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.

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57 Responses to Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”

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

  2. Doc C says:

    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. rolandc says:

    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. Thomas H. Jones says:

    “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. John says:

    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. Ron Murphy says:

    “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. Sean Carroll says:

    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. Tim Maudlin says:

    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. Shecky R says:

    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. Patrick Dennis says:

    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. steven johnson says:

    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. Tom Clark says:

    “…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. John says:


    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. Richard M says:

    Sean, thank you for this. I couldn’t agree more.

  22. James Cross says:

    “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.

  23. Jack M says:

    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.

  24. Meh says:

    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.

  25. Riccardo says:

    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”.

  26. Riccardo says:


    “It reminds me of my ridiculously ignorant, racist, uneducated, southern grandparents.”

    This is an awesome self-defeating one-liner! Fortunately there’s always smart people like you that can keep up high standards :D

  27. Gizelle Janine says:

    Aww well in regards to the Scientific Method, well there’s nothing wrong with that I dont think. Its a machine thats been updated but subconsciously we use it all the time! (Watch the red thumbs on this one, kids.) :D

  28. Gizelle Janine says:

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

    Sean: Perfectly put. Couldn’t of said it better myself.

  29. Doc C says:

    @ Jack M,

    “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.”

    If knowing facts about the universe were all we needed to conduct our lives, then scientism would be the answer. Unfortunately, we need to know more than the the facts about the universe. We need to know how to integrate our illusory sense of self with those facts in sustainable ways. THAT is the problem with this debate. No scientist has yet put forth a sustainable vision that can accomplish that. The traditional religions of human civilization have come close, but all succumb to one or more of the flaws of the human condition. A stronger scientific enterprise will surely yield us more potential for the kind of prosperity that can mitigate the difficulties of our natural lives, but it will not by itself yield relief from the terrors of death, of the groundlessness created by our imaginations, or of the insatiability of our desires. Unless of course you envision science creating a new species out of human cloth.

  30. Pingback: Replies to Steven Pinker | Extraordinary Voyages

  31. Stephen says:

    @James Cross

    I agree on ditching the word “supernatural”. And I’ll throw in “paranormal” too as a corollary. Everything in our Cosmos is part of nature and can possibly be studied by science so there is no dividing line between “natural” and “supernatural”. Even if there was some super-powerful entity identified as “God”, wouldn’t that too be part of our reality and so, in a sense, natural? On that note, even if science cannot investigate something, that does not mean it is no longer natural. Perhaps we will never achieve the energies or computational power necessary to experimentally test and falsify Theories of Everything. But that does not mean TOEs are “supernatural”.

  32. edw says:

    Dr. Carroll, I agree with you that ‘scientism’ doesn’t stand for one idea but is rather an umbrella term for one or another of the ideas you mention, and that discussions about scientism should focus on one or another of those ideas rather than deploying ‘scientism’ merely as an honorific or pejorative.

    But I disagree with you about the merits of Dr. Pinker’s article. He is not merely claiming that science is not the enemy. While he is trying to make the world safe for scientism, in one guise or another, he makes precisely those unsavory assumptions usually associated with an overreaching scientism (perhaps views 1, 4, 5, and 7 in your bullet list).

    He claims, for instance, that science has shown all of the major religious claims to be false. He thus assumes that all religious claims are purporting to do what scientific claims are purporting to do. He assumes, then, for example, that “There is one true god” is doing the same sort of thing as “There are Higgs bosons.”

    Of course, lots of religious claims are indeed purporting to do the same as scientific claims – and the former should therefore be held to the same standards as the latter and will probably be found wanting. But it seems plausible that not all claims have scientific purport, or that not all areas of discourse have the same goals as science. To think they do – as Pinker seems to – is to be scientistic in ways 1, 4, 5, or 7 (assuming, of course, that I understand the summarized views in your bulleted list).

    There are lots of interesting discussions to be had about how we might tell where the scientific method should and should not apply, and, as Dr. Maudlin suggests, what sorts of methods of inquiry are reliable (and what counts as reliable?). But we should hold open the real possibility that there are domains where the scientific method is beside the point.

  33. bleh says:

    Scientism simply looks to be used as shibboleth to me. If you hear someone talking about ‘scientism’ you know what sort of group they associate or wish to be known to associate with. Pinning down an exact meaning doesn’t seem to be the aim, just seems to be a rallying cry.

    I had never heard of it before reading a few articles today, but that’s what it looks like from the outside.

  34. Jack M says:

    @ Doc C

    It seems like you’re saying that science is impotent to relieve us of our unhappiness. To that I say, if science can’t, nothing can. There’s no “other way of knowing” that will do better than science.

    I for one will confess finding consolations in science’s verdict that there are no objective purposes to the universe or to life. It’s freeing to realize that, not only do we always choose to do what we most want, we’re not free to choose otherwise. Nor do we have any ultimate responsibility for our wants, since we’re not their ultimate author. We have always done just exactly what we wanted most and only mistakenly believed we were doing otherwise.

    Perhaps much of our unhappiness is experienced as one variation or other of that mistaken belief.



  35. Meh says:

    Ah ricky, ricky, ricky. My grandparents are all of those things; if anything, that’s a polite description. So trust me when I say I know the language and words that people just like them use. Scientism is one of those words. Usually taught during a church group right after a church-made video of why abortion is a tool of Satan. Before reading this blog, I had only heard the word used in a pejorative manner with an almost cartoon-like tone (think Kathy Bates in The Waterboy). There are certain words that will forever have a distorted meaning thanks to the environment I grew up in; that thar is one ‘er them. A lot of people that use that word are using it thinking that they are really stickin’ it to ya; despite whether or not they know what it means.

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    A thorough post.

    Using “scientism” despite having to make an explicit and careful definition every time may make for a convenient label. There are a lot of those around, as Shecky notes. Disclaimer: I’m partial since I like to use it to describe the usefulness of science.

    Also, we don’t all dislike it. I’m with Rosenberg on this, scientism is the way to go.

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @James Cross:

    “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.”

    But that is a theological claim without any observational basis. The stated hypothesis is based on, and plenty verified, by observation. (Eg thermodynamics of closed systems – no action that isn’t a property of the system.)

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    @Patrick Stokes:

    “It’s attractive and simple, but it’s also philosophically naive.”

    Oh no, you did go there!? Right after Scott Aaronson objected to “simplistic”.

    Well, to use his recipe, I would say that is an empirically naive claim.

  39. Lucas Picador says:

    The definition of “scientism” I’ve always encountered — other than a few example where I’ve seen it misapplied, such as in Pinker’s essay — has always seemed stable and coherent. I’ve always understood it to mean some thing like “the deification of Science”. This encompasses a number of related phenomena: belief in the omnipotence of science, fetishizing of the superficial trappings associated with “scientific” culture (e.g. scientific-sounding jargon), irrational distrust of realms of scholarship that are seen as rivals or alternatives to science, inability to understand the actual nature of the scientific method in favour of idealized and hyperbolic notions of the capabilities of science, credulity toward overstated claims by scientific researchers about the significance of their findings, enthusiasm and undue optimism about the social effects of future scientific and technological advances (e.g. techno-utopianism), and so on.

    These behaviours very often manifest jointly in the same individual, caused by an underlying obsessive fixation on science as all-powerful. I have seen these traits manifest widely among undergraduates in science and engineering programs — some of them grow out of it, but many do not. Surprisingly (to me at least), these traits also manifest with alarming regularity among people with little to no scientific or technical education or training: there is a tendency in many cultures (including ours) to treat scientists and doctors as something akin to priests or magicians. As an atheist with a background in science and engineering, I’ve always found these tendencies alarming, not only because they constitute magical thinking but also because they widen the cultural gap between the sciences and other disciplines by turning differences in intellectual methodologies into ideological (or theological) conflicts.

    Accordingly, I think the term as (generally) used is useful and captures something real.

  40. Doc C says:

    @ Jack M

    Science can’t tell us that there is no objective purpose to life, because science cannot see this life objectively. We are always looking from the inside out, not vice versa.

    If we are not the author of our wants, then what enables us to be unhappy because of “mistaken beliefs”.

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  42. Lucas Picador,

    Your comment was probably the most brilliant article I have ever read.

  43. Sabio Lantz says:

    Excellent! Couldn’t agree more. I think many of this sort of discussion is a problem in an understanding of how humans use and misuse language. Words trick us because we don’t understand what they do.

    Arguments about “God” usually share these exact same problems.

  44. Jacques Pienaar says:

    It seems clear from the comments that the word `scientism’ can be understood in (at least) two ways. First, `scientism’ could refer to the perceived limitation of restricting oneself to the scientific method, as seen by those who believe that there are reliable methods of ascertaining facts that are not amenable to science (cf. Tim Maudlin). In this case, the debate should be about the definition of the word `science’ and whether there are reliable `unscientific’ ways of discovering facts about the world. Second, `scientism’ might refer to the deification of science as described above by Lucas Picador. In this case, the interesting question is how to distinguish `scientism’ from real science.

    Since the two definitions above are quite different, Sean’s main argument is supported: we should drop the term `scientism’ and be more specific about which phenomenon we are referring to. Perceived limitations of the scientific method, or the deification of science?

  45. Sabio Lantz says:

    Running to “Scientific Method” is often just as problematic as just using the word “Science” in a way to expect every knee to bow. And probably for the same reasons that Sean delineates in his OP.

  46. Stephen says:

    @Jacques Pienaar
    “First, `scientism’ could refer to the perceived limitation of restricting oneself to the scientific method”
    I’ve sometimes seen “scientism” defined as being quite the opposite of this, as believing in the current paradigms of science as being like a religious dogma, never to be questioned. For example, saying that materialism is true and no evidence will ever contradict it could be construed as “scientism” since you’re treating materialism as a dogma rather than as a hypothesis which could in principle be falsified. This is closer to Lucas Picador’s definition of science as religion.

  47. Scott Wagner says:

    I agree with Tom that when there are “attempts to use [science] to decide questions outside its domain of competence…then scientism is a perfectly good term to refer to such misapplications.” But the real problem of scientism isn’t circumscribed well by who talks about what, but rather by how scientists and their followers go about doing science. What’s missing here are the patterns of scientism that are evident behaviorally. One commenter basically said the flashlight of intolerance and prejudice is better turned on the religious, etc. So what? Shouldn’t science be held to the highest standard, as the ultimate reference? What makes the word scientism useful, across nearly all those above listed iterations, is naming science’s selectivity, bitterness, narrow-mindedness, distortion, assumed superiority, and ad hominem bullshit that we’ve gotten used to in other fields like religion and politics. Those of us who respect science adequately should be better equipped to instinctively recognize the grave damage to our sense of inquiry and truth that arises through misplaced emotion, unchecked bias, and fervent reductionism. One way these distortions happen is a forgetting of the questions one is addressing, or the conflation of them. I see this particularly nowadays in the castigation of religious myth. Scientism, for instance, means assuming that good refutation of specific myth is a well-argued, complete rejection of the value of religion in individual lives (and the elimination of variance as a consideration). Scientism is also a good term for the gleeful superiority in the skewering of religious thought or excesses of the kind Dawkins indulges in. And importantly, the fact that he does good work on religious topics doesn’t negate the damage he does through scientism of this sort.

    Ironically, it’s science that should be leading the fight to ask the right questions, which, I would submit, are not whether religion is good or bad, say, or how bad religion is, or even how science should influence religion. It’s to be found in correlations, differentiations, and dimensionality to all this good and evil affixed to religion, in variegation and precision.

    The excesses that make scientism a useful word, then, have nothing to do with true science- they have to do with unhelpful patterns of behavior and assumptions that overhang and append themselves to the pursuit of science. Precisely because science, in the long run, is more important than religion and politics, it’s much more important to name and eradicate the unhealthy behavioral patterns we drag systematically into the room with good science. And it’s foolish to ignore how tendentious, driven and repetitive we are in those destructive patterns: certainly there should be a catch-all term like scientism for such.

    Any science undergraduate can lecture an hour on how the pursuit of truth is subverted, ironically and systematically, by our Ph.D’s who teach it. They would be referring, in large measure, to scientism. The pursuit of Truth attracts us for powerful good and bad psychic reasons, and plays particularly on our human obsession with certainty. That addiction to certainty has lead to the public fondness for partial science (correlation posing as causation, for instance) as a last word on a given subject- a scientism. Along with the scientism evident in the reticence of those who know better to make clear that their work is partial or exploratory.

    One doesn’t have to be aligned with religious zealotry to recognize the pharisaical ferocity with which we ignore and subvert important truths, to foist other truths that serve our interests more immediately. Let’s call that something.

  48. Count Iblis says:

    I would suggest going on the offensive a lot more. Scientists are trained to be very careful with making statements that may not be 100% rigorous, as consequence we tend to stay silent when people discuss topics that are traditionally the domain of religion. E.g. at a funeral, religious people won’t hesitate to invoke religion, but if you are not religious, you will likely not say anything that will put things in a more scientific context.

    Einstein did manage to do this:


    “In a letter of condolence to the Besso family Albert Einstein wrote his now famous quote “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion””

  49. Sabio Lantz says:

    I stay away from phrases like “true science” also. For lots of obvious reasons to some of us.

  50. Riccardo says:

    Let me expand a little on my comment above.
    I agree that “scientism” can be just a term which is superficially thrown out there by people who don’t like science for some more or less irrational reason. It is also true however, as Mr Picard pointed out above, that “scientism” can be knowingly used to denote a more or less clear set of *philosophical* committments w.r.t. the epistemological/social status of science. Now, if the criticism is that the term “scientism” is too vague and superficial in that it does not make explicit exactly which propositions are thereby considered, I might agree with that, although often it can be a convenient shorthand. However, i think that the use of such a term is at least as problematic as the superficial characterizations that (part of) the scientific communities in fields such as, e.g., physics, give of other forms of investigations, for instance in the humanities. The problem is of course that the vast majority of these characterizations are just offsprings of ignorance, as much as the cry of “scientism” by someone in, e.g., french psychoanalysis, is also likely to be based on ignorance. Unfortunately, the times of the likes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg have given way (thanks also to the “industrialization” of scientific research) to times in which there is a multitude of science-clerks, exclusively trained in a tiny fraction of their field, that carry out their research in complete oblivion of the humanistic tradition which made science possible in the first place. Of course, there are many people in the natural sciences who are not like this, and in my experience they are those who really do original and insightful research. But it is certainly undeniable that some views which we would rightly describe as “scientistic” are widespread. For instance, Mr. Larsson above has stated that philosophy, ontology, theology and literature are storytelling (meaning “useless”), while science is the real deal, of course. Now, these views are much more popular than they should be, and, in my opinion, are generally the prime example of lazy thinking and ignorance, much more dangerous than the use of the term “scientism” by some random critical theorist. Indeed, these views always break down when one scrutinizes the matter in detail. For instance, those who don’t like “ontology”, because it sounds so philosphical (brr…), should maybe look at the work of Barry Smith, or take a peek into the handbook of knowledge representation for AI. Or maybe they could study some formal verification, which is what makes sure that the hardware on your laptop works correctly. Then they will see that one needs temporal logic for that, which was introduced and developed by Mr. Prior in philosophy (CS arrived much later), who did it because he was interested in …. free will and the ontology of time in the work of the medieval logicians. I could go on with endless examples of the utility and interest of ontology, but I think i got my point across. What we really need is co-operation, multidisciplinarity, and respect for other disciplines’ attempts to understand and make sense of the world from perspectives which might be different from our own. To do this, one must necessarily avoid superficially sweeping claims (like “philosophy, theology, literature, and everything that does not have an equation or a linear regression in it”), and focus on the specific problems, knowing that there might be different levels of *explanations*, different ways of approaching it, etc. So let us not only expel scientism from the dictionary, but also from the practice.

  51. DanielW says:

    “Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific approach.”

    I’m a humanities/social science student and while I don’t disagree with the idea in practice, I would argue that that is what most of us, in fact, do (or at least try to do). However, there is a tendency, of which Pinker is the almost perfect example, of imagining that there are quick fixes to solving the problems of the humanities and social sciences by incorrectly pulling over the ideas from ‘science’ (as generally understood) into the humanities and social sciences and saying they are the solution – without often really ever understanding what the problems are. That is “scientism”.

  52. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    “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. … Indeed, you might even misunderstand yourself. By which I mean, using vague words like this is an invitation to lazy thinking. … 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? … but lumping everything we don’t like into one catch-all word isn’t useful.”

    You are exactly right. It is not helpful by using such a catch-all poorly defined word.

    Yet, for Pinker to have a talk with the title “Science Is Not Your Enemy”, it shows that there is an issue much deeper than a single word “scientism”. Science instead of being *merely* an extremely effective method for gaining empirical knowledge of the world, it was claimed by very many as the “only” way of gaining empirical knowledge of the world, and this is the problem. There is no crackpot-philosopher or crackpot-musician, only crackpot-physicist. The problem is the definition of “science” by many physicists. If a theory is not a part of the mainstream menu, it is automatically labeled as crackpot. Then, many philosophers and artists are worse than crackpots but are idiots, and this was evident in the “Nothingness debate”. Why should those idiots not fighting back?

    I do see a major problem in the definition of “science”, especially on two of its terms, “prediction and theory”.

    “Pre- (before)” of prediction was referring to with a “time-frame”. When a “new” data confirms the calculations of an old theory, that old theory made good “prediction”. When the calculation of a new theory fits the old data, it is a “post-“diction, and a postdiction has no scientific value.

    Then, there are two types of theories.
    Type A — a hodgepodge of test data, with the “best-fit” mathematic equation and with many hand-put-in parameters. This type theory does not truly make “theoretical prediction” but predicts from not “fitting” well, such as there must have a third generation of quark in order for a better fit of the known data.

    Type B — an axiomatic system, with a “base” (definitions, axioms, procedures) and consequences (sentence, theorem, etc.).

    As the hand-manipulated theory, the type A theory can always be tweaked to make postdiction. On the other hand, the consequences of type B theory can never make any postdiction without changing its base. Thus, the “prediction” of type B theory is not referring to a time-frame but is about its base. If its base “below (or beneath)” the data’s theoretic-reference-frame, its consequences still “predict” that old-data.

    The new meaning for “prediction” is very important. That is, the “base” of theory B is verified without itself being subject to “direct-testing”. With this, science “could” well be the right tool to use for every problem, including in the “Nothingness debate”, and even the issues of consciousness and intelligence. A not-testable “base” can be verified via its consequences.

  53. Bill N, Science Friend says:

    “Scientism” is the use of theory to explain reality. “Science” is the use of reality to explain theory.

  54. Will says:

    Can’t you say the same thing for every -ism ever? What makes “Scientism” so special that it should be immune from criticism?

  55. Darren says:

    I think a problem we have in debates between scientists and religious types is that we scientists try to adopt and use their language. “Objective moral values” is the most glaring. This is nothing but a supernatural standard that can never be demonstrated. So when scientists attempt to engage theists in debate the scientists paint themselves into a corner by trying to borrow the theist’s terminology.

  56. Stephen Berquist says:

    This is a partial misreading (or at least not a full reading) of the concept of scientism as typically deployed within the social sciences and philosophy. the notion is that “science” (not as a practice but as a concept) has come to be a signifier rather than a practice- that is, that science has come to be seen (in many quarters) as the only legitimate intermediary between humans and the natural, non-human world, and thus is the ultimate arbiter in social debates. this obviously leads to a great deal of bad scientific claims (by non-scientists mostly) and cherry-picking data in order to prove ideological claims about the world within a pseudo-scientific framework (as in how most climate change deniers rely on arguments couched in scientific language)

    “scientism” further, encompasses a type of positivist reductionism whereby (for example) human society is to be understood solely through structures and processes in the brain rather than through interactions with other humans and with the environment. social problems in this paradigm are thus to be solved e.g. through pharmaceuticals rather than through community building and social negotiations. or in the case of Dawkings, assuming that you understand theology and philosophy as well as someone who has spent a lifetime studying it because you are an expert in another discipline operating under an entirely different episteme.

    i respect you enormously Sean, and love your work, and the same goes for most of the scientists mentioned in this article, but the scientific community would be far better served to read a corresponding article from a famous social scientist entitled “social sciences (or humanities) are not your enemy”. i have graduate degrees in both Environmental Sciences and Anthropology from Columbia, and i can say that there is at least as much misunderstanding of positions in the social sciences by scientists as vice versa. ultimately we are trying to strengthen scientific practice, not weaken it. you are guilty of exactly the same thing of which you accuse Feynman and Dawkin’s critics: relying on a popularized notion of a concept without engaging with the body of academic literature supporting it.

  57. Qu Quine says:

    I agree with Sean that the term should be dropped or at least avoided. Some religious folks like to use it as a straw man to undercut the value of science (particularly in education), as if that makes dogma more valid. I have previously written about that here: Straw Man Scientism.