Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 1: Science and Scientism

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Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 1: Science and Scientism


“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.


About the Author

Ian Hutchinson

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.

More posts by Ian Hutchinson