a response to Sean Carroll concerning scientism (1)

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, recently posted a piece entitled “Let’s Stop Using the Word ‘Scientism.'” His basic argument – which is the same as Jerry Coyne’s and others – is that the word is vague. Like Coyne, he wants us to cease using it, entirely replacing it with criticisms of specific scientific claims or practices, as they come up. Let’s take a closer look at this.

If we are not permitted to use a word like “scientism,” then we are not permitted to voice the idea that the word “science” is capable of ever masking any significant degree of self-deception. We are instead required to view it as possessing some sort of transcendental status that somehow bypasses human mediation. In other words, “Science” must be viewed as simply “The Truth,” a universal epistemological trump card, and basically incorruptible.

(I capitalize the word here, and in certain other instances, when I specifically wish to emphasize the notion of science as an entire “way of seeing,” distinct from either doctrinally religious views on the one hand, or those more broadly humanistic, on the other.)

Since that is so, this argument goes, the notions of dogmatism, extremism, ideology, and religious “fundamentalism” have no parallel in Science as a whole. The paradigms and practices of science require no overarching philosophical View – which would, of course, need to be supplied by humans, and would therefore be fallible. Nor is science capable of radically straying into any kind of cul-de-sac of error. Therefore, it’s unnecessary and even obfuscating to have a word for this danger. The danger doesn’t exist.

That is the argument. In support of it, Sean provides nine examples of how the word “scientism” is used in one instance or another, claiming that these taken together represent a vagueness or lack of specificity. They are worth reproducing:

1) Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
2) Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
3) Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
4) Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude.
5) The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
6) All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
7) Eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
8) Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
9) There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

Now, is Sean implying that all definitions must be reducible to a single thought, a single sentence? If not, I do not understand his point. Six of these nine statements (points 2-7) all go together, forming, indeed, a philosophical perspective that can most certainly be disputed.

First, let me isolate the three that do not seem fairly placed. I would question Sean’s ability to find more than a few scientists, if any, who would assert that “science is the source of all interesting … facts about the world” (point 1). Maybe such people exist somewhere, but they would be rare. His second adjective “reliable” is maybe a little more in line with the other points, but “interesting” is too vague, I think.

Point 9 contains words difficult to define for these purposes (“natural” and “supernatural”). It is presumably in the list because a segment of people who attack science do so from the perspective of religion, often religious fundamentalism. However, it’s not actually relevant here: notions of what is “natural” or not do obfuscate the question. There are more than enough of us deeply concerned about scientism who don’t make use of a concept of the “natural” in doing so.

And finally point 8 is rarely heard: few people will actually assent to being a reductionist. Certainly reductionism manifests as part of the larger syndrome being referred to by scientism, but the mantle of reductionism is not commonly claimed by scientists.

This leaves points 2-7, which very much do all cohere. A given individual might slightly downplay one or the other, as indeed Sean states. But in practice these can be discussed together as indicating a basic view of reality and valuation of human endeavor (and they can all be easily found in for example Jerry Coyne’s writings). Here’s one way of doing it, with only a few additions for linking purposes (the original points are in bold):

All forms of rational thinking are essentially science. Since rational thinking is our only means for getting at the truth of phenomena, the progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world. For the same reason, the humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude, while philosophy and morality and aesthetics – again following on from the equation of rational thinking and science – should be subsumed under the rubric of science. Being founded and practiced upon rational bases, science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective. And when the humanities and arts (along with “philosophy and morality and aesthetics”), as above, are placed upon firm scientific ground, eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.”

Even though I took more-or-less the entire core of the previous paragraph verbatim from Sean’s own points 2-7 rather than formulating it in my own words, it forms a definition of scientism that isn’t half bad, I would say. In a second post I will try to show the blindspot in this view, and some of the ways in which it is very dangerous.

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