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Bronze-level article


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Philosophy of science
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Not to be confused with Scientology.

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 as 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!

Sensible usage[edit]

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.

Six signs of scientism[edit]

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.

Science as religion[edit]

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, and (c) because the speaker's personal ox has been gored.


To the extent that this claim is true at all, it is true only if one accepts an overly-expansive definition of "religion", under which any number of unrelated things (all of science, being a devoted sports fan, etc.) would count as "religions" as well. But according to any definition of "religion" which does not regard Monday Night Football as a 'sacrament' of whatever kind, evolution is not a "religion".

Science can only be viewed as a religion insofar as the assertion that the universe is internally consistent is axiomatic. If it isn't internally consistent, it is not necessarily possible to demonstrate that it isn't. If this axiom of science and logical reasoning is wrong, it follows that any and every belief system is a religion, making the above argument disingenuous.

Science does not accept "revealed truth" as evidence. Because God, Allah, Moses, Buddha, Darwin or (Ernst) Mayr says so does not make it so. They may all propose hypotheses, but then they and others must do the hard work to support or disprove them.

The argumentation used to support the claim of evolution being a religion is not in question; however the use of the term "religion" is confused with what would be more agreeably called a "worldview". Any system of thought or perspective will inherently be value-laden and supported by various underlying assumptions of metaphysics. Thus while both modern science and Christianity are approaches to explain, interpret, and view existence, they differ in the supports and values on which they rest. While no perfect definition of religion, or science for that matter, is agreed upon, a clear demarcation of the underlying differences between the two generalized approaches can be seen in the questions that are asked. The questions of religion such as: Where do we go when we die? What exists outside of existence? and, Who is God? are not so much unanswerable by science as they are more inapplicable, as the religion's underlying metaphysical conceptions inherent in such questions are not shared by the scientific perspective. (That is, science doesn't think of humans, reality, and the purpose of inquiry in the same way as religion.)

Crank quotes[edit]

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. [13]

Or consider this gripe, from a social justice activist (perhaps "SJW") Heesoon Bai:[14][15]

We presently live in an era dominated by scientism, an ideology that believes that science (and its rationalist foundation in modern epistemology) has an undeniable primacy over all other ways of seeing and understanding life and the world, including more humanistic, mythical, spiritual, and artistic interpretations. In being critical of scientism as I am, I am not against science per se: modern science and its ways of understanding and knowing the world are valuable, and we should be grateful for them. 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.

Or consider this usage by a proponent of alternative medicine:[16]

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.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]