The debate about what constitutes scientism and what’s bad about it has been hitting the intertubes again for the last few months. Starting with Philip Kitcher’s article The Trouble With Scientism, there’s a reply by Jerry Coyne, by Andrew Sullivan then Jerry Coyne again, then Jason Rosenhouse just yesterday. It might be interesting to take a brief look at the idea of scientism, as it becomes an increasing codeword/dog whistle.
What is scientism
When people speak of scientism, they seem to have in mind 2 meanings which are different enough to be labelled differently.
Scientism-1 is (broadly-speaking) the idea that the physical sciences are the only legitimate way to organise knowledge and conversely that anything outside the physical sciences isn’t knowledge. Made-up examples of statements:
- Literature doesn’t have anything to teach us
- We can just model human behaviour X using this simple mathematical formula — why does your field need a journal again? (Based on this XKCD)
- Science has replaced philosophy
Scientism-2 is (broadly-speaking) the idea that the rigorous and systematic application of empirical methods (broadly-construed) is the only way of finding out what’s true. Made-up examples of statements:
- Literature is not a way of knowing, it’s a way of expressing beliefs and attitudes
- This reductionist model I propose accounts fully for behaviour X and seems to be true
- Science has dissolved (as opposed to solved) many questions that philosophy thought were meaningful
The use of these definitions
Obviously scientism-2 is a softened and/or refined version of scientism-1. Now, I think almost nobody would argue for scientism-1 explicitly. People have certainly made statements similar to those I listed under scientism-1 (cough Kraurence Lauss cough). But in my experience, most accusations of scientism are against something closer to scientism-2. This is when the accusation becomes a dog whistle. In my experience, when people make accusations of scientism, they usually mean that they’re not happy that someone’s being “too reductive” or insufficiently deferential to metaphysical bullshit or that they dare to draw conclusions from scientific facts that the critic doesn’t like.
For instance, consider the 3 examples of scientism as quoted in a post about scientism on Biologos, an organisation infamous for accomodationist waffling about the alleged compatibility of evolution with religion:
- “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” (Carl Sagan)
- “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” (Stephen Weinberg)
- “We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little.” (EO Wilson)
Now, I don’t find these too objectionable at all. The first quote is the most obviously true since it is almost a definitional tautology (I believe Sagan himself says this later on). The second quote expresses a matter of personal taste/opinion. Of course if it was the reverse (if a physicist said “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems to have a purpose”) I would think they’re over-reaching. But I just see Weinberg’s view as being obviously more supported, although of course people might disagree here. The view of the universe as a bit of quantum foam, or something similar, really is at odds with how most people generally picture a “universe with a purpose”. The third is by EO Wilson and having by coincidence listened to a podcast on consilience (a term Wilson introduced) just today, I dare to say that like some of Wilson’s other opinions, it seems profound but might not mean anything. Either way, I don’t see how it’s scientism in any way except “utterance by a scientist of an opinion that I find Deeply Wrong”.
Finally, even when someone makes a statement that sounds like it’s espousing scientism-1, they might simply be imprecise in their communication. A lot of the times when people say “science” they mean something a lot broader. For instance, I was particularly annoyed at all the controversy Sam Harris caused with his book The Moral Landscape which argued (according to secondary sources which included some talks/posts by Harris himself, but I haven’t read the book) that ethics is determinable by science. Originally I simply disagreed. But then I listened to a panel discussion with Harris where he made an off-hand remark that by “science” he meant all of rational enquiry, specifically inclusive of philosophy. Well that dissolves an entire controversy into nothing — talk about sensationalism! (The whole thing then becomes a bit trivial if this point is taken seriously.) Either way, a lot of the time, even when someone says scientism-1, they mean scientism-2.
Defending the transition from Scientism-1 to Scientism-2
So with all that in mind, let’s take another look at scientism-2: a rigorous and systematic application of empirical methods (broadly-construed) is the only way of finding out what’s true. I think that’s almost tautologically true. That’s what it means to “find out” as opposed to “believe you’ve found out” or “imagine” or “improvise” — all of which might be valuable but are not the same as finding out. Any objection I can think of is of the “but you’re being too reductive!” type. Specifically:
- But if this is science than anything is science! Empirical suggestings at least some tie to the outside world is required. This excludes non-falsifiable gods, purely-metaphysical philosophy and so on, which I think is fine. Rigorous and systematic would include most content within mature disciplines (ie. physics minus the fringes), a bit less within others (the most rigorous parts of the humanities). Perhaps a bit of personal observation is left over for claims which are already reasonable to believe (eg. I don’t need to conduct a statistical regression or engage in anthropology to find out if I’m on fire).
- But you’re privileging what can be quantified! Methods of lesser rigor are, ahem, less rigorous. Pointing this out isn’t bigotry, it’s tautology. This does not say anything about value, but if a field is based entirely on qualitative reports it can’t be as reliable as one that’s not. To deny this would be to deny mountains of research on cognitive biases, the psychology of self deception and (ironically), the reasonable parts of postmodernism that analyse how social factors contribute to knowledge claims.
- But you’re just talking about facts, there’s more to life than facts! Yes there are. That’s why rational enquiry is the only way of finding out what’s true. Nobody said it was the only worthwhile activity or the only way of feeling elation (although there’s no reason it can’t explain why we feel elation). When I look at a painting, I’m not engaging in some “way of knowing”, I’m having an experience. These are not the same thing.
- But there’s no such thing as a fact! or But that’s a simplistic notion of facts! Personally I think the strong project of social constructivism deserves laughter and ridicule more than it deserves a counterargument. However, I will paraphrase the excellent response of Dr Peter Slezak (my grad diploma supervisor) on Baudrillard’s idea that the Gulf War did not take place because it was a social construction. Namely, try telling that to the 40,000 Iraqis who died in the war.
- But this view is too reductionist! Ah, at long last. Such views usually ignore metaphysical and epistemic reductionism. The first just says that in principle, anything (eg. the Gulf War) is ultimately explained in terms of more basic elements like atoms because the participants of the Gulf War are all made of atoms. This is uncontrovercial to all but the most extreme vitalist. The second is the idea that there will be a good (or even the best) explanation of the Gulf War that will be about atoms. This is probably not true, however that’s simply an empirical question. In other words, if you think you can try it, please do. Reductionism has a great deal of benefits and is a worthy goal.
- But this whole idea is dehumanising! On the contrary, I think it’s the mysterians who dehumanise things. If you think that finding out we were made of atoms dehumanised us then your notion of what it is to be human is flawed, judgmental and probably chauvinistic. But either way, it’s a value judgement so potaytoes/potahtoes.
- But this scientism is self-refuting! Since this statement itself is not empirical and so on so nyer-nyer. This makes me a bit puzzled. On the one hand, I’ve never understood how this is meant to be a showstopper. Can someone please explain this in the comments? Why do basic statements need to be deriveable from themselves? I mean, this is a meta-level statement. On the other hand, this statement seems to be little more than unpacking of what we mean by “know”, “rigorous” and so on. In which case it’s not self-refuting. Being rigorous makes you more confident you know something is true and seeing that it is true makes you more confident.
In conclusion, I think scientism-2 is perfectly fine. There are no “ways of knowing” other than experienced-based rational enquiry. For any activity, the closer it is to this ideal, the more probability we can assign our knowledge. Any other claims to knowledge require equivocation on the word “know” or Chopraesque gobbledegook.
What sayest thou?