In my earlier posts on scientism (see here and here), I said that I never used the word myself since I was not quite sure what it meant and tended to agree with Sean Carroll that the word was being tossed around with too many different meanings that made it not helpful in discourse. One commenter said that the word had a long and illustrious history and that the Oxford English Dictionary had a clear definition. So I went and looked it up.
The OED gives two definitions:
- The habit and mode of expression of a man of science.
- A term applied (freq. in a derogatory manner) to a belief in the omnipotence of scientific knowledge and techniques; also to the view that the methods of study appropriate to physical science can replace those used in other fields such as philosophy and, esp., human behaviour an the social sciences.
For good measure, I looked up the word in Merriam-Webster and it too had two definitions that paralleled the OED ones.
- Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist
- An exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)
The first definition in both cases (leaving aside for the moment that the OED phrase ‘man of science’ sounds weirdly anachronistic) allude to the things that scientists say and do as part of their work and seem uncontroversial since they do not actually describe the practices, while the second definitions from both sources are clearly worded in a way that have negative connotations, suggesting that scientism refers to science exceeding its proper boundaries, by asserting that its methods are and should be applicable in all fields of knowledge.
The catch is that it is not at all clear that we know what the ‘methods of science’ are. In fact, there is no set method, despite what students are told in the middle school grades. Science in undoubtedly empirically-based and seeks to be explanatory and predictive but those knowledge acquisition features are not unique to those fields of study that are commonly acknowledged to constitute the body of science.
The lack of a clear understanding of what we mean by the methods of science and how they can be distinguished from the methods of knowledge acquisition used in other fields may be the reason why debates over scientism don’t seem to get anywhere and why I will continue to avoid using that term and stay out of the debates as to whether it is good or bad.