My earlier post on this subject was entitled “What is Scientism?” because, while I have seen the term thrown around in a number of venues, I have never been entirely sure what it means. Having had a chance now to digest some of the arguments raised in the comments, as well as the thoughts expressed at other blogs, I think it’s time to go another round.
The first point I made in my earlier post was that, in the context of science/religion disputes, to be accused of scientism was to be accused of being insufficiently respectful towards religion. A perfect example of what I had in mind is this post by Ian Hutchinson. He writes:
One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.
This, I would suggest, is precisely what we need less of. We should reject totally the idea that there are two kinds of knowledge, scientific on the one hand and religious on the other. The relevant distinction between scientific knowledge claims and religious knowledge claims is that the former are based on reliable methods while the latter are not. Those of us keen to stress the centrality of scientific methods in establishing legitimate knowledge claims are usually responding to arguments like Hutchinson’s.
Moving on, my next point was that it is very easy to fall into a definitional morass when discussing this issue. The correctness of the assertion that science is the only way of knowing depends a lot on how you define the phrases “science” and “way of knowing.” It is very easy to render this discussion trivial by taking a sufficiently narrow definition of science.
For example, if you define science so that it is limited entirely to questions about the natural world, then it is obvious that science is not the only way of knowing. Historians produce knowledge, but they do not study the natural world. I would be very much surprised, though, if any of the folks typically accused of scientism actually reject historical scholarship as a legitimate route to knowledge. If history is the refutation of scientism, then no one is guilty of scientism.
It is certainly true that in everyday usage, when people use the word “science” they are usually thinking of something related to the natural world, probably physics, chemistry or biology. But it is equally true that people don’t usually have abstract discussions about ways of knowing. From my perspective, while it may seem odd to consider history a science, it is even odder to say that scientific knowledge is different in some fundamental way from historical knowledge. It is far more natural to say that they are the results of very similar methods applied to different questions.
Every science educator I have ever met has emphasized to his students that science is best thought of as a method of investigation. If you take that seriously, it is clear that the large collection of methods employed by scientists in their work can be applied just as well to questions that have nothing to do with the natural world. The reason we have a term like “social science” is to capture the idea that there are fields of inquiry with enough of the attributes of science to be worthy of the label despite not studying the natural world. I would further note that people routinely speak of having a scientific mindset or of taking a scientific approach to a problem.
So I don’t think it is unreasonable, in the context of these sorts of discussions, to define science very broadly. It just seems silly to me to say that scientific knowledge is one kind of thing, historical knowledge is something else, philosophical knowledge is a third and mathematical knowledge is a fourth. Mathematicians primarily use deductive reasoning in their work, but deductive reasoning is not some special, mathematical approach to knowledge that is separate from what scientists do. The primary tool of philosophy is dialectical argumentation, but this, too, is not something that is foreign to scientific practice. Academic turf-protection is not something I care much about. My interest is in how you justify knowledge claims, and the methods employed in all of these disciplines strike me as instances of applied common sense, to borrow Thomas Huxley’s definition of science.
Defining science this broadly still excludes a great many proposed routes to knowledge, routes, mind you, that many people try hard to defend. There are distinctively religious ways of knowing, such as religious experience, the testimony of holy texts, or the teachings of religious authorities, that are ruled out as illegitimate. Also ruled out are things like oral traditions, folk wisdom, hunches, intuition, gossip or the various pseudosciences that people sometimes advocate. So this is not an issue of “Science is the only reliable route to knowledge” becoming true by definition or anything like that. It captures something important about how we defend knowledge claims, and it is something that needs to be said from time to time in the face of relentless attacks against science and reason.
Some people have suggested that we should just say “reason-based inquiry” or some such, instead of science. I don’t really have a problem with that; it just seems unnecessary to me. But whatever. It seems clear to me that we are just arguing about the meanings of words now, and not about anything important.
(Incidentally, just to head-off another way this discussion can quickly descend into trivia, I would note that there is a practical, everyday sort of knowledge that is established by means that would not generally be considered scientific. If the fellow in the next office tells me the faculty meeting is at 2:00, I can reasonably claim to know that the meeting is at 2:00. But in a scientific context proofs by authority are out of bounds. Once again, if this is the refutation of scientism then no one is guilty of scientism.)
An approach fundamentally different from anything I considered in my previous post comes from Paul Paolini in this post. He writes:
My view is that if scientism does not reside in the content of certain beliefs then it must reside in reasoning that relates to a certain class of beliefs. In particular, I believe that scientism, rather than adherence to specific pro-science beliefs, is a kind of flawed reasoning that relates to pro-science beliefs as a class. This flawed reasoning consists generally, I think, in unjustified inferences from pro-science beliefs to beliefs in general. To be more precise, if this view is correct then the “enthusiasm” of scientism is manifested not by extremeness of positions about science but in a lack of rigor in reasoning about the significance of science.
We may sharpen this account with the notion of a scientistic belief; here I use the word ‘scientistic’ as simply an adjectival form of the noun ‘scientism.’ We shall say that a belief is scientistic just in case it is falsely justified by a pro-science belief; that is, if a belief appeals to a pro-science belief that does not in fact warrant it, then that belief is scientistic. Note that pro-science beliefs may themselves be scientistic, though they need not be. Also note that any belief that is justified by a scientistic belief is thereby also scientistic, even if the relation of justification connecting the two beliefs is sound. This means that a scientistic belief’s false justification can be mediated by other scientistic beliefs.
How about some examples of what might be called scientistic inferences? Below, while the premises are pro-science beliefs that may or may not be scientistic, the conclusions are scientistic beliefs that may or may not be overtly pro-science.
[Premise] Science is the greatest authority on human knowledge.
[Conclusion] If science says that consciousness does not exist, non-scientists should simply accept it.
[P] Science has been far more successful than the humanities in improving human life.
[C] Resources should be directed away from the humanities toward science.
[P] Science provides the truth about reality while religions do not.
[C] The scientific worldview should be preferred to any religious worldview.
In conclusion, what I like about this view of scientism as the phenomenon of scientistic belief, beyond its seeming to be a view that works, is that it divests the act of charging someone with scientism of anti-science connotations, renders the charge of scientism neutral on substantive debate regarding the merits of science — and questions of substantive truth generally — and clarifies the charge of scientism as a relatively simple and objective charge of flawed reasoning.
There’s a lot to mull over here, but since I don’t want to belabor an already lengthy post I’ll just make a quick, general comment. Jerry Coyne has already responded in more detail.
My problem with Paolini’s definition is that it seems like a trivialization of the term “scientism.” When you accuse someone of being in thrall to an “–ism,” you usually have something more in mind than the claim that he made a bad argument. Referring to an “ism” suggests that the person is not merely mistaken, but mistaken precisely because he adheres to a blinkered and erroneous view of the world. In Paolini’s account, by contrast, you are guilty of scientism the moment you make a certain sort of fallacious inference, with no reference to any broader worldview. I don’t see why we need a special epithet for people who make bad arguments starting from pro-science propositions. Just criticize the argument and be done with it.
Time to wrap this up, so I will close with this. The really important thing, as I see it, is that religion be denied any status as a legitimate way of knowing. After that, everything else is a detail.