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. Riccardo says:

    @Meh

    “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 😀

  2. 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.) 😀

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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  6. 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”.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    Cheers,

    Jack

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.)

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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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  17. Lucas Picador,

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

  18. 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.

  19. 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?

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michele_Besso

    “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””

  24. Sabio Lantz says:

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

  25. 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.