Paul Dicken’s Getting Science Wrong: Why the Philosophy of Science Matters is an engaging journey through deep philosophical waters. Dicken, a philosopher of science, works his way through some historic and recent episodes related to science and touches on philosophical debates as he goes. His book is written for a broad audience and many parts are gripping and fun.
The exact focus of the book, however, remains obscure to me. I was never entirely clear on what the title meant by Getting Science Wrong. Is this a book about mistakes in scientific work, inaccurate analyses of the nature of science, both, or something broader? I also found that the topic coverage meandered. But wandering can be nice, and Dicken’s style of writing and thinking made the journey enjoyable. At times I laughed out loud.
Dicken directly addresses the theme of the book only in the last paragraph of the epilog. There he indicates that the book is about how philosophical investigations of science “run aground” if philosophers take a “scientific” approach to explain science’s success. Dicken says that it is circular for philosophers to decide whether to trust the scientific enterprise by appealing to our scientific theories. He argues that this sort of reasoning has left philosophers without a rigorous way to determine whether we should have confidence in science. Therefore, he says, differing views on that subject reflect “unadulterated intellectual prejudice,” and trust in science is merely a political tool. I found that articulation of the subject disorienting, as it seems to undermine the book’s subtitle—if this is the case, does philosophy of science in fact matter? However, this theme of philosophy of science gone astray would account for some of Dicken’s narrative choices.
I agree with the book’s subtitle: Philosophy of science matters. And many of the points Dicken makes are important. Scientific methods are more complicated than “the scientific method”; it’s more difficult than one might think to distinguish science from other human activities; how we observe the world is influenced by our antecedent ideas about it. These clear truths about science are still underappreciated. Yet Dicken weaves together both well-established philosophical ideas and his own particular controversial ideas without signaling which is which. I have two complaints about that feature of the book.
First, it’s important to indicate to the audience which ideas are widely accepted among philosophers and which are not. Philosophical puzzles such as the problem of induction, the extent to which observation is laden with theory, and how to understand theory change are all established subjects of the philosophy of science. The dismissal of methodological naturalism—an approach that denies supernatural causes—as blatantly circular is more controversial. It goes against the consensus view in the field, and that divergence should be signaled.
Second, Dicken bluntly characterizes US legal decisions against the teaching of creationism in public schools. He argues that those decisions not only are based on wrongheaded ideas about science but also are inappropriate targets for legislation in the first place. Dicken expresses the view that the teaching of creationism should be decided not in the courtroom but in the “marketplace of ideas.”
I strongly disagree that the teaching of creationism should be left to popular preference. I was educated in public schools in Arkansas, beginning only a few years after McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education ruled that creationism could not be taught in Arkansas classrooms. That decision notwithstanding, evolution was simply not taught in the schools I attended, and my education suffered. I am grateful for the legal decision that at least prevented the teaching of religiously motivated pseudoscience in its stead.
Dicken is too quick to dismiss the characterizations of science that the courts used in making legal decisions about creationism and intelligent design. He’s right to note the inadequacy of Karl Popper’s popular notion that the essence of a scientific theory is falsifiability. And admittedly, it is tricky to identify exactly what’s scientific about evolutionary theory that isn’t equally present in creationism. But in my view, Dicken errs on the side of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am not ready to give up the hope of rational grounds for declaring evolutionary theory scientific; indeed, I think many philosophers and scientists have contributed to creating a nuanced basis for distinguishing science from pseudoscience.
Here’s another example of a maneuver that I find frustrating, perhaps even a bit irresponsible. Dicken considers the grounds for climate-change skepticism and then moves on to discuss the idea that we might use science’s past failures as a basis for predicting that science will also fail in the future. That’s all well and good. But he barely pauses to note that a mountain of evidence points to the existence and gravity of anthropogenic climate change—a choice that risks creating the impression that climate science is likely to be a scientific failure. He also claims that science cannot predict the consequences of rising temperatures, and he casts doubt on the desirability of coordinated action among nations.
Again I disagree, and not merely because of my political inclinations or intellectual prejudices. Coordination among nations is an important driver of some unquestionably good outcomes (though not only good outcomes, of course). And a significant amount of scientific work on climate change does in fact aim to predict the consequences of rising temperatures.
In sum, Dicken leads us through many ideas about science that are important and interesting, and he makes it a fun journey. Some of the turns on this journey, however, struck me as questionable detours.
Angela Potochnik is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of Idealization and the Aims of Science (2017) and coauthor of Recipes for Science: An Introduction to Scientific Methods and Reasoning (2018).