The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud and Pseudoscience.

The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud and Pseudoscience.
by Lee McIntyre

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019
296 pp., illus. 1 b/w. Trade, $27.95; paper, $17.95
ISBN: 9780262039833; ISBN: 9780262538930.

Reviewed by
Laurence Smith
February 2020

The concept of scientific attitude is not exactly new. As Lee McIntyre, who is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University, points out, special “virtues” that attach to scientific inquiry may be discerned as far back as 1620 in Francis Bacon’s, The New Organon. Robert FitzRoy (1805 –1865) also demonstrates this quality of scientific attitude in his development of weather forecasting. In FitzRoy and His Barometers, a book I have been reading alongside The Scientific Attitude,  Philip R. Collins gives us details of how Robert FitzRoy, captain of the famous Beagle, became interested in recording all aspects of the weather.

In 1862 FitzRoy had designed a storm-warning system, a code of cone-shapes and lights. These were set up at ports and harbours round the coast of the UK. FitzRoy’s concern and empathy with the fishermen and sailors shows that he possessed that quality of attitude towards his inventions, his theory of weather laws, and his evidence that make them properly scientific. However, when The Board of Trade sent out questionnaires to gauge the accuracy and usefulness of the system it received some surprising negative replies, even though there had been fewer wrecks and less loss of life. FitzRoy in his usual thorough way classified the doubters as follows:

(1) Those who were opposed to new ideas and were openly reluctant to change

(2) Those who did not give enough time to proper consideration but rushed to wrong conclusions and misquoted authorities to show up differences

(3) Those who ignored the merits and exaggerated deficiencies without offering alternative solutions

(4) Those only interested in aspects of financial gain for themselves.

These objectors to his careful science reminds me of the deniers, fraudsters, and hoaxers that Lee McIntyre’s Scientific Attitudes says are dangerous and wish us to defend science against. (See Chapter 7, “Science Gone Wrong: Fraud and Other Failures,” and Chapter 8, “Science Gone Sideways: Denialists, Pseudoscientists and Other Charlatans.”)

What interested me first about McIntyre’s book was the phrase in the title ‘defending science,’ because I believe that a defence is what is needed when we are invaded by Street Healers, Creationists, Flat-Earthers, anti-science religious groups, and those with similar alternative science agendas. Having spent time many years talking to them, I have come to see the need to engage with these people because their influence is growing without being contested. I have found there is a real need to express the value and usefulness of science in the clearest possible terms. 

McIntyre says that scientists are taught how to become expert researchers, but almost none of them are trained in public communication. This lack of clear communication is leading to the dire consequences of scaremongering and false reporting. Pseudoscience, denial and fraud, and sloppy research presentations have become widespread arrogances that often become exaggerated in the popular press. They are rarely challenged for their lack of integrity. With the increasing number of alternatives that are jostling for our attention, McIntyre puts the question: How can science be defended against other rival theories? And he asks: What is so special about science?

McIntyre goes to the root of these questions and gives clarity and vigour to the philosophy of science. Philosophers it seems have found it to be too difficult to separate all the manifestations of science from those of non-science by focussing on method alone. So his analysis and insight directs our attention above and beyond the scientific method and the processes of falsifiability to show us that there is another, subtler factor in the course of discerning truth. McIntyre explains how it is really having the right attitude that guides good scientific enquiry.

The scientific attitude can be summed up in a commitment to two principles

(1) We care about empirical evidence.

(2) We are willing to change our theories in light of new evidence.

This is an outstanding book because of the way McIntyre opens up a difficult subject to non-scientists and makes it very accessible with interesting and memorable examples. One example in medicine, Ignaz Semmelweis’s discovery of the cause of childbed fever in 1846, demonstrates how many human lives might have been saved had doctors followed the evidence that was presented to them. But their minds were closed to change, and so many patients died. (See Chapter 6, “How the Scientific Attitude Transformed Modern Medicine.”)

This and other examples in the book showed how there is a real need for communicating an understanding of how good science works. I wholeheartedly agree with McIntyre’s conclusion that, “As it turns out there may be no hard and fast criterion of demarcation between science and nonscience. Yet science is nonetheless real and distinctive, and we ought to pay proper respect to it as a privileged way of knowing. If we care about empirical evidence and use it to shape our theories, we are on the road to science. If not, we will remain mired in the ditch of ideology, superstition and confusion” (p. 204).