Scientism: A Problem to Societies and Science Alike

This piece was originally intended as a response to these three articles and was to be published at that website, however, the beast of metascientism reared again its ironic head. In academic circles the only acceptable way to critique scientism is via the empirical methodologies and wrapped in academic forms and language. Essentially, it is okay to dismiss scientism because of its methodological dogma, but not okay to dismiss scientism without using same or similar methodological dogma. You may say that it is unreasonable to think that science produces the only meaningful answers only so long as you say it in the only language that produces meaningful answers. We begin to see a recursion here as well as the usual anti-intellectualism and elitism that is the essence of scientism. From this I begin to conclude that much of the mainstream critique of scientism is little more than an academic pissing contest between the championed scientific elite and the sorely losing academic philosophers who are struggling to keep their work funded and have little to no interest in the real problems scientism causes regular human individuals and societies. Oh dear, Socrates, things have gotten ugly.

Scientism: A Problem to Societies and Science Alike
by Joshua Scott Hotchkin

An argument often made by academic defenders of scientism often goes something like this-
Scientism is a valid worldview for scientists because it works. It is both pragmatically and epistemologically consistent with the methods employed by scientists, rendering the critique of the scientistic worldview to be irrelevant.

By attempting to resolve the problem of scientism by illustrating that it is a rational worldview for those dedicated to science and rational worldviews, there is a factor never even addressed. Although I found this factor fairly obvious, it is constantly ignored in discussions of the problem by those both in defense and opposed to the problem. Quite simply, scientism is not just a problem for academics or individuals, but also a cultural problem.

The majority of adherents of scientism have no training, interest or extensive knowledge in either science or philosophy, let alone the history and philosophy of science. The average adherent of scientism is your average person who shares every article posted at I F-ing Love Science or Geeks Are Sexy on social media in much the same way your religious friends annoyingly share Biblical verses with literal interpretations. Both groups aim at evangelism with little knowledge of either science or theology. The average adherent of scientism think Neil deGrasse Tyson is the new Einstein or that Carl Sagan was Americas Gandhi. The average adherent of scientism is an adult who really disliked the religion of their parents and, lacking the faculties to critically think about the very real problems in those religions, throws the baby out with the bathwater and adopts a worldview inclusive of all things which they (often falsely) find in dualist opposition to religious ideologies.

The average adherent of scientism is profoundly trapped in something that I call ‘The Over-correction Problem’ which causes an equal but opposite reaction to discarded ideologies both at the individual and cultural levels. Yet the average adherent of scientism is not aware of this, no more than they are aware of the actual workings of science and it’s methods or philosophy and logic. For the average adherent of scientism, science is a symbol more than a substance.

What is also true about the average adherent of scientism, as well as those other average people who are unaware of or opposed to it, is that science rides upon their backs. The votes that elect pro-science politicians and the funds that support a large portion of scientific endeavors come from the average person. It is not a small group of scientists, philosophers and other intellectuals and academics that fund and support science from the Ivory Towers, it is the average person. The same people who also pay the costs of scientific endeavors gone awry, like pollution, eugenics or weapons of mass destruction.

Because science has been given so much power to shape our world and our lives in environmental, existential, political, economic and social spheres; it has acquired a responsibility. This responsibility entails a sort of humble objectivity. A recognition of those who either support or are affected by scientific endeavors. This responsibility creates a defacto authority of science and makes leaders of scientists and their spokesmen. Whether or not this is the role that science or scientists desired or worked towards, it has become a fact of our society. Science and scientists have great cultural power and authority. They are experts and leaders.

What would you say of any leader who was beyond criticism of their leadership? What if they held a pervasive worldview in which their work was more important than that of those whom they led? How effective would a President be if he was scornful of the people he represented, and of the things which they contributed and/or held dear? Especially when those people made that leadership possible. It is obvious that we would despise these qualities in a leader and that the qualities themselves would render their leadership ineffective. The only leader who could survive such hubris would be the one who was willing to use force, justifying any means toward their own beneficial ends.

The very effectiveness and usefulness of the scientific method has given science and scientists this leadership, like it or not. By its example, it has created the culturally pervasive worldview of scientism. A worldview based on axiomatic trust in science and scientists more often than on facts acquired by the adherents. It has created a religion of science among the scientifically ignorant.
When making a claim for the validity of scientism by isolating it only within the context of academia, we ignore the masses of scientifically illiterate adherents of scientism. We ignore people who rabidly consume the symbols of science so much that ‘science’ has become a marketing demographic for politicians, media outlets and corporations. You can see this ‘branding’ of science all over the internet, in popular televisions shows and in every other form of mainstream media. The trend of people identifying themselves as ‘geeks’ or ‘nerds’ is the result of science being used as a substance-less marketing tactic. Science has become synonymous with intelligence and by preying on the vanity of humans, we have created a culture of people of identify with a method which they have little understanding of. The Ivory Tower scientism creates a distorted version of scientific truth which is held as literalist dogma by the average adherent of scientism.

Dogma always leads to ignorance and destructiveness. Scientism may be a pragmatically valid worldview within the world of intellectuals and academics, but as a pervasive ideology with fanatic followers, it is just a repeat of the folly of centralized religion. By espousing the worldview of scientism, we have created a culture of compulsive acceptance of science and belief in its activities and proclamations, which is a problem for a few reasons.
The first reason is that such blind, ignorant acceptance of facts passed down from an elite group of experts and authorities is itself wholly disharmonious with the very spirit of science, which promotes an intellectual paradigm in which we constantly question everything in order to gain knowledge. If science is still serious about the intellectual paradigm of skepticism from which spirit it was derived, then scientism is a great failure and abuse of the scientific method.
The second reason is that because science does not exist in an objective vacuum, but rather in a world full of human beings, it is necessary to critique science in order to prevent it from potential abuses. History has shown that these abuses of science are not irregular, but seem to occur whenever scientists or their sources of funding escape detection because too much faith is placed in anything labeled scientific. Because science is so effective it is able to transform the world in radical ways, not all of them ethically, morally or existentially sound. The greatest set of checks and balances we have is skepticism. By being encouraged and allowed to question science and scientistic worldviews, we are enriched with tools for avoiding the tragedies that have occurred throughout history when science as a symbol was used to cover up inhumane activities.

These critiques also become important in the democratic process. In order to assure our society safety, transparency and its best interest we must give voice to dissent about science that reaches the realm of the unethical and immoral. Yet again, we will be sorely unprepared to do this if we create a public view of science and the scientistic which discourages our skepticism and dissent. If we ignore the cultural problems of scientism by focusing on it as merely an academic problem we are in danger of creating a form of populist scientistic fundamentalism. Such ideologies, historically speaking, are not generally in the best interest of anyone or anything.

Another danger of this compulsively scientistic trend in culture is to devalue the meaning and purpose of science by using the label as a symbol of intellectual or methodological validation. Often the science memes floating around popular culture will simply show nature and then praise science. For instance, a photo may show a spider and then give a tidbit about an unusual breeding habit of its species. We are then encouraged to believe that this interesting fact of nature is somehow a success of science. While entomologists do indeed study spiders and report on their breeding habits, the habits themselves have nothing to do with science. Indeed, many of these facts can be acquired with simple observation, independent of the scientific method. Yet the context always shows a sort of scientistic cheer-leading. We are fascinated by the information, yet rather than marvel at the spider itself, we are encouraged to give cheers and hurrah’s to science for providing the data. This seems to me rather like crediting a cartographer with the beauty encountered in travels to foreign places.
Yet it is not only in mainstream culture in which we see science being used as a justifying signifier for cultural acceptance, but also in the world of academia. With the popularization of both mainstream and academic scientism midway through the twentieth century, the humanities struggled to find cultural relevance. In order to do so, they adopted scientism and its corollaries, such as materialism, physicalism and naturalism. No longer could anything be meaningful if it was not itself science, scientistic or verified by mainstream science. Today this trend continues with the label ‘science’ being applied to pretty much any activity that wishes to gain widespread acceptance and funding. Even those things that were not threatened by science and empiricism, such as mathematics, eventually began to propagate a view that their field was scientific.
It is certainly very difficult to make a distinction between math and science. Both have many of the same goals and both are very effective at modeling the natural world and producing reliable results. Technology relies heavily upon both methods working hand in hand as do many of the things our society depends upon. For all intents and purposes, science without math, or math without science could not produce the world that we live in. Because the two are so inextricably tied to one another, envisaging them as separate methods often seems counter-intuitive and impractical.
There are several ways in which we can differentiate science and mathematics. An important function of science is falsifiability. Outside of a small part of theoretical math, mathematics is hardly falsifiable. When we state that the axiom that 1 + 1 = 2 always correlates to fundamental truth when the abstract number symbols are replaced by objects, we are stating an absolute constant and not one that can be found false. Unless numbers and other mathematical symbols are able to be falsified by disproving the veracity of their correlation with objects, mathematics are not falsifiable. It seems to me very unlikely that we will ever prove that the correlation between the number ‘1’ and one object can ever be disproved or that we will understand that correlation more fully as the result of new information.

This illustrates the strength of mathematics in relating truth via correlation. In science, however, correlation is considered a very poor basis for any kind of proof, hypothesis or theory. Science attempts to model the world through replication, whereas mathematics uses correlation. A mathematical truth does not gain any more significance when we repeat the work. Most mathematical axioms, outside of the highly theoretical, remain true after verification no matter how many new tests are ran. Nor do they often become obsolete as a result of new data. While this is not always true, it is true enough that it gives us a view of mathematics as distinct from science in some very important ways. In mathematics, falsifiability or causation are not generally considered, while they remain central to the methods and practice of science.

So as not to leave mathematics hanging there alone without a buddy, I would like to propose a better way to think of mathematics, which is as a form or relative of language. When we talk about the inextricable link between math and science we can continue that logic to include language as a science. Without language, science would not be possible. In the same way that science relies on mathematics, it relies even more heavily upon language. Yet I cannot imagine anyone making the argument that language is science. We might say that linguistics, the study of language, is a sort of science. But as for language and its everyday usage, we are unlikely to label a conversation about the weather as scientific, even if science is part of the dialogue.

What language does is almost exactly what mathematics does, which is to give a symbol to a phenomena so that we can share a similar experience of it. Since science is largely concerned with objective phenomena and not just symbolic representations, we can differentiate language and mathematics from science, even though science relies on them both. The reliance on math and language, and any other correlating truths of their methods and logical or epistemological constructs does not prove them to be science.

The real problem of scientism is that it becomes the arbiter of all meaningful statements to the extent that it loses its substance in its symbolism. This is harmful intellectually and culturally, but the greatest threat is to science itself. Science was developed in order to give us a singular method for very specific purposes. Adopting scientism as a worldview dilutes the strength of its ability to create meaningful knowledge and instead assigns it a rather generic cultural agenda. Whether this agenda is the product of our confusion in the matters of scientific magesteria or one created by the pragmatic purposes of our socioeconomic paradigms matters not. The intentions cannot stay the human tendency to abuse that which we place above our skepticism and critical capacities. Should scientism lead to an abuse of science which causes catastrophic events, humans are unlikely to be very forgiving, which will place science where most intellectuals now place the Judeo-Christian religions, in the realm of harmful barbaric ideologies to be systematically conditioned out of human consciousness.

This warning against scientism is not the cry of an academic philosopher or scientist, nor is it one of the anti-science obscurantist. It is the rational proposition of an average person whose appreciation for the scientific method is such that it becomes necessary to protect it from an encroaching piousness that threatens science and humanity with fundamentalist dogma and an infallible elite.

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