIES ABOUT SPIRITUAL REALITIES” Surely that embodies everything you are at pains to say doesn’t exist in the field of current research.

        I mentioned McDougal only as another example of people doing (having done) PRECISELY the thing you keep trying to tell yourself people aren’t doing! You are desperate to believe this lie, this phantom conspiracy, and that is tremendously worrying. I don’t like saying it, but you’re living in a delusion here. You *want* to believe no one is doing anything, and that *you* are the only voice shouting in the dark.

        Now, to you proposal:

        Thanks for trying to explain yourself, but you haven’t described what “transcendence” is. If you want to establish this mysterious thing exists, that it is knowable, then we must first know what it is we’re looking for. I think you can agree with this, correct?

        Now, thanks again, but what does a “rational analysis of existing information” mean? Might you, perhaps, be talking about something like Intelligent Design theories? If this is the case, aren’t you once again incorrect by claiming no one is doing the work you keep trying to say isn’t being done?

        If ID isn’t an example of what you’re talking about, then could you perhaps give a working example of what you are, in fact, talking about?

        We’ve spoken about this before, but it needs to be repeated. The Templeton Foundation has over US$3 billion in funds ready to be handed out to serious researchers. If you really think you have something, what are you waiting for??? They’re there for you! They WANT to give you money to research the things you want to research! They’re in fact desperate for you to be right… and they’ll fund YOU!

        Serious question: Why haven’t you pursued this?

        • Debilis

          I’m going to skip the personal comments about myself and stick to the subject.

          That being the case, the main point that needs to be made is that what I’ve been discussing under the label “transcendence” is an altogether different sort of thing than what you’ve, apparently, taken it to be. That is, all of the tests you mention are tests of parapsychology, not transcendence.

          Yes, these people are trying to find “other realities”. Well, good luck to them; I don’t think they’ll find a thing looking in that way. I was discussing something that simply is not an efficient cause of material events, which is what all of these tests are looking for.

          So, it doesn’t matter what the prize money is for parapsychological discoveries are. I’m not proposing any such thing.

          So, what am I proposing? It also isn’t intelligent design. I’m not a believer in intelligent design theory, as I’ve made clear numerous times. By “rational analysis of information” I was talking about metaphysics, as I said. Just a little reading would reveal that metaphysics predates intelligent design theory by quite a few centuries. I don’t know how one could confuse the two.

          Examples of what I’m talking about are posted all over this blog. The trouble is that some who read them keep trying to squeeze them into the mold of those arguments they already know. (Hence, your reference to intelligent design theory.) Personally, I’m partial to the argument from mind, but can never convince people that I’m not arguing for a an immaterial soul or “ghost in the machine”. When people ask for examples of what I mean, they seem to want examples that they can picture in their mind’s eye. I’m specifically talking about things that can’t be so pictured (such as minds themselves).

          I’ve also spoken about the sufficient reason of the universe. Many, not understanding what this is, just assume that I’m taking about the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

          When I speak of God as an explanation for the order of the universe, many simply assume that I’m talking about fine tuning. I’m talking about the fact that there are scientific laws in the first place (nothing whatsoever to do with constants). Science isn’t relevant to this question because science is built upon the assumption that there are such laws. It can’t consider possibilities that don’t include them.

          So those are examples. It’s okay to have more questions and reservations. But it makes no sense at all to just keep assuming that these are the kinds of things that could be tested by science, when they simply are not. Nor does it make sense to mention parapsychology or other parts of the “spiritualist movement” when they are looking for something entirely different.

        • john zande

          You have deliberately miss-read (or purposefully misinterpreted) what I wrote. I wasn’t saying, anywhere, that the TF prize was for parapsychological work. I was merely identifying that particular “field” as evidence against your wild claims that no one is researching alternative realities.

          Now, you haven’t actually identified anything, Debilis, beyond a series of theistic daydreams. I honestly don’t know why you bother hollering about people not researching things if, when pressed, you turn around and offer nothing of substance. Why even bother hollering? So you have some nice dreams, great… leave it at that.

          If you, however, think you have something of substance to actually back up your complaints then, as requested, let’s hear the proposal you can give to the Templeton Foundation to research it. THEY WANT TO FUND YOU! They have the money. They are keen to help you realize your dreams.


          Sound custom made for you, doesn’t it?

          So again: why haven’t you pursued this path?

        • Debilis

          Apologies if I misunderstood. I promise that it was not deliberate.

          However, as long as we’re discussing misunderstanding, I never made the claim that no one is investigating alternative realities. What I claimed was that the particular non-material realities I was discussing aren’t researchable via science. Parapsychology, while it is certainly an attempt to establish a non-material reality, is completely irrelevant to what I was claiming.

          Nor do I remember “hollering”. Rather, I was simply pointing out the facts of the situation. I offered several examples of the kind of things I was discussing. You are free to disbelieve in such things, but that doesn’t suddenly make them not examples.

          In fact, we keep seeing this problem: you need to clarify what you want when you ask for examples. Do you want to understand what it is I’m claiming, or a reason to think those claims are true? I took you to mean the former, and gave you an explanation of my position. But you’re now responding as if you wanted a defense of that claim, and are criticizing me for not showing these things to be real.

          But, if that is what you had wanted, you shouldn’t have asked for examples. You should have asked for reasons. The trouble is that nearly every time I give you reasons, you respond by asking for examples.

          Examples are for illustration. Reasons are for demonstration. Please keep that in mind.

          As obviously rhetorical as it is, I suppose you aren’t going to quit asking me why I haven’t submitted a proposal to the Templeton Foundation until I’ve answered that in this particular conversation.

          But I’ll simply say the same thing I told you the last time you went off onto this particular rhetorical tangent: everything I’ve claimed has already been said by others who are known to the Templeton Foundation. Nothing I’ve written in this blog is news to them.

          In fact, all I’ve been doing is describing classical theism. There are plenty of others who’ve already received the Templeton money for that. You seem to think I invent this a stuff out of whole cloth, but I’ve simply been explaining to you what the major Christian denominations have traditionally taught.

          When that is clear, and I stop getting demands that parapsychology counts as inquiry into these issues, or strange silences about metaphysics when I’ve made it abundantly clear that this is the subject I’ve actually been discussing, then we can talk about my reasons for thinking these things (not other things I don’t believe) and have a real discussion about the merits of those arguments.

          But that only works if we stop assuming that I’m talking about anything that can be investigated with science. Whether or not “alternate realities” can be is neither here nor there.

        • john zande

          Forget parapsychology. It was a passing comment. It means nothing to this conversation.

          I used the word, “hollering,” to represent your constant barrage of posts, one after another, all pretty much crying about the same thing: “transcendence and metaphysics are real,” “no one listens to me,” “evil science,” “conspiracy.”

          Now, it’s not a matter of me disbelieving anything. To do so I’d have to first have a clear understanding of what, precisely, you’re even talking about. To date, I’m still not at all certain. Veles knows I’ve tried, but you just don’t seem capable of actually describing it. I am lead to believe, therefore, that this is nothing but theistic daydreams… which are fine, but just don’t try and say they’re in any way “real” until you can actually back that claim up.

          You said: “But that only works if we stop assuming that I’m talking about anything that can be investigated with science.”

          Great. I’m not assuming. Now explain how it (whatever it is) can be investigated by NOT using science. Also then explain how you will know you’ve actually discovered something.

          And this brings us back to the Templeton Foundation. You seem pretty dismissive of it. That’s intriguing. As they have no “criteria” which researchers have to fall inside of to receive funding, I’m as such finding it impossible to understand your position. Perhaps you can detail your objection of them, their past research, and explain why they’re not right for you.

        • Debilis

          I’ll again skip the personal jabs, except to point out that I’ve never said a thing that amounts to “evil science”. The phrase “bad science” means badly done science, or incorrect science. That is relevant.

          Okay, so we’re clear that you just want an explanation of what I’m claiming? Here goes (please no complaining that this isn’t also an argument for its truth):

          I’m claiming that there are some things that simply aren’t the sort of things that science tests. There are many fanciful ideas about magic and whatnot that aren’t scientific in the sense of being based on scientific data, but are scientific in the sense that science can test for them (and disconfirm them). Then there are other things that simply aren’t scientific in any sense.

          Objective moral principals might be a good example. Set aside herd morality, enlightened self interest, sociobiological evolution, and all the debate about why people believe in morals. Also set aside the question of whether or not there are moral truths that exist above and beyond humans. If you’re just trying to understand, the point is that, if such things existed, they wouldn’t be testable via science. Science tests whether or not an action is beneficial for surviving, flourishing, feeling good about one’s self, etc. It does not test whether any of these things are good outside of human interests and desires.

          Also, resist the temptation to think that this isn’t a good example if you can’t imagine such things in your minds eye. The fact that people can’t imagine them is a big part of why this is a good example.

          Before we get into whether or not such things exist, we have to see that this isn’t an empirical question.

          The same goes for the mind. There are aspects of the mind that, I have argued, simply do not reduce to the physical because they are specifically about things that science (as per the definition of science) ignores. It’s no good trying to answer these arguments by appealing to science (or, as is typical, future science). One can try to make a case against my logic or premises, but simply to claim that science will answer the challenge is to misunderstand the argument (by assuming from the beginning exactly the idea I’m challenging: that this is a scientific matter).

          Nor does it do simply to say “I don’t know what you mean”. I’m sure you know what a mind is. It isn’t a ghost inside a person. It is the thoughts and feelings one has. I’m saying that those thoughts and feelings can’t, by definition, be fully explained by science (Partially, yes. Fully, no.).

          Again, it’s fine to disagree: to claim that the mind is purely physical, but it makes no sense to insist that I show a “tangible” or “scientific” example of these things (which is what keeps being done). The whole point is that these aspects are not tangible or scientific.

          The third example is God (please no lines about God not being shown to exist; this is just to explain, not an argument that God exists). This being has always been understood as the explanation for many parts of fundamental reality. That is not (I repeat not) that God causes this or that event, in the way that science understands causes. It is (among other things) the explanation as to why the universe is regular enough to do science in the first place.

          If we take all the various things which are explained, and reason carefully, we can come up with a list of traits God has. This is where classical theism gets its idea of God.

          As with moral truth, if you can picture your idea of God in your imagination, you aren’t thinking of God. The point is what we can reason about, not what we can imagine.

          I’m sure you’ll be of the opinion that careful reasoning will lead us to reject the idea of God. That is fine, we’ll have that discussion later. For now, either look up classical theism or ask specific questions about it if you want to know what I’m claiming. It is quite well defined.

          And, as I’ve already hinted, we have ways of knowing what is true in these areas. You keep asking this question, and I keep answering: metaphysics. That is the subject we’re discussing. It has well-understood methods, and is taught in every major university.

          But, since it’s far too much to ask that you take a course on the subject, the short version is that it applies reason to what we know in seeking to understand the basic nature of reality. Logic and basic fundamental experience that everyone has can tell us a lot if we’re careful in our thinking.

          In fact, metaphysics is the basis of science. This is why “science works” is a (correct) metaphysical claim.

          I’m aware that there is much more to be discussed. I could get much more detailed about the examples I gave, or about how metaphysics can be used to determine the truth value of a claim. I’ll be happy to, if you have any specific questions or challenges.

          But, as this post is quite long enough, the point for now is that these are examples of what I mean (not arguments for the truth of my position). If you want still more explanation, ask something particular about those. Make the question as challenging as you’d like. But please don’t request examples if what you want is a reason to think that any of this is true.

        • john zande

          Okay, I appreciate your effort and thank you. I think we’re finally getting somewhere… and I’m with you. Horay! You explained your position on morals very well. Thank you. Keep that passage for future use, its really very good.

          My objection (yes, you knew that was coming) is that its somewhat vaporous. We actually do have a clear line of moral behaviour emerging through evolution. It’s really not that complicated, and easily explained. I appreciate the way you explained your position, but I can’t help but say it sounds awfully like a God of the Gaps argument. The same might be said of your thoughts on mind. This doesn’t, however, make these thoughts wrong, but where naturalism is succeeding in delivering answers, your metaphysics isn’t racking up any points.

          Yes, I know what metaphysics is, but I also hold it to be a dead ‘science;’ an antique which didn’t produce any accurate knowledge. Where sophists saw design guided by the demiurge we have discovered natural processes which explain the picture far better, and more reliably. The atomists got close, but again, they failed to actually grasp the reality of nature. We may even include Yāska here, the Vedic grammarian. I am a hopeless fan of this man, a genius (although no one knows his name) and find his work and his thoughts on reality wonderful beyond measure. Where the atomists saw the atom he saw the word as the fundamental building block, or prakṛti, of reality. Words, like Democritus’s atom, were the smallest indivisible unit where clusters of words arranged in a certain way following certain grammatical systems, or laws, formed a sentence whose meaning was intended but entirely unique to its constituent parts. As truly remarkable as this is, Yāska’s understanding of the universe is more poetry than factual. Don’t get me wrong, I find that deeply meaningful, I consider one of man’s greatest achievements, but at the end of the day it is merely an ornate representation of chemistry and physics. No one opens the Nirukta (his seminal work) to learn how to form longer carbon chains, or fuse hydrogen atoms.

          That said, I appreciate your offer and would like you to explain your position further. Ultimately what matters here is generating actual “knowledge,” so I’d be keen to hear how you think you can move metaphysics into the realm of true knowledge. Would this knowledge be practical, in your mind?

        • Debilis

          Okay, excellent thoughts.

          So, let’s see…

          I’m glad this made more sense, I’m definitely trying hard to explain. To continue along that vein, I’d really like to draw a line of distinction between my position and God-of-the-gaps reasoning. I completely agree with you that the latter is pretty worthless.

          Basically, that would get back to defending metaphysics. The sort of things it studies, and the conclusions it draws, are only very rarely the kinds of things that could ever be tested by science.

          This is one reason to avoid taking science for a rival to metaphysics. Another is the fact that metaphysics is the logical basis of science. Without it, one is stuck in Hume’s dilemma: that science is based on a logical fallacy.

          This is what needs to be remembered when reading ancient philosophers: that some of their claims are metaphysical, and some are scientific. Their scientific claims, indeed, should be disregarded. But this is no reason to dismiss their metaphysics, and certainly not all metaphysical claims.

          I’m not saying that this is your reasoning process, but I don’t actually know what it is. Surely, the metaphysical claim “science works” is trustworthy, as are many other metaphysical conclusions.

          This is easy to miss if one things of these conclusions as being like scientific claims. If they were statements about the behavior of molecules or the force of gravity. Rather, they are answers to very different questions than the “how” questions that science answers.

          That is, “what is the physical nature of the universe at the big bang?” is a scientific question. “Is there a purpose to the universe?” is a metaphysical one (even if one answers “no”).

          So, that being the case, I think it is entirely right to point out that metaphysics is never going to answer scientific questions (which is what God-of-the-gaps tries to do). This is a terrible approach. Similarly, science doesn’t answer metaphysical questions.

          The more I study, the more clear it seems that we need both methods of inquiry—and a clear understanding of which type of question one is trying to answer.

          In any case, best to you out there.

  • paarsurrey

    @boxingpythagoras : May 22nd, 2014 at 5:41 am
    “[However, I’ve sometimes heard the word “scientism” applied to the claim that the Scientific Method is the best method yet discovered for discerning and disseminating an understanding of the way in which reality operates. I would wholeheartedly disagree with classifying this claim as “pseudoscience.”]”

    Within the physical and material realms; I agree that scientific method is useful as a tool; out of this it is of no use; and those who try to fit it everywhere definitely believe in magic not in science.

    Even science does not claim it.


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