Bronze-level articleScientism

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Philosophy of science

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Scientism is the view that only scientific claims are meaningful. It is often widely abused as a term to refer to science and attitudes associated with science, and its primary use these days is a pejorative.[1]

The non-pejorative, and therefore boring, sense of the term denotes the "methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist."[2][3] This meaning is rarely seen in the wild.

The pejorative sense, in which it is a general-purpose snarl word, is the one you will see in action.[4] This usage seems to date to Friedrich von Hayek's 1943 essay "Scientism and the Study of Society."[5] Because the mad scientists are prowling the streets!


[edit] Sensible usage

The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion...
—Hilary Putnam[6]

Scientism is a topic of major contention in the philosophy of science and philosophy in general.[3] While often used as a term of abuse, it is also used in a descriptive sense to refer to any philosophy that treats science as the only means of acquiring knowledge (for various definitions of "knowledge"). For this reason, scientism is often associated with logical positivism, which attempted to do away with metaphysics entirely.[7] The role of scientism in modernity is also a point of debate in social theory.[8] Postmodernism in particular sought to critique scientism.

Scientism or implicit scientistic attitudes are often characterized by a conflation of moral and scientific progress, an overzealous application of simplistic reductionist methodology and, especially in the social sciences, the logical fallacy of reification, in which an abstract metric is treated as something "real." It also tends to be accompanied by loads of sciencey technobabble. Here are some examples:

Unfortunately it gets mixed into the crank usage when someone is told their favorite thing is actually full of shit. Rationally speaking, one should realize that science (in its proper meaning) deals with analyzing empirical evidence logically and deducing objective facts: It does not take an active role in determining what one SHOULD do or how they MUST act, that would be Hume's law in action; nor does it deal with subjective thought systems (ranging from arts to moral codes) or ideologies in general.

[edit] Six signs of scientism

Analytic philosopher Susan Haack lists what she considers six signs of scientism:[10]

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.

2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.

3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.

4. A corresponding preoccupation with identifying the “scientific method,” presumably to explain how the sciences have been so successful.

5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope.

6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

[edit] Usage by cranks

It's an all-purpose, wild-card smear...It's the last refuge of the sceptic. When someone puts forward a scientific theory that they really don't like, they just try to discredit it as 'scientism'.
Daniel Dennett[11]

While the refusal to acknowledge the real limitations of the scientific method is a legitimate concern, the term is frequently bandied about by cranks of all stripes in order to handwave any scientific evidence that might go against their ideology. In this sense, it seems to translate to (a) believing science works, (b) that this is bad, (c), because the speaker's personal ox has been gored. Here are some examples from crackpots of both ends of the political spectrum:

The scientism practiced by devotees of Darwinian evolution, however, is not science, but simply a secular religious worship masquerading as science. In Darwinian scientism no free inquiry, no examination of evidence will be permitted. The gods of secularism have revealed the dogma of social justice, which necessitates moral relativism based on the secular theory of Darwinian evolution, and anyone revealing inconvenient, contradictory facts must be destroyed.[12]
One way to reject scientism is to combine scientific reality checks with faith. When we build and maintain a Christian worldview — a view of the world, used for living in the world — based on the Bible, we believe that reality includes what we see and also what we don't see. For example, a coroner might say, "During my 45 years of experience, I have observed that dead people always remain dead, they are never resurrected back to life, so (based on this scientific reality check) if you want to be scientific then you should reject Biblical claims for the resurrection of Jesus." But this observation is not evidence against divine action, if God's common actions are not obvious and His obvious actions are not common. During the history recorded in the Bible, many millions of people died, but only seven were brought back to life: two in the Old Testament (by Elijah & Elisha) and five in the New Testament (two by Jesus, one of Jesus, and by Peter & Paul). Even though God's actions are occasionally miraculous, usually God chooses to act in ways that are natural, not miraculous.


Or consider this gripe, from a Social justice activist:

But it is the hegemony of the habits of mind that manifest pervasively in education that privilege science education, career, and research over other modes and branches of learning and knowing that I have problems with. -Heesoon Bai[14]

Or consider this usage by a proponent of alternative medicine:

In the United Kingdom, scientism is on the march, attempting to crush beneath its positivist boot the public’s right to complementary and alternative medical therapies such as homeopathy, free on Britain’s National Health Service.[15]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn notes that it is presently a term of abuse.
  2. Merriam-Webster - Scientism
  3. 3.0 3.1 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosopy - The Social Dimensions of Scientific Knowledge
  4. Although it is adopted as a "badge of honor" in the rare case, such as in Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality.
  5. Friedrich von Hayek. Scientism and the Study of Society. Economica, Vol. 9, No. 35 (Aug., 1943), pp. 267-291
  6. Wisdom from Putnam on Science and Scientism, Maverick Philosopher
  7. C. Hakfoort. Science deified: Wilhelm Osstwald's energeticist world-view and the history of scientism. Annals of Science, Volume 49, Issue 6, 1992
  8. Huston Smith. Scientism: The Bedrock of the Modern Worldview, in Science and the Myth of Progress, ed. Mehrdad M. Zarandi
  9. See Annie Murphy Paul's Cult of Personality for numerous examples.
  10. Six Signs of Scientism, Susan Haack
  11. When it comes to facts and explanations of facts, science is the only game in town, New Statesman
  15. Beware Scientism's Onward March! Lionel Milgrom, Alliance for Natural Health
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