What is “scientism”?: a guest post

December 4, 2011 • 12:00 pm

I’ve received some emails from Dr. William Widdowson, a reader of this website and an emeritus professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Cincinnati. (The diversity of my readers always amazes me.)  Anyway, Bill had some things to say about the history of the term “scientism,” a word so often used by the faithful to tar atheists and rationalists. Since I thought his comments would be of interest, I’m reproducing them here with his permission.

This is a follow-up on a previous e-mail (14 Nov) in which I suggested that a good way to get into the topic of “scientism” would be to look at Hayek and Popper.  I have given the matter a bit more thought and would like to offer the following expansion because there was an issue that I felt needed to be highlighted, i.e., how the use of the term has changed as it’s been expropriated.

Scientism (sensu stricto) began as a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome.  This doctrine was rejected by a particular group of philosophers of science belonging to a tradition pioneered by Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th c., carried forward by William James, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead in the early 20th c. and later by Fredrick Hayek, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, and Thomas Kuhn during the mid-20th c.

Key documents in the history of this tradition would be the essays by Peirce published in Popular Science in the 1890’s and “The Quest for Certainty” by John Dewey.  Also important would be essays by, and correspondence between, Hayek and Popper in the 1950’s, for this is when the term was coined (by Hayek) and clarified (by Popper) to their mutual satisfaction.

“Scientism (lite)” has become a label for the doctrine that science is the only way to the truth, a doctrine rejected by theist apologists, accommodationists, and NOMAtics of all stripes because they are committed to the proposition that there are:

1. many other ways of knowing, or

2. many other kinds of truths, or

3. some combination of 1. and 2.

Briefly then, my point is that challenging science’s claim to exclusivity by labeling it Scientism (lite) is very different from using the same label to challenge science’s claim to certainty (Scientism-sensu strictu).  If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.

55 thoughts on “What is “scientism”?: a guest post

    1. Right! In fact, I wish that Dr. Coyne would stop using the term “Darwinism”, as a synonym for evolution. Does an apple fall to Earth because of “Newtonism”?

      1. <>

        There are different types of theories of evolution. You have the Lamarckian view of evolution and the view of evolution proposed by Teilhard de Chardin, and these theories are not “Darwinian.” Just like you have “Newtonian dynamics” as opposed to “Modified Newtonian dynamics” (as an alternative to dark matter in the universe).

  1. Alex Rosenberg has expropriated it right back in “Atheists Guide to Reality.” Rosenberg seems to mean it exactly as intended by theists and accommodationist, but takes the charge, very convincingly, as a compliment.

      1. That’s the tactic taken by the gay/queer community.

        They took a term used to tar them and wore it as a badge of pride (almost literally so during gay prides).

        That’s why I don’t think the ‘bright’ movement will ever work that well as it was not a term that was used to try to demean us.

        If you use a term used to demean a group as a sign of pride for that group you don’t have to convince those bent on demeaning that group to use the term as they already do so naturally.

        But if it makes then not use the term anymore due to its cooption then I don’t see that as a problem either.

        1. The problem is not that it’s a term of derision – many of us here would have no problem calling the people using it “idiots” – but that it’s philosophically pernicious. I’m not entirely sure cooption is an effective strategy against fundamentally bad thinking.

          1. The neither the theists nor Rosenberg include in the charge a notion that certainty is a realistic outcome. But they do include the notion that physics fixes all the facts. How is that bad thinking?

            1. The claim that it is bad thinking is the problem. Because it sounds good and glib.

              I see your point, I’m just not convinced it will work very well, unless actively and specifically ridiculed into the ground. And then again, when it pops up its scaly head. And again. And again.

      1. Ah.

        I did notice that some other examples I came across had sensu stricto, but don’t really knowing anything about latin I just assumed that there was a difference in tense or something.

        So to be clear: Is ‘sensu stricto’ correct, and is it correct in the context used above?

  2. I’m not sure the semantics of ‘scientism’ are so clear. Perhaps the entry for ‘scientism’ from the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy might be helpful:

    Scientism' is a term of abuse. Therefore, perhaps inevitably, there is no one simply characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it. In philosophy, a commitment to one or more of the following lays one open to the charge of scientism

    (a) The sciences are more important than the arts for an understanding of the world in which we live, or, even, all we need to understand it.

    (b) Only a scientific methodology is intellectually respectable. Therefore, if the arts are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it.

    (c) Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.

    A successful accusation of scientism usually relies upon a restrictive conception of the science and an optimistic conception of the arts as hitherto practiced. Nobody espouses scientism.; it is just detected in the writings of others. Among the accused are P.M. and P.S. Churchland, W.V. Quine, and Logical positivism.

    The italics are mine. There is no satisfactory definition of scientism, and is used always as a term of abuse, as the entry says. No one who accuses someone of scientism has a ready explanation of what constitutes scientism. The OD of Phil cites one work by T. Sorrell entitled simply Scientism published in 1991. I think it would be best left at that. The entry was written by Paul Noordhof, then at the University of Nottingham.

    1. Thank you Eric for making the what seems to be the only properly informed comment in this thread. You have actually bothered to go to a real resource and make use of it, unlike the OP who seems to think that there is a “science of morals” or a “science of aesthetics”.

      Apparently however it does several decades of philosophical study to realise that not all statements are reducible to true or false verification. There is such a thing as goodness, there is such a thing as beauty, and such experiences are not commensurable with statements of fact – that is “scientism”.

      Apropos this some might be interested in particular by the work by Jurgen Habermas and Karl-Oto Apel on formal pragmatics for some serious further reading.

      1. Related discussion here, where Lev, some others and I debate scientism, subjective feelings and p-zombies.

        (I think subjective feelings about art, e.g. beauty, are in principle reducible, and I am a great fan of subjective feelings and how they work. Lev doesn’t think they are, if I’ve read him correctly.)

  3. “If the apologists, accommodationists and NOMAtics presume to claim some of the legitimacy of the philosophy of science by borrowing its terminology, they could at least get it right.”

    Keep in mind that part of the “postmodern turn” (Feyerbend and Kuhn) is to deny strict definitions of all words. This has the effect of letting them make pronouncements without having to actually “mean” anything, and make their positions much more difficult to argue against.

  4. So ‘scientism’ was originally invented by arts types who didn’t like being relegated to second place as the power of science became more and more obvious, and then taken up by the religious to demand respect for nonsense. Both of them are doomed to failure, such of the arts as wish to be taken seriously as a quest for truth have taken up the scientific method (history) and the religious are in the last throes of irrelevance.

    The only indefensible claim in that list of ‘sins’ is the claim of certainty which science does not pretend to achieve and no science ever suggested it did, a ‘straw scientist’, otherwise I am am comfortable being a ‘scientist’. Erm, scientismist? Aarrghgh.

      1. Well, atheists do tend to use the terms “theism” and “theists”.

        Art is reducible to cognitive psychology and subucultural sociology, and probably other stuff. The former is just a tad low-level for these purposes and the latter, even when any good, is much more stamp-collecting than physics; but IMAO (as a superannuated rock critic) claiming that it’s somehow not reducible like everything else is simply false.

    1. Uh, no, Popper was a huge fan of science and frequently stated that it’s our best source of reliable knowledge about the world. Heck, even Kuhn admitted that much. Popper just wanted to get science on a firm philosophical foundation (dunno about Kuhn, there’s a lot of reasons to think he was trying to undermine the physical sciences to make the social sciences look better).

      Popper’s falsification theory is VERY popular with scientists and science fans currently — look at all the arguments against theists talking about falsifiability. Falsifiability was an answer to the earlier “hypothetico-deductive” framework which was pretty much the opposite: some genius would give you a theory and from that you logically deduce the consequences then perform experiments to “check your answers” so to speak. This is problematic for reasons Popper and others pointed out. Among them the fact that the really startling theoretical results like relativity and QM do not typically result from reductionist thinking which is the only kind of progress admitted by the “hypothetico-deductive” view.

      Here’s a fairly amusing NYT blog by filmmaker Errol Morris in which he discusses some of the problems with Kuhn’s program. Morris was apparently a student of Kuhn’s and the blog starts with Kuhn throwing an ashtray at his head (some philosophers get surprisingly nasty when backed into a corner).

  5. “Scientism is the belief that science, especially natural science, is much the most valuable part of human learning—much the most valuable part because it is much the most authoritative, or serious, or beneficial. Other beliefs related to this one may also be regarded as scientistic, e.g., the belief that science is the only valuable part of human learning, or the view that it is always good for subjects that do not belong to science to be placed on a scientific footing.”

    (Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. London: Routledge, 1991. p. 1)

    “The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all—that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing—is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it by casting the mantle of its authority over issues it was never meant to address.
    Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that ‘We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.’ [TLP 6.52] This austere perspective pivots on the view that scientific issues are the only ones there are—that where no scientific question is at issue, nothing remains to be said, and that factual information is the end of the cognitive line. If this position is adopted, then questions relating to normative and evaluative issues of significance, meaning, and validity—questions relative to beauty or duty or justice, for example—can all be set to naught. Such a response does indeed resolve the problems of life, but only by casting them away into the outer darkness. This scientific positivism is indeed antipathetic to human values.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. The Limits of Science. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999. p. 247)

    “Scientism is the view that the natural sciences are the very paradigm of truth and rationality. If something does not square with currently well-established beliefs, if it is not within the domain of entities appropriate for scientific investigation, or if it is not amenable to scientific methodology, then it is not true or rational.”

    (Wilkins, Michael J., and J. P. Moreland. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. p. 8)

    1. I hate those smileys:

      (Wilkins, Michael J., and J. P. Moreland. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. p. 8 )

  6. “In one sense [naturalism] is simply a euphemism for scientism, the idea being that science—and natural science above all—has all the answers, so that if there is going to be any answer to a question about reality, it will be forthcoming from science. The stance of this mode of naturalism is effectively that of a science-geared reductionism that sees the key to understanding reality as being provided by the instrumentalities that account for the fundamental processes of observable phenomena.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. “The Future of Naturalism: Nature and Culture in Perspectival Duality.” In The Future of Naturalism, edited by John R. Shook and Paul Kurtz, 15-23. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books/Prometheus, 2009. p. 15)

    “1. The ontological scientific naturalist holds that the entities posited by acceptable scientific explanations are the only genuine entities that there are. A weaker version holds that scientific posits are the only unproblematic (or nonqueer) entities that there are.

    2. The methodological (or epistemological) scientific naturalist holds that it is only by following the methods of the natural sciences—or, at a minimum, the empirical methods of a posteriori inquiry—that one arrives at genuine knowledge. A weaker version holds that the methods of the natural sciences are the only unproblematic methods of inquiry. On this view scientific knowledge is the only unproblematic (or unmysterious) kind of knowledge that there is, thus provisionally allowing for nonscientific knowledge in some loose or practical sense.

    3. The semantic scientific naturalist holds that the concepts employed by the natural sciences are the only genuine concepts we have and that other concepts can only be retained if we can find an interpretation of them in terms of scientifically acceptable concepts. A weaker version holds that such concepts are the only unproblematic concepts we have. (Note that this kind of naturalism might be defended on a priori conceptual grounds, although it will be under considerable internal pressure to abandon such methodology.)”

    (De Caro, Mario, and David Macarthur. “The Nature of Naturalism.” In Naturalism in Question, edited by Mario de Caro and David Macarthur, 1-17. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. p. 7)

  7. This background on the word and its uses is useful to know considering how often the charge is lobbed at Gnu-thinking people. Thankfully, though, whenever the charge is made I find that the response from our side is almost always note-perfect. (E.g., Dennet’s levelheaded reply to Haught’s arrogant invocation of the term on that panel with he, Haught, and D.S. Wilson; the moment has been immortalized on a YouTube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU7fmb7_pHM)

    1. That’s really quite spactacular. So Dr Haught got a smackdown like that from Dr Dennett about the whole concept, and yet trots it out again against Dr Coyne a year later? How sadly dishonest.

      Do we have any track of other times since that Dennett smackdown Dr Haught has attempted to deploy the term “scientism”? It’s clear he’ll keep trotting it out until he’s very publicly shamed. (Further.)

      1. I think he keeps trotting it out because the scientism strawman is based on the false equivalency that science is “a kind of faith” and there’s “extremists on both sides” who are somehow just-as-bad as each other. And this is actually one of the more effective arguments accommodationists and gnubashers make — which is to say, it’s an argument that is sometimes effective on audiences because it’s lazy (no deep thinking required) and it seems to make sense. If you’re an onlooker who might not be eager to think too deeply, the false equivalency is highly attractive. Haught, as a theologian, is a master of exploiting people’s willingness to accept cookie cutter answers that seem reasonable so long as you don’t think about them too much. That’s the scientism claim — seems reasonable so long as you don’t interrogate it. We wonder why he would keep trotting out refuted arguments that don’t work because, quite frankly, it matters to us as science-defending gnus whether arguments work or not, whether they make sense and track with reality or not. If Haught shared that concern, he wouldn’t be a theologian.

    2. Dennet; the scientists/atheists Father Christmas/Santa Claus who keeps giving gifts the whole year round:-)

  8. I’ve come to the conclusion that scientism is a particularly pernicious term, used entirely in bad faith by those who sling it around.

    Just consider the linguistic form of the word.
    A person who practices fooism is a fooist.



    So what’s someone who practices scientism? Why, naturally, a scientist!

    It’s a dirty trick, meant to lead the listener/reader to subconsciously impugn the character of practicing scientists.

    Those using the term define science as nothing more than the vocation of scientists – and never explicitly, but always implicitly. Yet anyone who ever comes even close to scientism makes the approach only with science construed broadly, as the application of reason.

    The upshot is, that anyone who wields the term scientism is being fundamentally dishonest on at least two levels, and that on top of being a sanctimonious prick.

  9. Somebody – I forget who right now – once said that science becomes scientism when it’s your ox that’s being gored. (Pretty much as David Gerard said at #7 above).

  10. At the real heart of the charge of ‘scientism’ against the atheist is a dispute over what sort of category ‘God’ (and the supernatural/paranormal) falls into. Although morals, meaning, aesthetics, emotions — and the choices they entail — may be described, explained, or illuminated by scientific explanations, evaluations and preferences are not themselves part of a scientific model of reality. We don’t use objective scientific methods (alone) to ultimately determine subjective personal choices such as what to eat, who to marry, pursuits to enjoy, goals we strive after. There is no right or wrong about liking the taste of chocolate more than vanilla. Ok. Atheists generally have no problem with this.

    But the ‘existence of God’ is not a moral precept, an aesthetic preference, an emotional attachment, an expression of feeling, a directed ambition, or something else that would fall into one of these soft subjective categories. It’s a fact claim.

    “The universe was created/is sustained by a supernatural mind-like being” (or variation thereof) is an empirical claim. It is a conclusion based on evidence, an explanation which is supposed to fit into our model of reality. It is in the same category as “minds do not require brains,” “life is a type of spiritual energy,” “some people can bend spoons just by thinking about it” and claims that have much better evidence behind them — like “species evolved.”

    It is NOT in the same category as “it is better to love than hate,” “don’t give up,” “chocolate is better than vanilla,” “I love my Mom,” “Yum yum yum” and “I need a hug!”

    They want to place it there when it comes to how we evaluate it to protect it from analytical scrutiny — and thus the charge of “scientism.”

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve had theists arguing for the existence of God try to ask me questions like whether I’d use science to prove my mother loves me or whether it’s “scientific” to decide to persevere in the face of obstacles and when I respond with either ‘no’ or ‘it’s not applicable’ they go “AHA! And so you shouldn’t use science on God either!!!

    Category error. The charges of scientism against atheists come as the result of blatant confusion and self-serving category error. My opinion.

  11. — “Scientism (lite)” has become a label for the doctrine that science is the only way to the truth, a doctrine rejected by theist apologists, accommodationists, and NOMAtics of all stripes because they are committed to the proposition that there are:

    1. many other ways of knowing, or

    2. many other kinds of truths, or

    3. some combination of 1. and 2.—

    Science is, at its heart, simply a set of rules or criteria by which we can determine what can be considered knowledge. If there are non-scientific ways of knowing then they are saying that there are ways of knowing which fail one or other of the criteria for establishing knowledge.

    I would love to see some examples of that. Until then, science is the only way to establish knowl;edge about the world. If that makes me a follower of “scientism” then OK.

  12. Thanks for this! I presumed the derivation was purely theological.

    [Silly me. Of course they don’t produce that much original thought.]

    a label for the doctrine that truth is fixed, a priori and universal; that inductive science is the only means to its discovery and certainty is a realistic outcome.

    Interestingly, very little of that can be asserted:

    – Facts, not truth, are neither fixed nor a priori in, say, a multiverse.

    And if physics depends on algorithmic resources which seems reasonable,* those two again fall to the dynamics of resolving algorithmic structure as processes unfolds.

    – Universal facts, that we have. Say, special relativity & causality.

    – Science doesn’t seem to be based on induction alone, but need testing to weed out what is invalid.

    – Modern physics admits uncertainty in observation and base testing on accepting degrees of uncertainty.

    “Fixed, a priori and universal” sounds more like the dualistic platonism of most mathematicians.

    * One reason to think it is plausible is because quantum mechanics is, unless I am mistaken, the unique theory that minimize those resources. It has both minimum number of variables (no hidden variables) and minimum number of parameters, IIRC.

    Another way to say that is that QM maximizes the evolution of processes given a certain algorithmic resource. Putatively that is a constraint on what physics we have.

    [A toy model would be anthropic reasons: other physics isn’t as “productive” and inhibits a lesser volume of a multiverse. So it could be a pathway allowing for this.]

    1. Oops, I meant to tie admitting uncertainty to abjecting certainty. Maybe one need something stronger than noting that certainty depends on the result of observation. Oh, well.

      Few scientists would claim that we would be capable to resolve all possible questions.

  13. From the OED:

    “SCIENTISM: … 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 and the social sciences.”

    The first cited use in this sense is from Shaw in Back to Methuselah (1921).

  14. I don”t know how one follows Scientism? After reading these post know one seems to have a clear definition. Is it philosopy or a faith?

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