In defence of scientism
This 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.
I’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.
Which 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.