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 definitive 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).
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 is 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.