A thread about Michael Strevens' new book and the dismissive approach that some scientists take toward philosophy.

I'm going out on a limb here, thinking aloud beyond of my area of expertise. So what follows may be total nonsense. Consider yourself forewarned. Image
For years I've been baffled to see certain prominent science communicators—Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and others—aggressively belittling philosophy and performatively showcasing their own ignorance of the discipline. Image
None of this made sense to me until I read about what Strevens argues it is that makes science unique, and uniquely successful, his so-called Iron Rule of Explanation.
I'm not sure I can fairly summarize the Iron Rule in 280 characters off the top of my head, but I'll try.

The core idea is that scientists must ruthlessly exclude from their public argumentation all forms of evidence and reasoning other than the rigorously empirical.
This means no use to philosophical reasoning in the mode of Aristotle; no leveraging theological or scriptural understanding in the mode of Descartes.

Formal scientific arguments must be *sterilized*, to use Strevens's word, of subjectivity and non-empirical content. Image
Strevens is very clear that he is not denying the great importance of subjective elements of individual scientists' thinking and "plausibility rankings" across hypotheses.

But he argues that scientists are expected to purge them from the formal written record. Image
By narrowing and limiting the types of evidence and reasoning admissible, Strevens argues, the Iron Rule transforms science into an engine for generating large amounts of detailed data—a tedious task, but an essential one given the nature of our world.
I love this passage.

Collecting the details we need to make scientific progress is boring, and humans don't like it. But humans love to win, and the institutions of science are structured to use this fact to generate that much-needed data. Image
That's the Iron Rule. The book explains in far greater detail, of course.

So what are Dawkins and his ilk doing?

They are *preaching the Iron Rule*.
⬆️ that claim above is the part where I said I'd be thinking aloud and might be talking total nonsense. I welcome corrections from those better versed than I in the field—or from anyone, for that matter.
It seems that in denying the value of philosophy, they are enforcing the boundary that keeps philosophical claims out of formal scientific argument.

By broadcasting their own ignorance of the discipline, they are establishing themselves as strict adherents of the Iron Rule.
So what's wrong with that?

If that's how science is done, why shouldn't they aggressively take such a stance?

I think Strevens might answer that other forms of reasoning are essential as scientists form their own subjective "plausibility rankings" across hypotheses.
Strevens writes that "scientists are not only permitted but encouraged to use their subjective plausibility rankings" in interpreting evidence, and this is "not a wholly regrettable thing." Image
So again thinking aloud and outside of my area of direct expertise, it seems to me that mistakes the High Priests of Science are dismissing philosophy are two.

First, in an Iron Rule scientific world, philosophical argument is banned from the official venues of argument. But....
...it may be vital in leading individual scientists to the right questions to ask, the right hypotheses to test, and the right to data collect. (Even theological reasoning could do this, and for some does, though how effectively is an open question.)
In my own work, I see very clearly in the philosophy of biology. By sharpening the concepts I work with daily— selection, fitness, function, adaptation, information—the philosophy of biology points out inconsistencies and leads me to empirical problems worth untangling.
The other thing these Iron Rule Ecclesiastics overlook is that the philosophy of science, in particular, turns a lens on the practice of science itself—and in doing so (1) offers individuals scientists a better understanding of their own activity and even how to "win" the game,
and (2) provides the research ecosystem as a whole with a vantage point from which to consider its own rules and the dynamics ensue.
By understanding how norms and institutions create incentives that to which scientists respond in shaping research programs, we can find ways to nudge the current system toward greater efficiency.
The role of the philosophy of science in helping understand the roots of the replication crisis and the scope of possible mitigations is just one of many such examples.
So that's a Thursday night's speculation after a year of pandemic near-solitude.

Whether or not I did him justice, check out Streven's book if these things interest you. And don't dismiss philosophy out of hand just because some Intellectual Vice Squad is glowering at you.
A final postscript: Of course I don't agree with everything Strevens says, or even with all of what I quoted, but I greatly enjoyed the book and find the viewpoint provocative. The above is an attempt to see things through his lens, though shaped of course by my own lens as well.
I wrote the thread above before reading the final section of The Knowledge Machine.

The best way to convince a reader of something is to lead them to think of it themselves, then tell them they're right.

In this way, Michael Strevens has been nothing if not convincing.
In section 5 of the book, Strevens imagines how you might inculcate the Iron Rule in future scientists.

"You want your novitiates to feel bad, feel guilty, feel corrupt pursuing anything but empirical reasoning in science....School your pupils in the following precepts." Image
Strevens goes through some of the same examples I had in mind. Neil DeGrasse Tyson lamenting wasted brainpower gone to the philosophy of science, Lawrence Krauss with the nonsense below. Image
"To contest the fairness or veracity of scientists' antiphilosophical remarks is to miss the point", Strevens writes.

"Their function is exhortatory. *Young scientists, shun philosophy and all its ways.*"
"Hawking, Tyson, and Krauss are not cultural commentators with any knowledge of or interest in philosophy; they are holy men chanting empiricist invocations, laying down the credo that shapes and inspires their order of truth seekers." (p. 261)
To my mixed surprised, delight, and embarrassment for tweeting before finishing the book, Strevens even singles out the exact same stupid Richard Dawkins tweet that I referenced above, and offers essentially the same explanation. Image
Strevens stresses that the Iron Rule does not itself prescribe this mode of miseducation; it has emerged as a means to a particular end. Some of the best contemporary thinkers in the sciences ignore these priestly exhortations—but they are in the minority.
In Strevens's view, the Iron Rule specifies the allowable bounds for formal scientific argumentation, without restricting the sources from which individual scientists derive their motivation, inspiration, and creative spark.
If I could ask Strevens one question, it would be how broadly to take a concluding remark: that a thriving science requires that we "leave science alone, that is, [we] resist the urge to tinker, to make science more current, more flexible, or for that matter, more sensible."
If the intent is simply to say that we should not relax the Iron Rule, I could go along (though I'm not entirely convinced).

If the intent is that we should not use the tools of science to improve its other norms and institutions—well, that's basically my research program.
In fact Strevens has done quite important work about the roles of these norms and institutions, that I think could be used to nudge scientific practice in beneficial directions.

So I suspect the request is merely that we leave the Iron Rule untouched. In any case, I'd be interested to hear his thoughts on how much latitude there is for the further evolution of science.
To date, over 25,000 people have slogged through the entirety of the original thread.

Perhaps they're all humanists, but I doubt it. To even entertain such philosophizing, these scientists must be unpersuaded by the High Priests.

I find their impious curiosity an inspiration.

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Without warning students, they used activity logs from Canvas, an online course management system not intended for forensic use, to dragnet for cheating on exams.

The problem is...

...a system like Canvas can generate activity even when a user is not at the keyboard, so long as one is still logged in.

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Instructors, don't use it.

Students, if you're been forced to use Proctorio or other academic spyware, consider contacting the dean of students or dean of undergraduate education at your college.

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Here's a simple cheat sheet.
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medrxiv.org/content/10.110… Image
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