Scientism

Scientism is a philosophical position that exalts the methods of the natural sciences above all other modes of human inquiry. Scientism embraces only empiricism and reason to explain phenomena of any dimension, whether physical, social, cultural, or psychological. Drawing from the general empiricism of the Enlightenment, scientism is most closely associated with the positivism of Auguste Comte (1798 1857), who held an extreme view of empiricism, insisting that true knowledge of the world arises only from perceptual experience. Comte criticized ungrounded speculations about phenomena that cannot be directly encountered by proper observation, analysis, and experiment. Such a doctrinaire stance associated with science leads to an abuse of reason that transforms a rational philosophy of science into an irrational dogma (Hayek 1952). It is this ideological dimension that is associated with the term scientism. In the early twenty-first century, the term is used with pejorative intent to dismiss substantive arguments that appeal to scientific authority in contexts in which science might not apply. This overcommitment to science can be seen in epistemological distortions and abuse of public policy.

Epistemological scientism lays claim to an exclusive approach to knowledge. Human inquiry is reduced to matters of material reality. We can know only those things that are ascertained by experimentation through application of the scientific method. And because the method is emphasized with such great importance, the scientistic tendency is to privilege the expertise of a scientific elite who can properly implement the method. But the science philosopher Susan Haack (2003) contends that the so-called scientific method is largely a myth propped up by scientistic culture. There is no single method of scientific inquiry. Instead, Haack explains that "scientific inquiry is contiguous with everyday empirical inquiry" (94). Everyday knowledge is supplemented by evolving aids that emerge throughout the process of honest inquiry. These include the cognitive tools of analogy and metaphor, which help to frame the object of inquiry in familiar terms. They also include mathematical models that enable the possibility of prediction and simulation, as well as crude, impromptu instruments that develop increasing sophistication with each iteration of a problem-solving activity. Everyday aids may also include social and institutional assistance that extends to lay practitioners the distributed knowledge of the larger community. According to Haack, these everyday modes of inquiry open the scientific process to ordinary people and demystify the epistemological claims of the scientistic gatekeepers.

A scientistic culture privileges scientific knowledge over all other ways of knowing. It uses jargon, technical language, and technical evidence in public debate as a means to exclude the laity from participation in policy formation. Despite such obvious transgressions of democracy, common citizens yield to the dictates of scientism without a fight. The norms of science abound in popular culture, and the naturalized authority of scientific reasoning can lead, if left unchecked, to a malignancy of cultural norms. The most notorious example of this was seen in Nazi Germany, where a noxious combination of scientism and utopianism led to the eugenics excesses of the Third Reich (Arendt [1951] 1973).

Since World War II (1939 1945), science has influenced nearly every aspect of public policy, particularly those dimensions that impact public health and the environment. Where scientific research offers compelling evidence to affirm a change in policy, opposing parties are quick to wield the pejorative of scientism, hoping to reduce well-founded public warnings to mere fear mongering and partisan politics. But activities of scientific research, peer review, and publication themselves do not constitute scientism. Nor do the policy implications that result from the imperatives of scientific awareness. Policy can be informed by science, and the best policies take into account the best available scientific reasoning. Lawmakers are prudent to keep an ear open to science while keeping the pressures of special interests at bay, whether those interests are advanced by science or threatened by scientific awareness. It is the role of science to serve the primary interests of the polity. But government in a free society is not obliged to serve the interests of science. Jürgen Habermas (1978) warns that positivism and scientism move in where the discourse of science lacks self-reflection and where the spokespersons of science exempt themselves from public scrutiny.

MARTIN RYDER
Copyright 2013 Cengage Learning, Inc.

Bibliography

Arendt, Hannah. (1951) 1973. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace. A student of philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger, Arendt recounts the social and intellectual conditions that gave rise to totalitarianism in Germany.

Haack, Susan. 2003. Defending Science Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. A critical assessment by a logician and philosopher of science.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1978. "The Idea of the Theory of Knowledge as a Social Theory." In Knowledge and Human Interests. 2nd ed. Translated by Jeremy J. Shapiro. London: Heinemann Educational.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1952. The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Midgley, Mary. 1992. Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and Its Meaning. London: Routledge. A general criticism of scientism by a moral philosopher.