The term scientism
is a relatively newly coined word
that refers to certain epistemologies
based on science. It is important to note that different people use this word in a variety of ways:
- Scientism is sometimes used to mean the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the physical, natural world. This definition is functionally equivalent to scientific naturalism.
- Scientism is more often used to mean the acceptance of scientific theory and scientific methods as applicable in all fields of inquiry about the world, including morality/ethics/art/religion/etc. Many people (and perhaps most scientists) argue that this definition, and the critiques that follow from it, are wrong-headed because (a) Science limits itself to inquiry about the physical, natural world; (b) Most of those who take such a position do so implicitly, without much reflection. As such it is difficult to criticise many of those who such a view since they have not carefully considered it.
Nevertheless, there are a non-trivial number of those who regard 'science' as the ultimate recourse in questions of public policy and even religion. Comments such as 'Science demonstrates that it is useless (or useful) to use seatbelts in cars' or 'Science has shown that religion is wrong' or 'Science shows that capitalism (or communism or socialism -- pick your 'ism) is correct' are hardly unknown. In the case of such views as Marxism
(and most types of totalitarian rationales) such views are also called historicism
, relying on a 'scientific' analysis of inevitable historical patterns.
- Scientism is sometimes used to refer to humanism and enlightenment values informed by science. In this use of the word, scientism is "a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science." (Source: Michael Shermer, The Shamans of Scientism, Scientific American, 2002)
The critiques of one or another variety of scientism are many and varied. Most seem to focus on the confusion of conceptual metaphors
arising in the process of learning science and negotiating acceptance of scientific 'truth' in the larger culture. In Western education
, for instance, students are encouraged to make systematic neutrally-based thinking central, as not taking sides in regard to cultural / ethical / religious traditions and conflicts between them. A common result is that other viewpoints tend to be ranked in comparison to the sciences, particularly the most experimentally based sciences such as physics or chemistry; they are taken to be the model of neutral systematic reasoning. Mathematics
thus tend to be valued more highly as sources of insights into reality, than, say, music
. But many societies see those as sources of truth too, and have been skeptical
of claims based on mathematics or the sciences; particularly since this mode of thought has been understood to be characteristic of the West and therefore to have something in common with such things as imperialism, colonialism, What is necessarily in common is rarely specified.
Recent philosophic manifestos by literary deconstructionists, radical feminists, and opponents of science generally (eg, religious, cultural, political, ...)have concentrated on what is claimed to be an unhealthy link between science and the humanities. The majority of these writers using the term scientism use it in a pejorative fashion, stressing the alleged unhealthy linkages or a claimed suppression by 'science' of other viewpoints. These writers typically view science as little more than a socially constructed ideology, neither having nor deserving any privileged position in comparison to others. In this view, scientists "bully" non-scientists with "oppressive" words such as logic, experiments, objectivity, etc.
Many people (and certainly many scientists) believe this to be basically 'science envy', essentially anti-scientific, and having little to do with science itself and much more to do with cultural fears, political difficulties, and unfortunate social histories. Michael Shermer writes:
- One manifestation of science-envy is the mathematical (or logical) pseudo-rigor with which much recent philosophical writing is afflicted. This, to speak bluntly, is a kind of affected obscurity. Not that recourse to the languages of mathematics or logic never helps to make a philosophical argument or thesis clearer; of course, it does. But it can also stand in the way of real clarity by disguising failure to think deeply or critically enough about the concepts being manipulated with [an] impressive logical sophistication. And it has come to be, too often, what Charles Sykes calls "Profspeak" -- using unnecessary symbols to convey a false impression of depth and rigor. Science-envy is manifested also by those who -- hoping to enhance their prestige by close association with the sciences -- contort themselves in attempts to show that this or that philosophical problem can be quickly settled by some scientific result, or to displace philosophical problems in favor of scientific ones. The result is at best a covert change of subject, at worst a self-undermining absurdity. No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory's yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on; yet, unless these were not only legitimate questions, but legitimate questions with less-than-skeptical answers, it is incomprehensible how one could be justified, as the most ambitious style of scientism proposes, in doing science instead of philosophy. (Source: Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism, Susan Haack, Skeptical Inquier Magazine, 1997.)
- Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism, Susan Haack, Skeptical Inquier Magazine, 1997.)
- Sandra Harding, "Who Knows? Identities and Feminist Epistemology," in Joan E. Hartman and Ellen Messer-Davidow, eds., (En)gendering Knowledge, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1991, p. 109