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Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 1: Science and Scientism

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December 6, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 1: Science and Scientism

Today's entry was written by Ian Hutchinson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

“Science is the most remarkable and powerful cultural artifact humankind has ever created. What is more, most people in our society regard science as providing us with knowledge about the natural world that has an unsurpassed claim to reality and truth. That is one reason why I am proud to be a physicist, a part of the scientific enterprise. But increasingly I am dismayed that science is being twisted into something other than what it truly is. It is portrayed as identical to a philosophical doctrine that I call “scientism”. Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims that status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.” (Monopolizing Knowledge, page 1)

In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson will attempt to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. We begin the series with a brief look at the origins of scientism.

Science and Scientism

One of the most visible conflicts in current culture is between “scientism” and religion. Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, secular as well as religious, which are justified and rational, but not scientific, and therefore marginalized by scientism. And if that is so, then scientism is a ghastly intellectual mistake.

But how could it have come about that this mistake is so widespread, if it is a mistake? The underlying reason is that scientism is confused with science. It is natural for readers without inside knowledge of science to assume that science and scientism are one and the same when many leading scientists and science popularizers often speak and act as if they and thus directly promote this confusion. What is more, several major strands within religion also promote this confusion. On the conservative theological wing, science is often rejected because it is confused with scientism, and on the theologically liberal wing scientism is often adopted for the same reason. Whether rejecting or assimilating, religious believers often confuse science and scientism.

Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified. However, scientism rapidly becomes much more. It becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious position.

The Origins of Scientism

The word science is used with two completely different meanings; confusing the two has a natural tendency to lead to scientism. The historical meaning comes from the word's Latin root, scientia, which means simply knowledge, and indeed the word science was once used to describe any systematic orderly study of a field of knowledge. In today’s common usage, however, "science" refers to the study of the natural world. The "Encyclopédie" (1751-) of Diderot and D'Alembert1, a classic embodiment of Enlightenment thought, defines the word science to mean knowledge in general, but then focuses on natural science and technology. This is scientism in its youth. Enlightenment writings helped to insinuate scientism as an unacknowledged presupposition into much of the intellectual climate of the succeeding two centuries. From Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755), through historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay (1848), and in vestiges even into the mid twentieth century, "science" was held to refer generally to formal, intellectual learning, yet when specific examples of science are cited these are almost all natural science.

Edward Cheney used his preface to the 1898 edition of Macaulay's history2 to criticize him as failing to "treat history as a science". Cheney's attitude is rife with scientism - trying to distinguish between `true' scientific historical knowledge on the one hand, and on the other, literature that fails to qualify as science and hence as true knowledge. As president of the American Historical Society, twenty seven years later, Cheney would champion an explicitly scientistic view of the historian's task as to discover law in history, “... natural laws, which we must accept whether we want to or not, ... laws to be accepted and reckoned with as much as the laws of gravitation, or of chemical affinity” 3 The view is not convincing. The supposed distinction between scientific and unscientific history bears no discernible relationship to the methods of the natural sciences. It is mostly a substitution of “scientific” for "correct" for rhetorical effect.

The continued robustness of scientism is surely partly attributable to this terminological confusion. If science means simply knowledge, then scientism is merely tautologically true. End of story. But if science means a particular type of knowledge, as it does today, then it is essential to recognize that meaning and stick to it. In short what we mean by science today is the inheritance of the Scientific Revolution. In later parts of this series, I shall identify two key defining characteristics of science that encapsulate the two emphases crucial to its development: experimental or natural evidence, and mechanical or mathematical explanation. Before I move on to this task, though, let me pause to address some objections to the whole of my explanatory enterprise.

A Few Possible Objections

One objection that might be raised at this stage is to ask why one should restrict the designation science to the inheritors of the Scientific Revolution. After all, the argument goes, surely we should use whatever strategy is available to discover knowledge. My first answer is immediately to point out that this objection is an example of scientism. It confuses knowledge with science and implies that they are one and the same. I am not at all interested in limiting the ways of obtaining knowledge to those avenues that we call “scientific”. I simply want to be clear that, as a matter of historical fact, science as we commonly conceive it had, and has, a distinctive characteristic approach to methods of discovering and knowing. But why insist on this terminology? Here, my second answer is that science has a well-earned prestige and authority precisely because of its success. This prestige is, of course, one driving force behind the desire of many disciplines to be considered sciences. To use the metaphor of the market today, it is a question of "branding".

A second kind of objection is this: suppose we grant that we will use the word science to mean natural science. Doesn't that just mean the study of nature? So shouldn’t"the study of nature" be our working definition of science then? And if it is, why should one limit the scope of science by an identification of its methods? Surely one should use whatever methods are available to study nature.

My answer is this: the main problem with "the study of nature" as a definition of science is that it simply begs the question: what is nature? We tend to think that "nature" is self-evident; but it isn't. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, nature was populated with gods and teleological imperatives, with intention and purpose. Even in 1686, Robert Boyle (of Boyles' Law) identified eight different senses of the word nature4. Boyle's purpose was to deplore the use of, the semi-deity that underwrote Aristotle's physics, which the Scientific Revolution was in the process of superceding, and to replace it with the established order or settled course of things. Moreover, even after the Enlightenment, the romantics such as the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that what they were about was the study of nature. Yet no one today would for a moment think to call the poetic understanding of the natural world science. It simply is not adequate to assume that what is meant by nature is obvious.

Instead, I believe, we must use a functional definition of science. Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature. Nature is what we are studying in natural science. The result of this definition, as we'll see, is entirely consistent with what Boyle was arguing for: the established order or settled course of things.

We will continue this exploration of what we mean by “nature” in the next installment.


1. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, editors. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. André Le Breton, Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson, Paris, 1751-77.
2. Thomas Babbington (Lord) Macaulay. The History of England from the accession of James the second. G. P. Putnam, New York, 1898.
3. Edward P. Cheyney. Presidential address delivered before the american historical association. American Historical Review, 29 (2): 231-48, 1924.
4. Thomas Birch, editor. Robert Boyle,, The Works. Georg Olms Verlangsuchhandlung, Hildsheim, 1966. Volume 5, p167-9.

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Dunemeister - #66414

December 6th 2011

Perhaps we should follow Alvin Plantinga and note that one of the problems in our understanding of knowledge is that we assume it requires “justification”, where “justification” is thought to be acquiring the belief in accordance with certain approved or priveleged procedures, methods, or duties. If Plantinga is right, justification is niether necessary nor sufficient for knowledge.

Whatever else science is, it is the search for epistemological “justification”(. Justification, while it may not produce knowledge, certainly is useful. I wouldn’t want to send a person to prison without justifying the charge, for instance. Nor would I want to trust my nation’s astronauts to those working with an Aristotelian physics.

That said, this sort of development of justification isn’t knowledge. Knowledge is a matter of cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial cognitive environment. Knowledge simply “emerges”. I look at a tree outside and form the belief “There’s a tree outside.” That counts as knowledge not because I can prove it (an Australopithecene—assuming they could form beliefs, which I don’t doubt—would know this as well as I despite their lack of science), but because I form that belief under the right conditions. My cognitive faculties are designed to confer true beliefs, they are functioning properly, and they are forming the belief in conditions for which the cognitive systems are designed (normal lighting rather than, say, X-rays or whatever, relatively short distances, etc.).

For a much fuller treatment (over 1000 pages!), see Plantinga’s trilogy of books, the last of which is by far the longest:

Warrant: The Current Debate
Warrant and Proper Function
Warranted Christian Belief

(And no, I’m not an agent of Alving Plantinga )

David Evans - #66464

December 9th 2011

“My cognitive faculties are designed to confer true beliefs”

Some might prefer to say they had evolved in that way.

 “I look at a tree outside and form the belief “There’s a tree outside.” ”

I think that counts as knowledge because I have in the past verified that when I see a tree I can also, subject to practical limitations, go and touch it, and I can’t walk through it. I don’t see any equivalent fact-checking for religious experiences. (How would I check that my religious cognitive faculties were delivering true beliefs?)

For me the divide is not between science and other forms of knowledge, but between verifiable statements, whether scientific or not, and those of religion.

groovimus - #66474

December 10th 2011

All well and good but please be aware that there are avenues of research in the behavioral sciences where the strict segregation you offer has been blurred if not ignored in many cases. Specifically, these are having to do with the use of psychedelic substances in the treatment of emotional and mental conditions. The U.S. governement has in recent years relaxed the rules governing the use of these substances for this research. The popular press has reported on the topic, such as The Economist several years ago with a piece boldly entitled “The God Pill” referencing research with psylocybe cubensis (mushrooms taking on the role of pills). People familiar with the extensive related literature over the decades like myself do not hold to your categories. Admittedly this relies somewhat on anecdotal evidence, but truth can be found here nonetheless, and this is because the overwhelming majorities of subjects in these investigations report a wide array of subjective experience with some common themes. And typically the subjects concurrently experience profound annihilation of and/or relief from serious psychological symptoms, e.g. severe depression, sexual perversion, Tourette’s syndrome, addiction. What are the common themes? All types of themes described in the literature of world religions and mystical traditions. One can ridicule the epistmological value of this huge area of human experience or one can be open minded enough to read an excellent introduction to it and in my view that would be “Realms of the Human Unconcious” by Stanislave Grof, M.D. This is a very early treatise  and is considered groundbreaking by people in the field, as it was the first in a series of books by Grof on his 17 years of research with LSD, 13 in his native Czechoslovakia.

Dunemeister - #66475

December 10th 2011

I have two responses to this, which I’ll submit in two separate comments. First: “Some might prefer to say they had evolved in that way.”

There are two issues with this. First, you are assuming that we must choose between evolution OR design. Why?

Second, we normally think of our cognitive faculties as having the purpose of providing us with true beliefs, at least under most circumstances. But if we prefer to say they had simply “evolved”, it becomes highly questionable whether they have that purpose. For evolution and natural selection, understood naturalistically, produce creatures that survive, and that’s it. So the function of our cognitive faculties is simply to enable us to do the four Fs—fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing. And they can do that without providing us with any true beliefs at all. In other words, a naturalistic understanding of evolution gives us a very strong reason to doubt the veracity of our belief-producing faculties. And the success of science does not blunt the force of this conclusion. We are still mired in skepticism.

On the other hand, if we drop naturalism (a highly questionable metaphysical thesis, anyway) from evolution, the problem can be solved. However our cognitive faculties developed—evolution or otherwise—they can have whatever other purposes Providence (or whatever) decides. The more competent and loving the Providence, the more confidence we can have in what Providence provides.

Dunemeister - #66476

December 10th 2011

Now to the issue of verification. Verification and fact-checking might justify certain kinds of belief, but it cannot be what makes a belief knowledge. But let’s focus simply on perceptual beliefs. Let’s also change the example just slightly. I look at a tree, as per my example, and form the belief “There’s a tree in my back yard.” On your assumptions, this constitutes knowledge because I can verify the existence of the tree in my back yard by using other modes of perception (touch, say). Being a skeptic at heart, I go outside to check (you can’t be too sure), and sure enough, I can see the tree, feel it and smell its sap. But sadly and unbeknownst to me, I suffer from a brain lesion. This lesion causes me to walk away from what I visually perceive and causes phantom experiences. So I actually end up in the front yard, where there is no tree, waving my arms in thin air.

On your analysis, I have verified that there is a tree in the back yard, and so the belief constitutes knowledge. But that can’t be right. I suffer from a tragic cognitive dysfunction. My perceptual and belief-forming faculties are not working well. And so we see that it is proper function, not verification, that is central to knowledge. Verification cannot get started without the proper function of our cognitive faculties. Assuming my cognitive faculties are functioning properly, I do not need to verify the existence of the tree, nor do I have to rule out the possibility of illusion, to know that there’s a tree in my back yard. And so verification is not necessary nor sufficient for knowledge.

Verifiability is a good thing for scientific theories or postulates or whatever. But it is not central to knowledge.

David Evans - #66493

December 11th 2011

 “Assuming my cognitive faculties are functioning properly, I do not need to verify the existence of the tree”

Not so. I can verify by looking at other objects that my cognitive faculties do not have a defect of the kind you suggest, but it’s still possible that the tree is a hologram or the window a trompe-l’oeil painting. The fact that I could rule that out by going outside is what makes seeing the tree different from having a religious experience.

I don’t think it makes sense to argue whether verification or cognitive function is central. Obviously a failure in either can lead to a false appearance of knowledge.
Dunemeister - #66502

December 12th 2011

Actually, all that verification can do is tell us is that scientific knowledge involves “proof” (whatever that ultimately means). But that does NOT mean that scientific knowledge is superior or different to religious knowledge with respect to how knowledge works. (Whether something can be proven does not bear any necessary relationship with the truth of a belief, not its status as knowledge.) In both cases—science and religion—knowledge is based on properly functioning cognitive faculties. Scientific knowledge and religious knowledge certainly resort to different modules in our cognitive constitution, but in either case, a belief constitutes knowledge if and only if (1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of the belief are designed to confer true beliefs, (2) beliefs conferred in accordance with such a design are objectively highly probably true (i.e., they are well-designed), (3) the relevant faculties are doing what they are supposed to be doing (i.e., they are not subject to dysfunction), (4) they are functioning in an environment where they were designed to function, and (5) the belief thus conferred is sufficiently strong. If all is well with the faculties and context in which a belief is formed, knowledge happens, quite apart from verification.

Of course, we can be quite certain about false beliefs. We can get hints about things being awry, and in those cases, verification can help sort things out. Some of our beliefs will be vindicated and others not. But that vindication does not “generate” knowledge as if we didn’t know X before we vindicated X. It’s possible that we had an unreasonable degree of confidence in X until we discovered the faulty provenance of X (something awry with our faculties or the context of their working). That undermines our claim to know X. But what’s at issue in this whole investigation is our cognitive systems and their functioning within a belief-forming context.

I go on about this because people try to cast doubt on religious beliefs because they “cannot be verified”. But that fact is both true (perhaps) and irrelevant (definitely). If Christianity is true, we are designed to be able to know God when certain conditions obtain. The fact that a third party might not be able to verify my experiences or “fact-check” them or distinguish my religious experience from that which is produced by drugs (or whatever) is immaterial to the question whether I know God.

Jon Garvey - #66417

December 6th 2011

“Once we have a clear view of what science is, we will have a definition of what we here mean by nature.”

Such a definition would be an achievement indeed. Would it cover the science of economics? Is that part of nature? Is sociology nature? Or do we produce a definition that applies only to the natural sciences?

Then again, does science depend on a particlular world view? In Newton’s day, when alchemy, astrology and magic were all integral to understanding science, was nature therefore different?

And if (as is commonly done) science is defined to exclude teleology, then by definition there is no teleology in nature. It’s a bit like the senior police officer I heard in Essex when I was a police surgeon who said, “Essex doesn’t have a drugs problem, because we don’t have a drugs squad.”

In the end, although our definitions restrict what we permit ourselves to see, nature is what it is - science, though, is what we choose it to be.

James R - #66452

December 9th 2011


Love the “drugs squad” analogy regarding teleology!  Nicely done!

You were a police surgeon?  In Essex?  Did you ever deal with Dr. Brent in London?  (For old-timers only.)

Jon Garvey - #66461

December 9th 2011

No, Jmaes. We were the parochial boys. They did eventually start a drugs unit, which enabled me to be called out to drugs-related deaths which previously, of course, didn’t happen. But that was a long time ago, when the forensic lab was using alchemy, so my memory might be a little hazy…

HornSpiel - #66418

December 6th 2011

Another nice to-be-continued philosophy of science article. Two in a row!

Dunemeister - #66414

I think I agree with you, but what so you mean by a “congenial cognitive environment”—simply that knowledge works? From human perspective, I think we need to realize that the ultimate test of knowledge is practical,: “does it help me live my life better.” What is better can be a very subjective thing, like if it helps me to deal with my own mortality and die well.

Would you agree that knowledge is essentially ones cognitive model of reality? I would define reality as whatever limits or constrains our behavior or thought—not only what our senses perceive, but also internal constraints, such as our conscience or intuitions. Scientism says that the only constraints we need to model are the external reality, what we and other scientists agree that our senses perceive. My model of my inner subjective world, which is necessary for me to live a full and meaningful life, thy would say, is not knowledge.

Dunemeister - #66420

December 6th 2011

A “congenial cognitive environment” is an environment for which the cognitive systems were made. If you were to put a human being on an irradiated planet (say), and the radiation played havoc with our pereptual apparatus so that everything was green, we might ineluctably believe “that rock is green” when in fact it is red (without the weird radiation). Our belief is not knowledge because there is a poor fit between our cognitive systems and the environment it finds itself in.

I would disagree that the ultimate test of knowledge is practical. Knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 is a necessary truth (as opposed to contingently true) doesn’t help my life one bit, but it still counts as knowledge.

I would also disagree that knowledge is essentially our cognitive models. Our knowledge consists of all those beliefs we have that are both true and which have arisen as a result of cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial cognitive environment. The rest is theories/models. Those models aren’t knowledge, but they can either promote or hinder the acquisition of knowledge.

Jon Garvey - #66450

December 9th 2011

“I simply want to be clear that, as a matter of historical fact, science
as we commonly conceive it had, and has, a distinctive characteristic
approach to methods of discovering and knowing. But why insist on this
terminology? Here, my second answer is that science has a well-earned
prestige and authority precisely because of its success”

The “success” of science is often cited as support for its methodology, but this claim seems seldom to be examined critically. Reading (recently) about mediaeval and early-modern science, I came to the conclusions its successes were great, but sporadic.

Was this because its methodology was lacking, particularly with respect to methodological naturalism? Or could it also have something to do with the fact that it was only a few individuals who were engaged in “science”, even fewer full-time, whereas now there are huge legions of people, worldwide, specifically trained and massively funded.

In other words, does physics advance just because it has a good methodology or philosophy, or because it can afford to tunnel out half of Europe for its experiments rather than dropping lead shot off the tower of Pisa?

When I was in medicine it was often pointed out that improved health had quantitatively much less to do with the success of scientific medicine than it had to do with campaigners for public sewers, better housing and school dinners.

It will be interesing to see how Prof Hutchinson manages to define nature in terms of science without thereby falling into the scientistic presupposition that science can say all there is to know about nature. For scientism does not only fail because it claims nature is all there is, but because it uses its limited methodology to define “nature” and then to divide it off from the other stuff, like “private” religious opinion or “subjective” morality.

But the nature/other dichotomy is fundamentally false, and at best no more than a demarcator of areas of concern to particular, restricted, sciences like physics. I’m reminded of the Narnia stories, when one of the children is introudced to a star. “On our world, a star is a ball of burning gas,” he says. The reply is, “Even on your world, that is not what a star is, but merely what it is made of.”

Nature is bigger than science. To limit nature by ones view of science is like limiting God by ones view of theology.

Merv - #66453

December 9th 2011

Jon wrote:  “In other words, does physics advance just because it has a good
methodology or philosophy, or because it can afford to tunnel out half
of Europe for its experiments rather than dropping lead shot off the
tower of Pisa?”

Maybe they can afford to ‘tunnel out half of Europe’ because sufficiently many of the voting and funding population are sufficiently sold on the methodology.  I.e.  there could be some chicken & egg component to how this happens.  The ever pragmatic public likes results, though the results sought in things like casinos, horoscopes, various addictions could be used to call public priorities into question as well.  But then again, astrologers aren’t tunneling out half of Europe.  (Maybe some casino operators could afford to.)

I think what you so eloquently bring up, Jon, highlights the necessity of a good science education program for the people at large (not just future scientists). —in my unbiased opinion as a science teacher.


Jon Garvey - #66457

December 9th 2011

I think astrology was a relatively cheap research option. The coffer-drainer was alchemy, which was a quicker way of losing a fortune than betting on investing heavily in 8-track stereo.

Mind you, having spent all that money finding Higgs boson, you’d think they could at least turn lead into gold as well.

Merv - #66458

December 9th 2011

While the alchemy certainly must have been expensive to the royal patrons of the time, it did have the unintended benefit of bequeathing to modern science some quite refined experimental technique and glassware.  It’s interesting that in their (our?) quests for gold and elixirs of life they never won through, but then ended up contributing other benefits for all their efforts.  Not sure I would want to draw too much on that, though…


Merv - #66459

December 9th 2011

... and now we actually can turn lead into gold, how anti-climactic that the process ends up being more expensive than the produced gold would be worth.  I wonder if that is a foreshadowing of other holy grails we are still drooling about.

Just read in an astronomy magazine about possible future faster than light travel by shrinking space keeping your own ship in a bubble (Star Trek science).  According to the real science speculation behind it, the probably energy needed for such a thing might be the equivalent of a super-nova.  Shovel a little more coal into that warp core, Scotty!


BenYachov - #66460

December 9th 2011

The problem with the “success” argument for scientism is twofold.  1. It is not a scientific argument but a philosophical one.  2.  It is an incoherent philosophical argument. 

A metal detector is “successful” at detecting metal coins but that doesn’t mean wooden coin slugs don’t exist because they can’t be detected by the metal detector.

Science is not enough for mere natural knowledge.  One required philosophy with science as the basis of natural knowledge.

Jon Garvey - #66462

December 9th 2011


Hutchinson, I think, applies the “success” argument to science rather than scientism, but your criticism is still valid.

How on earth can you measure “success” in any developing society without some kind of control group? It’s like my claiming that Britain’s NHS is the best way to organise health care because life expectancy is greater than it was in the past.

Someone in Newton’s time could justly have pointed to the huge advances in knowledge over the previous 500 years from the establishment of the Christian universities, giving an education in logic, philosophy and theology, that led men like Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton himself to tease out the works of the God of truth when the materialists of the classical world had just gone round and round in epicycles.

Come to think of it, it’s in that period of theistic science that most of the groundwork for today’s successes was laid.

Papalinton - #66465

December 9th 2011

“Because religious knowledge differs from scientific knowledge, scientism claims (or at least assumes) that it must therefore be inferior. However, there are many other important beliefs, .........”

Oh! oh!  Already Hutchinson has segued knowledge into belief.  And he has only just started the article.  

Let’s face it, folks, ‘scientism’ is a religiously promulgated pejorative to discredit science. It has always and only ever been a derogatory term of abuse to be slung at those of us who have rejected mythological superstition as fundamental knowledge and a basis for reality.  Science knowledge is epistemically sound and good.  Religious knowledge is epistemically fictive and godawful.  

Hutchinson seems happy and intent to put science under the microscope and to derive a ‘definition’;  he would be far less dishonest in his article should he put his religion under the same microscope.  

Hutchinson notes: “Scientism is, first of all, a philosophy of knowledge. It is an opinion about the way that knowledge can be obtained and justified.”  
Once again another unclever segue describing it as a ‘philosophy’ and seamlessly an ‘opinion’.  I was always under the impression,  whatever its faults, philosophical exploration was something more than ‘opinion’.  

All in all, a somewhat jejune attempt at reconciling science with theism but only in religious terms.   Pretty dishonest really.  Hutchinson seems happy to do a great disservice to science in order to compartmentalize his superstitious belief system from scrutiny.

alqpr - #66466

December 9th 2011

One of the reasons I have always found the term “scientism” offensive is because, by its very structure, it makes it “natural for readers without inside knowledge of science to assume that science and scientism are one and the same”. Since I find it hard to imagine that confusion not having been introduced deliberately, any use of the term makes me suspicious of the motives and fair-mindedness of the user.

jonj - #66467

December 9th 2011

Okay, I’ve avoided scientism, and through some other unspecified means I’ve acquired what I think may be a piece of knowledge.

Now, how do I test it?
Papalinton - #66468

December 9th 2011


“Now, how do I test it? [piece of knowledge]”

As theism would have it, all you have to do is believe.  Voila!  [usually characterised as a ‘revelation’]
alqpr - #66469

December 10th 2011

Hello again Prof Hutchinson. I am interested in finding more about your definition of science and in the kinds of knowledge you identify beyond it. But in addition to not liking the word “scientism” (for reasons mentioned above), I think it is unfortunate that your first response to the first “objection” is just to (falsely) label it with a term you apparently consider pejorative. Although my own definition of science does not include all knowledge, to define it as doing so is not to “confuse” knowledge with science; it is, rather, just to have made an unuseful definition. This is presumably not scientism even by your definition since in order to have a meaningful fixed definition of the term as representing an objective as opposed to a linguistic position, “scientism” must imply denying the existence of knowledge not included in *your* definition of science. 

Jon Garvey - #66470

December 10th 2011

“Let’s face it, folks, ‘scientism’ is a religiously promulgated pejorative to discredit science.”

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Even Wikipedia acknowledges the term has a long and distingushed history in the academic literature as a critique of positivism. The earliest reference I’ve found is this, from Friedrich von Hayek:  “Scientism
  and the Study of Society”, Economica, vol. IX, no. 35,
  August 1942.
Somebody’s pointed out to me his speech on the issue when receiving his Nobel Prize in 1974: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/1974/hayek-lecture.html

There seems a cottage industry of wrongly (desperately?) attributing perfectly legitimate common terms to religious invention. If you want to have a bit of fun, try researching the origins of some of these: Darwinism, microevolution, specified information, Cambrian explosion… I’ve likely missed a few.

Papalinton - #66480

December 10th 2011

“There seems a cottage industry of wrongly (desperately?) attributing perfectly legitimate common terms to religious invention.”

No one mentioned ‘scientism’ as a religious invention, but perhaps a little mischievous misconstrual, a tactic well used under the rubric of Apologetics, methinks.

When used as a comparator to religion its main function is predominately as a pejorative to give religion a little undeserved step up. 

And to provide balance, I add the substantial remainder of Wiki’s notation on scientism as it explains in good detail :

“Scientism” can apply in either of two equally pejorative senses [my italics]: To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply, such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case the term is a counter-argument to appeals to scientific authority.
To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”
RBH - #66477

December 10th 2011

Prof. Hutchinson wrote

”[Scientism] becomes an all-encompassing world-view; a perspective from which all
of the questions of life are examined: a grounding presupposition or set
of presuppositions which provides the framework by which the world is
to be understood. In other words, it is essentially a religious

‘Fraid you’ve got it wrong, mate. That’s equivalent to arguing that because this urn contains red balls and that urn contains green balls, red balls are essentially green balls.

Put differently, “worldview” is the noun, while “religious” and “scientistic” are the modifiers.  Scientism, however it is defined, is not a subset of religion; it’s an alternative to it.

RBH - #66478

December 10th 2011

Oh, and I should add that I look forward to seeing how folks define “knowledge” without invoking some sort of justification procedure for knowledge claims.

Jon Garvey - #66489

December 11th 2011

Maybe you have to establish first that knowledge claims, other than positivist ones, require a bjustification procedure?

RBH - #66508

December 12th 2011

Absent some sort of shared scheme for justifying knowledge claims, “All unicorns are pink and invisible” is just as valid as “The earth is in orbit around the sun.”

What sort of knowledge claim would Jon Garvey suggest is acceptable in the absence of any justification?  Does he have an example?

Jon Garvey - #66515

December 13th 2011

“I was blind. Now I see.”

RBH - #66536

December 13th 2011

And if I said, “You once could see.  Now you’re blind,” how could a third neutral observer evaluate the truth or falsity of those mutually contradictory claims?

Jon Garvey - #66580

December 15th 2011

As I said, only a positivist would demand that a third party has any particular right to to evaluate the claim I quoted. “I” know I see, and don’t give a toss what any third party may think.

You (or your observer) claim some kind of esoteric source that enables superior knowledge of another’s senses. It’s a different kind of knowledge from my blind-man’s.

A third party has no knowedge of the matter, but is maybe open to be convinced: if he believes the blind man’s testimony he considers he has some grounds for knowing the statement true, even if there is no corroborative evidence. His belief, however, may not be sufficient to exclude doubt.

If the third party, on the other hand, believed your assertion, he would similarly “know” I was blind to whatever degree he trusted your esoteric skill. Of course, if I poked him in both eyes with unerring aim, he might begin to think he’d been misled by an intellectually blind man.

On the other hand, I think I’d prefer to say, “Mine to know, yours to find out,” and leave both parties to their false” knowledge.”

RBH - #66676

December 19th 2011

“As I said, only a positivist would demand that a third party has any particular right to to evaluate the claim I quoted. “I” know I see, and don’t give a toss what any third party may think.”

And thus a descent into solipsism.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66561

December 14th 2011

Scientism is based on the belief that the universe has no rational Source.  The Jewish and Christian faiths are based on the belief that the universe has a rational Source.

Both worldviews are based on belief or faith and thus can be considered from that perspective “religious.”  

KevinR - #66516

December 13th 2011

All of this empowering knowledge would vanish if the current paradigm concerning the age of the Earth were wrong.

As with many generalizations, this one also falls on its face. Newton’s laws of gravity were shown to be “incorrect” by the  theory of relativity - but it was “incorrect” only in a certain sense. We still use it daily in most of our activities. It hasn’t vanished at all.

Notice the difference in the use of the “empowering knowledge” regarding radioactivity: For the age of the earth, certain assumptions need to hold true but because we cannot go back into the past and perform a thorough observation to the present, we can never be sure that the rate of radio decay has remained constant, or that no contamination of sources/products has occurred or that the solar system did indeed form from a cloud of space dust or that the sun ignited after a great enough accumulation of compressing gravity happened.
In contrast the actual application of the knowledge of radioactivity happens in the here and now. We can go on the assumptions and then check to make sure that it actually pans out in practice.  We can repeatedly try things out and observe the outcomes. Not so with the age of the earth. Hence the fallacy in the generalization above. In that case it becomes a matter of FAITH. So my faith says that 6000 years is closer to the truth. The atheist’s faith says that 4.5 billion years is the truer age of the earth. One has to choose one’s faith with care.

Klasie Kraalogies - #66520

December 13th 2011

I get the distinct feeling that this article is the first in a very specifc process: Here, the strawman is being erected. Next time, it will be charged. After that, it will be demolished, and then triumph will be declared…..

Unfortuante, because the subject could be interesting. But narrowly re-defining a subject in such a way so as to set it up is not a good practice. But it does sell books though.
As a geologist, I have my concerns. Science is not as simplisitc as mr Hutchinson wants us to believe. Geology, as many other subjects, is more forensic in nature, although not devoid of experimental results. Mr Hutchinson would cast us out, I guess…..At the end of this well though is a post-modern morass - the one in which that German philosopher found himself - who dreamt about a knife whithout a handle which had no blade .

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