Ian Hutchinson has written a very nice essay on scientism. He defines it as “the belief that science is all the real knowledge there is” and then highlights three very serious problems with this belief system. The problems are so serious that an intellectually honest approach would have us steer clear of scientism.
The first problem is that proponents of scientism tend to advocate for it with some sleight of hand. Hutchinson provides an excellent example from Jacques Monod, who writes, “The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that `true’ knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes — that is to say, of `purpose’.”
Hutchinson then notes:
“See in this quotation how there is an almost imperceptible transition from “nature is objective” to “true knowledge”. The second sentence makes sense as an explanation of the first only if all true knowledge is knowledge of nature, i.e. science” but “to extrapolate this characteristic of `scientific’ knowledge so that it becomes for Monod a feature of any `true’ knowledge is pure presumption, pure scientism.””
This analysis is spot on. This ability to sneak scientism into the intellectual arena is then facilitated by the second problem with scientism – “The meaning of the word science is still volatile, and that volatility makes it susceptible to misuse.”
I have long noted that those who advocate for scientism exploit the fact that science can be defined in many ways. Typically, they use a strong definition of science (“the science of the natural world, epitomized by physics, chemistry, biology, geology and so on”) to extract authority from science when they seek to prop up their metaphysical/social/political agenda. But when it comes to actually applying science as part of their agenda, suddenly and quietly, the definition of science is watered-down and becomes something like “the use of reason to evaluate evidence.” I highlighted a nice example of exploiting these dual meanings last year.
Hutchinson lists the third problem: in distinguishing science from scientism is made all the greater because current opinions in the philosophy of science emphasize the difficulty in demarcation between science and non-science.
He notes how an advocate for scientism might actually try to exploit this problem to serve their agenda:
If then, the thought goes, we are uncertain how science is to be practiced or identified, then who is to say where its boundaries lie? Why should we concede that there are any limits to science’s knowledge? And if there are no limits to science, then scientism starts to look very plausible.
Hutchinson then argues that true science is limited by its need to demonstrate two key characteristics: reproducibility and Clarity. I interpret this to mean what I have long preached – that true science must be rooted in objective measurement.
It is key to remember that the power of science is purchased through its limitations. Stripping away the limitations with clever arguments only works to water down science and turn it into speculation. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with speculation, it’s simply not science.
Hutchinson also notes how the advocate for scientism might try game the system:
“Maybe we don’t yet have really scientific knowledge of some aspects of the world, but that’s perhaps just because those aspects are at an early stage in scientific development. We just need to keep working to turn them eventually into truly positive sciences.”
Yet this is nothing more than hand-waving. If we don’t have “scientific knowledge of some aspects of the world,” then science is silent on those aspects of the world. Period. But by trying to spin things as “an early stage in scientific development” the advocate is merely trying to move their philosophy/metaphysics into the shadow of science for the purpose of extracting science’s authority to prop up the philosophy/metaphysics. And that is a misuse of science.