Scientism 101: Broadly Construed.

The next post in my series on scientism.

So, there’s been a lot of discussion on scientism going on lately at other sites, and one of them with a very active comment thread is going on at Evolution Blog. And in reading and replying to those comments, I’ve discovered something: I am sick to death of the phrase “broadly construed” and never want to hear it again.

This, of course, started from people like Jerry Coyne and Larry Moran who argued that if we construed the term “science” broadly enough, then it could be seen as being the only valid way of knowing. They use the broad definition to make their claims, and so the standard argument then is that their argument, then, is uncontroversial. I’ll get into that a bit later. But the problem I want to address here is different, and is a matter of argumentation, not content.

See, if you read the comment thread, you’ll see that the phrase “broadly construed” slides into other terms as well. For example, Couchmar comments:

Here is what Pinker says in reply to the question, “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”:

“Yes, if by ‘science’ we mean the entire enterprise of secular reason and knowledge (including history and philosophy), not just people with test tubes and white lab coats.”

V. Stoic: I take this to concern the use of reason, broadly understood.

And eric says:

I guess my only real remaining question is whether you consider it ‘scientism’ when someone claims broad empiricism is the only reliable way of gaining knowledge about the physical world?

The definitions he’s used for this “broader empiricism” are:

But if you’re using one part of your brain to check to see if the other parts of your brain are working in a certain way, how is that not empirical?

Or you can approach the question from the other direction – if its not empirical, that means you aren’t using any physical or chemical process to detect your own brain activity.

None of these, of course, fit in any way the definition of the term “empirical” as it is currently used in “empirical science” or in the “empiricism/rationalism” debate (for both empirical and for reason). The terms simply do not mean that in the debate.

Now, redefining terms isn’t in and of itself bad, nor is broadening them. The problem, though, is that if you look at how these “broader” definitions come about, it’s almost always after a challenge is raised to their argument. The starting point always seems to about science or empiricism or reason as everyone understands it and then when that argument is pushed intellectually the definition gets adapted to try to preserve their statement. Which often results in the statement being preserved, but not the argument. But then they often proceed as if the argument was preserved, when it hasn’t. They adapt the definition, but don’t adapt the argument to the new definition.

But, again, the worst part is that the definition changes only to suit their argument. It doesn’t provide more clarity, and in general no one that they are talking to has any idea what they really mean by the “broader” definition. It’s obfuscation; unintentional obfuscation, perhaps, but still obfuscation.

It also turns the argument into a moving target, because the definition keeps broadening and narrowing as the definition — and the definitions of the terms — keeps shifting in order to defend their position. There’s nothing solid there to latch onto, and so it ends up not being worth considering except to the extent that they think they’re making an important argument.

And that, I think, is the real problem: many of the people making the claim “science is the only valid way of knowing” don’t actually have arguments for it. All they have are definitions and a respect for science, and an understanding that science definitely has produced knowledge. Look over the comment thread and a lot of the posts on the topic and see if there’s an argument for that position beyond defining science and empirical and reason in such a way to hopefully include what they want included and exclude what they want excluded. But without an argument for it, when they are faced with arguments against it all they can do is try to tweak the definition more to make their position self-evident.

Scientism is, in fact, a philosophical claim, and it requires philosophical methods to settle. In philosophy, you do not argue for your position by tweaking definitions until it fits; you tweak arguments until your position becomes obviously correct. I’d like to see arguments for that position, not mere definitional games.

Note that since in a lot of cases I’m wandering into the middle of a debate, this characterization might be seen as unfair. And, I admit, in some cases it might actually be unfair. But I don’t think it so unfair to be a completely inaccurate characterization, nor do I think — given the comment thread and posts cited — that it isn’t good advice to those who want to claim that science is the only valid way of knowing that they might, just might, want to focus more on their arguments than on broadly construing existing definitions. Remember, to broadly construe a definition also requires justification in order for people to accept it, so if all you’re doing is changing the definition it would be a good time to examine why you want to change the definition and what argument you can make to justify making that move.

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One Response to “Scientism 101: Broadly Construed.”

  1. The “Best” Defense … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] — ie using a non-standard definition of science in arguments — as being a form of scientism, and have called Jerry Coyne out on using his uncommon definition of “science” in an […]

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