The Scientific Attitude

I self identify as a scientist - my qualifications are in computer science - and have an interest in what it is that defines this thing I claim to be. The philosophy of science has had significant disagreements in the past about what is and what is not science. Lee McIntyre in his book “The Scientific Attitude” sets out a new theory of what it is that makes science science.

Like Lee McIntyre for me Science is something special; unique in its personal demands about integrity and honesty … bias has been understood by scientists a long time before it got popularised in management books.

For me science has best been summarised by its harsh requirements on its adherents:

If the evidence goes against your beliefs, your beliefs must change

Well worth the read for those interested in the philosophy of science
  • Clear, well argued and temptingly close to my previous beliefs - certainly.
  • A new philosophy of science - maybe.

The book a quick overview

The majority of the definitional work of the definition book is found in chapter 3:

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 the light of new evidence

McIntyre L, The Scientific Attitude

The majority of the work is spent explaining:

  • the history of the philosophy of science:
  • Inadequacy of the "Scientific Method" it is not actually how much of real science is done
  • Logical positivism
  • Popper and falsification
  • Kuhn and revolution
  • The battle of demarcation
  • an examination of how pseudoscience and groups who wish to undermine the perception of a theory work
  • why McIntyre is steering clear of the demarcation debate (necessary for the book's philosophical credentials - but perhaps not for a casual reader)
  • moving disciplines to the rigours of science

  • This is competently and engagingly done (some readers may wish to skip the bit about philosophers arguing).

    The premise and the argument are convincing to me and echo my own experience; the question of whether it will satisfy the philosophical community will need to be tested by time. Some philosophers may feel the theory is a bit too inclusive and by removing demarcation they have lost some descriptive power.

    A good read.

    Why I care about this particular book and topic

    There are 2 reasons I particular care about science and the philosophy of science. I identify as a computer scientist and have worked in cross disciplinary teams where knowing what why and how science is done helped.

    Computer Science

    Computer science is a young discipline which incorporates elements from mathematics, the physical sciences (primarily physics), engineering and the social sciences.

    What is problematic is that some aspects of computer science are based on experiment (so are clearly ‘scientific’), others are based on logic and proof (so are technically not ‘scientific’) and yet others are based on non-scientific domains such as economics and the social sciences. In some cases computer science provides the tools to test the outcomes of these non-scientific domains through either the prism of experiment or logic.

    This makes computer science a rather impure domain from a theoretical point of view as to what is and is not science.
    This may explain my interest in the philosophy of science and asking the questions:
    • ‘Am I doing science now?’
    • ‘Am I doing mathematics or logic now?’
    • ‘Am I doing something else now?’
    Knowing in what mode I am working is critical to knowing the acceptance criteria.

    Cross Disciplinary Teams

    While working as an academic I was involved in the User Needs project at the Smart Internet CRC and subsequently with a group of social scientists at RMIT's school of business.

    We uncovered some of the benefits that McIntyre wants for the social sciences and also some greater efficiencies through clearly understanding when we were doing science against when we were doing rigorous social research1. In particular, when consuming the products of social science many of what we identified as forms of rigour in the work could have been recognised as McIntyre's Scientific Attitude.


    Whilst not going far enough for some philosopher's of science, McIntyre's Scientific Attitude may serve to make better scientists and educate about the difference between doing science and not doing science.

    Both the author and I are at pains to say that not doing science is not a bad thing (art may be influenced by science but need not be science, mathematics and the certainty that proofs bring are the envy of scientists) but we both hold science as special.

    This book servers as a bulwark against the partisan attacks on science to reduce it to a dismissible activity because it is inconvenient or simply do not agree with our beliefs. Scientist's may be human but we aspire to better that by holding a scientific attitude.

    1 Castro, Maurice and Singh, Supriya, Rigour at a Trotting Pace: A Story from the User-Centred Design of Smart Internet Technologies, Qualitative Research in IT and IT in Qualitative Research, Brisbane, 24-26 November 2004, Editor Beekhuyzen, J. and von Hellens, L. and Guest, K. and Morley, M., ISBN 1-920952-07-1, 11, 2004