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December 10, 2012

The Folly of Scientism

Austin Hughes:

The temptation to overreach, however, seems increasingly indulged today in discussions about science. Both in the work of professional philosophers and in popular writings by natural scientists, it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves. All too many of my contemporaries in science have accepted without question the hype that suggests that an advanced degree in some area of natural science confers the ability to pontificate wisely on any and all subjects.

Of course, from the very beginning of the modern scientific enterprise, there have been scientists and philosophers who have been so impressed with the ability of the natural sciences to advance knowledge that they have asserted that these sciences are the only valid way of seeking knowledge in any field. A forthright expression of this viewpoint has been made by the chemist Peter Atkins, who in his 1995 essay "Science as Truth" asserts the "universal competence" of science. This position has been called scientism -- a term that was originally intended to be pejorative but has been claimed as a badge of honor by some of its most vocal proponents. In their 2007 book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, for example, philosophers James Ladyman, Don Ross, and David Spurrett go so far as to entitle a chapter "In Defense of Scientism."

Modern science is often described as having emerged from philosophy; many of the early modern scientists were engaged in what they called "natural philosophy." Later, philosophy came to be seen as an activity distinct from but integral to natural science, with each addressing separate but complementary questions -- supporting, correcting, and supplying knowledge to one another. But the status of philosophy has fallen quite a bit in recent times. Central to scientism is the grabbing of nearly the entire territory of what were once considered questions that properly belong to philosophy. Scientism takes science to be not only better than philosophy at answering such questions, but the only means of answering them. For most of those who dabble in scientism, this shift is unacknowledged, and may not even be recognized. But for others, it is explicit. Atkins, for example, is scathing in his dismissal of the entire field: "I consider it to be a defensible proposition that no philosopher has helped to elucidate nature; philosophy is but the refinement of hindrance."

Posted by Jim Zellmer at December 10, 2012 2:25 AM
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This essay is another the never ending supply of opinion pieces by those wanting to label science as just another belief system, and to allow religion and opinion to replace the truths that science has come explain. That, of course, why these people invented the word "scientism".

I think it quite simple. The process of science, natural science, does constitute the entire domain of truth. Mathematics has different kinds of truths. They overlap when the math models the natural world. Everything else is opinion. When opinion runs contrary to science, the opnion is wrong. That is all there is to it.

The problem science has is with non scientists who extend the science past the scientific evidence, and those who mistake, purposely often, scientific hypotheses for scientifically discovered truths.

Though, there are enough examples of the scientists falling into the same trap to be concerned. An example of this I just read concerned the understanding of the role of the sympathetic nervous system. Seems the scientists (male) had missed the differences between different genders, and simply assumed that males and females responded the same to stress, using the male response as the truth. And in the West, where the dominant majority are aligned most closely with White Europeans, we consider lactose intolerance as a disease instead of the normal state of adult mammals.

Unfortunately, there are those in certain areas that claim the credentials of science who seem to routinely claim scientific truths though they have little or no evidence to support it. Education is certainly one, as seems to be evolutionary psychology, economics, and similar areas, which all could be greatly improved by the rigor of the natural sciences.

And much of psychology is really only the study of college undergrads. The most recent abomination asked whether men and women could really be friends without the sexual component. Now, I ask, what is the likelihood of getting THE answer if your sample population was 18 to 25 year olds (which it was)?

Hughes asks the question: "Is scientism defensible? Is it really true that natural science provides a satisfying and reasonably complete account of everything we see, experience, and seek to understand — of every phenomenon in the universe?" The answer is a simple no, because he conflates natural science with scientism, his made up word. And, again no, because natural science doesn't make any such claim.

Posted by: Larry winker at December 10, 2012 12:13 PM
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