Tag Archives: scientism

So scientism = non-theism?

I have concluded that anyone making accusations of “scientism” is just being dishonest. The term is usually used inappropriately, as a straw man, and in an attempt to claim “other ways of knowing” which are preferable to science. (But in a cowardly way, by attempting to discredit the science and not providing support for this “other way”).

But this is really stretching the strawmannery of “scientism.” It’s part of a BioLogos infographic portraying “America’s View on Evolution and Creationism.” It blatantly presents “scientism” as the only alternative to creationist ideas (theistic evolution, intelligent design and creationism)  (See the original inforgraphic at Infographic: America’s View on Evolution and Creationism in Christianity Today or click here for full graphic).) You get the message – if your beliefs don’t rely on the magical thinking of “other ways of knowing” you are guilty of “scientism” – which is a bad thing.

Modern science relies on evidence and reason. It tests and validates its ideas and theories against reality. There is plenty of room for speculation but it’s very much reality driven. So far no scientific theories incorporate gods, angels, leprechauns or fairies. But that is not to say they are excluded – just that so far there is no evidence or need for such entities. If, and when, the evidence arrives we will happily include such ideas. (Just don’t go holding your breath).

But according to this infographic modern science is guilty of “scientism.”

Well, if that’s how you want to define “scientism” I am happy to be declared guilty. But you can’t use that as a term of derision.

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Protecting yourself against bullshit

Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!” and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!”
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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On being philosophical about science

Professor Peter Atkins

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow stirred things up recently with the publication of their book “The Grand Design.” Apparently some of the theologically inclined were offended by the book title and the publicity where Hawking was quoted as saying “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” He also upset some philosophers with his statement in the book “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42 and An unnecessary being?).

Now it looks like Professor Peter Atkins will soon be the centre of a similar controversy. His new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence in the next few months (17 March 2011 in the UK and May 1 in the USA).

The publishers say:

“In this short book Peter Atkins considers the universal questions to which religions have claimed answers. With economy, wit, and elegance, unswerving before awkward realities, Atkins presents what science has to say. While acknowledging the comfort some find in belief, he declares his own faith in science’s capacity to reveal the deepest truths.”

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“Other ways of knowing” purpose?

A recent panel discussion in Mexico debated the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” The speakers for the affirmative were Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett. And for the negative Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

I don’t think the discussion was very good. Contributions were short and the original video is in Spanish. It’s also full of hoopla. Reminds we of an international scientific congress I attended in Mexico some time ago. All the official meetings involved many young women as decoration. And the Mexicans are certainly a very musical people. Music was everywhere.

However, I have included a video below of the short contribution made by Richard Dawkins in this discussion. It gives an idea of the issues discussed:

Vodpod videos no longer available.Prof.Richard Dawkins destroys Dr.William Lane C…, posted with vodpod

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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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“Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder

Well, I have finally been accused of “scientism.” Usually considered a derogatory label it is often used unjustly. After all, there a people who wish to discredit scientists and scientific findings because they these don’t support a product, or idea, they are selling. So it does come up as a defensive term in commercial, philosophical, religious and ideological promotion.

The dictionary meaning includes “the use of the scientific method of acquiring knowledge, whether in the traditional sciences or in other fields of enquiry.” But the derogatory meaning is “the belief that science alone can explain phenomena, or the application of scientific methods to fields unsuitable for it.”

Of course, I deny the charge. But then again the specific offence is often in the eyes of those using the label – as is obvious for those with commercial interests.

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