What is Scientism?

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June 11, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Thomas Burnett. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: This post first appeared in the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.

 

 

A scientist, my dear friends, is a man who foresees; it is because science provides the means to predict that it is useful, and the scientists are superior to all other men. --Henri de Saint-Simon1

 

 

 

Scientism is a rather strange word, but for reasons that we shall see, a useful one. Though this term has been coined rather recently, it is associated with many other “isms” with long and turbulent histories: materialism, naturalism, reductionism, empiricism, and positivism. Rather than tangle with each of these concepts separately, we’ll begin with a working definition of scientism and proceed from there.

Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” 2 But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” 3 MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” 4 The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit.

A History of Scientism

The roots of scientism extend as far back as early 17th century Europe, an era that came to be known as the Scientific Revolution. Up to that point, most scholars had been highly deferential to intellectual tradition, largely a combination of Judeo-Christian scripture and ancient Greek philosophy. But a torrent of new learning during the late Renaissance began to challenge the authority of the ancients, and long-established intellectual foundations began to crack. The Englishman Francis Bacon, the Frenchman Rene Descartes, and the Italian Galileo Galilei spearheaded an international movement proclaiming a new foundation for learning, one that involved careful scrutiny of nature instead of analysis of ancient texts.

Descartes and Bacon used particularly strong rhetoric to carve out space for their new methods. They claimed that by learning how the physical world worked, we could become “masters and possessors of nature.” 5 In doing so, humans could overcome hunger through innovations in agriculture, eliminate disease through medical research, and dramatically improve overall quality of life through technology and industry. Ultimately, science would save humans from unnecessary suffering and their self-destructive tendencies. And it promised to achieve these goals in this world, not the afterlife. It was a bold, prophetic vision.

As this new method found great success, the specter of scientism began to emerge. Both Bacon and Descartes elevated the use of reason and logic by denigrating other human faculties such as creativity, memory, and imagination. Bacon’s classification of learning demoted poetry and history to second-class status.6 Descartes’ rendering of the entire universe as a giant machine left little room for the arts or other forms of human expression. In one sense, the rhetoric of these visionaries opened great new vistas for intellectual inquiry. But on the other hand, it proposed a vastly narrower range of which human activities were considered worthwhile.

The Enlightenment

A century later, many of the Enlightenment intellectuals continued their love-affair with the power of natural science. They claimed that not only could science enhance the quality of human life, it could even promote moral improvement. The Encyclopedist Denis Diderot aimed to collect, organize, and preserve all human knowledge so that “our children, becoming better instructed, may become at the same time more virtuous and happy.” 7 Many of the French philosophes even claimed that science could be a substitute for religion. In fact, during the French Revolution, numerous Catholic churches were converted into “Temples of Reason” and held quasi-religious services for the worship of science.8

Positivism

The 19th century witnessed the most powerful and enduring formulation of scientism, a system called positivism. Its founder was August Comte, who built his positive philosophy from a deep commitment to David Hume’s empiricism and skepticism. Comte claimed that the only valid data is acquired through the senses. Nothing was transcendent, and nothing metaphysical could have any claim to validity.9 The task of scientists was twofold—first, to demonstrate how all phenomena, including human behavior, are subject to invariable natural laws.10 Second, they would reduce these natural laws to the smallest possible number, and ultimately unify them under the laws of physics.11

Comte also subsumed all of human intellectual history into a single process which he called the Law of Three Stages. In his view, each branch of knowledge passes through three stages: the theological or fictitious, the metaphysical or abstract, and lastly the scientific or positive state. He believed that through the continual advancement of human understanding, religion would fade away, philosophy and the humanities would be transformed into a naturalistic basis, and all human knowledge would eventually become a product of science. Any ideas outside that realm would be pure fantasy or superstition.

Logical Positivism

Positivism did not lose its appeal in the 20th century. To the contrary, a group known collectively as The Vienna Circle reinvigorated the fundamental tenets of positivism with enhanced symbolic logic and semantic theory. They called their approach, fittingly, logical positivism. In this system, there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: analytic statements (including logic and mathematics), and empirical statements, subject to experimental verification. Anything outside of this framework is an empty concept.12

Given its sweeping claims, logical positivism came under heavy scrutiny. Karl Popper pointed out that few statements in science can actually be completely verified. However, a single observation has the potential to invalidate a hypothesis, and even an entire theory. Therefore, he proposed that instead of experimental verification, the principle of falsifiability should demarcate what qualified as science, and by extension, what can qualify as knowledge.13

Another weakness of the positivist position is its reliance on a complete distinction between theory and observation. Observations, essential to the empirical approach of science, were claimed by positivists to be brute facts which one could use to establish, evaluate, and compare the theories. However, W.O. Quine pointed out in his “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” that observations themselves are partly shaped by theory (“theory-laden”).14 What counts as an observation, how to construct an experiment, and what data you think your instruments are collecting—all require an interpretive theoretical framework. This realization does not deal a death-blow to the practice of science (as some post-modernists like to claim), but it does undermine the positivist claim that science rests entirely on facts, and is thus an indisputable foundation for knowledge.

Scientism of Today

Scientism today is alive and well, as evidenced by the statements of our celebrity scientists:

The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. –Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. –Stephen Weinburg, The First Three Minutes

We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little. –E.O. Wilson, Consilience

While these men are certainly entitled to their personal opinions and the freedom to express them, the fact that they make such bold claims in their popular science literature blurs the line between solid, evidence-based science, and rampant philosophical speculation. Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these scientists or not, the result of these public pronouncements has served to alienate a large segment of American society. And that is a serious problem, since scientific research relies heavily upon public support for its funding, and environmental policy is shaped by lawmakers who listen to their constituents. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it would be wise to try a different approach.

Physicist Ian Hutchinson offers an insightful metaphor for the current controversies over science:

The health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism, not promoted by it. At the very least, scientism provokes a defensive, immunological, aggressive response from other intellectual communities, in return for its own arrogance and intellectual bullyism. It taints science itself by association.15

Noting that most Americans enthusiastically welcome scientific advancements, particularly those in health care, transportation, and communications, Hutchinson suggests that perhaps what the public is rejecting is not actually science itself, but a worldview that closely aligns itself with science—scientism.16 By disentangling these two concepts, we have a much better chance for enlisting public support for scientific research than we would by trying to convince millions of people to embrace a materialistic, godless universe in which science is our only remaining hope.

Distinguishing science from scientism

So if science is distinct from scientism, what is it? Science is an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods. Given the complexity of the universe, from the very big to very small, from inorganic to organic, there is a vast array of scientific disciplines, each with its own specific techniques. The number of different specializations is constantly increasing, leading to more questions and areas of exploration than ever before. Science expands our understanding, rather than limiting it.

Scientism, on the other hand, is a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning. Despite the fact that there are millions of species on our planet, scientism focuses an inordinate amount of its attention on human behavior and beliefs. Rather than working within carefully constructed boundaries and methodologies established by researchers, it broadly generalizes entire fields of academic expertise and dismisses many of them as inferior. With scientism, you will regularly hear explanations that rely on words like “merely”, “only”, “simply”, or “nothing more than”. Scientism restricts human inquiry.

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can't catch in his nets does not exist.17 Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Notes

1. "Un savant, mes amis, est un homme qui prévoit; c’est par la raison que la science donne le moyen de prédire qu’elle est utile, et que les savants sont supérieurs à tous les autres hommes." Translated into English by Valence Ionescu in The Political Thought of Saint-Simon. Oxford University Press, 1976. Page 76
2. Olson, Richard G. Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2008.
3. Sorell, Tom. Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science. New York: Routledge, 1991.
4. Hutchinson, Ian. Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism. Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011.
5. Descartes, Rene. Discourse on Method
6. Sorell, p176
7. Sorell, p35
8. Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1988.
9. Zammito, John H. A Nice Derangement of Epistemes : Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
10. This view is a form of strict determinism, and current popularizers of continue to enthusiastically endorse it. Perhaps they are “determined” to do so?
11. This view is a form of extreme reductionism, also widely endorsed by current popularizers of science.
12. Zammito, p8
13. Popper, Karl. Logic of Scientific Discovery. 1959
14. For an extended discussion, read Zammito’s chapter “The Perils of Semantic Ascent: Quine and Post-positivism in the Philosophy of Science” in A Nice Derangement of Epistemes. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
15. Hutchinson, p143
16. Hutchinson, p109
17. Giberson, Karl, and Mariano Artigas. Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists Versus God and Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.


Thomas is a former BioLogos Associate Editor. As a science writer, he has also worked for the American Scientific Affiliation, National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.


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George Bernard Murphy - #70378

June 11th 2012

Carl Sagan’s statement sounds particularly idiotic in view of multidimensions and M-theory!

My how quickly the mighty have fallen!


nickmatzke.ncse - #70379

June 11th 2012

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. –Carl Sagan, Cosmos”

Creationists/IDists have been blithely spinning Carl Sagan’s statement as a statement of crass metaphysical materialism for decades, and complaining about it as a result, but it’s not at all clear that that is what Sagan meant.  He was an agnostic not and atheist, and while sometimes critical of religion he was relatively open-minded and had good relationships with a lot of believers.

If the statement is taken to be about the physical world, which is what the show “Cosmos” was about, then that’s a pretty good definition of what “cosmos” means.  Or did you seriously expect him to engage in a long, detailed discussion of “the cosmos is everything, except [insert long list of every random group’s complicated beliefs about ultimate metaphysical issues and deities]”, on a popular science show on public TV?

Although BioLogos material is usually pretty good, including this post on scientism, it is disturbing to see BioLogos authors, on more than one occasion, uncritically repeat this bit of thoughtless creationist propaganda about Sagan’s poetic statement.


Merv - #70383

June 11th 2012

I’m willing to be open-minded about Sagan’s views, but just looking at that single quote by itself, it is difficult to see how it could be given any more open interpretation than just what it says.   If the [physical] cosmos is all there is, then I guess he thought the physical cosmos is ... well ... “all there is.”   If he wanted to be more “believer-friendly” even without being a believer himself he could have said something like ...  “the cosmos is all we can see.”  But he didn’t say that.  Does he say things other things elsewhere that would render this particular quote of his as an inaccurate representation of his own views?  I hope so—that would be cool.  But taking this for what it says seems to snare it solidly in the net of this author’s essay about scientism.

-Merv


nickmatzke.ncse - #70385

June 11th 2012

Merv - #70383

June 11th 2012

I’m willing to be open-minded about Sagan’s views, but just looking at that single quote by itself, it is difficult to see how it could be given any more open interpretation than just what it says.   If the [physical] cosmos is all there is, then I guess he thought the physical cosmos is ... well ... “all there is.”   If he wanted to be more “believer-friendly” even without being a believer himself he could have said something like ...  “the cosmos is all we can see.”  But he didn’t say that.  Does he say things other things elsewhere that would render this particular quote of his as an inaccurate representation of his own views?  I hope so—that would be cool.  But taking this for what it says seems to snare it solidly in the net of this author’s essay about scientism.

-Merv

 

Of course, cosmos can’t just be everything we can see, because we know a lot more of it exists than we can see.

Re: Sagan, see the quote about Sagan’s agnosticism and skepticism of atheism I just posted.

And, re: “all there is”, I think you might as well complain about the word “Universe”, which after all is based on “universal”, and the wikipedia definition of such words:

The universe is commonly defined as the totality of everything that exists,[1] including all matter and energy, the planets, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space.[2][3] Definitions and usage vary and similar terms include the cosmos, the world and nature.

There definitely are good examples of scientism out there, and there might even be some in Sagan’s writing, but I think it is far from clear that “the Cosmos is all there is…” is a good example.


Merv - #70392

June 11th 2012

Well, it’s good to hear that Sagan wasn’t so hard-core then as he is made out to be.  I may not have been one of those “blithely portraying” him as such, but not having watched his show or read up on him, I easily went along with those in writing him off on that singular quote.

-Merv

p.s.  you misunderstood my “...cosmos is all we can see…”  and drew from it  the logical fallacy of the converse “...we can see all of the cosmos.”  (which does not mean the same thing).  But given that my attempt to improve on it still failed to have clarity, I’ll chalk that up as a lesson not to be so hard on Sagan for his line.


George Bernard Murphy - #70382

June 11th 2012

“.  Or did you seriously expect him to engage in a long, detailed discussion of “the cosmos is everything, except [insert long list of every random group’s complicated beliefs about ultimate metaphysical issues and deities]”, on a popular science show on public TV?”

 I don’t know what the heck you re talking about.

 But it ain’t M-theory.

Look at some of Briane Green’s stuff on youtube.


nickmatzke.ncse - #70384

June 11th 2012

I was replying to the opening post, not your comment on M-theory.  It might be a valid criticism of Sagan’s statement to say that it leaves out multiple universes etc., I’m not sure, although it seems a little anachronistic to criticize a statement from the 1970s based on still-extremely-theoretical science of the 2000s.  Sagan might have said that multiple universes, if they exist, are still part of the cosmos by definition.

My point was that:

1. Yes, scientism exists and is a problem,

2. Yes, you can find examples of scientism in the popular writing of scientists.  But:

3. I just don’t think Sagan’s “the cosmos is all there is” is necessarily a good example of scientism.  With more context, maybe this argument could be made, but I haven’t seen anyone do it.  I have just seen it uncritically assumed, in evanglical circles, that Sagan meant to endorse metaphysical materialism with his statement. The pattern goes back at least to the ASA journal in the 1980s.  I think this assumption started with creationists, although I can’t be sure, and was somehow also adopted by the pro-evolution evangelicals.

It’s been awhile since I read Sagan or watched Cosmos, but my impression back when I did was that he wasn’t a dogmatic atheist.  Wikipedia confirms:

==============

On atheism, Sagan commented in 1981:

“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed”.[46]

In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, “I’m agnostic.”[47] Sagan’s views on religion have been interpreted as a form of pantheism comparable to Einstein’s belief in Spinoza’s God.[48] Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator of the universe was difficult to prove or disprove and that the only conceivable scientific discovery that could challenge it would be an infinitely old universe.[49]

==============

 

It’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but I’ve noticed over the years that the  dubious interpretation of Sagan as just-another-advocate-of-scientism is often just taken for granted in certain circles.  So I figured I would raise a note of caution.


Darrel Falk - #70397

June 11th 2012

Nick,

I think you’ve raised a good point.  Does one qualify as subscribing to scientism simply because one believes that science points to a universe that is self-sufficient and independent of the existence of any deity?  It seems to me that there is a difference between someone like Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould  for example and others who consider the matter closed, and more specifically, closed on the basis of scientific data alone.  We could even go further: atheism and scientism are not the same thing, even when the  atheists are scientists.  When does atheism become scientism?  By the same token though, can one subscribe to scientism, while reserving a final definitive judgment about the existence of a deity?

Finally, however we define the boundaries of scientism, can we  agree that it is an over-extension of the data at hand?  And can we agree that because of this it is harmful not just to the scientific enterprise but to our culture, the thriving of which is so intertwined with scientific achievement?


nickmatzke.ncse - #70412

June 12th 2012

Hi Darrel—yes, I think these are reasonable statements.  I don’t think atheism equals scientism, but if someone says “science proves* atheism”, then that’s scientism.

* (or something close to ‘proves’)


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70387

June 11th 2012

In my opinion the bigest issue concerning scientism is the belief that the universe is purely physical, that is matter/energy.  Thus scientism is monistic as opposed to traditional Western thinking which is dualistic, matter/energy and ideas/thought. 

Scientism does not leave out God, because God is not a part of the universe, but it does leave out natural laws whaich are not matter/energy and knowledge/purpose which is not matter/energy.  Also it means that the universe is not rational or purposeful because matter/energy do not think.

While scientism does not leave out God, ala Carl Sagan, it leaves out the purpose of God, since its universe is a one dimensional, superficial, materialistic, random environment.  It certainly leaves out the purpose of humanity. 

Scientism now seems intent upon proving that huamns cannot, led by our friend Daniel Dennett.      


sy - #70395

June 11th 2012

Aside from the issue of what Sagan thought or meant, I wanted to say that this is an important blog post. I think that scientism has become a rampant and dangerous philosophical meme, which has swept through a great number of intellectual circles. One finds it in many TED talks, in lectures by anti theists, and throughout academia. Dawkins, Harris and Dennet, among the leaders of the anti theistic scientism movement, are far more extreme in their views than the slighlty older versions quoted in the article. Even human consciousness has been pronounced to be an illusion, since it subbornly refuses to yield its secrets to “science”. And what ever cannot be so analyzed, cannot be real.

I like the final line of your essay, Tom. The main problem with scientism is that it is truly non scientific.  It is in fact anti scientific. It refuses to admit that anything other than our current methods and approaches to gain knowledge have any value. That is certainly an anti scientific stance. Such a view would have (and almost did at various times) hampered quite a number of the great scientific breakthroughs of the past. Hutchinson’s book is a great antidote to this very disturbing trend, and I hope that other scientists (who know better than anyone how foolish scientism is) will join in condemning this new version of dogmatic ignorance.


Klasie Kraalogies - #70406

June 12th 2012

What those adhering to/professing/advancing towards scientism get wrong is that they are inconcictent. Scientism, by itself, is a self-defeating theory. For someone like Dawkins, or some of the other “great minds” here do is to pick and choose the data to suit their purposes (as a geologist often involved in modelling, that horrifies me no end).

The claim that religion, and by extension, all non-factual accounts should not be. But the fact is that they are. They have been for millenia. Thus artistic expression, as well as religious belief is part of our evolutionary history. To posit an eventual disappearance is forecasting based on personal preference, wish-fullfillment if you wish  :). 

Thus one also gets the preferential treatment of real data to fit their own views - Dawkins’ treatment of the “selfish” gene, over and above the organism, comes to mind.

Honest science preculdes scientism.


Klasie Kraalogies - #70407

June 12th 2012

Excuse the spelling mistakes above - preculdes instead of precludes etc….


Gregory - #70408

June 12th 2012

“however we define the boundaries of scientism, can we agree that it is an over-extension of the data at hand?” – Darrel Falk

Yes, I would agree with that, while also suggesting that ‘scientism’ is not only or perhaps even mainly about ‘data’ (‘resting entirely on facts’). One does not need data to embrace ideology. The term ‘ideology’ was coined by a French Enlightenment thinker two years before August Comte was born, when Henri de Saint-Simon was 36 yrs old; this ‘idea’ of ‘ideology’ was in the air for them both.

That said, I think it is important to note that Darrel’s statement above disagrees with Descartes, who posited that only bodies (or matter) extend (res extensa), not ideas or thoughts (res cogitans). Darrel is affirming that ideas can and should also be said to ‘extend,’ which is a linguistically significant point. If ideologies can ‘extend’ then we have reason to acknowledge the spreading out of ‘scientism’ in society, which Thomas Burnett’s article asserts.

The three definitional examples of ‘scientism’ that Thomas gives are interesting for the backgrounds of those who claimed them: historian, philosopher and physicist. There would seem to be a problem with aiming ‘scientism’ at the excessive elevation of natural sciences because then other sciences are not included in the definition. If nature is not ‘all there is’ (i.e. naturalism) then we have grounds for accepting real, non-natural features of existence. We would then not have to swap one ideology for another (naturalism for scientism).

That said, let me offer an addition to Ian Hutchinson’s definition of scientism: “Natural science is the only real (or legitimate) science,” thus ‘scientism’ often means more specifically ‘natural scientism’ rather than ‘universal scientism.’ For example, the first two sentences above of Burnett’s section on ‘The Enlightenment’ show how easy it is linguistically to conflate ‘natural science’ with ‘science.’

On positivism, these are 2 helpful paragraphs. Let it be remembered that Comte first used the term ‘social physics,’ before switching to ‘sociology’ because that term was already used by someone else. If I interpret him as he means to be interpreted, then I agree with Thomas that ‘naturalistic philosophy’ and ‘naturalistic humanities’ are a negative perspective fuelled by Comte’s 3-stage approach. Positivism in social sciences and humanities is just as problematic as positivism in natural sciences.

This means I agree with the recognition that “the health of science is in fact jeopardized by scientism,” and would supplement it by saying that ‘naturalism’ is an ideology that supports ‘scientism’ when it is assumed that ‘science’ can only study the natural world. Let the wary reader confirm, however, that this does not mean ‘science can study the supernatural.’ It just means we need a ‘new’ understanding of ‘nature’ that has been obscured by the combination two-some of naturalism and scientism, which this article contributes in its attempt to expose.

The five other ‘-isms’ Burnett mentions – materialism, naturalism, reductionism, empiricism, and positivism – can be delineated from ‘scientism.’ When used in tandem, however, they are most deadly for spiritual consciousness. Naturalistic scientism contradicts BioLogos’ mission.

Would Thomas thus be willing to consider ‘scientism’ as ‘ideology’ rather than instead as a ‘speculative worldview,’ which perhaps both restricts and distorts human inquiry? This post is the first to use the term ‘ideology’ in this thread (and contrary to Saint-Simon, a ‘man of science’ or ‘scientist’ – the latter English term coined in 1833 [8 years after Saint-Simon died] – nowadays can also often be a woman!).

- Gregory


nickmatzke.ncse - #70413

June 12th 2012

That said, I think it is important to note that Darrel’s statement above disagrees with Descartes, who posited that only bodies (or matter) extend (res extensa), not ideas or thoughts (res cogitans). Darrel is affirming that ideas can and should also be said to ‘extend,’ which is a linguistically significant point. If ideologies can ‘extend’ then we have reason to acknowledge the spreading out of ‘scientism’ in society, which Thomas Burnett’s article asserts.

This is a very confusing paragraph—what does “extend” mean here????


Thomas Burnett - #70420

June 12th 2012

Thanks for your insightful comments, Gregory.  You’ve given me much to think about.

I refrained from using the term ideology in my essay primarily because so many people use it to mean “ways of thinking that they disaprove of”.  In labeling something ideology, they condemn it before they even give it careful consideration.  To the contrary, I think that a lot of the intellectual “isms” have arisen—such as empiricism, rationalism, and reductionism—have led to many enduring insights.  It is only when people rely on a particular vantage point too heavily (or even exclusively) does it become an ideology.


Thomas Burnett - #70655

June 26th 2012

Gregory,

You have an excellent eye for history in pointing out that the English term “scientist” was not coined until 1833.  Saint-Simon, writing in French in the early 19th century, used the term “savant”—

Un savant, mes amis, est un homme qui prévoit; c’est par la raison que la science donne le moyen de prédire qu’elle est utile, et que les savants sont supérieurs à tous les autres hommes.

In the larger context of the quote I cited, Saint-Simon was particularly referring to people who study astronomy, physics, chemistry, and physiology.  In this particular case, the English word “scientist” is the best way to render his meaning.  This is particularly clear from the paragraphs that follow his quote—

A scientist, my friends, is a man who foresees; it is because science provides the means to predict that it is useful, and that scientists are superior to all other men.

All the phenomena we know of have been divided into different categories: astronomical, physical, chemical, and physiological.  Every scientist devotes himself more especially to one of these categories above the rest.

You know some of the predictions made by the astronomers: you know they foretell eclipses; but they also make a host of other predictions to which you pay no heed and with which I shall not trouble you.  I shall confine myself to saying a few words about the use to which they are put, the value of which is well known to you.

 

Thanks for bringing up this issue, Gregroy.  It encouraged me to add a footnote to my essay so that other readers could read the original quote in French for themselves.


Gregory - #70675

June 27th 2012

Thomas,

You are welcome. Glad to be of service.

Actually, now I have you to thank because your recent post spurred me to look at some French sources, which were quite helpful for a short article I’m currently working on titled: “How many types of science are there?” It may be interesting to note that the French Wikipedia redirects the term ‘savant’ to ‘scientifique’ (or ‘scientist,’ more below), stating that ‘savant’ is not widely used anymore (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Savant).

Citing Saint-Simon reminded me of a phrase by his former (student) assistant, one of the founders of the field now called ‘philosophy of science,’ A. Comte: “Savoir pour prévoir et prévoir pour pouvoir” – which roughly translates into English as: “we know in order to foresee (see ahead) and foresee in order to be able to do/act.” This takes us beyond Saint-Simon’s framework because it includes Comte’s new ‘science of society.’ Prediction becomes ‘entangled’ with ‘action’ and thus becomes de-centered from its exclusive control over the meaning of ‘scientific;’ some ‘sciences’ or features of science are not ultimately predictive.

In one of French article, titled “In Science We Trust,” the meaning of ‘scientism’ is called “positivism taken to the extreme.” Another response to the question of how ‘scientifique’ and ‘scientiste’ can be distinguished, in French the latter is an ideologue or dogmatist, while the former is not; a ‘scientifique’ is he or she who does good or proper science (in whatever realm, natural or non-natural). This seems to be an important distinction which is not made in the English language use of ‘science,’ ‘scientist,’ and ‘scientism.’

Comte had already used the term ‘scientifiques’ in 1822 in “Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société,” which I read as part of my disseratation research. The meanings of ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ have obviously changed somewhat since then, but I think you and Darrel and Ian are right, Thomas, that ‘scientism’ is (still) a useful term today. It is both strange and ironic then that Nick Matzke (or NCSE) can find no ‘evidence’ of it in U.S. schools!

Recognition of ‘scientism’ (because some people do not even allow it to have coherent meaning) speaks to some of the points Mohammad Nur Syamsu is making about ‘Western science’ lacking the ‘subjectivity.’ However I would suggest the possibility that even in natural-physical sciences, a kind of ‘double hermeneutic’ is necessarily present because, as Simon Glynn notes, there are “interpretive preconceptions informing our perceptions”. Iow, no ‘natural-physical scientist’ qua ‘scientist’ qua ‘person’ can possibly be completely ‘objectivistic’ or ‘pure’ in the way he or she ‘does science.’ This was the revolution in thought that Comte’s inclusion of sociology (rather than ‘social physics’) as the ‘final science’ offered; it brings into account the ‘pouvoir’ (the being able to do/act) in addition to the ‘being’ without reflection.

For Comte there were 6 scientific fields: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and sociology. By involving humanity as a ‘reflexive’ ‘subject/object’ of study, a new discussion of ‘science’ as ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’ is enabled. But at the same time that some people do not allow ‘scientism’ to have a meaning, still others continue to separate the meaning of ‘science’ into being a ‘naturalistic’ study of reality, rather than a ‘realistic’ study of the universe beyond the reach of ‘naturalism,’ i.e. including the study of human beings created in the image of God. That is partly why ‘scientism’ today seems to have become synonymous with anti-spiritual, ‘dehumanising’ or ‘disenchanted.’


Gregory - #70677

June 27th 2012

cont’d:

I’m curious then what you would say, Thomas, to how (your) philosophy of science today views Saint-Simon’s statement that: “scientists are superior to all other men.” Are scientists (savants) really not superior to all other men and women, or if so, in what ways are they superior? Is this why you call ‘scientism’ a ‘speculative worldview’? Let me acknowledge up-front that I reject both Comte’s position regarding sociology as the ‘final science’ (according to scientific classification) and the creation of a new ‘religion of humanity’ (with positive priesthood) based on the scientific attitude. 

For those who might like to follow-it-up, this page gives a good introduction to Comte: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/comte/


Gregory - #70409

June 12th 2012

Sy,

Here is a link to a TEDx talk by a non-anti-theist, which may interest you:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t85d6Bh9Nys

It deals with two ideologies, while ‘scientism’ lurks in the background.

Gregory

p.s. uggh to ‘meme-talk,’ yet another ideology at play


sy - #70416

June 12th 2012

Thanks for the link Gregory. I used the word meme on purpose, to see what reaction I might get.


David Scott Lewis - #70411

June 12th 2012

For a better take on this, see Philip Kitcher’s piece on scientism that appeared last month in TNR.  Dr. Kitcher holds an endowed chair in philosophy at Columbia.


Thomas Burnett - #70421

June 12th 2012

When I did the research for my essay back in the fall, I was disappointed how little academic literature touched on this topic.  I was glad to see Kitcher write something accessible for a non-specialist audience.

To add to this “further reading” list, I’d also point out philosophy professor Edward Feser’s two-part essay Blinded by Scientism and Recovering Sight after Scientism


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70426

June 13th 2012

Interesting comments, but I still say that scientism basically stands or falls based on its belief in monism, that is nothing exists except matter/energy.  Thus the only real way to counter scientism is to show that Reality is “empiricly” more than matter/energy, which no one wants to do.


GJDS - #70473

June 15th 2012

I think we should distinguish between scientific knowledge, knowledge in general, with what is theological in thatg we discuss God.

I understand that people wish to make an ‘-ism’ out of the scientific method, and we are left with the problem of (in laymen’s terms) how to ‘think about thinking’.

Whatever ‘-ism’ people use, we are all left with the view of how we come to a belief. This may be a ‘not-belief’ in God, or an unbelievable description of a being termed god. Using science to provide proofs of the idea of god is an untenable. To ‘know’ about God requires that what is known is comprehended and would form part of the context of a human’s awareness. The meaning of ‘God’ is a being with attributes of all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise, eternal, unlimited by space and time, and so on. Yet it is not possible for a human being to empirically know or identify something would fit these attributes. One may point to the universe as infinite and be satisfied in this way that such an attribute is known, without necessarily knowing about God. Meaning for a human being, however, requires that it be within and part of the person, otherwise knowledge can only be of an object - such knowledge derives its meaning from sense responses to that object.

Meaning may be attributed to an idea that would be intelligently constructed as an idea of god. This would be a synthesis of an idea and could not be God…...

....... (i cannot complete my comment and have attached the remainder in the next entry.)


GJDS - #70474

June 15th 2012

... the remainder ....

A human may use words correctly in that language; using the word god in a culture may have an accepted meaning, or conversely as not accepted. However, such methods cannot be valid, since God in total meaning contradicts human synthesis. It is part of Christianity proper to view such a synthesis as insufficient. It may appear that the term ‘god’ can be put as a question for philosophical discussions, but a negative response is obtained to the question, in that a human being cannot synthetically nor intuitively say the word ‘God’. The meaning cannot originate from a human being. Christianity proposes that the meaning of God has been received from people who testify to have used the word God in a way that has meaning to them. Their testimony is that God has revealed himself to them and thus God has made himself known to them. The meaning that they communicate originates from God. This meaning cannot be derived in any manner from a human being but it may be communicated amongst human beings - the meaning is communicated by the use of words and symbols. The meaning is within God himself, since only he can be that meaning.


Gregory - #70480

June 16th 2012

Nick Matzke asked: “what does “extend” mean here????”

 

It means that not just physical and/or material substances ‘extend,’ but also ideas, thoughts, information, even spirit (granting that most people globally believe in the real existence of something called ‘spirit’). <b>Do you believe in spiritual reality and its extension, Nick?</b>

 

This language signifies something powerful against dehumanisation and dispiriting ideologies, which are arguably demonstrated generally, if not always specifically, by NCSE. It is encouraging that you were provoked (confused) enough by the term to add four question marks in your statement, Nick!

 

“Thanks for your insightful comments, Gregory. You’ve given me much to think about.” – Thomas Burnett

 

You’re welcome, Thomas. I was spurred by your thread also. It is good to see someone interested and trained in philosophy of science active and posting on BioLogos.

 

“so many people use it to mean “ways of thinking that they disaprove of”. In labeling something ideology, they condemn it before they even give it careful consideration.” – Thomas

 

Yes, this is an unfortunate current situation wherein the original meaning of ‘ideology’ – the science of ideas – has been lost in the discourse. If one defines ‘ideology’ as the systematic ordering of ideas, then a less negative and not necessarily condemning attitude toward it can take hold. Legitimate care and consideration can be given to ideology instead of defensive dismissal. Iow, we don’t need to bow to Marx, Adorno or Horkheimer’s meaning of ‘ideology’ when Comte de Tracy and Charles Taylor’s view is also available, (re-)dressed in contemporary understanding. I would argue we all inevitably have ideologies that shape our views of the world; and if that can be accepted, then confronting ideology is a way of understanding who we are and what we believe, including important insights into science, philosophy and religion dialogue (polyphony).

 

“It is only when people rely on a particular vantage point too heavily (or even exclusively) does it become an ideology.” – Thomas

 

Yes, that’s a helpful clarification. Would you then say, given the qualification of peoples’ possible misunderstanding due to a negative view of ideology, that ‘scientism’ counts as an ‘ideology,’ i.e. that some or even many people rely on natural sciences too heavily for what counts as valid knowledge in our ‘scientific age’ (cf. Polkinghorne)?

 

“Thanks for the link Gregory. I used the word meme on purpose, to see what reaction I might get.” – sy

 

You’re welcome, sy. Hopefully you found something new or insightful there. I wonder what was behind using the term ‘meme’ if it was just to “see what reaction” you might get. Do you personally advocate the term ‘meme’ and its intended meaning; do you qualify it or reject it, approve or disapprove of it?

 

When you suggest that “scientism has become a rampant and dangerous philosophical meme, which has swept through a great number of intellectual circles,” how should people interpret your position about it? If memory serves correctly, you are a practising natural scientist. If that is true, we can now also confirm that you reject ‘scientism,’ while at the same time also uplifting ‘natural sciences’ somehow above other types of knowledge. Is that fair to say?

 

As neither Thomas nor I (nor most other people) are ‘practising’ natural scientists, I wonder if you would add your voice, sy, to help caution against whatever tendencies there might be to elevate ‘science’ beyond its proper or legitimate realm of significance. Do you speak out against science turning into ideology in your workplace?

 

Thanks to David Scott Lewis for including the link to Philip Kitcher’s recent journalistic piece on “The Trouble with Scientism.”

 

“culture appears to be at some level autonomous and in some sense irreducible, and this is what scientism cannot grasp.” – Kitcher


nickmatzke.ncse - #70501

June 17th 2012

It means that not just physical and/or material substances ‘extend,’ but also ideas, thoughts, information, even spirit (granting that most people globally believe in the real existence of something called ‘spirit’). <b>Do you believe in spiritual reality and its extension, Nick?</b>

This language signifies something powerful against dehumanisation and dispiriting ideologies, which are arguably demonstrated generally, if not always specifically, by NCSE. It is encouraging that you were provoked (confused) enough by the term to add four question marks in your statement, Nick!

I’m afraid I asked the question because I couldn’t make heads or tails of your paragraph.   I don’t even really get what you mean when you say that material things “extend”.  Does that mean that they have length, width, etc.?  And if so, what would it mean to then say that ideas, ideologies, spiritual things, etc., also “extend”?  I am mostly interested because you seemed to be referring to Descartes etc. and I hadn’t heard of this phrasing before.

PS: I don’t think NCSE pushes any dispiriting ideologies, just standard mainstream science, the same science promoted by BioLogos, but that’s a debate for a different thread.


GJDS - #70504

June 17th 2012

The closest I can come to understanding ‘extend’ is (I think) a pre-Kantian view of space, as being extension of bodies. I do not think anyone used the term for ideas, although logic may use this to deal with a range of a concept. Thus bodies or matter extend and I presume bring about space between them. This may be discussed by Descarte who probably uses it as a property of matters as occupying space; he also talked of a vacuum in some way being formed by a body, but now within matter.


Gregory - #70518

June 18th 2012

Hi Folks,

Sorry for the formatting problems; still trying to figure out that part. I wrote a message yesterday to nickmatzke.ncse, but it obviously didn’t post.

Let me first say again that I’m pleased to see someone trained in philosophy of science posting here at BioLogos, especially on the topic of ‘scientism.’ Going further with sy’s use of the term ‘meme’ (while awaiting his response to why he used it in the first place, if he disapproves of it), one could argue that Dawkins’ ‘memetics’ is one of the most blatant examples of ‘scientism’ on display today, where ‘natural science is valued higher than other branches of learning.’ In other words, the presumption that an ethologist/biologist could, should or ought to come up with a theory about ‘culture’ and expect that people would embrace it (and some even have!) is almost beyond the pale in terms of pretentiousness.

This meaning of ‘scientism’ suggested wrt ‘memes’ corresponds with the definition provided by Thomas Burnett from Tom Sorell above: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” Almost the entire field of sociobiology is/was an example of ‘scientism’ according to this definition.

Ludwig von Mises dedicated a chapter to “The Challenge of Scientism” in his Theory and History (1957) (http://mises.org/th/chapter11.asp). Friedrich von Hayek spoke about ‘the scientistic attitude’ in his 1974 Bank of Sweden prize in the name of Alfred Nobel speech. An additional ‘older’ definition of ‘scientism’ than the ones Thomas provided: “the profoundly unscientific attempt to transfer uncritically the methodology of the physical sciences to the study of human action.” – Murray Rothbard (http://mises.org/daily/2074)

Nowadays a few natural scientists are starting to come around to question and even to challenge ‘scientism,’ e.g. Ard Louis and Ian Hutchinson here at BioLogos. Meanwhile, the vast majority of natural scientists still seem to view it as simply anti-scientific grumbling and as a threat to their disciplinary sovereignty. The ‘trickle-down’ effect has not yet reached most natural scientists on the topic of ‘scientism.’

Since sy, if I remember correctly, is a practising natural scientist, and so is nickmatzke.ncse, I wonder if they would say more about the interpretation(s) they and their colleagues give to ‘scientism.’ Do they see it as a legitimate topic, as a term with authentic meaning describing a real condition or viewpoint help by some persons in the Academy? It seems we really do need to hear more from natural and physical scientists themselves on this topic and if they are ready to allow that ideology (or ‘speculative worldview’) can and sometimes does influence science.

The major problem I find with Hutchinson’s definition above is that it drops any reference to culture, society or politics – to humanity – which is present in the other two definitions provided by Thomas. Isn’t any definition of ‘scientism’ somehow lacking if it doesn’t include the oppressed, but just speaks of the oppressor? My concern is not as much with the most common definition of ‘scientism,’ “science is the only source of human knowledge,” but rather with the less common, but equally or more important definition, that also highlights imbalances in the Academy between fields, including between science, philosophy and religion/theology/faith that ‘scientism’ (among other ‘over-extensions’) appears to have caused/effected.


Gregory - #70519

June 18th 2012

Cont’d (also wrt GJDS’ comments):

In regard to ‘extension,’ let me direct nickmatzke.ncse’s attention to the notion that ‘the essence of matter is extension’ in Descartes (here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/descartes/). That should help him to ‘make heads or tails’ of the paragraph I wrote above, likewise perhaps allowing him to acknowledge Darrel Falk’s position in saying that ‘scientism’ “is an over-extension of the data at hand.” In other words, ‘extending’ beyond the data involves ideas, thoughts, meanings, beliefs, etc. none of which can be reduced to ‘matter-alone.’ They require mind, which Descartes separated from matter with his dualism between res extensa and res cogitans. Does this assist with why I highlighted Darrel’s words?

“what would it mean to then say that ideas, ideologies, spiritual things, etc., also ‘extend’?” – nickmatzke.ncse

It means that (the study of) material and physical things hold(s) no ‘hegemony’ or ‘privilege’ on the topic of extension anymore. It means that the ‘extended’ (i.e. spread out) ideologies that Thomas listed – materialism, naturalism, reductionism, empiricism, and positivism – are just as challengeable and even collapse-able as are scientism and evolutionism (see Ard Louis’ work on ‘evolutionism’ here at BioLogos). It means that ‘ideational culture’ is alive and well in contrast with ‘sensate culture’ (P. Sorokin). This seems to be part of BioLogos’ mission, to promote ‘faith’ in addition to/together with ‘science.’ It may also partly explain why this thread putting ‘scientism’ in its place was written and posted here – to invite discussion of the reality of ideas and knowledge outside of ‘scientific’ realms. Thomas’ comments about his reasons for writing the piece are of course most welcome!

To Thomas I would like to ask: do you view ‘scientism’ as an inspiring or dispiriting ‘speculative worldview’ or ‘ideology’? Is ‘scientism’ as you view it not ‘dispiriting’ or ‘dehumanising’ in any way?

I am glad to hear the opinion expressed (in #70501) that NCSE doesn’t push any ‘dispiriting ideologies.’ Would you say then if NCSE has taken any particular kind of stand wrt ‘scientism,’ Nick? Could you please direct us to any resources currently available on the NCSE website that explicitly explains the NCSE’s views about ‘scientism’? If NCSE is in fact against ‘scientism,’ then where can the position stating this be observed? The old expression, ‘if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem’ seems relevant on this topic.


nickmatzke.ncse - #70524

June 18th 2012

I am glad to hear the opinion expressed (in #70501) that NCSE doesn’t push any ‘dispiriting ideologies.’ Would you say then if NCSE has taken any particular kind of stand wrt ‘scientism,’ Nick? Could you please direct us to any resources currently available on the NCSE website that explicitly explains the NCSE’s views about ‘scientism’? If NCSE is in fact against ‘scientism,’ then where can the position stating this be observed? The old expression, ‘if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem’ seems relevant on this topic.

There are an infinite number of problems in the world, NCSE is not required to address all of them.  It has a focused mission, and that is to defend high-quality science education in the public schools.  It is not trying to solve everyone’s problems on every issue.  There is essentially zero evidence of “scientism” in public schools and public school textbooks. 

That said, scientism does come up in discussions of popular interpretations (or misinterpretations) of evolution.  If you google the NCSE website you will find numerous discussions that are aware of scientism and critical of it insofar as it is a real problem (sometimes creationists use the accusation without warrant, of course):

http://tinyurl.com/7bto7p7

 

Since sy, if I remember correctly, is a practising natural scientist, and so is nickmatzke.ncse, I wonder if they would say more about the interpretation(s) they and their colleagues give to ‘scientism.’ Do they see it as a legitimate topic, as a term with authentic meaning describing a real condition or viewpoint help by some persons in the Academy? It seems we really do need to hear more from natural and physical scientists themselves on this topic and if they are ready to allow that ideology (or ‘speculative worldview’) can and sometimes does influence science.

As for science departments…it is almost impossible to convey just how different actual evolutionary science is from the impression you get about it from those who are obsessed with theological/philosophical problems, scientism, morality, etc.   I’ve been in the evolutionary biology department for five years now at UC Berkeley, and I think I have never heard the word “scientism” uttered, nor any topic that would raise the issue.  We don’t sit around in biology departments plotting to overthrow God, take over morality with naturalistic science, cannabalize the social sciences, etc.  We really don’t.  It’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.  We run around and catch frogs and measure plants and sequence DNA and write programs and do statistical analysis.  The mixing of evolution with philosophy, theology, morality, etc. is almost entirely happening in popular trade books, blogs, etc., and has almost nothing to do with what actually happens in actual science departments (or science textbooks, for that matter).  You could go to an architecture department or a chemistry department and find a similar, near-zero, level of discussion of philosophical and theological issues.  The one thing you do get in evolution departments is occasional jokes and cartoons-on-the-doors about creationists, but the creationists have made rather a habit of goring our ox.

It’s a *huge* mistake to confuse what you read works by a few provacative popular writers for what is going on in the actual science.  For every book by Dawkins or Dennett or someone similar putting forward some grand metaphysical vision tied to evolution, there are probably hundreds of popular biology trade books that don’t do this, and literally thousands of articles and professional science books which are strictly about biology and nothing else.

Note: the “.ncse” in my email is just residual since I made the google account back when I worked at NCSE, and nickmatzke was taken. I do not currently work for NCSE and my views are my own, not NCSE’s.


GJDS - #70528

June 18th 2012

I agree with these comments; the theory of evolution has not, as far as I can remember, been discussed during my research activities which included collaboration with other disciplines (chemistry, physics, geochemistry, chemical engineering). This means we could not see anything controversial, nor relevant, in the theory. As I understand the matter, molecular biology has made inroads that interest organic chemists whose interests overlap with biochemists, and I assume the theory would have relevance to them. One reason I have followed these interesting postings on biologos is because of the extarordinary focus shown on evolutionary efforts.

As for ‘scientism’ (an odd term to my way of thinking), most of the ‘material’ I have seen has been from atheists who have taken upon themselves the mantle and authority of science for their odd agenda. I still cannot understand how a rational human being can make so much noise about things they do not believe in! (excues my many typing errors; when I use this space without spell check I know there are many). 


Gregory - #70548

June 20th 2012

“There is essentially zero evidence of “scientism” in public schools and public school textbooks.” – Nick Matzke

This raises an important question: What would (possibly) count as ‘evidence of scientism’ to you, Nick (let’s leave whatever ‘essentially’ means aside for the moment)? That is partly why I broached the topic of ‘extension’ – because for those who think that ideas don’t ‘extend,’ it is much more difficult to realise that ‘scientism’ could (have) spread out among natural scientists. If it has or does, this would make it worth seriously considering ‘scientism’ in the USA for its effects on students’ and other citizens’ lives.

For those who think the only things we have ‘evidence’ for are physical or material, i.e. the mark of a ‘sensate’ culture (cf. Sorokin above), evaluating what people think, feel and believe becomes somehow ‘less important’ for humanity. It becomes easy to dismiss or leave out discussion of the ‘extension’ of these things, if the only thing that spreads out is physical, material or biological (bodily) existence. This leads to what has been called ‘dehumanisation,’ which could be equated with disqualifying the ‘faith’ in BioLogos’ ‘science and faith’ focus.

Do you accept the (legitimacy of the) category of ‘faith’ in BioLogos’ mission, Nick?

If the topic of ‘scientism’ that Thomas Burnett has raised and which many others have written about were ‘just a matter of opinion,’ then it would indeed be difficult to find *any* evidence of it in people’s minds and attitudes, in their teaching style or in their personal beliefs. If, otoh, we can ‘measure’ the influence of an ‘ideology’ such as ‘scientism’ or ‘materialism’ or ‘consumerism’ or ‘pragmatism’ in peoples’ minds and attitudes, then we’re in a different ball park of discourse from what NCSE seems to be proposing. What NCSE (or in this case, Nick, a former NCSE employee) says ‘doesn’t exist,’ thus might actually exist in their blind spot.

As it turns out, I did a search of NCSE for ‘scientism’ *before* posting my message to Nick. NCSE’s comments on ‘scientism’ are usually found in ‘reviews’ of other literature, including attacks on Christian creationism. I read nothing direct or clear on NCSE’s website that indicated it has paid attention as an institution to abuse of science by scientistic ideology. All that was there were a few statements suggesting that ‘scientism’ might possibly be a problem or that ‘scientism’ is in fact deemed to be a real problem by various people, but without consequence for NCSE as an organisation, which is innocent of abuses strictly because it is concerned with promoting ‘good science.’ Nick’s “NCSE is not required to address all of them” is an example of ‘innocent by good intentions’ thinking, which draws no distinction between ‘good science’ and ‘abuse of good science.’

‘Scientism,’ by Thomas’ assessment as well as Darrel’s, Ard’s, Ian’s and my own, however, is not ‘good science’ but abuse of science. Why then would NCSE not be interested in it unless it believed ‘scientism’ was a mere myth and not reality widespread in the United States? I can offer one answer to this: because if you deny its reality, this makes it more convenient to perpetuate the myth, to “convince the world it doesn’t exist.” Ideology is for non-scientists, not for scientists.

Based on my search, I found no definitive institutional statement on ‘scientism’ anywhere on NCSE’s website. Indeed, it seems like NCSE turns a blind eye when and where ‘science’ is over-extended beyond the data (Falk) into an ideology or ‘speculative worldview’ (Burnett). An easy example of this is recent firings of evolutionary psychologists by institutions that caught them fudging their data…in the name of ‘good science.’ In other words, what evidence is there to indicate that NCSE is concerned with deviant scientists who have in fact become ideologues for their own (‘dispiriting’) worldview in public school science classrooms and at universities?


nickmatzke.ncse - #70582

June 21st 2012

‘Scientism,’ by Thomas’ assessment as well as Darrel’s, Ard’s, Ian’s and my own, however, is not ‘good science’ but abuse of science. Why then would NCSE not be interested in it unless it believed ‘scientism’ was a mere myth and not reality widespread in the United States? I can offer one answer to this: because if you deny its reality, this makes it more convenient to perpetuate the myth, to “convince the world it doesn’t exist.” Ideology is for non-scientists, not for scientists.

Wow. This is incredible. You pick a particular philosophical term, one of many hundreds of “isms” that could be discussed, and then conclude that because NCSE doesn’t have a statement specifically about it, that NCSE *denies* the existence of scientism, despite the fact that its journal contains dozens of negative or skeptical comments about scientism?

Nevermind that NCSE regularly gets flack from the New Atheists for stating that religion does not necessarily conflict with science. Nevermind that it has Christians on staff and in its supporters and membership. Never mind that it is, as a matter of policy and official statement, neutral on religious questions.  Heck, never mind that I personally wrote a positive review of Mary Midgley’s critique of evolutionary scientism, “Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears” in NCSE Reports, 24(3-4), May/Aug 2004, pp. 46-48. No, just because it doesn’t have a specific statement about your pet peeve, you conclude it’s part of some evil materialist conspiracy or something.


Good luck with your method of reasoning. Is NCSE suppose to have a position statement on idealism also?  Dualism vs. monism?


Maybe what’s really going on is that you just don’t like evolution.  Am I right?


Gregory - #70549

June 20th 2012

cont’d

“I’ve been in the evolutionary biology department for five years now at UC Berkeley, and I think I have never heard the word “scientism” uttered, nor any topic that would raise the issue.” – Nick Matzke

That’s a big shame on UC Berkeley’s eVo biology department! It displays the almost complete lack of preparation that most natural scientists have after graduating from University to assess what influence ideology has had and can have on ‘doing science’ and on conveying ‘scientific knowledge’ to the public. It is telling that Nick mentions this (and GJDS verifies it) because it shows the vast need for natural scientists to look at what they are doing within a broader context if they are not to become pawns for potential humanitarian disasters (e.g. bioprospecting, bioliberalism, neoeugenics, etc.) enabled by the power of science.

Perhaps you would agree, Nick, that more philosophy of science is needed in American universities? Likewise, are you not actually wading outside of ‘science proper’ into philosophy of science in your comments by denying the reality of ‘scientism’ among natural scientists, or perhaps among teachers in public schools and writers of public school textbooks? Is yours not a statement which begs for ‘evidence’ that natural science itself cannot provide, thus actually re-affirming the ‘scientism’ in Sorell’s definition?

I once shared an apartment with a chemistry student who was busy in labs much of the semester. Does this mean chemistry students (a step closer to physics and mathematics than biologists) and pharmacists should be trusted with questions of ethics or values related to the (potential) impact of chemistry and pharmaceutics on society, on humanity? Or are there other ‘non-naturalistic’ fields such as philosophy and theology that should be considered when these topics (science and faith) over-lap?

Sorry, Nick, but your statement of ‘zero evidence’ for scientism above sounds similar to the following: “Racism doesn’t happen here,  there is ‘zero evidence’ for it, or at least, I don’t see it when I’m out on the street.” Maybe it does happen, Nick, and for whatever reason(s), you have chosen not to or are simply unwilling to see ‘scientism’ around you. How would you be able to discover ‘scientism’ if it was present or not? If you admit ideology can ‘extend’ I submit that you’ll be on the path to openly accepting the possibility Thomas and I are suggesting.

Again, Thomas, if you are reading this, please correct me or amplify this approach as you see fit. Silence is not golden if promotion of dialogue is the goal.

There seems to be a real issue of will here, which gives credit to BioLogos’ desire to confront ‘scientism,’ through the works of Louis, Hutchinson, and now Burnett. This is *not* (young earth) creationist ‘anti-scientism.’ But it nevertheless acknowledges a problem of living in ‘a scientific age’ and highlights the concurrent abuse of good science by ideology and/or ‘speculative worldview’ that perhaps many scientists themselves (especially, according to surveys, evolutionary biologists) embrace yet seemingly do not wish to consider, let alone seriously to confront.

Gregory (TT)


nickmatzke.ncse - #70583

June 21st 2012

“That’s a big shame on UC Berkeley’s eVo biology department! It displays the almost complete lack of preparation that most natural scientists have after graduating from University to assess what influence ideology has had and can have on ‘doing science’ and on conveying ‘scientific knowledge’ to the public. It is telling that Nick mentions this (and GJDS verifies it) because it shows the vast need for natural scientists to look at what they are doing within a broader context if they are not to become pawns for potential humanitarian disasters (e.g. bioprospecting, bioliberalism, neoeugenics, etc.) enabled by the power of science.

This is pretty incredible.  Have you ever actually spent serious time in a research department?  We are normal people. We come in to the office, we do research, we go home and watch TV.  You have shown no ability to understand the difference between actual day-to-day science, which is the world I live in, and the metaphysical concerns which you are obsessed which, and which are extremely remote from the concerns of people whose day-to-day job is scientific research.


There are opportunities to discuss broader issues, usually in collaborations and special forums on topics that involve philosophers etc., but even here scientism is just one in a long list of things that could be discussed.  Whether or not “human race” is biologically valid, conservation of biodiversity, etc., are way ahead of scientism on the list of things that people talk about in interdisciplinary conversations.


Gregory - #70571

June 21st 2012

Here’s a link to an article from 3 months ago by James Barham on the topic of ‘scientism’:
http://www.thebestschools.org/bestschoolsblog/2012/03/20/scientism-opportunistic-infection/

Scientism: “affects to explain everything by reducing the human soul to the collisions of the particles that make up the human brain” ... “scientism is not a rational intellectual position, but rather a pathology of contemporary intellectual discourse”

Is there any need to wonder why NCSE would not take a clear position against ‘scientism’ if such a pathology was possibly being spread around by some, perhaps even many natural scientists?

To Burnett’s credit, though he recognizes we should “celebrate science for its achievements,” he also notes that “Scientism restricts human inquiry.” This is apparently more than can be said at NCSE.


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