Published 06/04/2021

Andrew Jacobs is a student at University of Utah studying Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He focuses his philosophical mind powers on cats and good movies.

The Guiding Wisdom of Philosophy in Science

Psst. Yeah, you. Have you heard about ivermectin? It's this drug that prevents COVID-19. Well, not confirmed. It's only a hypothesis. But they don't want you to know about it and they won't do any studies to find out if it really does prevent COVID-19 because it would have stopped them from being able to authorize the vaccine. It is criminal that a readily producible drug was kept from the world during a pandemic purely because it doesn't have the profitability of mRNA vaccines. Crazy, right?

It is crazy—crazy that two Ph.D. wielding, former college professors really said that. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying have been touting this sort of material on their podcast, The Darkhorse Podcast. There is no effort on behalf of scientists to keep life-saving medication from millions of people by avoiding pertinent studies because that medication is not profitable. Ivermectin is currently being studied as a treatment for COVID-19; however, the present stance of the National Institute of Health is that it doesn't provably mitigate COVID-19 infections. How can two well-educated individuals promote such excessively speculative conclusions? They fundamentally misunderstand what separates science from other areas of study. Weinstein's and Heying's descent from scientific scholars to pseudoscientific media personalities act as a warning to us all of what happens when Philosophy of Science is neglected in determining scientificity.

Scientists or Pseudoscientists?

Weinstein first attended University of Pennsylvania but transferred to University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) after an article he wrote in the school newspaper condemning a fraternity's mistreatment of sex workers made him the target of harassment on campus. While at UCSC, he completed a B.A. in Biology. He subsequently went on to earn a Ph.D. in Biology at University of Michigan. He is the author of published, peer-reviewed articles, and even held a professorial position at Evergreen State College in Washington.

Heying received a B.A. in Anthropology from UCSC, and similarly went on to earn a Ph.D. in Biology at University of Michigan. She wrote Antipode: Seasons with the Extraordinary Wildlife and Culture of Madagascar, a book based on her findings while studying frogs in Madagascar. She is also the author of several published, peer-reviewed articles, and taught Evolutionary Biology as a professor at Evergreen State University in Washington.

At one point, both Heying and Weinstein were certainly scientists.

Yet, despite their ample qualifications and former professions, they shouldn't be considered scientists. They no longer adhere to the principles of science, instead venturing into the realm of pseudoscience—ostensibly taking off their lab-coats to replace them with tinfoil hats.

Both Weinstein and Heying would vehemently disagree. "We are scientists," Weinstein explains in a recent video, "who are about to talk about scientific evidence." After all, they both haven't ventured outside the Scientific Method; they claim not to overstep what the evidence says and they hypothesize rather than theorize. Weinstein elaborates that the word hypothesis has a "scientific connotation that is unescapable." Therefore, he continues, to have a hypothesis is to "approach [something] in a scientific mode." Heying and Weinstein believe that by hypothesizing, rather than theorizing, they escape the criticism of being 'conspiracy theorists.' (Somehow, they are unconcerned by the label of 'conspiracy hypothesists' 🤷‍♂️) They believe they are scientists damn it, and they want the world to know it.

What is Science?

But hypothesizing doesn't suddenly make one's speculation scientific. Weinstein has mistakenly relied too much on an elementary definition of science: that which uses (even just a part of) the Scientific Method. He's operating under the long-outdated assumption that science has any necessary characteristics at all. Philosopher of Science Larry Laudon demonstrated in 1983 that scientific domains differ from one another to such a great degree that there is no single necessary element that makes or breaks a discipline's qualification as scientific. Initially, Laudon's argument convinced many that differentiating between science and other forms of knowledge acquisition is impossible; however, Massimo Pigliucci et. al., in the book Philosophy of Pseudoscience, found a new solution to the Demarcation Problem. Science should be understood as biological species are understood: defined by a cluster of concepts that most sciences have rather than defined by essential characteristics all sciences have. Martin Mahner, in the same book, suggests some potential concepts that scientific disciplines follow:

  1. A relationship with a broader community—both informing that community and being informed by that community.
  2. Data produced by the field is reproducible.
  3. There is a system for eliminating errors within the community.
  4. The findings of the field are relevant and consistent with other fields of study.
  5. The findings of the field enrich society.
  6. The field accepts criticism.
  7. The field follows traditional rules of reason—avoiding circular reasoning, contradictory reasoning, and excessive speculation.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does provide some starting points for determining if something is scientific. If a field has most of these attributes, it likely can be considered a science rather than a pseudoscience. On the other hand, that which professes to have most of these characteristics but lacks them is only dressing up as science—pseudoscience.

Tinfoil Hats or Lab-Coats?

In the most confusing wrap-up of a segment explaining the scientific value of hypotheses, Heying expresses frustration about the potential for mandated vaccination by employers. "If there's really no other treatment," then it makes total sense to ask people to take risks in this way. But, exacerbated by the "mainstream narrative," she says, "there is an alternative treatment, and... [that is] prophylactically [taking] ivermectin."

Weinstein and Heying brandish the badge of science as though it were a superhero cape. They want people to know that they are not anti-science. They want people to know that they value scientific values: reason, reproducibility, care for society, interdisciplinary relevance, etc. But this presentation is a facade, a costume, a lie.

Weinstein and Heying present themselves as scientists. If they believe themselves to still be who they were as college professors, they have deluded themselves. They use their academic qualifications to promote something that masquerades as science without any of the components that make science valuable. Intentionally or not, they promote pseudoscience.

Weinstein has stated that he no longer trusts scientific consensus; in fact, he believes it to be "evidence of something gone wrong" in science. He and Heying advance speculative conclusions as certainties. From ivermectin to climate change to the collective deceptions within the scientific community, the hosts of the Darkhorse Podcast demonstrate a disregard for the mainstays of science. There is nothing convincing about the material they promote. They simply use their old professions to present their material as scientific without undergoing any of the academic rigor that makes science valuable to society—peer-review and error-checking (a.k.a scientific consensus). They want to be respected as scientists while adorning themselves in tinfoil hats, shoes, gloves and more.

Avoiding Pseudoscience

Scientists are not representatives of science. Former scientists are not representatives of science. As individuals, we need to be able to discern between science and pseudoscience if we are to correctly engage with the world.

Believing 'conspiracy hypothesists', including the ones that host the Darkhorse Podcast, could have you doing things that are actively detrimental to society rather than uplifting it. People who believed that hydroxychloroquine was hidden from the public as a treatment for COVID-19 caused a shortage for people who really needed the medication, a life-threatening shock so profound it still brings people with lupus anxiety a year later.

Unhinged, excessive speculation presented as certain fact without any expert review is the hallmark of pseudoscientists. Instead, opt for measured, intentional speculation that is presented as such then tested and reviewed by a series of experts with the intention of removing their biases. Instead, opt for science.

Scientists, real scientists, won't tell you that scientific consensus is bad, that the only thing you need to be considered scientific is a hypothesis, that the scientific community is working to keep things from society for their own gain, that peer-review is bad, etc. They will tell you that scientific consensus helps us remove bias from studies, that science is a complex category ranging from astronomy to biology to physics, that the scientific community aims to enrich society, and that peer-review helps scientists avoid mistakes.

Philosophy of Science informs us of what science is in a way that guides our decisions around what to believe. Its value in our present day is immeasurable. Please, don't be fooled by the costume of science. There's no replacement for the real thing.

The Weekly Phil is a publication exploring social, political, and individual issues through the lens of applied philosophy.

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