The Dangers of Scientism?

tiny scientist, big mushroom

tiny scientist, big mushroom (Photo credit: hmmlargeart)

This is a response to the blog post The Dangers of Scientism and the Fear of the Unknowable by Dave Pollard and to conversations I’ve recently had about various flaws, fallacies, or evils supposedly inherent in “science.”

There’s a lot of complex feedback between fashions in science and society but I find little in the philosophy of science (in its better versions) to alarm me. What alarms me is the predictable irrationality of the human brain, concentration of power, and corruption. Whatever is wrong with any part of science or society can probably be traced back to these. If we want to address any of these root problems, some version of science is probably our best tool, but it goes without saying that science must continuously improve and engage in continuous quality control –physician, heal thyself.

Pollard’s article reviews The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers by Curtis White and also briefly mentions Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld.

Of the Science Delusion says:

One of our most brilliant social critics—and the author of the bestselling The Middle Mind—presents a scathing critique of the “delusions” of science alongside a rousing defense of the role of art and philosophy in our culture The so-called new atheists, most famously Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, made a splash in the new millen­nium. They told the evangelical and the liberal believer that they must give up religion and submit to science. More recently, neuroscientists and their fans in the media have delivered a variation on this message: the mapping of the human brain will soon be completed, and we will know what we are and how we should act. Their faith is that the scientific method provides the best understanding not only of the physical world but also of art, culture, economics, and anything left over. The message is nearly the same as that of the new atheists: submit to science.

IMO both books are exercises in demagoguery or pop-propaganda, feeding on the public’s misconceptions and love-hate relationship with perceived aristocracies.

These books liberally combine truths and tautologies with exaggeration and bias in support of a preconceived conclusion with a predictable market among those who feel most threatened by science in general. I think they also appeal to those creatives uncertain of where to place the blame for our modern perils and woes.

Scientism, where it is actually found (there is plenty of it but not usually in the places the public imagines), is typically the product of some common weaknesses in human nature–things like corruption, authoritarianism, risk-aversion, etc.

However most emotionally mature scholars and scientists are well aware that, as Pollard says, “Science is, after all, nothing more than the creation of approximate, limited and ever-changing models and metaphors of some aspects of reality, that are often interesting and sometimes (enormously) useful.” In fact, on the whole, scientists are better enlightened in this respect than most of those who use them for target practice.

Endless anecdotes of life-saving or environment-friendly innovations suppressed by vested academic, professional, or political interests notwithstanding, if you follow the money the original source of science against the public interest is higher up the food chain than the working scientist. The degree of scientism and corruption in science varies widely by industry with more conflict of interest in things like military R&D, big pharma, biotech, and energy than in things like climate science or the social sciences.

Unparsimonious positivism or absolutism is something that most humans, including scientists, fall into with varying degree and frequency (especially when it comes with a paycheck); but which is considerably less prevalent (to say the least) among reputable scientists than most other demographics.

The groups who are most deserving of our outrage, our torches, and our pitchforks are the sociopathic authoritarians who capture the institutions of science, learning, polity, and culture for their own ends and those who are their stooges, collaborators, and sycophants. That some percentage of scientists fall in and out of those ranks is no indictment of science nor the philosophy of science but only of human frailty–that same frailty that also turns religion into chauvinism and murder.

Poor Richard


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