The Scientism Myth

I spend quite a lot of time engaging in, and often just watching, on-line arguments between believers and non-believers. I say arguments, because it’s rare that they can accurately be described as a discussion.

One of the most regular accusations I see comes in the form of “you are just a believer of scientism, so you have a religion too you know”. That’s not a direct quote, that my paraphrasing of the many different ways in which the accusation is worded.

The video in the post below explains well the thinking behind the scientism accusation. It takes ten minutes if you feel the need.

http://lyleduell.me/2016/02/12/the-limits-of-science-a-critique-of-scientism/

I like the very subtle irony that is best summarised as “you call me wrong because I believe stuff without evidence, but see, my logical argument proves you are the same, so you are just as wrong as me.”

The magic is really at the end 30 seconds of the video, it uses an example of Tyco Brahe’s model universe to show how something that is successful isn’t automatically correct. I agree, see religion. The point the video misses though is that the model was shown to be wrong by observation. The very thing that scientism mocks the love of.

Then in the dying moment, the video goes for its final point, the thing its leading up to. Scientism is apparently self-refuting because the idea that everything we know can be measured or observed is something that itself can’t be measured or observed. Sounds reasonable enough on the surface.

So you’d think that this would be the perfect opportunity to roll out something that we know which hasn’t been measured or observed, you’d think someone wanting to kill the monster of scientism would have the magic dagger waiting there wouldn’t you? Well I did anyway.

Spoiler alert, no such thing is offered.

This argument is also used by that glorious bastion of logical nonsense, reasonable faith (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-scientism-self-refuting). This linked article goes further and makes the claim that scientism allows evil acts. Huh? Really?

This absurd accusation comes from the religious mind’s favourite non science claim, that in a world of pure science, all sorts of evil acts are accepted. The foundation of this the belief that morals are supernaturally assigned to us and cannot be explained any other way. Errr, wrong (http://www1.umn.edu/ships/evolutionofmorality/text.htm).

Wikipedia has a more balanced description of scientism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientism). Which says that is the position that science is the most authoritative way of knowing. This differs from the religious claim that it’s the only way.

Finally, it may be worth noting that descriptions of scientism are littered throughout religious commentary critiquing the scientific method to the point where the question has to be asked, “What are they afraid of?” Commentary of scientism within the science community is almost absent outside of the context of science vs religion.

It’s as though science and scientists don’t even give two hoots about the accusation, I for one agree, it’s practically a worthless accusation because it assumes belief for the accusation to stick and yet those who throw the accusation require belief above all else.

Confused? You should be.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Scientism Myth

  1. After watching that video, I finally understand the claim that science is religion.

    For the author of that video, science clearly is a religion.

    The funny thing is that his account of science bears very little resemblance to what I mean by “science”.

  2. I think the point offered is that scientism is wrong, by the methods of scientism.

    I think it’s worth defining what people mean by scientism: that knowledge can only be attained by science, or (in the more deluded criticisms) science is the only path to perfect knowledge.

    Obviously, axiomatic truths are not science: bachelors aren’t married, circles are round, a square has 4 sides, etc.
    Moral knowledge, arguably, are not the sole domain of science either. You have to bring empathy to the evidence to get to moral knowledge.

    It’s worth also looking at what “science” means. Critics of science (ignoring that they tend only to be critics of science when God is involved, they’ve no problem with getting on the internet to say science is silly) seem to want to define science in terms of observation and repetition. That’s an extraordinarily definition of science. Even simple things like “temperature” don’t conform to this definition of science; you don’t experience “it is -2 degrees Celsius”. You experience ‘bloody hell, it’s cold’. You need a thermometer with an explanation of what it is a thermometer is doing to get ‘-2 degrees Celsius’. That may seem facetious, but it’s significance comes into stark clarity when you consider questions of the temperature of the Sun: we have some sort of equipment and some sort of explanation, from which we figure out the temperature of the sun, without ever experiencing it.

    Scientia, the latin root of the word science, means ‘a familiarity with’. I think that much broader term better encapsulates what science does. You know things by developing some sort of tangible familiarity with it. You either develop a familiarity with the methods and philosophy of science, the sorts of claims science is likely to make and how they make them, and thus place a certain amount of (well earned trust) in what scientists say, else you develop some sort of familiarity with the equipment, data and explanations that govern a domain of science, and use that.

    Perhaps this is too broad, but that hardly lets science’s critics reduce it back down to their patently overly narrow definition of observation and repetition.

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