Susan Haack – Defending Science—Within Reason

March 23, 2007

Susan Haack, formerly Fellow of New Hall, Cambridge, and then professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, is presently Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami. Her areas of interest include philosophy of logic and language, epistemology and metaphysics, philosophy of science, including issues of scientific testimony in court, Pragmatism, and feminism. Professor Haack is the author of several celebrated books, including Deviant Logic, Philosophy of Logics, Evidence and Inquiry: Towards Reconstruction in Epistemology, Fuzzy Logic: Beyond the Formalism, Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate: Unfashionable Essays, and Defending Science — Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism as well as of numerous articles. She has been widely reviewed and cited in general interest publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, the Wilson Quarterly, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as in specialized journals.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Haack explores the values of science, and addresses its critics, both supernaturalists and paranormalists on the one hand, and post-modernists and feminist critics on the other hand. She also defends science as being continuous with common sense, explores whether science and religion are compatible, and talks about whether or not science can ever have any relevance to ethics.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, March twenty third, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank adjacent to the State University of New York at Buffalo. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, DC and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, every week on this show, we look at some big questions through the lens of scientific naturalism. We focused mostly on pseudoscience, on alternative medicine, on the role of religion in society. And we feature the leading minds in science, philosophy, social criticism, really the leading lights of the day as we have a conversation about these topics. Before we get to this week’s guest, Professor Susan Hauk, about her widely acclaimed book, Defending Science Within Reason Between Scientism and cynicism. Here’s a word from point of inquiries. Sponsor. 

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I’m happy to have this week’s thinker on point of inquiry. Susan Hok, she’s Cooper, senior scholar in arts and Sciences and distinguished professor in the humanities, professor of philosophy and professor of law at the University of Miami. She’s the author of a number of widely praised books, including Philosophy of Logic’s Evidence and Inquiry, Deviant Logic, Fuzzy Logic and Manifesto of a Passionate, Moderate, Unfashionable Essays. She’s also the editor of Pragmatism Old and New. She joins me on point of inquiry to talk about science and its critics. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Susan Hawk. 

Thank you and happy to be here. 

Professor Hauk, you’re on this show to talk about this incredible new book. Well, I guess it’s now out in paperback, Defending Science Within Reason Between Scientism and cynicism. Let’s start off by. Well, look, when most people think about science, they think of smart people, maybe know it alls and lab coats doing stuff that ultimately doesn’t impact their daily life. Scientists, you know, are playing with beakers, you know, looking under a microscope. But most people don’t think about science when they wake up in the morning when they’re fixing their coffee. But even the most casual observer, when they get into it, will uncover that science in is daily, especially when it comes to technology, new advances in technology. Your book, though, is not about science and technology. It’s a defense of the scientific outlook from its opponents. Maybe its opponents on the right and the left. Let me start off by asking, who are you setting out to defend science from? 


I think I should say the work that I did before I wrote defending signs included a couple of typos in which I defended lines from some criticisms from the academic left, from postmodernists, from feminist critics of science and such. And at that point in time, I guess I thought those are the people against whom science most needs to be defended. As I tried to articulate my defense in the book, it very soon became clear to me that part of the difficulty was that philosophers of science who tried to understand the enterprise under a very thoroughly logical conception of what rationality is, had really also done science a disservice. And so that really this needed to be argued on two fronts and not one, as you said, against both the left and the right would be a simple way of putting it. So the answer is, on the one hand, I’m trying to defend the rationality of the scientific enterprise, in a sense, as I tried to spin out quite carefully against those critics on the left who thinks that there’s nothing more to it than power politics, rhetoric. But on the other hand, also trying to articulate a defense, which is Sonoda sound. And in some ways significantly less ambitious than those philosophies as ones who’ve been proposing narrowly logical models of rationality. 

You also treat the super naturalists and their assault on science. You talk about evolution and intelligent design. Before we get to all that, let’s deal with the postmodernists. You brought them up. Don’t the postmodernists, these radical skeptics of all knowledge, don’t they kind of have a point? Isn’t science just one mythic narrative, among many others? Just one other way of looking it at the world open to its own faith claims. Doesn’t science have its own priesthood just like religion? 

Well, science, of course, has some figures who are regarded with great deference. Of course, it also has its share of of jargon in penetrable to the layperson. 

But no, in my opinion, it’s not just one way of figuring stuff out among many legitimate ways. The way I describe it in the book is that we, all of us everyday engage in various kinds of inquiry, sometimes rather carefully, sometimes quite halfheartedly or casually. But for example, sometimes I’ll cook the same dish for dinner that I cooked a month ago and it comes out better this time. And I will try to figure out, well, why did it come out? But in the sun that are onions, tomatoes, I brown the onions. And what was the explanation? Unimportant. 

Part of my thesis is the inquiry in science is continuous with that sort of ordinary, everyday empirical inquiry. As Thomas Huxley once said, it’s more careful, it’s more detailed, it’s more scrupulous, but it’s not impenetrable at its core to what every person does just about every day of their lives. That, by the way, is one of the reasons I called the book Defending Science within reason. That was a kind of double entendre, intentional. Of course, it’s been both defending science to a reasonable degree, but also depend defending science as continuous with activity with which every human being is familiar. Ordinary, everyday empirical inquiry. 

So ordinary common sense is continuous with science as opposed to you needing some grand theory of the scientific method. No big grand system to tell you how to derive your conclusions. You say it’s just kind of like when you go check and see if the car you’re buying is good car, you kick its tires, you look under the hood. That is kind of like the science you’re talking about. 

Let let’s make a distinction first. It’s not part of what I say that scientific knowledge is more or less like common sense knowledge. It’s clear that in some ways the presently accepted scientific theories of the world. All very unlike what we think of as common sense beliefs about the world. So it’s not a claim about the body of currently accepted scientific theories. It’s a claim about the way in which inquiry proceeds. And again, the claim is that not the scientific inquiry is indistinguishable from commonsense inquiry, but that it’s distinguished not by some distinctive, logically different way of going about things, some some distinctive form of inference, which is characteristic of the sciences, but that all of us use those forms of inference all the time. However, the sciences have developed an enormous array of ways of doing that better. I kohli’s scientific helps to inquiry a would I wish I’d thought of. But I truly I derive it from Francis Bacon. 

I’m thinking of, for example, those instruments of observation which extend our aid intensive, unthinking of the mathematics, the statistical techniques which enable us to make subtler inferences. I’m also thinking of the computer. Thankfully, I’m thinking in part of the shift from Roman numerals to Arabic. That was a huge intellectual advance. I think of it as one of the scientific helps to inquiry. If you’re aware of this, but I’ve been very impressed by a story of the son of a 15th century English gentleman who was a student at Oxford, wrote home to say, I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I can’t do this. And what he was trying to do was long division. 

But in Roman numerals, Arabic numerals were a huge advance. The computer is another. 

Every day there are more advances in these helps to inquiry. So the thought is, no, there isn’t in the sense in which it was sometimes supposed a scientific method. But there is on the one hand, look the ways of going about figuring stuff out, which is common to all sorts of different kinds of inquiry. And this vast array of scientific helps to inquiry, which is what’s enabled them to do it more thoroughly, more scrupulously and so on. 

Scientists are doing it better, more scrupulously. It’s not a different kind of inquiry. You’re saying it’s continuous with that same kind of ordinary inquiry we can all engage in? Yes. 

One thing about science that is a pickle, I think, for people who are critics of it is that science is never set. There’s no one thing that science is as a body of knowledge, not just as a method of inquiry. Science is not done. Scientists conclusions are never completely certain. Doesn’t that mean that people shouldn’t take it as seriously as they do? This seems to be one of the thrusts of the postmodernist critique against scientism that people take it too seriously when in fact it’s in flux and it’s always changing. So lighten up a little and and and stop being so serious and in quotes religious about your science. 

Okay, well, here’s how I see it in the first place. I don’t think that there are any very firm boundaries to do exactly what counts as science and what doesn’t. 

That’s a controversial claim. 

That’s a controversial claim. Yes. But more importantly for the present argument, I think of the body of currently accepted scientific stuff. I guess the best model might be something like a sphere. There’s a lot of of scientific knowledge, which is really very well established indeed. It’s not that it’s impossible in principle, but it should turn out to be mistaken. But it would be really very, very surprising if it turned out to be mistaken. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stuff in the science is more in some areas than others, but some in all areas, which is as of yet quite speculative, not very well established, and at least in many areas of science. 

And there’s a lot of stuff not yet sorted out, some of which is really quite flaky, quite weak. We’ll probably eventually get discarded, brought. You just sort of talk about it as one big gob. You seem to be faced with either your very differential to the whole thing or your really quite skeptical of the whole thing. And I think that’s a mistake. 

Professor Hauk, if there’s not a clear boundary for science, if that sphere that you’re talking about, that science is and it’s kind of fuzzy. Well, if there’s not a boundary for science, how do you know that something like the paranormal is not science? If someone marshals’ forth a bunch of claims to me that here are his scientific reasons or her scientific reasons, that Alien came last night or, you know, they engage in past life regression or whatever it is, they’re speaking to deceased loved ones. How can you say, oh, that’s not science, that’s religion or that’s hokum or that’s the paranormal or whatever other phrase you’d use? 

Let let me talk about the demarkation of science, I guess is a traditional way of describing this issue. Of course, it’s been a very common fault in the history of philosophy of science that it is possible to demarcate science from everything else because scientists used the scientific method and nobody else does. That’s not a route that’s open to me. 

Yeah, you disagree with that? I disagree with that. 

Moreover, on perhaps more relaxed than some people about exactly what what counts as science or doesn’t count as science, perhaps because I’m a great deal more interested in what counts as a well conducted bit of inquiry on what counts as a poorly conducted bit of inquiry and what counts as a claim that’s well supported by evidence on what counts as a claim that’s not well supported by evidence. So very often when many of the people with whom. On the whole, I feel some sympathy. I’m tempted to say, oh, that’s not science. I’m more inclined to say, well, whether it’s science or not, it’s pretty bad stuff. And here’s why in particular. So what I would say to your person who claimed to have been visited by an alien last night is well, I would like to hear a lot more about what grounds you have for believing this and how we would make this fit in with the rest of what we believe about how the world looks. 

But you’re not rejecting that claim out of hand? 

I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely. 

I don’t want to get off the subject. But you just said phrase the rest of what we believe about the universe. That seems very tentative. That that doesn’t seem like most scientists who say we know. Thus, you kind of said the rest of what we believe about the universe. 

Oh, actually, in my experience, many scientists are actually quite reluctant to make strong claims about their views. The areas I’ve encountered many scientists who feel kind of nervous about even using the word true without the benefit of scare quotes. 

So it may be that they’ve been they’ve been spooked by science critics. But setting that motivation aside on show, that part of what’s going on is that serious scientists doing real intellectual work will be very conscious that this looks like the best story, especially the best explanation that we can find so far. But what looks like the best theory so far in the past has sometimes turned out to be quite wrong. And I’m not claiming that we can be absolutely certain of this. I’m only claiming that, given what we know so far, it looks like a promising option. That’s the way I find scientists talking. 

Professor Hawke, if science isn’t telling you what’s true, what good is it? 

Oh, doesn’t follow from the fact that they’re reluctant to say, I know this for sure. But what they’re telling me isn’t true. 

It may be that it is true, even though they’re correctly refusing to say, I can be absolutely certain of this. 

There are many, many truths of which we can’t be absolutely certain. So I don’t think that’s a problem, though. I suspect that rhetorically, this may have been what persuaded some of the cynics. 

I know, Professor, that you have an appointment shortly. I just wanted to touch on a couple other points in your book. You contrast what you call critical common sense ism with old deferential ism. Can you quickly tell me what these two things are? 

OK. The old differential ism is a coinage of mine. 

And it refers to a certain style of philosophy of science, which was dominant for much of the second half of the 20th century, though I think perhaps not as dominant now as it was then in the wake of it wasn’t to say the discovery. That’s not quite the right word. In the wake of the development of modern Lodrick, which began at the end of the 19th century and made huge strides through the first decades of the 20th, I think it was a very natural assumption that if the sciences are indeed a rational enterprise, then that rationality could surely be captured in some sort of logical terms in terms that is the new formal apparatus that had been developed, that that idea is what I call the old differential, and it comes in many forms. The lead up to this, the inductive is the Bayesian, etc, etc.. 

But it’s science deferring to logic. 

It’s fine. Not deferring necessarily to. Okay. It would be a little unfair. 


A little unfair to say that everybody whom I discuss under the heading of differential lists believed the scientists should defer to logic because some of them fault. But they couldn’t tell scientists how to go about their business. That’s not quite what I’m saying. What I’m trying to do is not to tell scientists how to do their job. It’s to understand how they do it. And what I’m proposing in place of the old deferential ism is a picture which does not deny the rationality of the scientific enterprise, but which does deny that rationality can be exhausted in purely formal, logical terms, to put it at its simplest. My view of the matter is that you simply can’t understand what’s going on without acknowledging the scientists interactions with the world play a role. Nor, I think, without acknowledging that their interactions with each other play a role in this. And this takes it beyond the scope of logic. Mm hmm. 

Because science is a social enterprise. It’s not just a logical enterprise. Before we move on, let’s touch on critical common sense ism. 

Yes. This is not my point is this is a term I borrowed from Charles Fondas plus 19th century American philosopher, I believe, the greatest of American philosophers. He used it in a fairly technical sense, which I won’t go into here. I’m using it simply as a good shorthand for my thesis that the scientific enterprise is in interesting ways recognizably continuous with ordinary common sense inquiry. Actually, the kind of thing that Einstein meant when he said science was just a refinement of everyday thinking. 

Okay, Professor Hawke, is there really progress in science? If it’s if the boundaries of science are kind of fuzzy and and if it’s always changing and we’re always finding out that we were wrong about something? Is there any real progress? Are we ever going to get to a point where we could close up shop and say, yes, we figured everything out? I explained all the questions that used to, you know, plague’s you know, that’s that’s two questions. 


To the first, my answer is yes, there’s progress. But this doesn’t, of course, mean that at every step it gets better. It’s a very important part of my story that there is progress. But it’s ragged. It’s uneven. 

Sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back. 

And sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back, and often it’s several steps sideways and so on. Yes, exactly. But I think of of Francis Bacon writing in 16 20, visionary of what science could be if we could just get this show on the road in the very, very earliest days of modern science. And I remember that what I read anyway is that he died. He he caught pneumonia when he went out in the snow to stuff like chicken to find out if cold would preserve flesh. He got pneumonia and he died. But imagine imagine yourself back in that situation where you don’t know yet with a cold will preserve food. You don’t know what the cause is of the plague. That’s devastating London. All right. Of course, science has made progress. If I might be just a little personal for a moment. You you mentioned, you know, our everyday reliance on technology at the beginning of this interview. Since I would be, I believe, legally blind if I couldn’t be corrected by contact lenses, nothing of which unconscious every morning, every morning as I go from blind as a bat to perfectly normal. I’m aware of the progress that science has made. 

So that’s the kind of progress that it’s made. But is it making progress at answering the the other kinds of questions that so many people put science against? 

You know, the OK moral view question. We’ve both forgotten what I said in response to your question. There were two questions following that. There are two. 

That’s the other question is whether in the end, science could be completed in the sense that all possible scientific questions would be answered. And we could, as you said, close up shop. OK, that’s sorted out. That, I think, is an enormously difficult question. It’s a question I discussed in the last chapter, which is called because I have an overdeveloped sense of irony about the end of science. It’s called Not Till It’s Over. I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but I am sure that there’s not the slightest danger of this happening anytime soon, even if in principle it were possible, which seems to me very hard. And it’s not something on which I’m willing to give a verdict at the moment. But even if that were in principle possible, the work that remains to be done is just overwhelmingly large. So we’re a long way from that. 

Let’s treat a topic we address pretty often on point of inquiry, and that’s the alleged battle between science and religion. We talked about one kind of critic of science, the postmodernists. Let’s talk about this other side of the fence, the super naturalists, the paranormals. Let’s say most critics of scientism seem to think that it’s science that’s doing most of the battling in this war between science and religion and with the recent spate of bestsellers from scientists against religion. Yeah. You know, Dawkins God Delusion, many others, influential books, bestsellers like this topic has never had. Well, let me just ask you, do you think science and religion are compatible? 

OK. What I think is that they’re all really deep tensions between the religious conception of what the world is like and the best warranted scientific picture as of now. And so, like Steven Weinberg, though, I thoroughly disagree with some about a lot of other things. I have a certain sympathy with the religious people who are troubled by what they see as an incompatibility. I think it’s very often when people try to smooth over the tensions. It’s it’s a very unsatisfactory way of avoiding something that really has to be faced. 

Right. They’re not giving either side. It’s due if they’re if they’re forcing them to be compatible. And I should say, it doesn’t seem like it’s only the religious that sometimes, say, science and religion aren’t compatible. There are a lot of scientists who make that argument vehemently as well. 


Well, you may recall in the relevant chapter of of defending science, I criticized not only Richard Swinburne’s, who’s tackling this question from religious religious point of view, but I also criticized Stephen Jay Gould quite. Stringently. Because I think his way of of trying to divide the turf and make everybody happy was really grossly unsatisfactory. 

Tell me quickly why and then I’ll conclude with one last question. 

Well, this is gonna be very quick and very dirty, I’m afraid. But his idea was that we could distinguish what he calls to magisterial, non overlapping majesty. 

I think a lot of listeners are to point of Inquirer familiar with that line of reasoning that science talks about one thing, religion talks about another thing, and and they don’t even need to engage. Therefore, there’s a truce. But you’re saying that’s unsatisfying. 

My my my feeling is that that’s really not fair to either side in particular. I think it’s not fair to the religious side insofar as if it has a very strong tendency to suggest that what religion is really about is moral values. And while, of course, it’s true that various religions have the moral codes, of course, that isn’t all there is to any religion. And this strikes me as somewhat disrespectful, not do acknowledge that there’s a whole other metaphysical theological dimension on. On the other hand, it has a slight tendency to suggest that there’s absolutely no relevance of science to ethics. I don’t believe that’s true either. I don’t think science can exhaust ethics. But I do think it can tell us some things. 

You think science does have implications for ethics, the scientific worldview? 

Well, here I’m OK. I’m somewhat in the spiritual, I guess, of John Dewey here. If we are human, this is, of course, a large assumption. But let’s for the sake of argument, assume that. What’s a good way to behave? Has something to do with what’s conducive to human flourishing. Then it’s clearly relevant. What sort of thing is conducive to human flourishing? That’s not something about which the social scientists, for example, couldn’t tell us something. So I’m not inclined to say there is absolutely no connection. I’m also not inclined to imagine that ethics could possibly really reduce to biology or things that kind. You can tell I’m sort of moderate. 

You’re right in the middle between these extremes. Your, dare I say it, a centrist. We like centrists at the center for it. Last question, Professor Hauk. You conclude your book by talking about the value, the values of science. Is science only valuable to us? Only for what it gets us. I guess there’s a bigger question here. What does it really get us? What does science give to us? If in the end, science is telling us that our place in the universe is a lot smaller than we used to think it was. If if in the end science diminishes our place in the universe and tells us that ultimately that life has no meaning whatsoever. It kind of ultimately not in the here and now. But big picture when the star fades out. The universe continues expanding until there’s nothing, etc.. Don’t don’t you have a question that ends in, et cetera? 

OK. Why is it valuable to us? What does it get us? OK. 

Well, it gets us all kinds of of very useful technology. Of course, I still remember the miserable weeks I spent after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, sitting, sweating in the dog, eating tepid canned food and thinking to myself, my God, what life was like before electric power was available on switch the switch. 

Of course, it brings us all kinds of useful technology. Also brings us some technology, which is potentially dangerous. That’s that’s also discussed at some length in the book. But I realized as I wrote the book, but I think it’s this there’s something else which is valuable about science. Perhaps this is a new centricity of mine. Perhaps perhaps nobody except an academic or perhaps a scientist would think this. But here’s how I see it, for what it’s worth. When I think about human beings and what we can do, it strikes me we’re not particularly fast teeth and our clothes are really not very good. Well, what we do that is figuring stuff out is because I think that the sciences have been among the most successful of human attempts to figure stuff out. I think that it’s it’s valuable as an expression of this really quite remarkable human talent as an artist or music is. I guess that’s what I’m saying. I see a fair value in this. 

You’re kind of seeing science as an artistic endeavor. 

I’m not saying the same as painting a picture or writing an opera, but like them, it’s an expression of it’s a development of a uniquely human talent. And I think it would be a great tragedy if we lost it, as I think it would be a great tragedy if we lost literature or art or music. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Professor Susan Hawk. 

Thank you for having me. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry’s music is composed first by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. And I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.