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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scientism

Wikipedia has an article on scientism which contains a lot of information, but also shows that the word "scientism" is used in a wide range of ways, usually pejorative.

Is there a phenomenon that could be called "scientism" and which deserves to be denounced? I suppose there is. I suppose there are people who think the humanities are worthless, or that public policy favours starving arts faculties of funds, or perhaps that we could somehow understand, let's say Macbeth, without developing any sensitivity to Shakespeare's language ... perhaps by applying the methods distinctive of science (though how you would use controlled experiments, for example, to interpret Macbeth is far from clear). The idea that science (defined narrowly in contradistinction to humanistic forms of inquiry) could answer every question would, in my view at least, be untenable. I don't see how science, narrowly defined, can tell you how sympathetic you should be to Macbeth when he learns of his wife's death and replies, "She should have died hereafter." The distinctive techniques of narrowly-defined science are not going to tell a literary scholar, an actor, or a director how that line should be spoken.

If "scientism" refers to some of the more extreme or loony viewpoints mentioned in the previous paragraph, then I think it's a bad thing. I don't think we should be closing faculties of arts or humanities, or that distinctively scientific techniques are much use in understanding or staging Macbeth, or that studying great literature is useless anyway, or anything remotely in this ballpark. But then again, I don't see many other people expressing those sentiments either. Once again, someone may think these things, but if I see Richard Dawkins, for example, accused of thinking these things I'm not going to be too impressed.

The thing is, if you're going to denounce someone for "scientism" or complain that her ideas lead to "scientism", or are somehow reliant on "scientism" - and if this is meant to be a serious criticism - you must be using the word "scientism" in a sense that denotes something horrible or foolish or otherwise worthy of denunciation. It's no use denouncing someone for "scientism" and then, when called on it, explain that you were using the word in some other, more technical, non-pejorative sense (perhaps that the person takes a logical empiricist approach to philosophy). That's 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.

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.

26 comments:

Blake Stacey said...

You're not.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I am insufficiently schooled - or very out of date - my graduate work was a long time ago! But... Just what is Scientism? Indeed, my spell checker also seems to be confused!

ColinGavaghan said...

'According to Mikael Stenmark in the Encyclopedia of science and religion,[14] while the doctrines that are described as scientism have many possible forms and varying degrees of ambition, they share the idea that the boundaries of science (that is, typically the natural sciences) could and should be expanded so that something that has not been previously considered as a subject pertinent to science can now be understood as part of science (usually with science becoming the sole or the main arbiter regarding this area or dimension).'

In other words, we're talking academic turf-wars, Russell. As a lecturer in humanities, I personally welcome the contribution that, say, neuroscience & genetics are making to my discipline. But then, like you, I've never encountered a geneticist or neuroscientist who has claimed that their research obviates the need for law or philosophy. If anything, they are increasingly respecting and welcoming the contributions that my disciplines can make to theirs.

That Guy Montag said...

If anything is going to define how I do philosophy from here on out, it's this question. Frankly, when people, such as say Mary Midgeley, are accusing individuals of scientism I'm well aware that they mean people like me because I'm not going to flinch from the idea that I really do believe science can answer any well formed question. I'll admit this leads to a very liberal definition of science because if there is a method that leads to us being better able to answer meaningful questions about Macbeth then that gets to be part of science. I'm not sure that a definition of science that includes Cosmology, Biology, Neuroscience and maybe Psychology isn't most of the way there already.

A particularly frustrating equivocation I keep seeing is one where I'm accused of believing that physics is the only true description of events. I think I'm a bit more pragmatic than that; I don't need physics to be able to answer questions of where my socks are.

The other one that gets bandied about is the one where because the project of the logical positivists failed, that's supposed to show that the idea that all well formed questions are in principle answerable has failed. The frustrating thing there is that no one seems to remember that the Logical Positivist's programme failed because of a failure of logic. The intuition that what we say has meaning because of its relationship to the world, all I really need, is still pretty strong and I certainly haven't seen anyone address that.

Rixaeton said...

But I think the techniques of science are used by the actor and director in your example. Probably not as a peer-reviewed paper submitted to a journal, but in the sense that the director will have in mind how the line is to be delivered to generate an emotional response in the audience will have been derived from theory, training and/or experience with previous audience reactions. So the knowledge that the director has of how an actor can deliver the line, and how an audience has responded in the past to other lines and maybe this line, means the desired expression of the line is a hypothesis (given this way, the line provokes this reaction), and can be tested by running it past an audience and getting a response (tears or thrown fruit).

Even so, I agree with your final point that accusing someone of scientism just discredits the accuser. It seems a silly thing to accuse one of, really, as a follower of scientism would follow science, which has built in mechanisms of scepticism and review/rejection of failed hypothesis, and would therefore be anti-dogmatic. Or am I missing something?

Russell Blackford said...

@Rixaeton:

The techniques that the actor and director uses are not scientific in the narrow sense of relating to the various techniques that came into prominence in about the 17th century. That's not to say they are not rational. Humanistic inquiry is rational, or at least it can be.

But I totally agree that humanistic inquiry and science in the narrow sense are continuous with each other. Even writing poetry (which is not a form of inquiry, exactly) makes some use of hypothetico-deductive reasoning for example, though usually not much use of mathematical models or controlled experiments.

Russell Blackford said...

I do think it's important to keep in mind the distinction between a narrow conception of science, bearing in mind that the word "scientist" is a very recent coinage that originally meant something quite specific and largely still does, and a "liberal" conception of science. And of course some conceptions can be more liberal others.

But if someone is "guilty" thinking that science in some very liberal sense that includes the whole of rational inquiry can answer all questions it doesn't follow that she thinks that sciece, narrowly defined, can supplant the humanities.

If someone take a position about what science in one sense or another can or cannot do, and if that position doesn't look tenable, I think the position should just be criticised on its merits, rather than a word like "scientism" being used. The word might be appropriate for some truly extreme positions, but again as Colin says it's difficult to find working scientists who actually do hold those positions.

Lance Bush said...

I have seen this term bandied about quite frequently by Massimo Pigluicci over at Rationally Speaking, both in his blog posts and in his podcast. In this post, in particular:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-we-dont-need-transhumanism.html

...Massimo seeks to criticize transhumanism. His second argument against transhumanism is that it is a form of futurism which, in turn, is an extension of scientism

I'm interested in your views on the quality of Pigluicci's arguments and your assessment of "scientism" as a reasonable charge against transhumanism, given your interest in the latter topic and this post about scientism.

Lance Bush said...

I am also inclined to regard the charge of "scientism" as rather dubious. I've never actually met anyone who holds, if questioned, anything like a "scientistic" view and this accusation seems to me to be more a phantom invoked to score easy points in a debate.

I have seen this term bandied about quite frequently by Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking, both in his blog posts and in his podcast. In this post, in particular:

http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2010/10/why-we-dont-need-transhumanism.html

...Massimo seeks to criticize transhumanism. His second argument against transhumanism is that it is a form of futurism which, in turn, is a form of scientism.

I'm interested in your views on the quality of Pigliucci's arguments and your assessment of "scientism" as a reasonable charge against transhumanism, given your comments here and your interest in transhumanism. So if you have a moment, please check those arguments out.

Blake Stacey said...

I've seen the word scientism used when techno-utopianism or recentism or having a Whiggish view of history would have been more appropriate. Sometimes — infrequently — the user was even making a legitimate point. Arguably, it would be unfair to judge James Ussher, say, by the standards of our time instead of his; arguably, his attempt to figure out the age of the world was as rational and competent as could be expected for his society. Whether or not that's right, I won't presume to say, but I think it is at least a defensible position, one which can be debated in a scholarly, productive way. But to call the opposing position scientism just doesn't make sense! We have words like presentism, and we should use them.

James Sweet said...

Regarding the idea that usage of the word inherently discredits the user: I agree, and have recently come to a similar conclusion about the figurative use of the word "militant". In this case, the intended confusion is backwards -- the user of the word is hoping to get connotations of the technical definition, while secretly employing it in a figurative sense -- but the intention is the same, i.e. to sneak in strong negative (and inaccurate) connotations while insisting that you are innocent of doing so. And in any case, pretty much every time "militant" is put in front of another word in the figurative usage, it's for the purpose of denigrating the Other. (militant feminist, militant homosexual, militant atheist, etc.)

Nick said...

A person may not come right out and say that humanities departments should be abolished, but if their general philosophical orientation implies that such departments ought to be abolished, then they are guilty of scientism, whether they have the intellectual honesty to admit it or not.

The most common of these positions is that empirical inquiry ought to replace philosophical or metaphysical inquiry in an intellectually mature culture. If you don't think that anyone thinks this, then you haven't been paying attention:

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/russell-blackford-on-scientism/

skepticlawyer said...

Russell, sorry for the OT, but I've finally gotten around to discussing your excellent post on the whole Elizabeth Moon brou-ha-ha.

http://skepticlawyer.com.au/2010/11/11/the-higher-criticism/

Thought I'd let you know.

Rixaeton said...

Thank you for the clarification. I get what you mean by the distinction and definition now.

ColinGavaghan said...

@ThatGuyMontag:

'I'm not going to flinch from the idea that I really do believe science can answer any well formed question. I'll admit this leads to a very liberal definition of science'

Or, alternatively, a very restrictive definition of 'well formed question'.

I readily concede that there is a great deal that science can tell us about moral questions. It can provide information about why we hold the moral intuitions that we do, and about how commonly they are shared by other people. It can measure which arguments and techniques are most effective at persuading people to abandon or revise those intuitions. But I've never seen a compelling rebuttal of the old noncognitivist contention, that you cannot prove to me, scientifically, that I ought to do X.

(Needless to say, I'm using 'ought' in a normative rather than a merely prudential way.)

Btw, whether or not there are many people claiming that all questions are really scientific questions, there are certainly philosophers who claim that their 'truth claims' are just as objectively valid as those derived through scientific enquiry. Moral realists seem to be responding to the (putative) encroachment of science by claiming that they are actually scientists.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Nick:

'A person may not come right out and say that humanities departments should be abolished, but if their general philosophical orientation implies that such departments ought to be abolished, then they are guilty of scientism, whether they have the intellectual honesty to admit it or not.'

But one could hold that position without being 'scientistic' in the sense that I think Russell means. One could say that academic philosophy is redundant because science can answer all the questions it asks. Or one could say that academic philosophy is redundant because the questions it asks are unimportant. I would have thought that only the former is properly regarded as a 'scientistic' position. The latter represents a very narrow, functionalist view of the purpose of education and academia, & it certainly is prominently on show in certain recent policy initiatives, but its a different kind of animal.

Btw, a lot of the discussion at the EIT site seems to involve a non sequitur. Russell asked how sympathetic we should feel to Lady MacBeth, the discussion seems to be about how to engage the audience's sympathy. The latter question is empirically testable, the former, it seems to me, is not. Does it follow that it is an invalid or redundant question?

Lance Bush said...

Sorry for the double post...I don't post frequently, so, could you please delete my first post (and this one!)

That Guy Montag said...

Colin:

Thanks for you reply I think it's a refreshing challenge. You're quite right that it does lead to a debate about what constitutes a good question but I might argue given certain debates that might be a good thing. It's certainly why I'd love to see Dennett or somebody else expand on the "Deepities" question.

In a way though this leads to how I would expand Russel's comment about how it would be better to challenge an untenable expansion of the practice of science on its merits rather than leaping for some convenient label such as scientism. As Blake Stacy points out with his presentism example a lot of the tools needed for engaging in that kind of discussion already exist in the particular disciplines, so it's not actually introducing anything new into the normal scientific practice.

As for more metaphysical arguments it's not entirely unreasonable I think to say that I'm not going to take the idea that a particular discipline is immune to inquiry seriously until after I've ruled out the idea that I'm simply conceptually confused. For instance we have incredibly strong evidence for the mind being the brain but that doesn't stop certain arguments having a completely unreasonable traction.

Richard Wein said...

"I don't see how science, narrowly defined, can tell you how sympathetic you should be to Macbeth..."

It seems to me that this is largely a matter of value, not a matter of fact, so is not a question that has a factual answer at all. However, some people--notably Sam Harris--deny the fact-value distinction and argue that science _can_ answer value questions. So I suspect Harris would say that science can answer this question in principle, though it may lack sufficient data (e.g. about human nature) to answer it in practice. (Then again, there's also the complication that the story of Macbeth is largely a fictional one.)

Now, I note that you qualify your sentence with "narrowly defined", but part of the issue here is that Harris takes "science" in a broader sense than you. He seems to use it to refer to _all_ empirical enquiry. So I think there are prominent people who _would_ claim that questions like this fall within the realm of "science".

After writing the above, I noticed that Jerry Coyne tentatively suggests that the question is a scientific one:
http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/russell-blackford-on-scientism/

The fact that people are taking "science" in both broad and narrow senses raises a tricky question about the meaning of "scientism". Are those accused of "scientism" being accused of defining "science" too broadly, or of claiming too wide a reach for science, correctly defined? Are they being accused of making a semantic error or a substantive one? I doubt that those making the accusation have thought about it that carefully. Their point is just that the word "science" is being used when it shouldn't be. To some extent I would agree with that, but I think the word "scientism" is unhelpful until it's more carefully defined. At present its function is more polemical than descriptive.

Anonymous said...

Experiment and observation are equally important to the process of empirical inquiry. I think Russell may be thinking of experiment-only science when he says "science narrowly defined."

Well fine, if you want to hamstring science in that way, then of course science can't answer everything. However, that's just a silly definition of science, and the term discredits its user.

Ophelia Benson said...

Here's a funny thing - I was once warned off "scientism" by a very distinguished philosopher, one that I admire a lot. I was suspicious of the word then as now, but I didn't say so.

It was a live chat thing at the Guardian, and the philosopher was Bernard Williams. It was I think early 2003.

Ophelia Benson said...

Yikes, I actually found it - it was even earlier than that, it was November 2002. But I take it back, he didn't use the word. He said (in reply to my question) "I also agree that ideological agendas can lead to ill-founded attacks on science. However, scientific writers won't avoid these attacks if they themselves get their ideology and their science mixed up - there is a good deal of this in Pinker's "the Blank Slate"."

I read the word in, which was stupid of me. Posthumous apologies.

(It's here in case anyone's curious:)

http://educationtalk.guardian.co.uk/WebX?14@598.YuBelwKU02N@.3ba77186/21

Kel said...

As far as I can tell, scientism is what you get for saying gravity is real despite reports of levitation, or saying evolution is true despite creation myths to the contrary. In other words, scientism is the scare word to describe those who think scientifically by people who hate that science has killed their sacred cow.

Shatterface said...

''A person may not come right out and say that humanities departments should be abolished, but if their general philosophical orientation implies that such departments ought to be abolished, then they are guilty of scientism, whether they have the intellectual honesty to admit it or not.'

I studied the humanities - sociology and psychology - and most of the attacks on these subjects came not from scientists but from politically motivated institutions which didn't like awkward questions.

In fact some of my fields of study - cognitive psychology, for instance - were also attacked for 'scientism' despite falling within the humanities.

verbosestoic said...

Richard Wein,

"Are those accused of "scientism" being accused of defining "science" too broadly, or of claiming too wide a reach for science, correctly defined? Are they being accused of making a semantic error or a substantive one? I doubt that those making the accusation have thought about it that carefully."

While I don't use the term "scientism" -- or too many isms, really -- I think that both are valid criticisms that could be attached to different forms of the single term "scientism". I'd define scientism as a philosophical stance that unreasonably privileges science as a way of knowing (even though I don't like that term either). Sometimes, that's because science gets defined so broadly that anything that anyone does is science, including every day reasoning and when I debug computer programs. So that's one form. On the other hand, sometimes it's because the reach of science is overextended, and it claims to be able to solve questions that it can't really answer. So that's another form. And there may be others.

That there are different forms of scientism wouldn't make the term ill-defined, in my opinion. There are different forms of dualism -- at least substance and property -- but that doesn't mean that there's no properly defined category that dualists of all stripes fit into.

Richard Wein said...

verbosestoic wrote:

--That there are different forms of scientism wouldn't make the term ill-defined, in my opinion. There are different forms of dualism -- at least substance and property -- but that doesn't mean that there's no properly defined category that dualists of all stripes fit into.--

But then "substance dualism", "property dualism" and "all dualism" are three different senses of the word "dualism". If people persistently failed to make clear which of these senses they meant, I don't think it would be unreasonable to say that the word was "ill-defined", though it would be clearer to call it "equivocally used".

In the case of "scientism" I prefer "ill-defined" because the alternative possible senses are not generally recognised. So it's not so much a failure to distinguish between recognised senses as a failure to notice that there are multiple possible senses.