The word “scientism” has been used to describe many things, but primarily the idea that science offers us the only way of knowing. It’s use is primarily critical or antagonistic, a term of derision. In this article I will defend the stances attributed to scientism, or at least as many as I think are reasonable to apply and that I can think of, and offer reasons why they are indeed valid positions and assumptions.
Wikipedia, in its introduction of the topic, sites philosophers like Popper as using “scientism”, “to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.” They also describe it as, “the improper use of science,” to apply to things outside the sphere of scientific inquiry or in appeals to scientific authority. As a secondary definition they describe it as the belief that science gives us all we can know while disregarding perspective and, “psychological dimensions of experience.” With some caveats and clarification I can say that I agree with all of this and still intend to show why it is a defensible and reasonable position to hold.
The first thing that must be discarded in the conversation is the idea that knowledge can be proven logically. Even the laws of logic cannot be proven; logic exists upon a framework of 5 fundamental assumptions that are not themselves logically provable. For example, the law of mutual exclusion states that a statement cannot both be true and false at the same time. You cannot prove this. It makes some amount of sense, but then again we can come up with statements that seem to challenge the assumption, such as, “This statement is false.” Skepticism of this assumption has lead some into creating different forms of logic from the standard, Aristotelian forms that have actually become useful in some branches of Artificial Intelligence research. To expect all statements to be provable, at a fundamental level before they can be accepted as knowledge is not just impossible, it is absurd.
To bring this absurdity to light I often like to discuss a little fact that everyone takes for granted, that gravity happens. We hold up a penny and let it go, will it fall? Most people, except possibly the most absurdly pedantic logician, will say, “Why yes, it will.” When we then try we find that indeed, the penny falls to the ground. Logically speaking it is indefensible to say that a penny dropped will fall toward the Earth. But as we know above, logic itself cannot defend itself. This does not mean it is not useful as we can clearly see that it is, but this is an empirical statement, not a logical one. We know that things fall by experience, and anyone who doubts this is free to jump off the nearest cliff to prove us wrong.
Unfortunately, not all things that can be empirically verified fall into everyday experience like gravity does, which is why we can have so many people doubting things like global warming and evolution that aren’t in an insane asylum. We may get back to this issue in another article.
Popper describes the dogmatic adherence to this principle as “uncritical rationalism”. Many philosophers run into this problem and decide that rationalism is invalid because it can’t defend itself. The problem is that neither can irrationalism and worse, irrationalism always ends in violence as Popper argues quite well. We accept that this is true and move on because to do otherwise is to tread into the realm of unreason in which no statement can be said to have any value whatsoever. Empiricism or scientism has the same problem, being initially rooted in rationalism, but we accept this as true and move on because to do otherwise is to live in la-la land…the land of woo.
Philip K. Dick, not a philosopher or scientist per-se, explains the problem quite succinctly: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Things happen or they do not. Those things that do not happen are not worth talking about. Those things that do are worth examining in detail. Science is how we do this. So, while I would not agree that scientism reduces reality to that which is measurable, it does say that we can only know about things that have measurable effects in the world. Unmeasurable effects are things that do not happen as no effect is intrinsically unmeasurable.
“Beyond the scope of scientific inquiry”
One thing that woo peddlers and meta-physicists try to assert is that one thing or another is outside the scope of scientific inquiry. They assert that “scientism” is a flawed view because it incorrectly applies science to such things to which science does not apply. This can range from such philosophical blunders as “zombies” and “qualia” to the methods by which stellar phenomena can effect the personality of people on this planet or the events that occur in their lives. These people are talking in nonsenses.
Consider for example the case of acupuncture. As of this moment, all scientific investigation of this practice has concluded that it is no different from placebo. What this effectively means is that acupuncture is bullshit. Yet some people will claim that it is outside the scope of science because it works in some mysterious “sprit” plane or something. Further, the claim that acupuncture is bullshit is not “scientifically defensible” because they only proved it doesn’t work any better than placebo, not that it doesn’t work.
There are two things wrong with this direction of thinking. First, if you really think about it, saying that something is no more successful than nothing (placebo) is the same as saying it doesn’t work. Second, our interest in acupuncture is in its supposed biological effects. We expect that it will make us better in some way. It is supposed to cure illnesses of various kinds…a sort of cure-all for anything and everything from muscular stiffness to the common cold. We can indeed observe whether it does cure these things and if so, we can conclude that it works without knowing how. We can even assume that the how is impossible to discover but yet that it does would still be something we could measure. Even the “spirit dimension” can be verified if it has any effect whatsoever. If it does not, then we’re not interested.
This is where the woo peddlers really begin to expose themselves. In order to save their practice in the eyes of rational people they have to immunize it in some way from science, because science shows what they’re saying to be essentially false. Thus they begin to make statements about the immeasurably of this or that and come up with ways that they’re spirit stuff or whatever can exist without having measurable effect, even though the effects they are talking about are VERY measurable. But eventually they try to sell us some stuff that exists without having any effect; something that both exists and is *intrinsically* (as opposed to currently) unmeasurable in anything it does. What is the difference between such a thing though and a non-thing? If something has no more qualities of existence than nothing…that’s what it is.
Thus one must conclude that anything that is anything exposes itself in some way to science. It may be that science currently can’t measure it due to some technological or imaginational lack, but there is nothing that exists that cannot be seen to exist either directly or through its effects. There are many things that science says exists that cannot be directly observed, such as “Dark Matter”. The reason we know that it exists without knowing anything about it is that we can see that its having an effect on reality. So while we can certainly say things like, “There’s a troll in my living room that you can’t see, can’t smell, can’t hear, can’t touch and doesn’t do anything but sit there doing nothing,” and we cannot prove that statement false, we can say that this troll is no different from a non-existent troll and we’re effectively saying it’s not there.
Why should we find things that are no different from non-things in any way interesting? They cannot, by definition, effect our lives in any way whatsoever. If they could, we could observe that effect and then, suddenly, science has something to say on the matter. Ergo, anything that can effect our lives, anything that exists, has qualities of existence that can be observed in some way, and anything that can be observed in some manner, directly or indirectly, can be scientifically observed.
Appeals to scientific authority
If you went to any college-level writing class, perhaps earlier, you almost certainly learned that appeals to authority are not valid arguments. You learned that no authority can be believed simply on the basis of their authority. You’ve come to know that scientists are not gods. They make mistakes, some defraud themselves, the become biased due to their curiosity being curbed by their preconceptions, monetary needs, or emotional investments. Because a scientist says a thing is not alone reason to believe it. All of this is true and yet I will claim that appeals to scientific authority are indeed reasonable in that they are the best we can possibly do.
Consider what happens when you get really sick. There are indeed many people who believe they can know more than doctors, but generally when you get sick you go see someone that has made it their life’s work to make people well. When your car stops working you go to someone that has made it their life’s work to make our cars work. When you need a new software product you go to someone, like me, that’s made it their life’s work to write software products. When you need an opinion about an aspect of reality you go to the person who’s made it their life’s work to study that aspect; you go to a scientist.
The idea that any average individual can make equally valid statements as people who have studied, worked, and learned about a thing their entire lives has grown a great deal in our society. People who propose that an individual needs to have an education and experience in matters of science and social policy before being allowed to run the country, for example, are called “elitists”. This is an insane position though. Ignorance can NEVER speak from as much validity as knowledge.
Being ignorant is ok, we all are quite ignorant of a lot of things. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It cannot be helped. There is no way to fit the knowledge of the world into one human brain or all the learning that must occur into one human lifetime. We’re not big enough. We have to trust the experts over the laymen and as laymen we’d be well beyond ignorant, we’d be arrogant and stupid to consider our own views as more informed, logical, and in line with the data than the very people who have studied that data all their lives. Would you be the kind of person to seek out a layman for plastic surgery?
The great thing about science when it comes to trusting it as an authority is that it has done so well at it. The scientific method was devised to account for errors introduced into human knowledge through the effects of human bias on part of individual scientists or even groups of them. The adherence to data, repeatability, and competitiveness among the scientific community weeds out the woo. An idea that is false cannot survive true scientific scrutiny. The idea may not be the complete truth, and very often is not, but a false idea is destroyed by scientists across the globe attempting to show it such. This is how cold fusion died; it wasn’t repeatable and the studies that supposedly proved the idea were shown to be flawed. This was science weeding out bad knowledge.
In America today we have lawyers, priests, politicians, and bloggers competing with scientists for our beliefs. They expect us to hold their ideas up with the exact same validity as people who’ve spent their lives studying the subject. They even expect their ideas to be taught as science to our children. Nobody is saying that these people are stupid. I might go to one such lawyer with help in legal issues for example. But to accept their views on the same level as a scientist’s on scientific questions is insane.
The belief that any one of us can go look at the data, come to our own conclusions, with the same understanding of a scientist has been crazy for decades. When science was in its infancy, when it was practiced by the likes of Jefferson with as much dedication as any other person of the age, then a person could indeed look at the data, perform the experiments, and come to the same conclusions. Today such an act requires years of college, access to expensive equipment that not a one of us will have in his/her garage, and even more years of experience studying the phenomena. It’s simply not possible.
No other field of study has shown itself to be as trustworthy as science. Philosophy results in numerous directions with no clear indication of what’s right or wrong. Economics can be as complicated as any science but has no clear method of repeatability and thus no clear way to tell who’s right or wrong…and we can see that the study is nowhere near as effective as real sciences. The study of economics is clearly outside the layman’s full understanding and so we have to trust those people in some manner to, but you’ll never find all economists agreeing upon anything. We can never trust them to the same degree because there’s no consensus.
So while rhetorically speaking, rationally speaking, an appeal to authority is a fallacy and isn’t reason enough to believe an argument, when comparing expert sources to layman sources we most certainly must weigh the expert more heavily. This very much is rhetorically and rationally valid. An appeal to scientific knowledge is a valid appeal because we have nothing better; there may not BE anything better. It is currently our only way of knowing reality and it has earned our trust through the advancements it has given us and the leisure way we currently live our lives compared to those of any previous century. “I personally studied the data and came to a different conclusion,” is absurd on its face and cannot be seen as valid in today’s circle of knowledge unless you are a scientist yourself in the same field you are speaking about.
Many people who fear science fear that it will reduce their beloved experiences away. People are so attached to their experiences that they fear reality will get in the way of them, that science will so describe things as to make their experiences meaningless or non-existent. As Dennet so well explains in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea this is impossible.
Reductionism is another term used against science and rationalism as a pejorative critique that has no substance. It is true that when you start to analyze a thing you can dig down so deep that it might seem that the thing you were analyzing isn’t real. But this is simply not possible as what you are digging into clearly IS real or you wouldn’t be digging into it. For example, matter itself once you dig down to its fundamental elements begins to look less and less like matter. As a layman I find the descriptions of subatomic particles and how they interact mostly beyond my reach. I can get a vague understanding of it and see how someone might be inclined to state that matter doesn’t exist. But science itself does not say this thing. Matter clearly exists and is composed of atoms, which are themselves composed of smaller and smaller things.
Another thing people often think is too reduced is the “human experience”. People don’t feel that their emotional awareness of events is described with enough emotion by science. The awe one feels when looking at an image taken by the Hubble Telescope for example, many seem to think that science and scientists reduce this awe away. Of course, the fact that science created the telescope in the first place, that without science they’d still think they lived in a snow globe, may be lost upon them. They fear that because they themselves are “nothing but” atoms and sub-atomic particles that they’ve somehow become robots, “zombies” or non-existent when science say no such thing at all.
The truth is that most scientists appreciate quite well the awe that is inspired by beautiful or large things. They understand quite well, more than most probably, that the step from atom to human being is a very large one with many stages in between. One cannot fathom the complexity of even a cell in terms of atoms, which is why its discussed in terms of Chemistry and Biology rather than Physics. Physics does not reduce these things away, it digs deeper into them. The same is true of studying human consciousness by looking at the brain and having a Neuroscience distinct from the Biology that underpins it.
Eventually scientists will likely be able to describe how the feeling of awe works and why it is there. Is that a reduction of that awe to understand it? When has ignorance ever been better than knowledge? Dawkins discusses this issue fairly well in his book Unweaving the Rainbow by explaining why knowing how light is refracted by water molecules only adds to the experience of seeing a rainbow.
When my niece asked me as a toddler, “Why do clouds move,” I was not one inclined to tell her, “Don’t ask because it will remove the awe you feel when you see clouds.” Only a person that values ignorance could do such a thing and I see nothing but tragedy there. I explained as best I could how energy from the sun causes pressure differentials in the fluid we all breath and that this fluid was constantly moving from areas of abundance to areas of lack. I would hope she found that as fascinating as I did, though much was probably lost on her at that age.
When I asked my father at a young age why the moon eclipsed he didn’t give me bullshit stories about moon gods or shadow spirits to make it more awe inspiring. We went into a dark room and he showed me how it works with two globes and a flashlight. The true story was much better I think, how about you?
When scientists can describe what we really are, how we think, why we think, it can only make us better. It may shatter some ideas we have emotional investment in. We may have to become a little less arrogant and view ourselves more as a part of a continuum of intellect rather than the only beings with it, but in the end we’ll understand ourselves better and we’ll be the better for it. We will not disappear. We will not be reduced in anything but our ego.
What can be known.
One part of the “scientism” definition I find I have trouble understanding, let alone agreeing with, is that science is the only path to knowing. I would agree that it is the only path to interpreting, but the only path to knowing is another matter. Measuring in itself is not an act of science but an act of experience. It provides a modicum of knowing without there being a scientific statement. Data and facts are not science, the study of them is. The conclusions we draw from that study give us the best and only way of understanding the world that we currently have.
Furthermore, there are statements that can clearly be known to be true or false without science and that are indeed at least currently outside of scientific scrutiny. For example, “I believe there is no God,” is a statement of fact. It’s true or false regardless of anything outside of myself. Science is not primarily interested in such statements though through advances in technology even this statement is measurable in at least some way.
Another example is what I believe places the question of “God” outside of the scope of science. I’ve concluded that the word “God” is not an objective criteria that can be measured in a repeatable manner. It is a title that one bestows upon an object, entity, or imagined thing that says more about ourselves and our moral judgments (or lack thereof) than upon reality itself. Although we are a part of reality, such decisions aren’t really something that science studies for a large part. How and why we make such decisions, yes…but that I conclude I have no gods is not a scientific statement even though I can say that it’s something I know.
Perhaps in this small way I’m not an adherent to scientism as many people would see it. On the other hand, in every other way I would say that I am. In any way that says anything about reality other than perhaps the content of my own belief is within the scope of science to explain and show. Reality itself is just reality, and facts are facts. Science is here to help us understand both.
On the other hand, facts without context are useless. One can look at facts in scientific or magical views. Without the context of the paradigm, without interpreting facts into statements about reality, can we call them “knowledge”? At this point I’m willing to say that it’s not really important to the immediate issue since what I’m arguing for is that the scientific view is the only valid view to approach facts and that everything else is less accurate at its best.
Yet further, I do not propose that my own experiences trump reality. In many ways it can be shown that our experience of reality is flawed and false. We don’t just hallucinate on LSD. Our very capacity for hallucination is built in because it’s how we experience most of reality. We hallucinate most of what we see because we don’t see fast enough and so project our interpretation of what should occur into our observations. This, among other phenomena and truths of human perception should lead all of us to trust science over our own senses even though this may be difficult.
In conclusion, science is the only thing we have for investigating reality. Reality always trumps anything a human being, or even all human beings might say but scientists are the best placed to tell us what that reality is. Everyone else is just guessing, hallucinating, and even in some cases lying. To consider anything other than science for truth about our existence is absurd as everything else is, at best, guesswork. In the contest between laymen, which can include scientists of different fields, and an expert who has spent their lives learning about our world…put your trust in the latter.
It has become an unfortunate reality of our culture that the media gets more of our attention than the scientists themselves. One sad effect that has is that popular understanding of science is often completely false. For example, the idea that scientists used to believe that our world was going to cool rather than warm is entirely the concoction of the media reporting scientific statements poorly. This has lead many in our culture to believe that scientists are just stumbling around making guesses, saying things that are up for grabs as if they were inherent truths. It is true that we all are stumbling in the dark trying to enlighten our world, but when science says something about our world you can fairly well bet, more than anyone else saying anything, that it is true.
It’s time we stopped seeing scientism as a bad thing. We view science as the one and only way to witness reality not because we are dogmatic, but because it’s the best we have and all other alternatives are severely broken. We trust science because it has yanked us, kicking and screaming, out of an age of darkness, filled with disease, starvation, and death into a world still filled with disease, starvation, and death but where many of us actually get to live long, happy lives not entirely devoted to simple, short term survival. We live in warm houses with computers and TV and books and music…we can see a billion galaxies in the sky. Thank science and the curiosity that drives it for these things…not religion, not politics, not meta-physics and certainly not the average jerkoff that is too irresponsible or emotionally invested to accept reality.