As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the problem of scientism, I have come to realize that the criticism of scientism comes from many diverse groups with entirely different understandings, goals and agendas. To simplify the different types of anti-scientism I will focus on three groupings.
Ideological- This group is comprised of amateur philosophers, the religious and other movements like holistic medicine. The chief concern with scientism among the ideological opponents of that worldview is that scientism as a worldview is demeaning, threatening or dismissive of other ideologies. At one end of this spectrum are those who recognize the significance, importance and validity of the scientific method (not worldview); while at the other are those who use the term ‘scientism’ to promote an anti-science message. It is this group of people who become the dreaded strawman in almost every anti-scientism discussion that takes place.
Professional- This group is comprised mostly of professional philosophers, but also scientists and other academics. The primary concern they have with the scientistic ideology is that it is logically, epistemologically or otherwise unsound via some rational argument. Although this group is able to make the most effective arguments against scientism, it sometimes becomes clear that their agenda is merely a professional drama in which no real human problems are at stake, but which restores their own importance and worldview to academic institutions. It is this group alone which profits directly from anti-scientism. If you don’t believe me, try to book some of the top names from seminars on the subject.
Cultural- This group is by far the minority in anti-scientism critique. It is comprised of all walks of life from amateur philosophers, the religious, academics, professionals, etc. The main concern with the ideology of scientism among this group is that scientism as a pervasive worldview presents human beings with very real social problems which we can note throughout industrial age history. As stated, there are not a lot of publicly recognized representatives or voices in this category, as their concerns are ignored by both the mainstream and the first two categories, the first for their lack of disregard for science and the second for their lack of regard for academic forms and, ironically enough, empiricism.
The first two groups are motivated by a need to compete with science. Members of the first group do so in order to eliminate ideologies that are in conflict with their own, while those belonging to the second group do so in order to protect vested interests such as their careers or as a mere intellectual vanity. Both groups seem to do more harm than good to the message of anti-scientism because they are so ridden by agenda and alienate others, even those sympathetic to their cause at some level. They also give anti-scientism the flavor of radicalism which causes it to be distasteful to the average individual, thus discrediting an important social issue by association.
If the reader has not guessed, the author belongs to the third group, those who see scientism as a harbinger of social problems. It has been frustrating to discover the ideological factions present within the anti-scientism narratives. I had entered this public discussion expecting to find a mutual respect between all opponents of scientism, but instead found many walls between these factions. Those who misuse the term ‘scientism’ to relate an anti-science message are not only fraught with ideological nonsense, but also do much damage to the other groups.
Those who seem to be involved in professional competitions with academic scientists and philosophers carry many conceits and are prone to a sort of elitism that alienates amateurs like myself. Yet both groups rely on some other underlying dogmas themselves, which seems to flavor their criticism of scientistic dogma with a bitter irony.
If the first two groups are primarily concerned with some minority opinion or ideological dogma it seems that only among the third group can we find a meaningful criticism of scientism that applies to all human beings equally. To illustrate this I would like to present a few historical examples of societies that adopted scientistic attitudes and paid heavily for them. Although scientism was not always the chief cause of these social calamities it was always endemic to a set of ideologies that were notably totalitarian and absolutist.
The Russian Revolution and the years of communist rule under Lenin and Stalin are marked by a scientism inspired by the ideologies of the industrial revolution and the writings of Karl Marx. Marxism and statist-communism were both attempts to correct the human problems presented by the industrial revolution by using technology and the state to create idealistic forms which would lead to an eventual utopia. In order to create this perfect social order, it was supposed, science would have to become the primary intellectual methodology. It was science that would create new technologies and make other discoveries which would lead to wealth and an end to human suffering. The scientific method would be applied socially, politically and economically in order to maximize efficiency. The problem herein lies with the inconvenient fact that maximum efficiency and humanity are not at all mutually compatible. The dehumanizing aspects of policies and institutions built on scientific principles eventually became quite clear. The disorder, suffering and massive human deaths that followed were all directly related in some way to the centralization of scientistic dogma within the state.
The next example is similar to the first. In yet another attempt at Marxist revolution, the Chinese Cultural Revolution eventually killed millions of Chinese while harming countless more in a variety of ways. It also helped destroy the history and culture of a land of people who had remained connected to a similar narrative for thousands of years. Art, religion and philosophy were all targets of the Maoist reformers who instigated the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Dissidents in these areas were treated brutally and facets of Chinese life were lost or expelled from the national landscape, often permanently. Again, underlying this revolution, was a prevalent scientism. The hyperbolized and pervasive worldview in which only science produces meaningful statements, activities and institutions helped lead China down a path which led to numerous atrocities and cultural losses.
I do not wish to have my arguments confused as arguments against communism, for such a topic is an entirely different one altogether. In both cases it was the absorption of scientism by cultural forces, but mostly by the state, which led to such tragic affairs. If you must extend the critique of scientism into a political one then you may mark as my secondary target the institutions of statism and nationalism whose centralized authority all too often empowers dogmas and elites.
A third example of the havoc wrought when a centralized force, namely the state, adopts scientism as the predominately influential worldview seems an extremely obvious one. The National Socialist party of Germany was a firm supporter of scientistic worldviews. Their championing of science as the key to future prosperity eventually led to a number of human abuses carried out using scientific principles. From efficient death camps which facilitated genocide to systemic eugenics, Nazi Germany was a prime example of what happens when that which we dub ‘science’ is elevated to a status in which critique is discouraged subtly or barbarically outright. The atrocities committed by the Nazi state often went unquestioned by ordinary citizens because they were validated by the nature of being ‘scientific’ whether or not they actually were. A problem with scientism is that it skews scientific substance with symbols and in the confusion removes the ideological and ethical restraints which prevent scientific abuses.
For my final example I would like to bring it on home. The USA is certainly no stranger to abuses committed by, or in the name of, science. The creation of nuclear weapons and their only recorded use is uniquely American. Although it can be argued that another nation may have done the same given the opportunity, we can only speak with certainty about what did happen. The US government contracted scientists to create a weapon capable of mass destruction and then used is against an ‘enemy’ already close to defeat. One can’t help but think that these two mass murders were committed merely because they were possible and to send a rather dehumanizing message to the rest of the world. The ability to eradicate all life on earth with a single technology produced by the scientific method is certainly not something we should be proud of. But this is not the only area in which science was allowed carte blanche, leading to abuses. The next couple of examples are also inhumane scientific endeavors, but rather than being used against some ‘enemy’, these criminal acts were committed against Americans themselves by the government and its agencies.
The Tuskegee Experiment led to a great number of black Americans being intentionally and unknowingly infected with the horrifying disease of syphilis. In this ‘experiment’ a number of people were intentionally inflected with syphilis and then denied treatment so that the effects of the disease could be studied and possibly weaponized. The only reason ever given for this inhuman atrocity is scientific knowledge.
Similarly, the CIA conducted a number of experiments over a few decades known as MK-ULTRA. Using the scientific method to create these experiments and observe the results, the CIA used techniques such as drugs and psychological duress, among others, against Americans to explore mind-control as a potential new weapon.
We can begin to see a central theme here: that our obsession with arming ourselves with the most advanced weapons in the world has led America down some dreadfully immoral paths. And for a nation involved in endless wars around the globe, we should find this obsession distressing. Using science as an excuse, we have conducted campaigns which led to inhumane outcomes.
This is why it is essential that we never elevate science to a state of absolute objective truthiness which prevents us from critiquing that which, although scientific (or at least, called such), is in direct conflict with a level of humanity that crosses national, ethnic and cultural borders and unites our species. Scientism tells us that science provides the only meaningful answers, but hidden within that ideology is an insidious insinuation that all scientific answers are meaningful. When we place science in such high regards that we forget to question it we invite the worst of human behavior. Science does not dwell in a vacuum. It is merely a method used by human beings and human beings are always susceptible to immoral, unethical and irrational paths, especially when those paths come with a free pass.
Scientism is a roundabout way of providing scientists and their endeavors with a free pass. History is rich with examples of this. In order to prevent these abuses we must make science accountable to human ideas that may seem incompatible with or alien to scientific ones. The liberties, well being and continuation of the human species may depend on both on the gifts of science and the gifts of human skepticism regarding science. Scientism leaves us ill-equipped to present them in the most humane way possible.
As a final note, I hope that the gulfs between the different groups of anti-scientism thinkers can be resolved by a recognition that our shared needs as a species outweigh particular dogmas or self-interests, so that we can work together to dispel scientism as a whole rather than merely strengthening our own anti-scientism factions.