Revisiting the issue of scientism


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:

  1. The habit and mode of expression of a man of science.

  2. 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.

  1. Methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist

  2. 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.

Comments

  1. says

    In defence of the OED, that definition could well not be anachronistic so much as old. They are gradually working their way through it (I think alphabetically) revising it.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Well from what I’ve seen, if person A has a belief that makes him feel good, and person B uses facts to demonstrate that A’s belief is probably not true, then person B is being scientistic (and strident and a mean old poopyhead).

  3. mnb0 says

    “there is no set method”
    True, but all branches of science – and that includes the social sciences and some of the humanities – in some way or another combine deduction and induction. There is only one exception: math. But that’s a special case anyway.

    “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.”
    As soon as you realize that knowledge should be defined in such a way that the scientific method, defined as combining deduction and induction, applies to all its fields indeed it becomes clear that the negative connations are delusional. So I have embraced scientism indeed.
    The nice spin-off is that to proclaim this proudly quite often pisses off theists and other dualists. That’s understandable for two reasons. First of all they see scientism as a debate stopper. In the second place the question how to gain reliable, testable knowledge by other methods than the scientific one (ie by combining deduction and induction) is hard if not impossible to answer. One only should be aware that the scientific method is fallible as well; it’s just the best if not the only method.

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