If you browse through the comments on this blog/Facebook page, or the pages of just about any other pro-science page, you will quickly find accusations of “scientism.” Indeed, among those who like to disagree with scientific results, this seems to have become a get-out-of-jail-free response that they use to dismiss any evidence or arguments that conflict with their preconceptions. People seem to think that accusing their opponent of scientism is a valid substitute for presenting actual evidence to back up their position. Further, at least in instances that I have personally observed, this accusation is often a straw man fallacy that either misrepresents scientism or misrepresents the science-advocates’ claims. Nevertheless, it is very easy to get sloppy with how we phrase things and inadvertently make a statement that has the appearance of scientism, even if that was not the intent. Therefore, I want to briefly talk about what is and is not scientism.
Scientism is a philosophical position that emphasizes science above all else. Unfortunately, like many philosophical views, it is a bit amorphous, and there is no one universally accepted definition, and it’s really probably more of a spectrum than one discrete view. Nevertheless, here are a few common themes that you generally see in definitions of scientism. First, scientism often overstates our confidence in the results of science. Second, it often tries to apply science to topics that are outside of the scope of science, and third, it often states that science is the only source of knowledge. I’m going to talk about each of these and give some examples.
Let’s start by talking about our confidence in scientific results. I frequently get angry comments on my blog/Facebook page about how other skeptics and I are clueless idiots who worship scientists like gods and think that science is infallible. If we actually worshiped scientists or thought that science gave absolute and infallible answers, then we would, in fact, be guilty of scientism. However, I have yet to see anyone actually do either of those things, and this argument is usually a straw man. Science doesn’t give absolute answers. Rather, it is an inherently probabilistic process that simply tells us what is most likely true given the current evidence. That probability can change, however, when new evidence arises. In other words, all that we are saying is that we have to accept the results science gives us until such time as scientific evidence arises showing that those results are wrong.
The problem here is that people often jump from, “science doesn’t give definitive answers” to “science is unreliable, and I don’t have to accept its answers.” That’s illogical (in fact it is the very definition of science denial). That fact that science doesn’t give 100% proofs doesn’t mean that we can’t be very certain of the results that it gives, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can reject it whenever you want. When dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of studies have all converged on a result, then it is very unlikely that the result is false, and it would be foolish to reject that result. That’s not a statement of scientism, rather it is simply a rational, evidence-based view of reality.
To put it simply, saying, “numerous studies have found that X is true, therefore X is absolutely true and there is no chance that it is wrong” would be scientism. However, saying, “numerous studies have found that X is true, therefore it is most likely true and we should act as if it is true until we have evidence to the contrary” is not scientism (at least not by any reasonable definition I’ve read).
Note: please read this post before bringing up the paper arguing that most scientific studies are wrong.
To state that another way, any scientific result can be overturned, and scientists should consider new evidence as it arises, but, importantly, there is no reason to doubt a well-established scientific result until solid new evidence arises. In other words, many people want scientists to question well-established results based on anecdotes, speculation, and other forms of shoddy evidence, and when scientists refuse to do that, they accuse them of scientism (see the comment to the right that someone left on my Facebook page, for example). Being open-minded means being willing to accept new evidence, not being willing to accept something despite a lack of evidence (that’s being gullible). Further, it is worth clarifying that asking questions is good, even encouraged, but you have to be willing to accept the answers to your questions. It is fine to ask a question like, “is this treatment safe?” but if the answer is that there are multiple high-quality studies saying that it is and no compelling evidence that it isn’t, then refusing to accept the results of those studies is, by definition, science denial.
Moving on, scientism can occur when you try to use science to argue about a topic that is outside of the realm of science. Science, by its very definition, is limited to the physical universe. If we can’t observe and quantify it (or at least observe and quantify its results), then we can’t study it using science. Thus, philosophy and theology are outside of the scope of science, and science cannot answer questions like, “is there a god?” or “does life have meaning?” or “is this morally right?” To put that another way, science can show us how to clone a human being, but it can’t show us whether or not it is morally right to clone a human being.
Usually, religion is where people get into trouble with this more than in philosophy (again, in my observations at least). Anytime you hear someone make a statement like, “science has disproved the existence of god,” you are hearing scientism. The concept of god is inherently one of a metaphysical being who exists outside of the laws of science. Therefore, science cannot address his or her existence.
The flip-side of that is that religious people will often use accusations of scientism to attack scientific results that conflict with claims that their religion makes about the physical universe. Creationism is the most obvious example of this. Science can’t tell us if god exists, but it can tell us (with an extremely high degree of certainty) that life on earth has evolved for billions of years, Noah’s flood didn’t happen, etc., and none of that is scientism. You see, anytime that religion makes a claim about the physical universe, it has entered into the realm of science, and we can use physical evidence to evaluate the claim.
This leads to the final category I want to talk about: claims that science is the only source of knowledge. This is tricky to talk about, because the concept of knowledge has been debated by philosophers for millennia. So rather than getting bogged down in the definition of knowledge, I’m just going to explain why I don’t agree with the notion that science is the only source of knowledge, as well as discussing how confusion arises with accusations of scientism (note: I am assuming that I am real and in a real physical universe, but if you want to get philosophical, I agree that I cannot “know” that in the strongest sense of the word; again, I’m trying to avoid getting derailed by debates like that).
There are plenty of things that we “know” without science. First, relating back to the previous point, I would argue that for many philosophical/moral topics, we can arrive at pretty good conclusions by logic and reasoning. So, I don’t agree that philosophy is worthless; rather, it simply answers different questions than science does.
Even in the physical world, we can know plenty of things without science. I know, for example, that I am sitting at a computer right now. Did I acquire that knowledge by doing a systematic experiment and running some statistics? Obviously not, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we need to do that to know that I am sitting at a computer. Indeed, our lives are full of this type of knowledge that is acquired by simple observation, rather than systematic research. The problem is that at times our observations are very unreliable and conflict with scientific results.
Let me give a trivial example. On countless occasions, I have had people in the US insist that rattlesnakes hybridize with non-venomous snakes like garter snakes and rat snakes. They claim to know this because they’ve seen hybrids. As a herpetologist, however, I know that the notion of those species hybridizing is patently absurd. Those snakes are in totally different families. Their reproductive structures are different, their genetics are different, their mode of reproduction is different, etc. I hesitate to use the word “impossible” after the above discussion of probabilities, but something like this is so unlikely that for all intents and purposes, it might as well be called “impossible.” We would have to be fundamentally wrong about so many things for those snakes to be able to hybridize that it is extraordinarily unlikely that it is possible. Thus, I can state with a very, very high degree of confidence that the aforementioned people’s knowledge on this topic is wrong and the scientific results are correct. Again, that’s not scientism, that’s just accepting evidence, but you will notice that the evidence disagrees with people’s casual observations. In other words, casual observation is a way of knowing, and often a useful way of knowing, but it does not confer the same degree of confidence as systematic research (i.e., science).
Perhaps the most common way that this plays out is with anecdotes about medicine (or the various “treatments” that masquerade as medicine). People love anecdotes, and they frequently claim to know things based on anecdotes. The problem is that, as I have previously explained, anecdotes cannot establish causation. Forget science for a minute and let’s just talk about logic. Saying, “X happened before Y, therefore X caused Y” is a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc. It is an invalid line of reasoning. Nevertheless, people frequently insist that a given treatment works or a given medicine is dangerous because they’ve “seen it themselves.” This is where false accusations of scientism tend to start flying.
What I usually see happen is the following.
- Person 1: Here are multiple studies showing that X does not cause Y.
- Person 2: Those studies must be wrong because I know that X causes Y. I’ve seen it happen myself, so I know that it is true.
- Person 1: Personal anecdotes aren’t good evidence of causation. There are lots of things that could make it appear that X causes Y, even if it doesn’t. You need carefully controlled studies for your position to be valid, and in lieu of those studies, ignoring the evidence against a causal relationship is science denial.
- Person 2: That’s scientism! Science isn’t infallible, and science isn’t the only form of knowledge! How dare you say that my personal experiences are less valid than your science? Questioning the accepted wisdom isn’t science denial. Scientists are supposed to be open-minded.
Do you see what is going on there? Person 2 is committing a straw man fallacy and is using the accusation of scientism as an excuse for science denial. In other words, they don’t want to admit to denying scientific evidence, so instead they try to shift the blame by saying that they aren’t denying the evidence, the other person is just exhibiting scientism.
That line of reasoning is specious. The fact that science isn’t infallible doesn’t mean you can ignore its results anytime that you want, and the fact that science isn’t the only source of knowledge doesn’t automatically mean that other sources of knowledge are equal in all contexts. When it comes to establishing causation in the physical universe, science is the best and most reliable method, and you can’t reject it anytime that you want. Further, I’ll reiterate my previous point that asking questions in the absence of evidence is fine, but refusing to accept the results of numerous studies is not.
This all comes back to a concept that I discuss frequently on this blog: the burden of proof. The person making the claim bears the burden to back up that claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To put that another way, science is not infallible, but it is really good, and if you want to say that numerous studies are wrong, then you are going to need some extraordinary evidence, and logically invalid personal anecdotes won’t cut it.
Indeed, all of this can be summed up with the simple statement that scientific topics require scientific evidence. That’s not scientism, that’s just how science works.
In short, scientism is a philosophical position that over-values science and argues that it is the only source of knowledge and/or that it applies to all topics. Although people do sometimes make arguments along those lines, accusations of scientism are often straw men that are used simply to deflect from the weakness of one’s own position. In other words, rather than admit that their view is incompatible with scientific evidence, many people simply accuse their opponent of scientism in an invalid attempt to delegitimize their opponent’s position. Science isn’t infallible, but you must have good evidence before you challenge the results it produces.
Note 1: Although observation is an important part of science, it is not in and of itself science. Science requires a systematic collection of observations.
Note 2: To be clear, I’m not suggesting that no skeptics are ever guilty of scientism. It does happen. My point is simply that in many cases, accusations of scientism are straw men.
Thanks for a helpful and interesting article. One point of disagreement: the aprioristic argument that science can’t rationally undermine belief in God seems questionable, at least if God is defined (as so often) as a perfect being. For biology has produced many examples of poor (highly inefficient, unnecessarily dangerous) design in living things, which surely counts as evidence for the nonexistence of a perfect God.
I have to agree with the original article that science can say little about if there is a God. If you consider your suggestion from the perspective on an infinite, perfect being I think your argument dissolves, inefficiency is irrelevant if time is irrelevant, and what do you mean by dangerous -to whom? Anyway I liked the article, some interesting points. Thanks.
Inefficiency is certainly relevant from the point of view of living things (especially sentient ones like us) whose well-being in thereby lessened; consider the dangers posed by the useless appendix (appendicitis, which used to be agonizingly fatal) and male nipples (breast cancer). God’s timelessness doesn’t help at all here.
How is our wellbeing reduced by inefficiency? From a scientific perspective I mean. Who says the appendix serves no purpose? https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-function-of-the-human-appendix-did-it-once-have-a-purpose-that-has-since-been-lost/
Science doesn’t really help tell you what the purpose of life is or if there is a God, as the original article describes very nicely. I think you are trying to over stretch what science can determine and I wonder why? If you don’t think there is a God why do you feel the need to prove there isn’t one even though there is good evidence that there are real and measureable health benefits to those who do believe.
Let me save for a later post (I have material back at my office) better examples than the appendix of bad design. For now, I’ll address your second question: I don’t feel a NEED to prove anything about God’s existence, I’m going with what I take to be the best available evidence–though I could be wrong. The practical benefits for some people of belief in God are entirely irrelevant to the evidential question. The suggestion that atheists like myself should stop talking about evidence against God because it might upset delicate theists who derive benefit from their faith is absurd on multiple levels, not least of which its condescension toward those theists.
Here’s a better example than the appendix (thanks for correcting me on that): “In mammals, …. the recurrent pharyngeal nerve does not go directly from the cranium to the larynx, the way any competent engineer would have designed it. Instead, it extends down the neck to the chest, loops around a lung ligament and then runs back up the neck to the larynx. In the giraffe, that means a 20-foot length of nerve where 1 foot would have done.” (Jim Holt, “Unintelligent Design, New York Times 20 February 2005, which gives other examples as well)
I would say that this is making assumptions about the nature of god as well as the nature of perfection. I don’t really see why a perfect god couldn’t choose to make something imperfect just because they felt like it. Perhaps god (if he/she exists) thought it would be fun to watch life evolve, so he/she created a world with evolution, rather than a static, but perfect world. At that point, we are no longer in the realm of science.
Now, you can make arguments about whether it is morally right for an omnipotent being to make a world that involves suffering via imperfections, but again, that’s not a scientific argument.
Similarly, “perfect” isn’t really a scientific concept. Two different people could have very different ideas about what makes something perfect.
‘Perfect’ doesn’t need to be a scientific concept itself in order for someone’s belief in a perfect God to be underminable by scientific evidence. As for God’s hypothetical idea of fun, it’s logically possible but unlikely given what believers themselves have long said about God and divine perfection. We’re dealing with a holistic package here, and in accordance with the Duhem-Quine Thesis it’s always possible to make adjustments to save the central hypothesis. But as Quine might put it, some auxiliary assumptions (even theological ones) are more entrenched than others, and we are entitled to take advantage of that fact when debating theists.
May I add an example to support my first point? Scientific evidence clears undermines the Genesis “special creation” account of the origin of species, the earth, etc., but that account is a nonscientific, religious account.
That’s a very different matter, because that is a concrete statement about the physical world. Therefore, it can be addressed by science without ever having to dip into the theological or the philosophical.
To put that another way, if, for one reason or another, a particular religion believed that god would never allow a giraffe to exist, and either that god exists or a giraffe exists, then we could use science to say that their god does not exist, because giraffes clearly do exist (I’m using “science” loosely here, since that is really just basic observation). We can do that there because there is a clear dichotomy and an absolute statement about the physical world. In contrast, arguing about perfection does not have a clear dichotomy nor does it have absolute statements. Rather it relies on various assumptions and philosophical arguments about perfection, the nature of god, etc. As a result, it falls outside of the realm of science.
But at that point we are debating things like the nature of god, which isn’t something that science can address. In other words, this debate would inevitably revolve around the definition of perfect and whether or not a perfect god can only make perfect things, and neither of those are questions that science can help us with.
Your thoughtful reply moves us beyond the scientific vs. unscientific concepts answer I was addressing: fair enough. But it seems to me that we don’t have to engage in theological thinking in order to take at face value what traditional perfect-God theists have said about their God; and once we do, the scientific issue of bad design arises. For evolutionary biologists the issue is easily resolved: natural selection tinkers with what it works with, and the results are often suboptimal, even inefficient. For traditional perfect-God theists the issue is more difficult. But I can certainly understand your reluctance to involve yourself in their difficulties.
I guess the way I see it, you are using science to derive a premise that you then use in a philosophical/theological argument, rather than using science as the argument. In other words, you can use science to show that there are redundancies in the way that organisms function, but then you need philosophy/theology to use that fact that reach conclusions about god. Does that make sense?
Accusations of ‘scientism’ also have another de-railing effect, whether by intent or design, because of the relationship in English between an ‘ism’ and an ‘ist’ (e.g. atheist -> atheism, racist -> racism, monotheist -> monotheism, etc.). If I say I am a ‘scientist’ (because I am qualified and work in a science field), I can automatically be accused of ‘scientism’ (the philosophical position) whether I subscribe to scientism or not. Equivocation is one of the key tools of the reality-denier, don’t forget.
Interesting article thanks. Is mathematics a science? I ask this because there is certainty in maths, and it clearly underpins measurement. But it is a different way of knowing to science. Just interested in what you think?
Math is often described as the “bride” of science. Math is not itself science (with the possible exception of theoretical physics), but science relies heavily on math. The distinction is that while math is entirely abstract and can therefore state proofs (e.g., 2+2=4), science inherently starts with observations about the physical universe, then uses math to try to analyzed and understand those observations. The observations themselves, however, always have uncertainty around them. So even if the mathematical analyses we used were mathematical proofs, we could never be 100% sure of the observations that went into those analyses.
Great column. I enjoy your attempts to educate the public on what science is and isn’t. You give those of us who like to rely on fact based evidence great hope.
Given that “scientism” has not been a common term until recently, it appears that it has become a fallback position for those that feel threatened by what science does and is finding out. I suggest that someone check the frequency of use over time on the internet–I would do it but don’t know how.
If you ever want to check the usage of a word, google it and expand the definition page on google. If you click on the graph you can get a breakdown of data for word usage. I haven’t ever tried to see if it can differentiate between text and digital sources, but I suspect it is possible (especially since it has an option to download raw data).
YY sub-humans came before XY & XX High-breds through Darwinian Apes . . .
Apparently we must have all Evolved from amoebas after the BIG BANG’S GENESIS new beginnings.
That’s impossible – isn’t it?
There’s one thing I’m sure of, we all originated from the same place, just different Eras & warped Space-time. Stop bickering!
With an Almighty BANG the first Cosmic wormhole was forged. – The Biblical ‘Let there be light’.
It was an escape route from the biggest blackhole that ever existed called HELL’S ABYSS. Only it’s little Plutocratic Icy core/heart remains. Only one survived LIFE’S Dying ember – the Apocalypse also known as Ragnarok.
‘In the beginning was the word’ – The spoken word accompanied by Epiphanies.
I Googled pictured of our Milky Way Galaxy and on one of them was an arrow pointing somewhere on it’s outskirts. Above were the words ‘You are here’. That must mean that we are breathing in Cosmic atmosphere & energy, with just the right amount of Ethereal ether to keep us connected to the Omnipotent Diviner. It’s worth mentioning that Satellite Moons are exactly that Etc.
In a Children’s Space book I came across a bulletin that stated ‘Do you know’? Many of the elements that make up the human body were forged in supernovae. ( It didn’t mention animals etc..)
Does that mean that we come from supernovae. I know that we’re infinitesimal singularity Spirits placed in newly fertilized Human egg-cells.
Many American Cosmologists, because of strange signals from outer space, suspect that Aliens are collecting information about us.
WHERE ON EARTH IS THERE A MEETING OF MINDS!
Very nice article; thanks! Typo here? “or at least observe and quantity its results”. Should that be “quantify”?
Fixed it. Thanks
The perfect God Son had all the attributes of the seven Virtues like the Biblical Easter Jesus, who was an incarnation of Baldur.
The Wisdom Attributes of the Gods were all good before the Apocalypse known as Ragnarok.
Then (Biblical) ‘There came a man sent from God, whose name was John,’ with Revelations.
‘Who’s John’? I asked the atmosphere. The Baptist whispered in my ear, ‘John Emmanuel Zeus, don’t fear, JEZEUS the Holy SPIRIT is here. Big brother has been watching dear Good Omni-escent Deity’.
I’M NOT RELIGIOUS OR ACADEMIC. so what was I supposed to think?
To think you thought I didn’t care when all the time your cares I’d share.
I wore them well so you could tell me what they were, to ease despair?
‘YES!’ he said breaking into mt thoughts.
For those who pray,’Lord let it be GOD’S Son who comes to set us free’.
The time has come, the end is near, JOHN says ‘I’m here’.
(I would just like to add, the Olympians & Paraplegic Warriors Etc. . . . . . .)
Please stop posting this incoherent gibberish that has nothing to do with the post. I will be deleting future posts of this nature.
The Language Barrier:
I sincerely apologize for misunderstanding your post on ‘The Logic of Science, Scientism: is it a strawman or a legitimate critique?’ and the content of some comments.
Thank you for the lesson Fallacy Man.
I’ve been looking-up the meaning of ‘a straw man’ used in your post title.
I understand my findings to mean,
If he only had a brain he wouldn’t be used to scare-off birds of a different kind that feather their own inherent or intrinsic agendas. Whether they be with bitter recriminations or Spiritual Enlightenment’s irritating reassurances. Psychosis protects an alter-ego with an illogical straw man’s stance.
Science Logic: REALITY:
EVOLUTION has been a Bloody, Hellish NIGHTMARE for all Survivors.
The lessor of two Evils Guided by Positive Fortitude and SCIENTIFIC BRAIN POWER.
I’m a modern-day Sibyl , but can I prove it?
I don’t understand what you are arguing. A straw man fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents a distorted version of their opponents argument (a “straw man”) then attacks that distortion as if they are actually attacking the opponents argument. In other words, it is arguing against something that your opponent doesn’t actually think is true (e.g., asserting that I am wrong because I think science is infallible would be a straw man fallacy, because I don’t think science is infallible).
I have no idea what your talking about with the rest of your comment. Yes, evolution is bloody, but it’s also a scientific. It has nothing to do with a lesser of two evils, scientific brain-power, etc.
Thank you for replying. I appreciate knowing that I’m wasting my time.
I agree with you about how dangerous people who use ‘a straw man fallacy ego’ to seem superior in an argument. What is the point of winning a serious topic argument at the expense of the Truth. We can leave that kind of internal bickering to Governments.
I am a Sibyl so my mental attitudes & methods aren’t governed or limited by Scientism’s mortal, bio-gradable DNA, Bio-logical Earth-berth, birthday-suits only proofs and the COSMOS being a Mysterious, Wondrously Dangerous, Scientifically organized place. (And Aliens?)
ALIENS are GERM Entities that are still trying to kill us off mentally & physically.
Many Cosmologists are searching for another Planet where we mortals can survive, because they know what’s coming.
Any way I have my own blog posts that could come under fire due to their controversial contents but somehow hasn’t yet.
I know it’s a risk leaving more than one brief comment on somebody-else’s personal cognitive perceptions, paradigm blog-post.
Contributions can be tampered with through the acceptance of some and the rejection of others, leading to a distortion of a logical Parabola effect.
Yours in all sincerity
I still truly have no idea what you are claiming.
I am claiming that we are really semiconscious Hue-main Spirit Beings.
MINDS being awakened from a Big Twilight bewildering, virtual-reality sleep called ‘The Twilight of The Gods’.
How’s that for a Cosmic explanation, as given to me to pass on, as a reply.
One has to have the patience of a Saint for this Parabola job.
That’s still a nonsensical word salad. “Big Twilight bewildering” ? What on earth are you talking about?
I give up.
Valid scientific studies have a self-correct in peer review; though if you’re arguing with conspiracy theorists who think those “peers” are just going validate things that fit a particular narrative (i.e. “Big Globe” and this did happen to me a few months ago), using that as a point does nothing. Some people don’t understand what empirical evidence and peer review means. It doesn’t negate these points, nor am I suggesting they not be used, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.
Scientism itself sounds like another facet of the Appeal to Authority fallacy. I’d always think of science as “the best way of knowing/understanding the world,” but considering this, a better (type of) definition might be “the best way of knowing/understanding the physical world.”
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You’re wrong in definition of scientism. It’s NOT a philosophy “that emphasizes science above all else.”
The word was first used in French Literature and appears in writings of Nobel Laureate economist Friedrich Hayek and
his mentor Ludwig Mises.
Hayek defines it as “an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered ita subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.”
He is speaking here in reference to using methods of natural sciences to investigate problem of social sciences.
Adam Smith, in his ‘Essay on the History of Astronomy’ remarked,
“Systems which have universally owed their origin to the lucubrations of those who were acquainted with one art, but ignorant of the other, who therefore explained to themselves the phenomena, in that which strange to them, by those in that which was familiar; and with whom, upon that account, the analogy, which in other writers gives occasion to a few ingenious similitudes, became the great hinge on which everything turned.”
As stated in the post, there are multiple different (but related) ways in which the term is used. It can be used for situations where people are trying to apply science to things that are outside of its scope (again, this was discussed in the post), but it also applies when people are overly reliant on science and value it above everything else. For example, MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson described it this way, “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” There are tons of other examples of people using that general definition.
I think the Correspondence Principle formulated by Niels Bohr answers the “Science has been wrong many times before” argument: “Any new theory or any new description of nature must agree with the old where the old gives correct results.”
I’ve noticed that accusations of “scientism!” seem to come especially from 2 kinds of individuals: those with very strong religious views, and those who appear to lack much education in or understanding of science.