In Defense of Scientism

This article was originally published in Quillette. I have since retracted it due to a marked quality decrease/ideological shift in the magazine’s content. This version of the article is unedited, lacking the additions made by Quillette’s editorial staff. ~ September 1st, 2018.

Nothing provokes widespread horror quite like science trespassing where it is said not to belong. This aversion is so powerful that it can unite the most disparate areas of the sociopolitical spectrum in a righteous fury. The extension of science into other spheres is typically decried as scientism, but the term is so broadly used that it’s often hard to pin down exactly what is being criticized. Applying science ‘out of context’ is too disenchanting, it is complained, too reductionist, too Western, too uncertain, too arrogant. Most of these objections are spurious, as science is not exclusively reductionist, nor uniquely Western, and its notoriety for disillusionment is as overstated as it is perverse. These objections are propped up by a litany of misconceptions about the scientific method and practice, and often make strawmen of themselves by attacking obsolete scientific philosophies.

Looking to the dictionary (Merriam-Webster), we find scientism to be an inflated “trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities);” yet, as noted earlier, this definition is only one among many.  It is also framed as extending “scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern,”[1] or “putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture”[2] or purported to be the “elimination of [the spiritual] dimensions of experience” from serious discourse. Lastly, scientism is also purported to be a ‘blind faith’ in the scientific project. It should be clear that this essay is not an apology for unsuspecting concession to the latest publication. Uncritical acceptance of information is exactly the problem to begin with, and one would hope this to be self-evident.

Extracting a working definition from this cadre of classifications, hereafter scientism will refer to the extension of scientific methodology into disciplines traditionally considered not compatible with it, and valuing hard science more than (but not necessarily to the exclusion of) other disciplines in the search for what is true. Protesting scientism is to claim that science is and ought to be limited, first in ability to appraise the cosmos and its contents, and second in its scope, by hemming science into a few choice regions of study, the rest safely tucked away from unwanted facts or insulting methodologies. The first factual contention cannot be disproved, and the second one ought to change. Science should not be restricted from answering the big questions, from informing our politics and influencing our discourse, and certainly won’t be by hysterical accusations of determinism, reductionism, arrogance or poor taste.

Scientism is often ridiculed as an appeal to excessive reductionism, something that “restricts human inquiry.” This notion is predicated on the view of science as purely reductionist, an unfair charge that betrays a deep misunderstanding of actual scientific practice. Science is a way of demonstrating the deep connections between the smallest of parts and the largest of systems. Contrary to how it is often portrayed, the scientific project is not strictly reductionist. Reductionism is the belief that understanding complex phenomena comes ultimately from breaking them down into their simplest parts. This approach is made by isolating variables, refining the precision and accuracy of observations, and extracting from them fundamental laws, which in turn can be used to make predictions. The purely reductionist approach to science had its heyday during the Enlightenment, when Newton’s clockwork universe reigned triumphant, able at last to provide a rigorous explanation not only for the motion of celestial bodies, but everything under the sun. This was part and parcel with the spirit of the times – scholars imagined all aspects of the universe, human ones, to be reducible to axioms and blueprints; even Thomas Hobbes imagined his Leviathan as akin to an automaton, with ‘springs and wheels.’

Yet, despite its obvious power, reductionism is simply not sufficient when trying to understand and describe many natural phenomena. Take, for example, the weather. Like all natural systems, weather is chaotic, unbounded and is awfully hard to specify completely. No matter how many radar stations, geosynchronous satellites and weather balloons one might employ, fully constraining weather conditions at any time is difficult, if not impossible – and without discrete initial conditions, how can we make predictions with any certainty? In concept, everything can be reduced to physical first principles. In reality, we have trouble modeling the motion of water pouring from a garden hose. Regardless of our level of understanding, the imperfection of our instruments will necessarily inject reasonable levels of uncertainty into our simulations of phenomena.

A purely reductionist approach also fails to appreciate emergent properties, such as life (while composed of many molecules arranged in a certain way, many molecules arranged in virtually the same way can also produce cadavers) and consciousness (one neuron does not an Einstein make). Any real understanding of natural phenomena “requires knowledge of its constituent parts and their relationship to each other, and to the larger world of which the phenomenon is part.”[3] The whole, in many cases, appears to be more than the sum of the parts. While this reflection could be an artefact of our imperfect understanding of the cosmos, for now, at least, science must progress by placing mechanisms in their proper context. These natural systems (life, stars, whole planets!) are ever changing, and sustained in disequilibria by feedbacks and sums of external forces.

This is why the practice of science is not simply fundamental physics, but is broken up into many overlapping but separate disciplines. Ethology, geology and neurology deal primarily in natural systems, not the physical first principles that underlie them; hybrid disciplines, like biophysics, geophysics and neurochemistry exist to bridge the two. Modern science is holistic combination a systems approach and justified levels of reductionism. If scientism is an extension of this dual approach into other disciplines, this fact makes the fears of excessive reductionism unravel. Reductionism is powerful tool; science uses it where applicable, not excessively.

Friedrich Hayek was simply wrong in suggesting that the soft sciences couldn’t be made to meet the standards of the hard sciences.[4] Humans are complicated and interesting ‘systems’ just as much as any other and can be studied as such. Asserting that bias is ineradicable from the social sciences are merely throwing up one’s hands; the existence of bias is not an argument against science applied to human affairs, but rather an argument for it. One would suspect that the goal of the social sciences would be to understand human interaction with accuracy and precision, as opposed to mere reliance on anecdotes and autoethnographies.

Perhaps the shallowest criticism of scientism is its caricature as logical positivism, another outmoded concept of scientific inquiry. The central thesis of this attitude was verificationism, the view that ideas are only meaningful if they are empirically verifiable. This assessment entailed that certain or ‘positive’ notions could only proceed from verifiable sense data. Shaped by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and Ernst Mach, this movement sought to unite all of previous philosophy under the scientific aegis, framed in their own terms. This early-20th-century approach to the scientific method fell apart spectacularly under the onslaught of later philosophers of science – Karl Popper, in rescuing science from Bacon’s inductive framework, dismissed verificationism as useless because nothing can be established with sufficient certainty to merit ‘verification.’ Verificationism is also self-refuting, as the statement positing that only empirically verified statements can be true cannot itself be empirically verified. Positivism, it seems, was too stringent even for itself.

The critique of these ideas as flawed is real and serious, but can’t extend itself to a critique of the scientific project, wherever it might be applied. Science has settled on falsification instead of verification as a superior criterion for testability, and the attempt to cast the one as the other is a conjuring trick of a rather laughable kind. Today’s philosophy of science is critique and amendment of positivism, excising and modifying those parts that are disproven, while maintaining those that still assist in the search for truth. This fact usually enervates still more whining about consistency – if the scientific method was flawed before, what can be expected from it now?

Mistakes are to be expected. While the fundamental practice of scientific testing was no different under Ibn al-Haytham or Galileo, its logical basis was in hindsight incomplete; perhaps later times will pass the same judgement on us. Science is “true whether or not you believe in it,” as Neil deGrasse Tyson acidly put it: a statement that is true insofar as scientific data reflects the real world, which it regularly does, but also captures an essential aspect of the scientific method. Science is, as far as we can tell, the discipline with the greatest capacity for self-correction, and that endeavor can be as meta as correcting its own methodology. Science’s power and scope lies precisely in this methodological Catch-22. Yet this optimism about science’s capabilities should not overextend itself – we should not allow scientists to become authorities. Instead, we should proceed in the spirit of inquiry, as skeptical as the uncertainty of our data requires.

The most emotional and ridiculous of the objections to scientism is the aesthetic one. Science is too ‘cold’ and ‘unfeeling’ in its appraisal it’s contended, an affront to taste, an unweaving of the rainbow. It debases all of the glorious mysteries that once enchanted us, it’s claimed – what “could reduce the value of a work of art,” it is asked, than a scientific appraisal of how humans interact with it? How could the stars, the compass of ages, be no more than immense spheres of hydrogen and helium? Science inflates “the value of quantifiability” when misapplied, comes the protest.

This objection is as petty and conceited as it is absurd. The stars shone by nuclear fusion long before humans arranged some nearby ones into arbitrary constellations. Light began refracting through raindrops long before Keats lived to appreciate it, bemoaning the encroachment of science into the sublime. He was, like all those who object to scientific advancement on aesthetic grounds, much happier to remain ignorant. They insist that the “shiver that ascends one’s spine in the presence of beauty” shrinks before scientific data. Clearly none of them have looked at images from the Hubble telescope, or appreciated the beauty and complexity of a cell. Moreover, would discovering the exact neurochemical pathway triggering the feeling of love rob that celebrated emotion of its potency? One suspects not. Knowledge of how the universe functions need not come with disillusionment – it can even be an inspiration.

Such a notion is curtly rejected by critics of scientism, complaining every which way that it makes them uncomfortable. There’s a petty fraudulence to this denunciation, a kind of vain parochialism that puts human conceits at center stage. Carl Sagan put it quite well – scientific discoveries are the great demotions: “downlifting experiences, demonstrations of our apparent insignificance, wounds that science has, in its search for… facts, delivered to human pride.”[5] Insulting aesthetic sense, unfortunately, is a necessary part of the scientific project – it must necessarily dispel, or hope to dispel, our own illusions. Yet, while science has diminished our standing in the cosmos, it has in turn opened up new vistas of splendor for humans to explore and appreciate, both within the universe, and within ourselves. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” wrote Darwin in seminal work; the pursuit of what is true at all costs and all hazards is something to be cherished. Science may indeed be boundless. I say it’s time we found out.

[1] Richard Olson, Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe

[2] Tom Sorell, Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science

[3] W.S. Broecker, How to Build a Habitable Planet

[4] Friedrich Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science

[5] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot


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