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The scientism debate

The word ‘scientism’ frequently crops up in discussions of atheism and religion. It is often used pejoratively as an epithet against new atheists, to suggest that they are somehow extremists who think that anything that is not science-based is somehow worthless.

I have never used the word myself. If you search through this blog’s archives over the more than eight years it has been in existence, you will find that although I have written an estimated 3 million words, the word scientism occurs only once, not used by me but as the title of a book review by Marilynne Robinson where, unsurprisingly, she uses it pejoratively against Richard Dawkins about his book The God Delusion. She even goes further and calls it ‘hysterical scientism’.

Recently Stephen Pinker has stepped into the debate, arguing that although the use of the word is not consistent and is often used as an epithet, it deserves to be defended because there is a positive meaning that can be salvaged.

I will have more to say about Pinker’s long essay in another post but for the moment I just want to say that I have stayed out of these debates because I have never quite understood how the word was being used. It seemed to me to be a slippery word that defied clear understanding. A recent post by Sean Carroll suggests that he shares my sense that the word lacks clarity because it is being used with at least nine different meanings.

  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 approach.
  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 all 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.

There are things in that list that I agree with (e.g., #3, #9) and some that I don’t (e.g., #2, #4, #5, #6) mainly because they are too sweeping, and others that are more ambiguous, all with the caveat that what one means by ‘science’, another notoriously slippery word, can complicate things. Also, adding some qualifiers (such as ‘some’) and removing others (such as ‘all’) could shift my position. When words have multiple meanings, debates over them tend to have speakers talking through each other, using whichever meaning is convenient for their purposes.

Carroll suggests that this lack of agreement on what the word scientism means signals that the word has little value and may need to be retired. Of course, that cannot be achieved by decree because language is strongly resistant to prescriptive demands and evolves organically. The best we can do is avoid using those that we think have little utility.

It seems likely that I will continue to stay out of the scientism debates until the word settles on a fairly coherent meaning.


  1. Chiroptera says

    It is often used pejoratively as an epithet against new atheists, to suggest that they are somehow extremists who think that anything that is not science-based is somehow worthless….

    It seemed to me to be a slippery word that defied clear understanding.

    These two things go together.

    It’s not just made-up words like “scientism,” even a legitimate word like “liberal” loses coherent meaning in right wing diatribes. Basically, like “liberal,” the word “scientism” means “something I don’t like.”

  2. says

    anything that is not science-based is somehow worthless.

    It’s actually empiricism, and by calling it “scientism” they’re demonstrating their ignorance.

    Are we to suppose that those who speak out against scientism are completely comfortable living in a world in which apparently random things happen all the time in accordance with god’s incomprehensible will? Because if you believe that when things are dropped they fall down, you’re an empiricist: you expect things to fall down because that’s what you’ve observed things to do, over and over, your whole life. If you’re not an empiricist, do you attach a life-line to you waist and a solid/heavy attachment point when you go out to your car out of fear that suddenly the divine will changed and you’ll fall up? “Scientism” or empiricism is nothing more than living in the world as it appears to be*. The religious add a thin veneer of belief in miracles – miracles the potential of which they oddly utterly ignore all the time as they go about their day to day lives. Here’s the weird part: you cannot possibly believe in meaningful free will in a non-empirical world, since your ability to predict the consequences of anything is nil.

    (* those words chosen carefully in case there are any phyrronian skeptics reading this thread)

  3. MNb says

    “a slippery word”
    Sure scientism is. But we can turn that to our advantage. I define scientism as the thought that scientific method may not be able to answer all questions, but provides the best answers. So I declare myself a proud scientismist.

  4. Jeffrey Johnson says

    The only thing that has seemed consistent to me about the use of the word scientism, except for Pinker’s attempt to reclaim the word as something positive for science, is that it is used pejoratively against science, scientists, and particular atheists using scientific based argumentation against God and religion.

    People who use it are generally defending religion, and sometimes more generally the humanities. I agree the world lacks clear definition, and it seems people who use it don’t often have any clear idea of what it means, except that it seems to be designed to constrain the reach of implications of science and scientific methods. It contains that nasty suffix “ism”, which implies mindless ideological commitment rather than rational pursuit of truth.

    I think Pinker’s article was great in its overall description of where science fits into the world of human knowledge, but trying to reclaim and rehabilitate the word scientism just seems misguided to me. Every article I’ve read criticizing Pinker’s New Republic piece seems to be written by people desperately trying to defend some turf, and who either haven’t carefully read what Pinker wrote, or they just didn’t understand it. People are always interpreting things to mean what they expect them to mean a priori, and it seems Pinker’s article is just a kind of Rorschach Test for those who fear science and atheism.

  5. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I’m very familiar with reappropriation. We atheists do it when we call ourselves godless, which was once a pretty nasty slur.

    I still think in this case that trying to do the same with “scientism” might not be so effective. To begin with the meaning of the word isn’t so well established, and its usage not so universally known as with, for example, “nigga” or “queer”.

    But even more the “ism” suffix is so often associated with doctrine, belief, and ideology, that it doesn’t seem the kind of thing science should want to claim. Science ought to be the opposite of an ideology, an anti-ideology if you will.

    If we were going to appropriate the word I’d rather see it used as “racism” and “feminism” are, as a term critical of anti-science bigotry. I’d rather see people accused of the bigotry of “scientism” whenever they imply that scientists are incapable of understanding what is really important and valuable in life, the big human ideas and feelings, because they are supposedly lost in the sterile quantitative reductive world of laboratory measurement and mathematical analysis, so that they miss the big picture that most “normal” people get. Then the word would truly boomerang back at them for the ugly exclusionary snobbery they indulge in when using that word today.

  6. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Damn, I meant to say “used as racism and sexism are”, not “feminism”. I consider feminism to be a positive thing, though I know some do not, unfortunately.

  7. Paul Jarc says

    I’d rather see people accused of the bigotry of “scientism” whenever they imply that scientists are incapable of understanding what is really important and valuable in life

    That might be a useful meaning to have a word for, but I wouldn’t recommend using “scientism” for it. It has nothing in common with the current usage of the word–except that it still refers to something the speaker doesn’t like.

  8. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Perhaps so, the word is best abandoned entirely. My main point was I think it is misguided to reappropriate the word.

    But more is at stake than just not liking what people say. To quote from Pinker’s article, to me what matters is this point: “Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

    This point is what usually gives rise to accusations of scientism. And no wonder. An entire foundation of thought and belief is challenged as not a valid source of knowledge, but rather that they are expressions of relative, contingent, context dependent meanings based on subjective human values and aesthetics. This isn’t to say that they aren’t important to humans, which is a point that seems to get lost when defenders of the human spirit feel threatened by scientific success. But the status accorded to the pretense of truth and knowledge by such subjective systems of belief are undeserved, when in fact they are nothing more than statements within a closed system of cultural meaning, entirely determined by and confined to cultural values constructed by humans.

    Of course humans decide what humans like best, and science doesn’t challenge that. Science just challenges religious claims that such human values can obtain special authoritative status via access to deep truths about natural existence that are unavailable to scientific methods yet open to uniquely religious methods of inquiry. The only facts not available in principle to science are ones that require human subjectivity to feel, perceive, and experience directly, and these simply do not have the status of deep absolute truth that religion claims for itself.

  9. says

    I am dubious of this exercise of compiling a list of uses of a term and then using that list to infer the term is vacuous. You can do that with any term –”evolution” and “history” for example. Best to pick the strongest, most reasonable definition and argue against that. Besides, except for 2 and 4, the list is not of meanings of scientism but of arguments for scientism.

    But I do agree “scientism” is an ambiguous term, or at least a term with two levels of meaning.

    1) At the philosophical/ideological level scientism is the claim that science is applicable to all knowledge domains. Depending on how generally one defines “science”, this is a claim that can be anything from wrong to blandly inoffensive.

    2) But at a more practical level, what usually follows from the above claim is the claim that since everything is science (broadly defined), then scientists (narrowly defined) are justified in expounding on domains outside their range of competence; the justification being that they have “degrees in science” and, of course, everything is science. So at this applied level, an accusation of scientism usually turns out to be an accusation that you are justifying incompetent research in one field by appealing to your own authority as a scientist in an unrelated field.

    This ambiguity can be an advantage to some writers (like *koff* Steven Pinker). One can take criticisms of the competence of one’s research and pretend they are simply the ideological objections of pissy humanists to science in general.

  10. Jeffrey Johnson says

    What is an example of a knowledge domain that doesn’t involve empirical observation?

    Where I’ve seen “scientism” crop up most often is in its use by theologians, or accomodationist apologists for religion, trying to defend their claim to a unique source of knowledge that is beyond the reach of science, namely personal revelation.

    In other words, scientism is used to criticize scientific claims that science is the only valid source of knowledge about the natural world, such as questions about the origins of mankind and the origins of the universe.

    Basically, religion’s claims to being a source of knowledge about the origins of humans via revelation are bunk, and the accusations of scientism are a desperate attempt to defend turf they have no valid claim to.

  11. says

    Just to be clear, what Pinker is talking about is the humanities, not religion.

    So you have some context, and because humanities is asuch a broad term, Pinker’s particular pique here is probably, for various reasons, aimed at history and anthropology–empirical fields both.

    That said, if you are defining science simply as “empirical investigation” then that is a definition I would regard as “blandly inoffensive.” But then Pinker’s argument would have no meaning because the humanities are already sciences, and its practitioners already scientists.

  12. Al_de_Baran says

    The word “Scientism” actually has at least a ninety-year pedigree, a quite clear meaning, and multiple examples of usage. See the Oxford English Dictionary for clarification.

    And please, somebody pass the word to Sean Carroll that we don’t “retire” words that have been long in usage just because he dislikes them, or is historically ignorant.

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