Scientism 101: Scientism

The last post — for a while at least — in this series.

In this one, I’m going to define what I consider to be scientism. Right now, I divide it up into two main categories, which I’ll call Broad Scientism and Narrow Scientism. There may be more categories out there, and there may be more instances in each, but for right now these are the sorts of things that I mean when I go after scientism.

1) Broad Scientism.

This category involves in some way broadening the scope of science beyond the scope it really should have. There are a number of ways this can be done.

1) Saying that science should be broadly defined to include things beyond the scope of what most people would think should be included in science. So, let me first exclude some cases here. Saying — as is fairly often done in philosophy — that science may be able to address a problem that was not specifically a scientific problem (like, say, ethics) is not in and of itself scientism. Nor, in fact, is arguing that we need a broader definition for what is science because some of the things we think are science need a broader definition to work. What this one means is simply defining science more broadly — like to any form of rational inquiry — for no real reason. So, simply saying “Science, broadly construed …” is scientism unless you argue for why science should be construed broadly. The main reason for my post about philosophy being a better candidate for that broad definition was to demonstrate just how controversial the presumption that the term “science” ought to used for that actually is.

2) Defining science broadly — even with argumentation — while then still giving epistemic primacy to the formal sciences. So, in this case, it would be saying that science broadly construed includes things like mathematics and philosophy but then claiming that facts from the formal sciences prove that the philosophical and mathematical arguments and problems are resolved without any other argumentation. In short, coming up with a scientific result, leaping to a conclusion about what it means from a naive interpretation, and then expecting that you won’t have to do any more philosophical work to prove your point, or ignoring philosophical objections to your philosophical point because “Science says”. This would be a form of equivocation, and so would not only be a really bad argument but it would be one that, in fact, gives science more primacy than it might deserve.

3) Giving a definition — any definition — of science and then arguing that if any field uses any part of that definition that it is also science. So, for example, defining science as being empirical, experimental and rational and then saying that if a field uses empirical data or reason, then it must be science. Or, the converse, insisting that if you use an empirical argument at all, then that’s somehow justification for science, and that any case where empirical data is used proves a point about this debate. Ultimately, the problem here is having a definition that might exclude some fields since they don’t do all of them but then sneaking back in a broader definition by refusing to allow those fields to use any of those things or else they’re conceding something. This is wrong because there is a big difference between a field that is empirical, rational and skeptical and one that is empirical, rational, but not skeptical. If empirical and rational are meant to be the critical components so that using either says something, then that should be specified in the definition itself, and not smuggled in later.

2) Narrow Scientism

Narrow Scientism consists of narrowing the areas of interest or subject matters so that science is the only one that matters. It can appear even with broader definitions of science, though, so don’t think it just applies to the very narrow definitions.

1) Arguing that the only areas of fields other than science that are interesting are those that are interesting to science. So, arguing that only ethics or some parts of logic are interesting from philosophy or that only those parts of mathematics that help model the world in science — generally the more narrow forms, of course — are examples of this. Also trying to justify the use or invention of mathematics solely on the fact that it might benefit science in the future would count. The problem with this is that while that is indeed what might interest scientists about that field, it’s not going to be what interests the people in that field, nor should it be. The fields themselves get to decide what is or isn’t of interest to them, and science is free to help itself to what of that interests it. And if science would like the other fields to focus on something specific that interests them, they could always ask politely and in general the other fields will be happy to oblige.

2) Limiting the subject matter of knowledge to that which is directly about the empirical, experienced world that science studies. So, for example, claiming that mathematics doesn’t give knowledge because mathematical entities don’t actually exist in the world. The problem with this, of course, is that the other fields have their own subject matters, and there’s no reason to think that knowledge has to be about the world that science studies, and in fact all the evidence we have is against this.

Now, are my definitions strawmen? It’s hard to see how they could be. 1-1 is something that is clearly done, and it wouldn’t take too much searching to find places where Larry Moran or Jerry Coyne do exactly that. 1-2 is a bit harder, but some of Coyne’s discussions of free will might be seen as doing it. Give that one a pass for an actual example, but hold onto it as an error that people may well be making, even if not deliberately. 1-3 is one way of interpreting Coyne’s challenge to Keith Ward to produce one piece of knowledge that was not found empirically; philosophy may well have a distinct method from Coyne’s definition and still use some empirical data, so just having the data be empirical would not be sufficient to say anything interesting. That being said, he might there have been reacting to Ward’s argument that some knowledge is non-empirical. However, interpreting it that way Coyne runs straight into 2-2; he talks about “fact about the world” and “fact” interchangeably, but that need not be what anyone means by fact. And I’ve seen commenters at various sites imply 2-1 and 2-2, and Coyne’s list of things he things are “serious philosophy” in his reply to myself and Dan Fincke leans on this a bit as well.

So, 1-1 is confirmed. 1-3, 2-1 and 2-2 are things that a not unreasonable interpretation might imply but might just be misunderstandings. 1-2 is just something to watch out for. But they certainly aren’t strawmen, then, in any interesting way. I can clearly find those who practice scientism, and I think it wrong. So, at least with me, the debate can start with 1-1.

Note that in a comment at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, I was asked if his view of not calling it science but still trying to find some sort of general term for rational inquiry would be scientism. As you should be able to tell by now, it wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t be wrong or at least have no argument for why he includes some things and not others. Not all errors are scientism.

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One Response to “Scientism 101: Scientism”

  1. “Doctor Co-oyne, You’ve Done it Again!” « The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I defined the types of scientism here, in my series on Scientism. I don’t think these are in any way “slippery”, and none of these are the charges […]

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