Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”

Steven Pinker has kicked up a cloud of dust with a seemingly mild claim, addressed to people in the humanities: Science Is Not Your Enemy. And he’s right, it’s not! Science is merely an extremely effective method for gaining empirical knowledge of the world, and empirical knowledge of the world should not strike fear into any self-respecting intellectual person. Or if it does, perhaps you should contemplate a different form of employment, like U.S. Senator.

The devil is in the details, of course, and plenty of people have objected to the specific ways in which Pinker has argued that science is your friend, and others have defended him. Here are takes by Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, and Massimo Pigliucci. I don’t mean to add anything deep or comprehensive to the debate, but I do want to make a suggestion that, if adopted, would make the world a better place: the word “scientism” should be dropped from the vocabulary of this discussion.

Now (like Pinker), I am a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist when it comes to language. Word usage is not “right” or “wrong,” it’s just “useful” or “unhelpful.” So the point here is that use of the word “scientism” is unhelpful, not that people are using the “wrong” definition. It’s unhelpful because it’s ill-defined, and acts as a license for lazy thinking. (It wasn’t too long ago that I acknowledged the potential usefulness of the term, but now I see the error of my ways.)

The working definition of “scientism” is “the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.” Nobody actually quotes this definition, but it accurately matches how the word is used. The problem should be obvious — the areas in which science is the right approach are not universally agreed upon. So instead of having an interesting substantive discussion about a real question (“For what kinds of problems is a scientific approach the best one?”) we instead have a dopey and boring definitional one (“What does the word `scientism’ mean?”).

I don’t know of anyone in the world who thinks that science is the right tool to use for every problem. Pinker joins Alex Rosenberg, who has tried to rehabilitate the word “scientism,” claiming it as a badge of honor, and using it to mean a view that “the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.” But even Alex firmly rejects the idea that science can be used to discover objective moral truths — and others think it can, a view which is sometimes labeled as “scientism.” You can see the confusion.

Someone might respond, “but `scientism’ is a useful shorthand for a set of views that many people seem to hold.” No, it’s not. Here are some possible views that might be described as “scientism”:

  • Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
  • Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
  • Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
  • Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific approach.
  • The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
  • All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
  • Eventually we will understand all the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
  • Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
  • There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

The problem is that, when you use the word “scientism,” you (presumably) know exactly what you are talking about. You mean to include some of the above supposed sins, but not necessarily all of them. But if you aren’t completely explicit about what you mean every time you use the term, people will misunderstand you.

Indeed, you might even misunderstand yourself. By which I mean, using vague words like this is an invitation to lazy thinking. Rather than arguing against the specific points someone else makes, you wrap them all up in a catch-all term of disapprobation, and then argue against that. Saves time, but makes for less precise and productive discussion.

Given that the only productive way to use a word like “scientism” — something vaguely sinister, ill-defined, used primarily as an accusation against people who would not describe themselves that way — would be to provide an explicit and careful definition every time the word is invoked, why use it at all? I’m not saying you can’t disagree with specific claims made by Pinker or anyone else. If you think people are making some particular mistake, that’s fine — just say what the mistake is.

I take the main point of Pinker’s piece to be the same as Feynman’s discussion of the beauty of a flower, or Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow — science is not opposed to the humanities or the arts, but enhances them by giving us a deeper understanding. With that, I couldn’t agree more. We can disagree with some of the specific contentions in a constructive way, but lumping everything we don’t like into one catch-all word isn’t useful.

TL;DR: The word “scientism” doesn’t helpfully delineate a coherent position, it unhelpfully flattens important distinctions and creates a false target. We can do better.

  1. Pingback: Sean Carroll on Scientism | The Heretical Philosopher

  2. The problem seems to be that scientists and philosophers now wish to engage the public in the debate over questions which in the past were debated mainly by academic or political elites, and observed, accepted or rejected by the less expert citizenry that comprised most of human civilization. It’s gonna be a much messier, though I think in the end more productive debate, and it’s going to be a lot harder for any one group to influence the others. Scientism is what the less expert citizenry recognize as more of the same kind of pronouncements by the elites as the pronouncements made by all the other “-isms”.

    I think the winners will be the ones who finally see that the only way forward for human civilization will be to respect the individuality of each person’s self identity and vision of the world, and to describe fully the common condition we all share, and must approach with solidarity. No question science can inform us best about the actual world we inhabit, but in deifying the capacity of science to give us all of the important factual knowledge that we need about that world, too many scientists have lost sight of the fact that all humans also each inhabit an imaginary world. A “true religion” would integrate visions for both of those worlds for all people. That religion likely would have no name.

  3. i’ll up the ante sean and state that there is no moral truths … that shoul dazzle the ‘talkers’ for a while … they have no business in science … real science is self-correcting, self-reliant, self-‘judgemental’ … no need of humanities for existence nor the understanding of existence as you are the living proof of my statement .. as you stated so eloquently: … the universe -Truth- does not care about you/us when talking about puny po’ lil’ humans … definition of truth: none … actually when one uses the idea of thruth it is in the form of an adjective/attribute … ALWAYS … one does not point at TRUTH the way one points at a thing that is real- real as we think real is- like an apple … we affirm that what a person just told us is true or not … said person did not, never used truth to maker his/her statement … as a reaction other humans attached an attribute to the said statement … truth is -as a static definition or as close to the definition of something static- and can only be MATHEMATICAL .. mathematics compare something to something else and differentiate both .. take a neanderthal vying for a piece of the mammoth the tribe just killed .. the truth is that one always takes the biggest piece of anything available that would be number one thingie … the other thingie is number 2 as being thingies that exist … it is in my book coming out soon … available in 2039-2040 as i am revising it now .. am a sucker for perfection and i am trying to publish the last book ever ‘needed’ by humans … outside of science of course, science will publish forever .. always a new atom to incorporate .. always a new vision of existence … boy we humans are goooooood … thasnks for being in my time … adore your work … again no brown-nosing here .. you just happen to be the tops in 2013 … keep up the brainy stuff …

  4. My only criticism is to what seemed to be a blanket put-down of US senators. It feeds into “they are all the same” know-nothing Republican meme. It seems to me that there are some senators who are good w.r.t. science, like Franken and Whitehouse. As for the know-nothing senators, we know which ones they are.

  5. “Rather than arguing against the specific points someone else makes, you wrap them all up in a catch-all term of disapprobation, and then argue against that. Saves time, but makes for less precise and productive discussion.”

    Exactly. It’s contemplating one’s own navel and then pretending it’s novel. It bombastic, lazy, code-speak, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” There is no need for anyone to indulge sophomoric fantasies of “resentment,” when the same attitude infects both sides of the “two cultures.” Geez, what a confabulation!

  6. Pingback: Scientism is a mistake | Choice in Dying

  7. This is the first time I have even heard the word. Hopefully, I do not start using the word, since I have just learned about it. :)

    By all those definitions, it is too general. The characters in Star Trek wouldn’t even fit into all of these conditions as they would think that the “supernatural realm” could also be described by science.

    Maybe I have watched Star Trek for way too long, but I am one of those that think even metaphysics could end up becoming a real science one day.

    Given that the supernatural realm is said to exist and not to exist by people at the same time, it may have to rely heavily on Schrodinger’s equations. :)

  8. “But even Alex firmly rejects the idea that science can be used to discover objective moral truths”

    Flaky use of ‘objective’. There are no objective moral truths ‘out there’ in the universe to discover, outside a human context. But there are objective empirical truths about how humans have evolved strong biological preferences for behaviours, and objective empirical truths about how human intellect and culture has adapted, and often distorted, those biological preferences. Some of those objective empirical truths may be difficult to discover; impossible even, for those lost to history; but that doesn’t mean we should continue to elevate morality into the realm of myths, as religions do, or to some untouchable mystery, as some of the humanities and some philosophies do.

    A similar point could be made for any human principles supposed to be beyond science, such as aesthetics.

    The trivial point about morality, and aesthetics, is that the great variety, variability, complexity of human biology and culture simply makes moral problems mathematicaly intractable, when applied to individuals. But then so too would it be intractable to predict the position of every gas molecule in a party balloon. But we can discover statistical data about the gas as a whole. And we can discover statistical data about morals: in Britain, what is the distribution of opinions on what is a morally acceptable termination limit for abortions?

    Yes, this is a measure of opinion, preference. But there’s no evidence or reason for supposing morals are anything but opinion. Hume’s claim that “you can’t get an ought from an is” is really a rejection of the view that morality is in some way an objective reality outside human behaviour.

    In some imagined post apocolypse world, you awake from a coma to find you are the only person left on earth. All brained animals have died, but there are plants, bacteria, and a remaining supply of food that would last your natural remaining life. Is there anything at all left of morality? I suggest there is not. I cannot imagine anything that you could possibly do that would be immoral. Think your worst possible genocidal thought; conjure up in your mind the most depraved abusive act towards another human, of any age. There are no other humans to harm. At worse, for your psychological state, you might feel bad, as a result of your remnant concern for your behaviour to others. But there are no others. There will be no others. And who but you is there to populate your mind with with notions of morality. Of course you are free to invent morals, whether they are based on your biological drives or not. You might quite arbitrarily decide that it is immoral to hop on one leg; or to masterbate. Equally immoral, as far as I can tell. And even if you torture your mind to the point of psychologically induced suicide, who is to judge your suicide immoral, especially when you’re dead?

    Morality, in the complex sense we use that notion, is about human cultural preferences, informed to some extent by biological emotional drives. These are subject to scientific investigation. Even if it’s social science (sorry real scientists). Aesthetics? Opinion and preference, subject to emotional and experiential brain responses, and subject to scientific investigation.

    Science is the rigorous attempt to compensate for the limitations and fallibilities of natural human senses and reasoning applied to discovering how the world works. From simple human natural heuristics to the most rigorous science, it’s all a variation of our one and only way of knowing.

    Mysticism, religion, and armchair philosophy are simply means of making claims to knowledge without any requirement that such knowledge has any correspondence to discovered reality. The pejorative meaning of scientism, the overreaching of a discipline beyond its capabilities, is far better directed to these other disciplines, that are not ‘other ways of knowing’ but rather ‘inadequate ways of knowing that are superficially profound and effective in the eyes of proponents’. They are the disciplines that overreach, to the point even of misjudging science and crying “Scientism!”

  9. Sean, I second, third, and fourth your proposal, but would like to add an additional one: I think the word “simplistic” should also be banned from all such discussions. I can’t think of a single instance where anyone used that word, where their meaning wouldn’t have been better served by simply stating the subtler, more complicated truth that they think their opponent inappropriately ignored. In practice, “simplistic” seems to function as a way for lazy writers to signal to their friends and allies something like: “my worldview is so much deeper and richer than this other person’s, I can’t even begin to give you any concrete examples of how much deeper and richer it is.”

  10. But sometimes the greater depth and richness of my worldview is just something that needs to be signaled! :(

    Okay, you are probably correct, and I’m certainly guilty of this one. I’ll try to clean up my act.

  11. Since Scott has taken everything up to four, I’ll fifth it. But one more comment. Sometimes people who attack “scientism” seem to have in mind the notion that there are reliable methods of discovering facts that don’t count as scientific, so restricting oneself to science leaves them out. But there’s a defensible use of the word “science” such that any reliable means of finding things out is ipso facto scientific. So the real debate should just be over the grounds for thinking that some method is, in fact, reliable. Put that way, the word “science” drops out.

  12. I’ll grant you it gets used in confusing ways but still, me thinkest you protesteth too much… if you’re going to throw “scientism” from the lexicon you might just as well throw out “racism,” “sexism,” “anti-Semitism,” etc. as well… all are ambiguous, broad-brush, weakly-defined or agreed-upon terms that get used imprecisely.

  13. Well, maybe we should add a rule that, every time you get called “simplistic” by someone else, you get one special dispensation to use the word yourself (unless the other person was using their special dispensation :-) ). By that rule, I’d guess that almost any scientist who’s ever tried to explain his or her worldview to humanist intellectuals is running a large surplus.

  14. Scientism is a new word to me, and I wish I had never learned it because from my point of view philosophy and science are at opposite poles in the field of human knowledge. A philosopher knows a cat is either alive or dead, whereas it seems science can argue that it can be both at the same time.

  15. I think that Pinker goes a bit further than you suggest, implying, at least, that science can guide morality: “[Combined] with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.”

  16. In one sense I wish that we could abolish “scientism.” But if we do, we lose the term that implicitly avows, by opposition, a particular viewpoint. Let me illustrate with your bullet points.

    ◾Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
    (Personal experience is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.)
    ◾Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
    (Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be unaffected by the discoveries of science.)
    ◾Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
    (All judgments are acts of the free will.)
    ◾Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific approach.
    (Humanities and the arts are more satisfying when there is mystery.)
    ◾The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
    (This varies from there is no such thing as progress to all material progress is bad to the cowardice that blames scientists because it’s safer than blaming the government or business.)
    ◾All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
    (It is possible to gain knowledge by the unaided power of reason, and limiting it to an empirical enterprise like science is either academic imperialism or a denial of reason itself.)
    ◾Eventually we will understand all the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
    (Important question of human life are to be decided by emotion and the free will.)
    ◾Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
    (Explanation takes all the fun out.)
    ◾There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate
    (There is a supernatural realm.)

    So long as these anti-scientistic positions are held, it will be useful to be discreet in promoting them as attacks on something nasty and unpleasant like scientism. And a careful and consistent definition of “scientism” will never be useful. First, just as not every one who approves scientism means the same thing, not all the anti-scientistic thinkers will mean the same thing. Second, their true colors will be a little embarrassing.

    The Pinker article is uselessly confused.

  17. I see someone dislikes my last comment. Perhaps I should have put it another way.

    Science “knows” that a photon has no mass or gravity.

    However a philosopher can “believe” that as photons come from fusing or conflagrating gravity, lessen the weight of the sun, get photosynthesised on Earth, help increase the weight of the plant, therefore of Earth, the photons must be teleportation agents moving gravity electro-magnetically from the Sun to the Earth.

    I would have no objection to naming the second idea a “philosophism” and if at any stage in the future science verifies the philosophical postulate, then by all means, change its name. Call it a “scientism”.

  18. “…why use it at all? ”

    So long as we agree that there are misapplications of science – attempts to use it to decide questions outside its domain of competence, (e.g., Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape) – then scientism is a perfectly good term to refer to such misapplications. As you say, ‘The working definition of ‘scientism’ is ‘the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.'” But as you also point out, it’s always a good idea to specify what sort of alleged misapplication we’re talking about. You generated a nice list of options.

    What’s too bad is that Pinker joins Alex “Mad Dog” Rosenberg in using “scientism” to refer to a science-based worldview when of course what they really should talk about is “naturalism,” the idea that “There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.” But given Rosenberg’s radical reductionism/eliminativism -“history is bunk” – I’m just as glad he’s embraced scientism as a descriptor for his view – it fits.


  19. deeponics.com,

    Scientist like to think that they know that the photon doesn’t have mass, but it is more of a philosophy. The experiments done to measure the mass of the photon are not accurate enough to determine if it actually is exactly zero, only that it is less than a small value.

    I know a lot of people claiming to be scientist on the web tend to think this way, that they know that it is exactly zero. But, real science is confirmed with real experiment. If the experiment can’t say that it is exactly zero, then science shouldn’t say that it is exactly zero.

    I think of myself more as a philosopher myself, and I think it would be bad for science to claim that it scientifically knows something when it does not. You would just be closing possibilities for a deeper scientific understanding with no real scientific basis.

    Scientist don’t even have an accepted quantum theory of gravity. How could it even know for sure then? But, I am sure it will have something to do with the Higgs Boson, once they get it straightened out.

    There would be no way to know for certain that the quantum theory of gravity would have to have the photon to not have any mass. Then if the correct one says that it does have mass then scientist could just reject the correct theory with no real scientific basis other than we thought that he didn’t have mass when we didn’t have a correct quantum theory of gravity.

    We shouldn’t allow science to sell itself short either…

  20. Unfortunately Ron’s comment sums up precisely why I think a more rigorously defined use of ‘scientism’ is still needed. If we stipulate ahead of time that the only ‘objective facts’ are the ones that are amenable to empirical investigation, then sure, we can reduce morality to a discussion of how certain behavioral preferences are formed. But that stipulation is precisely a defining characteristic of scientism as the term is, I think, most properly used: an assertion that the epistemological framework assumed by the natural sciences has to be wholly determinative for any and all truth claims. It’s attractive and simple, but it’s also philosophically naive.

  21. “There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.”

    I am not clear at all how these two different concepts are related. One could easily have the view that there is a supernatural realm but science can only investigate the natural world.

    Perhaps we should stop using the world “supernatural” too. It is a very squishy term.

    For most on this blog, “supernatural” probably means “God” but one could argue that anything not currently explainable by science is “supernatural”. That could include why the various constants of the universe are what they are.

    Julian Huxley attempted to allow for a sense of sacredness and divinity compatible with science and replaced the term “supernatural” with “transnatural” – “it grows out of ordinary nature but transcends it”.

    The bottom line is that there are some things we should use science for and some things we shouldn’t use it for. From a Venn diagram perspective, we have things science can do and things it can’t do and an overlapping area. When we use “scientism: we are just saying somebody has expanded that overlapping area too much.

    Off topic, I hate this Like/Dislike system. Probably few people actually click it but those that do typically will have some zealot view in one direction or another. Or they are retaliating for a critical comment by another. Pretty useless in my view. I do like the rather loose moderation approach you have that tolerates quite a range of ideas. Thanks for that.

  22. I’ll respectfully dissent. Rosenberg, first and better, and then Pinker are trying to show that the pejorative sense of Scientism is incoherent. The pejorative sense of Scientism relies upon the presupposition that there are “other ways of knowing” facts about the universe than science.

    You carry water for this idea, and subtly implicate Rosenberg when you say “But even Alex firmly rejects the idea that science can be used to discover objective moral truths.” Alex asserts the opposite. Science can be used to discover objective moral truths and, what’s more, it has succeeded in discovering that there are no such things as objective moral truths. When people say that science can’t answer the questions of moral truth, what they really mean that they don’t like the answer science has given.

    Rosenberg”s point is simply that there are no facts about the universe that are knowable in any other way than science. That’s scientism reclaimed.

  23. The word “scientism” sounds like a stupid person’s creation. Something along the lines of untruthitude, queerosexual, religionism, angerasm; some idiot just smashed together a ‘thing’ they don’t like with a suffix and pretended to be brilliant. It reminds me of my ridiculously ignorant, racist, uneducated, southern grandparents.

  24. I might very well agree that “scientism” is not a term to be used because its intrinsic vagueness and because it fosters lazy thinking.
    But what should we say then about the unfortunately so so so common (on this blog in particular) superficial dismissals of disciplines which do not proceed by means of empirical investigation? Most of the times these dismissals rely on ill founded arguments, ignorance of the subject matter, and plain superficiality represented by the use of buzzwords such as “useless” etc. See Mr Ron’s comment above. So yes, let’s get rid of the term “scientism”, but let then also get rid of the term “useless”.