About scientism

February 2015

We scientific rationalists are often accused of something called "scientism," but it isn't always clear exactly what we're supposed to be doing wrong. Susan Haack, a philosopher who has done yeoman work in defense of science, has published an article, "Six Signs of Scientism," that attempts to make it clear. It's available on a few websites, including that of the University of Texas at Arlington (link). I don't think she entirely succeeds.

She acknowledges that the word has become, more often than not, simply a way of denigrating science out of hand. To many minds, if you raise a scientific objection to any proposition, then you're guilty of scientism, and to these minds, whatever scientism is, it is by definition A Bad Thing. But she thinks the scientism objection can be justified in some cases if it is properly defined. She suggests six indicators of a properly objectionable scientism. I think that in each case, the objection is not really sustainable.

Let's take them in order.

1. Using the words “science,” “scientific,” “scientifically,” “scientist,” etc., honorifically, as generic terms of epistemic praise.

I can at least agree that no idea is scientific just because someone says it is. But what if its scientific credentials are not in dispute? Is it therefore a good idea? It now depends on those credentials. They're like academic credentials: Some are better than others. I can stipulate that Intelligent Design has some scientific credentials, but they're not good enough to compel the assent of anyone not already committed to some version of creationism.

That noted, I can agree that these words do not automatically confer epistmic respectibility on any proposition. To suggest otherwise is to endorse a blanket argument from authority. An appeal to scientific authority is no more valid per se than one to any other authority. If scientism is the commission of this fallacy, then scientism is wrong, but the problem has nothing to do with science itself.

 2. Adopting the manners, the trappings, the technical terminology, etc., of the sciences, irrespective of their real usefulness.

I would just call this the misuse of science. Scientific rationalists get it that science has to used properly if it is to have any epistemological merit. Whenever "that is scientism" is no more than a shorthand for "you are misusing the scientific method," I won't object to the accusation, but I will expect it to be supported. If the accusation is supported, though, the problem is not with science but with its misuse, and that is where the discussion should be focused. People who object to bad scientific arguments need to know how to make good scientific arguments.

3. A preoccupation with demarcation, i.e., with drawing a sharp line between genuine science, the real thing, and “pseudo-scientific” imposters.

According to Haack:

Once “scientific” has become an honorific term, and when scientific trappings only too often disguise a lack of real rigor, it is almost inevitable that the “problem of demarcation,” i.e., of drawing the line between genuine science and pretenders, and with identifying and rooting out “pseudo-science,” will loom much larger than it should. (p. 10) [All citations are to the UTA reprint linked above.]

OK. How large should it loom? Is there, or is there not, a difference between scientific methods and other methods of answering questions? And if there is, does it or does it not have any epistemological implications? And if it does, then should we or should we not be trying to figure out what the difference is?

In a very quick tour of the history of the philosophy of science, Haack documents the difficulties encountered by a few people, particularly including Popper, who have attempted to answer these questions. Obviously, nobody has proposed an answer that everyone accepts. Not even all scientists agree to any answer. 

But the difficulty of identifying a difference does not mean there is none, and even less does it mean that the difference is epistemologically irrelevant. Science is an ideal type, to borrow Max Weber's phrase. An ideal type can be taxonomically useful even if nothing fits it perfectly, just as long as some things obviously belong to it and some other things obviously don't. Borderline or ambiguous cases do not prove otherwise. The existence of twilight does not prove either the nonexistence of night and day or the futility of trying to distinguish between them.

"Scientific inquiry," Haack says, "is recognizably continuous with more commonplace and less systematic kinds of empirical inquiry – inquiry into the causes of spoiled crops, the design of fishing boats, the medicinal properties of herbs, etc." (p. 14). But insofar as those other methods are successful other than by pure chance, they just are science. Nobody needs a PhD or a lab coat to do science, and there is nothing unscientific about trial and error as such. Science as we normally encounter it in the modern world is, as Haack notes, "more systematic, more refined, and more persistent" than commonplace empirical research, but to say "That's not science, but it works anyway" is to disregard what it is that makes science work. Haack points to the "many drugs" that were once folk remedies. Why were they ever used as folk remedies, though? If they were used because they actually worked, how was that not scientific?

The Popperian standard of falsification, according to Haack, is about a theory's being "genuinely explanatory," and willingness to confront contrary evidence is simply a matter of being an "honest inquirer." Neither of these qualities, she suggests, is unique to science or the scientist. Well, nobody says they are, but neither has anyone explained to me why someone who is honestly inquiring after a genuine explanation for something should be uncomfortable with using the tools of science to achieve their purpose.

If we suppress the "demarcationist impulse," she says, we can avoid "simply sneering at 'pseudo-science,' to specify what, exactly, is wrong with the work we are criticizing" (p. 15). OK, sure, our complaints ought to be more specific than "You're doing it wrong." Haack's own complaint, to be more specific, is that what we call pseudoscience might often just be bad science. That can be a point well taken if the perpetrators are claiming to be doing science, but a person who commits manslaughter is not innocent just because someone accuses him of murder. Bad science should be not treated as if it were more credible than nonscience. They both need to be replaced with good science.

4. The quest for “scientific method”

This is related to the previous, and much of my previous response is applicable. Here, though, Haack actually answers her own objection:

Any serious empirical inquirer, whatever his subject-matter, will make an informed guess at the possible explanation of the event or phenomenon that puzzles him, figure out the consequences of that guess, see how well those consequences stand up to the evidence he has and any further evidence he can lay his hands on, and then use his judgment whether to stick with the initial guess, modify it, drop it and start again, or just wait until he can figure out what further evidence might clarify the situation, and how to get it. (p. 17)

Unless I'm completely misunderstanding her, Haack thinks it possible for someone to do all these things and yet not be doing science. At this point, we may have gotten into a purely semantic dispute, but when I criticize some idea as unscientific, I mean that its originators or proponents have failed to do one or more of the above. If it's supposed to be science, then it's bad science. If it is admittedly nonscience, then I rest my case.

5. Looking to the sciences for answers to questions beyond their scope

This, in my experience, is the usual gist of the accusation of "scientism." But, just what is supposed to put a question beyond the scope of science? One common response is the inapplicability of experimentation, as for example in historical research. Thus we sometimes hear that there can be no such thing as a science of history. But if science is just an ideal type, then we can do science without doing experiments if experiments are impossible to do. Historiography thus becomes theorizing about the past. We seek to explain whatever evidence is at hand, documentary, artifactual, or whatever, as parsimoniously as we can, and we allow for the possibility that new evidence, if discovered, could falsify any such explanation. If it happens to be the case that many historians don't actually work this way, then we can say that their history is unscientific. Just because a certain intellectual pursuit has so far not used scientific methods is no excuse for its continued avoidance of scientific rigor. As long as it is, or is supposed to be, asking questions for which answers ought to be supported by evidence, then it can and ought to be done scientifically.

I would be hard put to justify a scientific approach to matters of pure esthetics. I like certain kinds of music and not others, and I can think of no way to justify my preferences by appealing to any facts about music. There are such facts in abundance, and some of them certainly correlate with my preferences, but they don't justify my preferences. Justified or not, I just like what I like, and everyone else just likes what they like, and there is hardly any more to say about it. There can be reasoned discussions about what we ought to like, about the actual nature of beauty, but those discussions are philosophy, not science. At least not for now. I would not rule the possibility of our discovering a scientific explanation of beauty, but for the time being I'm OK with conceding that science cannot tell us why rainbows are beautiful.

So, a question might be beyond the scope of science if it is solely a question about what we value. Most of us accept the fact-value distinction, and we get it that science doesn't have a lot to say about our values. But it certainly can tell us about the consequences of acting on our values, and it therefore can give us reason to reassess our values, which is something we ought to be willing to do when there is a good enough reason.

I cannot here address all possible variations on the scope-of-science objection, but I think the cases to which it legitimately applies are uninteresting. Nobody to my knowledge is looking for, or claims to have found, a scientific proof that Les Miserables is one of the best musicals ever written, if not the very best. Some of us think it is and some don't, and there just is no other fact of the matter to argue about. At least not for now. There are some value issues, though, that are also matters of public policy and whose partisans claim to have factual support. The minute they do that, they forfeit any right to call foul when their adversaries bring science into the debate. They certainly can argue, "That's bad science," but they cannot argue, "This issue is beyond the scope of science."

6. Denying or denigrating the legitimacy or the worth of other kinds of inquiry besides the scientific, or the value of human activities other than inquiry, such as poetry or art.

All right. I was briefly a literature major the first time I was in college, and I did not change my major because I failed to appreciate what I was learning. I fully realize how much the fine arts have contributed to the quality of human life. If anyone says that poetry is worthless because it isn't scientific, then they're a damned fool. And if the charge of scientism is directed against that sort of attitude, then I am as opposed to scientism as anybody else. But I have never seen it so directed, because I have never seen that attitude expressed. I'm sure some people have it, but I don't know any of those people, either in my personal life or in cyberspace. An accusation of scientism with this intended meaning is almost certainly going to be a straw man.

On the other hand . . . great art, regardless of how it is so judged, is not to be presumed indicative of great wisdom. It may be in many cases, but this cannot be presumed. Any apparent insight an artist may have about human nature, for example, needs to be checked against whatever factual evidence we have about human nature. The artist's contribution lies in the effectiveness of his or her communication skills. Les Miserables conveys some important truths about the human condition (along with a falsehood or two), but what makes it great art is how powerfully it conveys those truths. That kind of communication skill is wasted at best, and misused at worst, when the artist communicates misinformation. Some Medieval cathedrals contain some of the greatest art that humanity has ever produced, but its messages are pure superstition.

It seems to me, then, that the accusation of scientism is practically always misdirected when it isn't simply a smokescreen. For any question we seek to answer, empirical facts are either relevant or not. If they are relevant, then scientific inquiry is appropriate. Of course it must be properly conducted, but there is no important dispute about how to properly conduct a scientific inquiry. Whereever empirical facts are not relevant, there science should butt out, but in those cases nobody is trying to drag it in anyhow.


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This page last updated February 2, 2015.