In defence of scientism

DNAThis is going to sound a little strange, given the title of this post, but I’m not entirely convinced that such a thing as scientism actually exists – at least, not in the real world, outside those areas of apologists’ brains responsible for manufacturing pejorative boo-words to describe their opponents. It’s certainly pretty hard to find anyone who identifies as a “scientismist”.

One of the reasons I’m dubious of the existence of scientism is that it seems no one can agree on exactly what it is. In different hands, it can mean anything from the adoption of scientific styles and approaches by other fields to the belief that science is not only the best but the only way of answering any question in any field. This lack of agreement is another classic sign that it’s a boo-word, rather than a description of a genuine phenomenon.

For the purposes of this argument, I’ll take scientism to be the most extreme definition in common use: a belief that science has all the answers. When this charge is laid in a debate, I generally find it easier and more practical to point out why it’s inaccurate, and to leave the underlying assumptions unchallenged, but I’ve got a little time and space here to set my thoughts down without derailing any discussion.

PCBI’ll assume for the sake of argument that we all think science is important within its traditional environment. Given that you wouldn’t be reading this without a whole load of scientific discoveries and inventions, that doesn’t exactly seem controversial. Science does great things, and the scientific method is vital in controlling for our tendency to see things that aren’t there, misinterpret the evidence of our senses, and leap to conclusions based on what we expect or want to see, rather than what’s actually happening.

So science has its place, but scientism (so the theory goes) involves crowbarring it into areas where it doesn’t belong. Those areas come and go, but the arguments remain the same – science can’t explain purpose, it can’t say what’s moral, it can’t tell you how you should feel. All true (up to a point), but misleading as well.

Consider a topic like politics – science can’t tell you who to vote for, so science doesn’t belong in politics and can’t tell you anything about it. Except that science can say a great deal – not who to vote for, admittedly, but information can be collected to inform policy and debate, to ensure that the intended aims are met as effectively as possible, to monitor outcomes, and so on. You could write a book about it – in fact, Mark Henderson has.

PipetteWhich is all well and good, but it’s all peripheral, isn’t it? In politics, or love, or religion, science may be able to inform us and support our decisions, but it can’t tell us what to do, or what’s right. It deals in questions of what is, not what ought to be. However, this isn’t quite the problem that it appears – science may not be able to tell you definitively who to vote for, or which god to worship, but neither can anyone else.

People have opinions about all of these subjects, usually very strong ones, but we know that our feelings can be unreliable – that’s why science is so important. It doesn’t matter what we feel, because those feelings aren’t knowledge. They may be right and they may be wrong, and lots of people are bound to disagree either way, but they’re subjective impressions. Learning that idea X makes you feel Y could be argued to be a kind of knowledge, but only of a variety which has already been ruled to be unacceptable when offered by science.

If there’s anything we can know about a subject, science is the best way of finding it out, by definition. There are many different inputs to consider and approaches to take, and you’ll want to collect this information, control for possible biases, analyse it and reach an empirical (albeit necessarily provisional) conclusion. That’s called science.

So does science have all the answers? At the risk of sounding like a politician, it depends what you mean by that. There are plenty of things which science can’t tell us for the moment, and possibly will never be able to, but if there’s an answer to be had, either now or in the future, it’s science that has it.

If saying that constitutes scientism, I guess I’m a scientismist.

Images courtesy of svilen001, sundesigns and 123dan321, used with permission


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “In defence of scientism”

  1. mgm75 says :

    “Scientism” feels very much like a straw man to me. There is a philosophical stance within scientific fields that science is the only source of knowledge – it is called “positivism”.

    Scientism is based perhaps 75% on a misunderstanding of positivism and the remaining 25% is whatever the accuser wants it to mean – and that part is usually a straw man anyway.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, I tried to understand how scientism differs from positivism and gave up in despair, because it isn’t meaningfully defined anywhere. Still, it comes up quite a bit and gave me a useful jumping off point.

      • 2012 and all that says :

        You won’t really find anything meaningful on the web – you’d need to go for academic sources but it is never an easy read and I doubt you’ll find a comparison because Positivism is a legitimate philosophy of science and few recognise Scientism as a legitimate philosophical viewpoint or that it ever existed as a movement.

  2. lotharson says :

    Hello, I have offered a related argument concerning the self-refuting nature of reductive materialism which goes hand in hand with scientism:

    and would love to learn your thoughts on that.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    I agree, “scientism” is a political, manipulative word with poor grounding.

    But no matter who tries to debunk the word, I think it is important to acknowledge the following:

    — Science journals and science theories have been and will be continue to be polluted with politics, lies and trendy blindness. Science is limited because it is created and used by humans.

    — Evidence comes in types: each with its own bias risks and errors.

    — Science will not help me to discover if someone loves me or I can trust them

    For me, the way many atheists use the word “science” is as naive as religionists using faith. And I love science!

    It is ironic to see people set up strawman critiques of those who use scientism as a strawman critique of science.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I can’t find anything to disagree with here at all. But where science has limitations which mean it’s never quite as simple as it appears, so do all other possible forms of knowledge. Even granting that science isn’t perfect, there’s no better alternative.

  4. Mark says :

    Check on this video for a self identified Scientismist!

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  1. On Materialism and Scientism | Brian Green Adams' Blog - October 19, 2013

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