Scientism


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We presently live in an era dominated by scientism, an ideology that believes that science (and its rationalist foundation in modern epistemology) has an undeniable primacy over all other ways of seeing and understanding life and the world, including more humanistic, mythical, spiritual, and artistic interpretations. In being critical of scientism as I am, I am not against science per se: modern science and its ways of understanding and knowing the world are valuable, and we should be grateful for them. But it is the hegemony of the habits of mind that manifest pervasively in education that privilege science education, career, and research over other modes and branches of learning and knowing that I have problems with.

—Heesoon Bai[1]

Scientism is a pejorative umbrella term for related philosophical positions which claim the only truth is that which can be reached via the scientific method, that philosophy has no role within science, and that science does not require moral or ethical guidelines.[2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

Ironically, scientism proponents, despite it being a philosophical epistemological position in and of itself, completely reject philosophy, ethics, and the reasons why logical positivism (an almost identical, although less extreme version of this philosophy) failed. As such it is completely self-annihilating,[9][10] even though many prominent pop scientists implicitly or explicitly promote it.[11]

Beliefs

Morality

Proponents of scientism believe that science is inherently moral. They are mistaken. Science on its own cannot tell us right from wrong.[12] There is no scientific reason why we cannot perform an experiment which harms people, e.g., forcing them to smoke cigarettes in order to see how many they need to smoke before they develop smoker's cough. The reason such experiments are not carried out (any more) are not because we have investigated them enough — in fact science often requires replication of previous research using both observational and experimental data. In actuality, the reason such experiments are not carried out are because we have developed legal, moral, and ethical guidelines that supervene over scientific research. The main bodies that address such ethical implications to research are called ethics committees. The principles behind ethical approval for research are deeply philosophical, mainly based on a respect for human rights, informed consent, and so on.[13] This does not mean that empirical contributions to the ethical practise of science are not valuable, but that scientific inquiry is governed by philosophical and ethical notions and not the other way round.

Philosophy

Central to scientism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to philosophy. Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them.

—Austin L. Hughes[14]

Another belief held by scientism supporters is that philosophy is not relevant or valuable to the continuation of science. This is categorically mistaken and extremely damaging to science itself if non-pop scientists, i.e., actual researchers, agree with the pop science scientism crowd (they thankfully largely do not). Science on its own does not generate more science. Research does not start with science, if science is taken to mean experimental manipulation of investigation. Research starts by first providing a literature review, a theoretical overview, and a basic hypothesis; all three of which are inherently philosophical and metaphysical positions. For the same exact experiment a different theory can be given as an impetus, and a different hypothesis to-be-tested can be provided. For example, if the experiment aims to test what colour, e.g., blue light versus red light, people prefer to read under; one hypothesis might be that blue light carries more energy and will aid with reading, while another researcher might argue that personal preference will dictate light colour preference. Both of these predictions are acceptable positions to test and the theory of each experimenter will be fleshed out based on previous findings. Once they carry out their experiment they could even have different results depending on which experimental variables they take into account. Deciding on what to measure is another methodological- and philosophical-level decision that directly drives science.

Methodology

Scientism, by marginalising the contributions of philosophy, becomes self-annihilating and internally inconsistent because it presupposes that methodological decisions can be backed up by science. A methodological decision would be, for example, deciding whether to use Bayesian statistics or frequentist statistics. Such a choice cannot be backed up by science; both types of statistics are mathematically proven to be adept at testing hypotheses. So it is a purely methodological decision that will be taken based on a researcher's personal preference, their own training, and their lab's proclivities for one type of statistics over another.[15]

Historical denialism

Scientism supporters also are in denial of history, both of science itself and of the Second World War. For the former history, they neglect to mention that the scientific method itself changes based on philosophical grounds, e.g., moving from Popperian falsification to Kuhnian paradigm shifts. In other words, scientism supporters fail to understand the philosophy of science at its basic level and instead reveal themselves to be ignorant of the progression of both scientific knowledge and the method by which it is sought.

Scientism's latter denial refers to the use of science (without ethical consideration) by the Nazis during World War II. Using deeply ethically flawed science the Nazis backed up social Darwinism, fuelled anti-Semitism, supported racism, rationalised murder, and so on.[13] While it might be obvious that logical positivism as implicitly used by Nazis[16] is a toxic ideology, many forget that Nazi science did obtain results which are still used in modern medicine,[17][18][19] despite the morally abhorrent conditions.[20][21][22] This exemplifies the problem with scientism: science itself cannot reject the data gathered under brutal conditions; without any ethical supervision science and medicine would dictate more experiments wherein people are murdered and treated morally objectionably.[23] Ethical codes of research conduct that are in use today are a direct result of our need to prevent the atrocities committed by Nazi scientists from ever happening again.[24]

History

Scientism can be thought of as neo-logical positivism, or as an extreme version of logical positivism.[9][25][26][27] Logical positivism[28] states that:

there are only two sources of knowledge: logical reasoning and empirical experience. The former is analytic a priori, while the latter is synthetic a posteriori; hence synthetic a priori does not exist.
The fundamental thesis of modern empiricism [i.e. logical positivism] consists in denying the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge. (H. Hahn, O. Neurath, R. Carnap, Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung. Der Wiener Kreis, 1929).

Logical knowledge includes mathematics, which is reducible to formal logic. Empirical knowledge includes physics, biology, psychology, etc. Experience is the only judge of scientific theories; however, logical positivists were aware that scientific knowledge does not exclusively rise from the experience: scientific theories are genuine hypotheses that go beyond the limits of finite human experience.

It is not possible to establish a logically durable building on verifications [a verification is an observational statement about immediate perception], for they are already vanished when the building begins. If they were, with respect to time, at the beginning of the knowledge, then they would be logically useless. On the contrary, there is a great difference when they are at the end of the process: with their help the test is performed... From a logical point of view, nothing depends on them: they are not premises but a firm end point. (M. Schlick, '&Uumlber das Fundament der Erkenntnis', in Erkenntnis, 4, 1934).

A statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of the experience -- this assertion is called the verifiability principle [aka the "verifiability criterion of meaning"]. The meaning of a statement is its method of verification; that is we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false.

When are we sure that the meaning of a question is clear? Obviously if and only if we are able to exactly describe the conditions in which it is possible to answer yes, or, respectively, the conditions in which it is necessary to answer with a no. The meaning of a question is thus defined only through the specification of those conditions...

The definition of the circumstances under which a statement is true is perfectly equivalent to the definition of its meaning. ... a statement has a meaning if and only if the fact that it is true makes a verifiable difference.

(M. Schlick, 'Positivismus und Realismus' in Erkenntnis, 3, 1932).

Metaphysical statements are not empirically verifiable and are thus forbidden: they are meaningless. The only role of philosophy is the clarification of the meaning of statements and their logical interrelationships. There is no distinct "philosophical knowledge" over and above the analytic knowledge provided by the formal disciplines of logic and mathematics and the empirical knowledge provided by the sciences.

Philosophy is the activity by means of which the meaning of statements is clarified and defined. (M. Schlick, 'Die Wende der Philosophie' in Erkenntnis, 1, 1930).[29]

This position is internally incoherent. The positivists were never able to verify their central premise, that knowledge is only meaningful knowledge if it is verifiable[30]. Nevertheless, logical positivism was a major force in analytic philosophy from the 1920s forward until philosophers such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Willard Quine assaulted the foundation on which it was based.[31][32]

Proponents

Sam Harris

See the main article on this topic: Sam Harris
Sam Harris [...] wrote an entire book claiming that “science” somehow vindicates his preferred form of philosophical utilitarianism (when what he really meant was that if you assume utilitarian goals, science can help you pursue them)

—Ross Douthat[33]

Sam Harris is an advocate of use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans and other scientific measurements as grounding for ethical claims.[11] Critical of the is-ought problem, Harris beliefs that making factual claims about human nature can get you to what you ought to do in the moral sense of "ought".[34] Harris' proposition for ethical grounding, that science tell us the only meaningful answer to substantive ethical claims, is a philosophical proposition which is questionable, but it is not a scientific claim as Harris wishes it to be.[12] For similar reasons that logical positivism is a non-starter, Harris' scientism views on ethics are also non-starters.[35].

Harris also did not engage with the philosophical academic circles for his project, which is good reason to be critical of his positions. That is not to say that science cannot inform certain areas of philosophy, but Harris' neo-positivist and scientismist approach to ethics is faulty at best. Not to mention he ignored the peer reviewers when they did offer critiques of his work.[36]

Harris admits that his premise is not a scientific one, but does not view this as problematic or undermining to his overall theory,[37] thus demonstrating his ignorance of why logical positivism and by extension scientism are internally incoherent.

Despite speaking like a virtue ethicist, Harris' positions (as pointed out by Simon Blackburn) are much closer to that of the utilitarianism.[38]

Richard Dawkins

See the main article on this topic: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has also praised Harris' ethical thought.[39]

Steven Pinker

See the main article on this topic: Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker has also written books and articles with strong scientism claims.[33][40][41][42] He has even go so far as to claim that "scientism" is a slur used in the same way oppressive language is used against queer people:

The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.[43]

Other notable proponents

The association of the New Atheist movement, which contains various pop scientists and pop philosophers, with scientism is well established.[44][45][46] Notable figures who have shown varying degrees of scientism in their statements are:

Misuse of the term

Some people conflate uses of the term "scientism" with "bad science" [55]. This is not what scientism is, while there are overlaps between scientism advocates and bad science, the epistemological position that science is the only source of knowledge is scientism.

See also

External links

References

  1. Scientism and Education: Empirical Research as Neo-Liberal Ideology, by Hyslop-Margison, Emery J., Naseem, Ayaz
  2. Staking positions amongst the varieties of scientism, by Massimo Pigliucci
  3. Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part I, by Robert Nola
  4. Scientism: ‘Yippee’ or ‘Boo-sucks’? — Part II, by Robert Nola
  5. 5.0 5.1 Is science all you need?, by Massimo Pigliucci PDF
  6. Doing Away With Scientism, by Ian Kidd]
  7. The Trouble with Scientism: Why history and the humanities are also a form of knowledge, by Philip Kitcher
  8. Eleven Types of Scientism, by James W. Gray
  9. 9.0 9.1 Scientism
  10. Skepdic entry on scientism
  11. 11.0 11.1 Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions on TED
  12. 12.0 12.1 The Facts Fetish, by Thomas Nagel
  13. 13.0 13.1 The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremberg Code : Human Rights in Human Experimentation: Human Rights in Human Experimentation, George J. Annas Edward R. Utley Professor of Health Law, Medicine Michael A. Grodin Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of Law, and Ethics Program both of the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health
  14. The Folly of Scientism, by Austin L. Hughes
  15. The Interplay of Bayesian and Frequentist Analysis, by M. J. Bayarri and J. O. Berger PDF
  16. A Passion for Wisdom: A Very Brief History of Philosophy, by Robert C. Solomon, Kathleen M. Higgins
  17. The Nazi Anatomists: How the corpses of Hitler's victims are still haunting modern science—and American abortion politics., by Emily Bazelon
  18. Ethics and access to teaching materials in the medical library: the case of the Pernkopf atlas, by Michel C. Atlas, M.L.S., AHIP
  19. Victims of Nazi anatomists named, by Victoria Gill
  20. Nazi Science — The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments, by Robert L. Berger, M.D.
  21. Was Nazi science good science?,[tw] by Orac
  22. Nazi Medical Experimentation: The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments,[tw] by Baruch C. Cohen
  23. 7 Absolutely Evil Medical Experiments, by Stephanie Pappas
  24. What has medicine learned from the Nazis?, by Tim Radford
  25. What is Scientism?, by Thomas Burnett
  26. Scienticism and Positivism, by Ozan Örmeci
  27. Scientism..., by Herman Bergson
  28. Logical Empiricism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  29. Logical Positivism, by Henry Folse
  30. Smith, L.D. (1986). Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance. Stanford University Press. p. 314. ISBN 9780804713016. LCCN 85030366.
  31. W V O Quine, "Two dogmas of empiricism", Philosophical Review 1951;60:20-43, collected in Quine, From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1953
  32. The lingering death of positivism, by Dennis Hart and Shirley Gregor
  33. 33.0 33.1 The Scientism of Steven Pinker, by Ross Douthat
  34. 'Scientism' wars: there's an elephant in the room, and its name is Sam Harris, by Oliver Burkeman
  35. Presentation: Why Sam Harris is wrong on ethics as science,[tw] by Massimo Pigliucci PDF
  36. Sam Harris and Scientism, by Ross Douthat
  37. Book review: Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape, by Russell Blackford
  38. Morality without God, by Simon Blackburn
  39. Richard Dawkins Would Fail Philosophy 101, by Elizabeth Picciuto
  40. Repudiating scientism, rather than surrendering to it, by PZ Myers
  41. Crimes Against Humanities, by Leon Wieseltier
  42. The Power Of Science And The Danger Of Scientism, by Adam Frank
  43. Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians, by Steven Pinker
  44. Denying Evolution: Creation, Scientism and the Nature of Science: Creation, Scientism, and the Nature of Science, by Massimo Pigliucci
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 45.3 45.4 45.5 The return of radical empiricism, by Massimo Pigliucci]
  46. The Danger of Scientism, by Michael Werner
  47. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism by Matt Briggs
  48. Neil deGrasse Tyson and the value of philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci
  49. Taking on scientism’s big bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins and Pinker, by Mark Kingwell
  50. Let's Start With A Respect For Truth, by Daniel C. Dennett
  51. Dan Dennett on Scientism
  52. Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex, by Massimo Pigliucci
  53. James Ladyman on Metaphysics
  54. Seeing Is Unbelieving, by Philip Kitcher
  55. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCNLX_x9bIo
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