Scientism

Russell Blackford at the Metamagician and the Hellfire Club has a short piece on Scientism which I like.

He acknowledges that there is probably such a thing as scientism. Really “extreme or loony viewpoints” such as thinking “humanities are worthless” or “that we could understand, let’s say Macbeth, without developing any sensitivity to Shakespeare’s language – perhaps by applying methods distinctive in science (though how you could use controlled experiments, for example, to interpret Macbeth is far from clear)”

But, he points out, “I don’t see many .. people expressing these sentiments.” Exactly my observation.

Yet it is a term often applied to scientists who speak out in defense of science and reason. For example, I have often found Richard Dawkins accused of scientism (hell I have been accused of it myself). Blackford points out that such claims don’t impress him. They don’t impress me either.

Of course critics often have their own motives and such charges are usually dishonest and meant to be abusive. Those usually using the term are living in glass houses.

But there are some who do try to use it as a serious criticism.  Some philosophers, as for example Massimo Pigliucci in his book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. I thought this was unfortunate (on the whole I found the book excellent – see Pseudoscience and anti-science nonsense). Pigliucci was, on the surface, using the word in a technical, or non-pejorative, sense. But, as he was making a criticism of the scientists involved it inevitably comes across as pejorative.

Russell calls this equivocation. “It’s cheating to apply the word in some non-pejorative sense that you secretly have in mind while at the very same time trying to get the pejorative connotations of other senses of the word.”

He concludes:

“A word like “scientism” lends itself too readily to this kind of argumentative cheating. So much so that I think that intellectually honest people should stop using the word; and, frankly, when I see people using it in current debates I am automatically suspicious of their intellectual honesty. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.”

Count me in. I find I immediately discount anyone who uses the term against me.

It’s a cop out.

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5 responses to “Scientism

  1. It seems what is needed is a clear and precise definition of the term. With that in place, one might be able to correctly accuse someone of scientism, or to retort that an accusation of scientism is unjust.

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  2. HappyEvilSlosh

    “extreme or loony viewpoints” such as thinking “humanities are worthless” […] “I don’t see many .. people expressing these sentiments.”

    At the university I did my undergrad, masters and a lot of tutoring at in the engineering department I’d be got the impression the attitude that the ‘arts are useless’ was the norm. It was certainly something that came up numerous times in the student magazine there.

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  3. HappyEvilSlosh, I think you are referring to a different thing – the old “them vs us” problem.

    Scientists are as human as anyone else and a capable of holding silly ideas in the head alongside more rational science. I have worked with scientists of most common religious beliefs, scientists who believed in luck or astrology. Hell I even remember one scientist who was a member if the ACT Party.

    So we suffer from the same tribal behavior as other people – and interdepartmental or inter discipline rivalry is common.

    That on no way suggests scientists have no culture – it’s just as rich and varied as for any other group. Nor does it suggest that scientists are non- emotional cold people.

    The “scientism” charge is a straw man claiming that a scientist is claiming that narrow science can or should explain everything. In my experience I never meet scientists who think that way. I see it as a straw man, a misrepresentation, for ideological reasons.

    And as Blackford suggests, I think people who use the word are demonstrating a lack of intellectual honesty.

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  4. “The ‘scientism’ charge is a straw man claiming that a scientist is claiming that narrow science can or should explain everything. In my experience I never meet scientists who think that way. I see it as a straw man, a misrepresentation, for ideological reasons”.

    Then you don’t know much about contemporary neuroscience, or evolutionary psychology, do you?

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  5. OK Rob T – what about sharing with us? Examples and all!

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